Deep fried pizza, getting sloppy at Paesano, and hoping for a Cheesy Beano
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
From wringing hot fat out of a chip-shop pie to tooth-breaking crusts in Partick. And the Neapolitan/Glaswegian delight which is Paesano.
Bellshill, Lanarkshire, home to so many of my formative food experiences: The iced drink (ice cream soda) and super frothy, utterly tasteless milky coffee, both products of 1960s and 70s Italian cafes. The pre-gospel meeting Sunday frenzy of phenomenal home baking (Ulster Scottish, courtesy of a great-aunt in Orbiston). Raspberry sauce on ice cream from a clanging van in Airlie Drive. Great experiences of immigrant origin.
And my first pizza. Deep fried of course, battered, pre-baked and mock Margarita topping by default, its spongiform substance soaking in hot animal fat. Not really for me at the time. I was more a black pudding or fish supper child/teenager. Mushy peas? Too healthy. Relatives would talk of the bad old days when all they could afford was peaswater - the juice the mushy peas had been cooked in. The joke was obvious, but never made lest God be offended, and Aunty Meta.
You can still get deep fried pizza, paraded proudly and kitschly as part of the (bad) ‘Scottish Diet’, and denigrated as an evil perversion of the proper, oven-baked pie. Wrongly, because deep-fried pizza is as Neapolitan as the Camorra. On the streets of Naples, it’s called Pizza Fritta - a stuffed pizza (home-made dough, admittedly, and cooked from raw) popped in the hot oil. Why this hasn’t caught on in West Central Scotland is a mystery.
Instead, we have had an explosion of ‘ethnic’ Italianate cooking, and you are likely to find steel or brick pizza ovens (often supposedly wood-fried but actually hybrids utilising gas) not just carbonising commerically, but in gardens, back courts and even campsites. Artexed ceilings everywhere are being sullied by ill-advised dough-twirling from inexpert would-be Pizza chefs. We love that pie.
The first restaurant with a visible, public wood-fired pizza oven in Glasgow was O Sole Mio in central Glasgow (since 1965, still going). I remember being taken there in the sixties as a special treat. There was a smell of burnt food. The pizza was...too dry. With black bits. Where was the glorious splurge of hot fat, the slight reek of fish? Time passed, and if my tastes didn’t exactly mature, my experience of pizza styles evolved. Through high street chains. The awful Pizza Hut (that disappointingly horrible salad buffet, fresh from jar and tin) the hundreds of visits to Pizza Express with bairns, Eating at enormous speed to battle the cooling of the food, bamboozled by objects like an egg (an EGG!) in the middle of a Florentina. Oh. And that promise or threat about paying extra and saving Venice from sinking and runaway cruise ships. Still, PE was the acceptable face of fast family food.
And then there was -is- Domino’s. And the short-lived pizza vending machine at Inverness station. Late night lifesavers that in exchange destroyed your soul.
Recently in Glasgow, colossally expensive imported ovens and promises of ingredient purism have proliferated. People swear by Basta in Partick, but my only visit was hallmarked by a kitchen crisis and a pizza crust so hard It was a dental hazard. But hey, if you’re into hardman Barga Tuscan pizza, guaranteed to crumble Glasgow teeth, maybe that is your desire. There’s reputedly excellent takeaway square slice (Lorne Pizza?) at Al Taglio in the East End. Me, I want the enormous, soft, stretchy Neapolitan variety. Beer, wine and no driving from our Maryhill eyrie. Of late, that means Paesano.
First thing about Paesano - never mind the imported Neapolitan chefs, the pure-wood ovens, the rigidly Italian ingredients - it’s cheap. It’s really cheap. And it’s good. It’s really good. And the pizzas are generous in both sheer size and topping quantities. It’s fast. It’s really fast. Big (both the City Centre and West End branches), crazily busy at peak times and no reservations. But they give you one of those buzzers so you can leave your name, go off and have a drink at (weathering) corporate Cooper’s or maybe the rather groovy Belle (don’t know if the signal reaches there, though) and get summoned when your table’s free.
The extras are wonderful. Massive, fresh and zingy portions of Burrata, Salads, Ricotta cheese you eat as if it was ice cream. ‘Optional’ 10 per cent service charge (at least on groups of six and above) but you can’t have everything and as I mentioned, it’s cheap. Stick with the Margarita or Marinara as at Da Michele in Naples. Sausage is fine but overbalances this variety of pizza’s form with too much content. Chilli oil is on the table - the actual ‘extra chilli’ option is way too hot and a form of Neapoltian vengeance on overspiced Glaswegians.
Paesano upsets people, though. For one thing it’s a stupid name - this is urban food. I was recently told that Paesano was evidently crap because someone’s Tuscan neighbours hated it. In other words, they despised Paesano’s absolute adherence to Neapolitan recipe rules just as their fellow Tuscan natives did back in the old country when the first genuinely Neapolitan pizzeria opened up north. There are reckoned to be nine specific pizza styles in Italy, and dozens more in the USA. But the (modern times) original is fae Naples, pal.
And as near as dammit, it’s in Glasgow too. Did I mention it was cheap? Did I say it was good? Meanwhile, in Bellshill...what about a ‘quarter pizza crunch supper’ from Nonna Lina’s? On my way…’Cheesy Beano’ topping please, maybe with crispy bacon and Chicken Tikka.