Pizza

The first time I ever saw a small individual pizza was in California in 1974 and its appearance was gratuitous and accidental.

As the chef of Chez Panisse, I was faced with deciding what to serve for the restaurant’s third birthday celebration, which was planned as an all-day open house. I was looking through a favorite textbook of those days, La Bonne cuisine du Comté de Nice by Jacques Médecin, and on page 76 saw a recipe for something called, aptly enough, “Les Panisses.” Excitement caused haste, so I didn’t read the recipe carefully, noting only that it was a flat pancake type of thing with something boring on top, which I knew I could improve upon. I wrote the menu

    Chez Panisse
  • Menu for 3rd Birthday
  • 28 August 1974
  • Hors d’oeuvre Variés
  • Les Panisses
  • Salade Verte
  • Glace de Fruits
  • Demi carafe de Vin
  • $5.00 tout compris

and sent it over to David Goines of St. Hieronymus Press for making into a poster.

Soon the day arrived for me to tell everyone what a “panisse” was, and to order the ingredients. I rushed back to the book and found that the recipe called for chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour, mixed with water and fried in olive oil. I found the flour in an Italian deli in Oakland, and cooked the panisses. They were disgusting. But everyone wanted to know what “panisses” were. “They are basically just like a little pizza,” I lied (not knowing what else to say), “don’t worry about it.” Alice and everyone else was happy with that.

Pizza is what occurred to me because of the round shape of the “panisses,” and since we had no room to cook large ones, small individual ones they had to be. As for what to put on them—since money was very scarce in those days—I decided on a simple California goat cheese (then brand-new to the world) and Sonoma beefsteak tomatoes.

A hundred people more than we expected showed up. Facing a crisis brought out my best thinking, and remembering there were still fresh ingredients (clams, prawns, squid, crab, lobster, onions, saffron, garlic, and fennel) left from the previous night’s bouillabaisse, I decided to use them all to garnish the pizzas.

What came out of the oven changed slightly every hour all night long, depending on what was left, but it was primarily little bouillabaisse pizzas. They caused a sensation and a lot of press, so individual pizzas hit the U.S. stage, going on to other incarnations at Spago in Los Angeles and Stars in San Francisco.

Here are some favorites that evolved over the years from San Francisco to Singapore, Hong Kong, Seattle, and Manila. I’ve organized them into the four families of pizza.

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Method

Cooked crust topped with cold food:

Cooked crust topped with hot, already-cooked food:

  • Roasted and skinned pasilla chilies stuffed with fresh goat cheese, baked, chopped up while still hot, and spread on the pizza
  • Rabbit chili and cilantro salad
  • Fsh hash

Crust cooked halfway, food added on top, both finished together:

  • Fried eggs and white truffles

Uncooked food and crust cooked together:

  • Thinly sliced raw tomato, seasoned and covered with fresh basil, Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, and some grated Parmesan

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