Category: Travel

Pizzas Are Not All Created Equal

Like everyone else in this country, I have had my fair share of pizzas.  Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Dominos, Papa Johns, BJ’s, and the like.  I’m a subscriber to something I heard a while ago, “Even when pizza is bad, it’s still pretty good.”  So, if that axiom holds, I haven’t really had any “bad” pizza.  But some of the worst pizza I have ever had in my life, I hate to admit, came when we were in Italy.  You would think you couldn’t get bad pizza in Italy, but some of the worse I have ever had were when we were in Florence and in Rome.  We clearly went to the wrong places for pizza and before we left Rome, I was determined to redeem the awful pizza experience we had.  And then, we found Dar Poeta in the Trastevere district in Rome.  From that point forward, that would be the standard of all things sublime.  The dough was thin, yet chewy, and the toppings were the freshest during the summer – zucchini and peppers.  Everything about that pizza was perfect.  Even though there isn’t such a thing as “bad” pizza perhaps, it’s tough to go back to Pizza Hut and Dominos again with the same vigor as before.  I wish we had found Dar Poeta before one of our last nights in Rome a couple of years ago, but it still sticks in my mind as a great Roman pizza.  Of course, we didn’t go to Naples to try a Neapolitan pizza, so perhaps my mind will change yet again if we get to go there some day.

As much as I love deep dish pizza, like Zachary’s in Berkeley, a great pizza starts with the thin crust with really fresh ingredients.  Not too much sauce and not too much cheese.  And if you’re in Rome, you must try a pizza, if it’s on the menu, with a fried egg on it.  There are impostors out there that put a limp quarter of a hard-boiled egg.  That’s not real Roman pizza.  Must be an actual raw egg on top of the pizza when they slide it in the pizza oven so when it comes out, it is perfectly cooked.  Here in the States, as good as pizzas are, sometimes it’s a little too much of a good thing.  Meat lovers, Pig out, Double Meat pizzas are good, but can you really eat more than once slice and not call it a day?  The classic pizza, wherever that is, ought to be somewhat light in its ingredients.  Nothing too overwhelming.  Nothing too heavy.

A pizza is not just another pie.  They’re not all created equal because there are some that are definitely a class above the rest.  In Rome, we found it at Dar Poeta.  Here in the States, there are hundreds of places that serve great pizza.  I can name a few just thinking about it in SoCal alone:  Andre’s in West LA, Pizzeria Mozza in Hollywood, Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, and Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock.  We definitely have some great pies here.  Chicago.   New York.  The debate can be endless.  But there’s always that experience of a great pizza that sets the standard.  And that is Dar Poeta in Rome.  I can still smell the pizza there while sitting out in their little patio on uneven ground.  The table wobbly and the seats, a little hard.  But when that pizza comes out, all is forgotten.  The taste buds take over and it is off to pizza heaven.


It’s Never What It Seems

The Big Buddha

Prior to our trip to Hong Kong in 2009, I had never been to the Big Buddha located on Lantau Island.  It’s situated in a place called Ngong Ping near the Po Lin Monastery and symbolizes the harmonious relationship between man and nature.  In the picture above, you can see that it sits high on top of the hill near Po Lin Monastery and it’s quite an impressive figure.  The statue was completed in 1993, the exact day of enlightenment that year of Gautama Buddha.  Many monks from the neighboring countries were invited to come to the opening ceremony.  There are 3 levels below the Buddha, Hall of Universe, Hall of Benevolent Merit, and the Hall of Remembrance.  The most holy relic is some of the remains of the alleged Gautama Buddha resides inside.  It’s meant to give homage to a religion that is thousands of years old.

And yet, somehow, we mess that up too.  Where there is an opportunity, there is a way where we Chinese people will see dollar signs.  And none of that is more true than Ngong Ping Village.  The picture is not only of a great view of the Big Buddha, but of the shops and eateries at Ngong Ping.  Gift shops, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants, and even Italian restaurants are there to help satisfy one’s hunger.  Even a place where you can get Pearl Tea [boba] and heaven help us all, a 7-11 along the path to the Big Buddha himself.  It definitely takes away the sense of wonder of the statue.  When you finally arrive at Ngong Ping, you are already bombarded with retail and food – which I have decided are the 2 things we excel at.  Then, as you walk down to the village, you are not only bombarded with more eateries and stores, you are now just part of many tourist groups and travelers coming here to have a good time.  The sense of seeing something unique is no longer in the forefront of your mind, but how you are going to get through it all without walking into the Starbucks for a cafe latte.  Once you do get up to see the Buddha, it is a great sight.  It is worth the visit.  But from far away while riding on the cable car from the Tung Chung MTR station, you only see a glimpse of the Big Buddha in all of its magnificence.

And that’s how I want to remember it.  A sitting statue on top of the hill, looking down in his stillness.  I don’t want to remember the Starbucks and 7-11 near its feet, where people are buying macchiatos and slurpees.  I understand now why people were enraged when Starbucks opened a store at the Forbidden City.  It takes away the allure and history of the place.  And even though the Big Buddha has only been around since 1993, I am sure people who go there to pay respect and bring incense for their ancestors couldn’t care what’s in the village.  For them, I am sure it’s a spiritual journey that ends in reflection and honoring their family members.  And it’s sad to see that we are profiting from that.  But in the end, it’s what you take out of it that counts.  I won’t let Ngong Ping Village smear my memory of the Big Buddha.  I choose to remember that there were monks there, worshipping him.  I choose to remember that Anita Mui, the once famous Hong Kong singer/actress is buried and remembered there.  And I will remember the walk up to meet the Buddha himself, to see the bronze statue and to know that it was built for reasons other than commercialism.

East Meets West

It hasn’t always been the case.  There was a time when I didn’t really enjoy going back to Hong Kong, where I was born.  Most of it is because after a few days, I get really bored.  Now that I’m older and definitely more to be nostalgic about, I really enjoy going back.  Of course one of the things that I enjoy about Hong Kong now, are the reasons I never really thought was all that unique.  Hong Kong, at its core, is as Chinese as any city in China.  But what makes it so unique is not that it is a thriving metropolitan financial behemoth, which in itself would have been enough to visit and write about.  It’s that it was a British colony for over 100 years.  Trade wars, opium wars, and being subjects to Britain’s monarchy has made this singular city an intersection where Occidental collided with Oriental.  And none of that comes through as well as the food.  With its foundation set on Chinese cuisines, Hong Kong has embraced the European expats in the way they have infused its own spin in its foods.  And let’s not forget Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc. on top of about 20 other provincial Chinese cuisines.  And what you have is not just a monotonic way of cooking and eating food here in the Big Lychee.

Places like Cafe de Coral are what people in Hong Kong live on.  It’s good, cheap, and the menu is always changing, if only a bit.  At any given point during the day, it will be packed with people from tourists who want a break or Hong Kong lifers who want the same.  It’s a typical cafeteria where you walk in and look at the menu on the wall, walk up to the cashier, order, and at the end of the line, pick up your food and try you hardest to find an empty table.  If you’re queasy about sharing a table with a complete stranger, this probably isn’t the place for you.  But there’s something comforting for me, to go in to a place like Cafe de Coral and order something very Chinese, like sausage and rice in a clay pot, and then order a Hong Kong style milk tea.   Or baked Portuguese pork chop rice and a lemon ice tea.  It’s the East meets West all in one meal.

There’s nothing like that here.  At least not an East meets West kind of food experience.  Here, we have more a South meets North, like a Baja Fresh or Rubios, where Mexican street food meets an American twist.  We do have some Hong Kong style western restaurants here, but it’s not very Cafe de Coral like.  I keep wondering if they will open one here, because it would be crazier than a Kogi truck.  I can’t wait to visit Singapore again one day, where food has become so integrated between the different Asian cultures that it has created is very own Singaporean cuisine.  I can’t wait to go back to Hong Kong again, where I get to try all different kinds of East meets West foods again.

Coffee is one of those beverages that people digress about, talk about, debate over, and really, just plain love.  I don’t know if that’s because Starbucks has gotten all of us to think and drink coffee twenty four seven, but a “hot cup of coffee with a good book on a rainy day is bliss”, a lot of people declare.  I know people who roast their own coffee because it’s better tasting.  To them, I say, “I am not worthy.”

We discovered Lavazza, the Italian coffee maker, while vacationing in Italy.  To me, it’s got the right amount of bitterness, roast, taste, and aroma.  Lavazza is tough to get here in the States at a grocery store, where I still feel that it is dominated by crappy instant coffee like Folgers.  Some are getting upscale and stocking Starbucks whole beans, but even that is not Lavazza to me.  Lavazza is more of an experience.  The experience of sitting at our friends’ balcony at their Tuscan flat along the coast in July, where the smell of the sea quietly drifts through the town.  Talking about life and how different our two countries are, not just statistical factoids, but culturally and historically.  The sound of the percolating coffee in the Bialetti stove top espresso maker, signaling it is ready to be consumed.  All of that come roaring back when I use my own stove top coffee maker once or twice a week to enjoy a cup of Lavazza.

The science of percolation, especially with coffee grinds, is one where the Italians and other European countries have perfected more than Americans have.  Here in the States, we want things now, we want things fast, and we want things cheap.  Or probably more accurately, we feel entitled to things now, fast, and cheap.  There in Italy, it’s about the quality and experiencing life more fully.  They still work very hard, as my friend does, so the stereotype of Italians taking afternoon naps is not accurate.  But they get six weeks of vacation a year, which is pretty normal.  And culturally, August is a time when they all go on holiday to the sea or mountains for some rest and recuperation.  They appear more passionate about living a good life, not hoarding everything they can with the least amount of effort like we do here.  And the Italians have done that with their coffee.  Certainly, Lavazza is not the only coffee they have there.  Nor, perhaps, the best.  But the process in which they extract flavor from the coffee beans through percolation is magical.  The solvent, or water, passes through a permeable substance [coffee] and it extracts the flavors from the beans to a rich and full bodied cup of coffee.  You can’t set up a time to have it ready.  It doesn’t turn off by itself.  And if the heat is too strong, you can destroy the water chamber of the espresso maker.  The old adage of “patience is a virtue” is true for Lavazza.  It’s worth the wait for that cup of espresso that will take me back to the Italian coast.  And that’s always a good thing.