My mother was born in Marseille only by accident.
Mémé was traveling from Paris to visit my great-grandparents who were then spending a few years living in the new country of Israel. Mémé had gotten as far as the port of Marseille, and though the boat was in sight, my mother decided that it was here she was to be born. Here, here, here. Now, now, now. And she is impetuous, and slightly petulant, to this day. An hour later, she was breathing the salty fresh breeze of France's first city. She could miss the boat to Israel. But missing the boat on being born a French citizen--that would never do.
I tell you this story because I believe there is an inveterate relationship between where we are from, and the food that we love. I, for example, was not born in New York by accident. My parents lived there for years before, and lived there years afterward. When I was in school, every Tuesday night, my dad would pick me up and we would go to our favorite pizza place just a few blocks away. It was called Steve's, and it hadn't changed one bit since the year my mother took her first gulps of sea air across the Atlantic in Marseille. The walls were painted sunshine yellow, with posters of the King in his white suit and pinups of Ann-Margret smiling from the walls. The son of the original owner still slicked back his hair, and he had found some radio station that played nothing but the swaggering vocals of Elvis Presley over the stereo system.
Things at Steve's never changed, and neither did what we ate. My father and I would order the same thing every week, and Mr. Hair Gel, who knew us by face if not by name, would place the same shredded iceberg salad, mozzarella garlic bread, and large cheese pie on the imitation marble tables. I would scoot my round-back black chair closer to the table, and dig in. Dig into the pizza, into the conversation. Though time never seemed to touch Steve's, I could tell that time marched on by how close my feet were to touching the linoleum floor.
When they were still dangling above, kicking to the Elvis beat as I negotiated the long string of mozzarella that trapezed from the pizza to my mouth, our conversation was simple. My dad would fold his pizza in half over his index finger, as he taught me all New Yorkers do, and as the marigold grease would drip down from the pizza ravine onto his white paper plate blanketed in wax paper, we would discuss the multiplication tables that I had learned that day in school. When I asked my dad what a percentage was, he let me fiddle with the arithmetic as we calculated that night's tip.
As my feet got closer to the ground, I myself grew less and less grounded, relaying to my dad the girl school gossip du jour, telling him about my friends and the boys at the schools just a few blocks away. And though time passed, and I grew taller, fueled by all the pizza pies that had come and gone, time itself inside of Steve's stood still, and for those weekly moments, life stopped being tossed in the air, stretched, topped with cheese and sauce, and baked. Instead, it was only to be digested.
Maman never came to these dinners at Steve's. She always claimed that she didn't understand what we saw in the little old-time pizzeria. "The pizza is so greasy!" she chimed. "Too much cheese!" But my dad and I relished the time alone together, and whether we chose it because we really loved the pizza or because she didn't love it remains a mystery buried under six feet of a dozen years. But I can tell you this: maman has been removing half the grease and cheese off of every slice of American pizza I have watched her eat over the last two decades.
My mother was raised in Paris, and did not return to Marseille, the city of her birth, for nearly sixty years, until last week. I met her there, and when she picked me up from the airport, she exclaimed, "I really am Marseillaise!" "What do you mean, mom?" "Everyone here is just like me!" She went on to list a flimsy array of similarities that she had noticed with one shop owner or another. When we parked in Cassis, a charming fishing port a few miles away, she took me to a boulangerie, and asked if I would share a slice of "this delicious pizza" she had discovered with her. "Sure, mom," I conceded.
She went to the counter and chose a slice of pizza covered in caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives. "Pissaladière!?" I exclaimed. I love pissaladière. "Is that what this is?" my mother asked, as she bit into it. She didn't peel off anything. She ate every sweet-soft onion, every anchovy, only stopping to pop the pits from the olives that dappled the top of the pizza into her napkin. "It's delicious." And it tasted of the salty sea air she had first breathed in as a child.
Steve's pizza shut the doors to its pizza oven about a decade ago, and my father and I have been gypsy pizza nomads ever since. Now, my mother has returned home, and found her Steve's Pizza. Not too greasy, not too cheesy. A bite of home, that I was happy to share with just her. And as we started eating, and got to talking, my feet planted solidly on the ground, I realized that time can stand still anywhere in the world, and that it marches by especially slowly in the South of France.
Pissaladière is a rectangular tart native to the South of France, and can be made on pâte feuilletée, puff pastry, or on pizza dough. Traditionally, the dough is then covered with a "sauce" of soft, caramelized onions, then dotted with tiny Niçoise olives and whole filets of anchovy. The most beautiful, traditional versions arrange the olives and anchovies in a harlequin pattern all over the bed of sweet onions. Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone. This version uses dough that I bought from a pizzeria near my house that uses half whole wheat and half white flour, because I think the nuttiness of the whole wheat flour adds a counterpoint layer to the salinity of the toppings. In addition to the traditional caramelized onions, anchovy filets, and tiny briny olives, I add dollops of goat cheese, which also counteracts the salinity, quenelles of black olive tapenade, sprigs of fresh thyme, and fragrant, woody pine nuts. I love this version--it is fresh and updated, but easy and impressive and always a classic. The best part is, unlike cheese pizza, it can be served at room temperature or hot from the oven. I hope you'll try it, and experience some of the South of France as we have.
- 3 onions, sliced thinly into half moons
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
- Salt and pepper
- 1 12-ounce ball of pizza dough, preferably half white, half whole wheat flour
- Corn meal
- 2 tablespoons tapenade
- 8 anchovy filets in olive oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
- 15 Niçoise olives
- 2 ounces chèvre, or fresh goat cheese
- 3 caper berries
- 3 stems fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
A Note on some Ingredients
- As for the pizza dough, please feel free to use all-white or all-wheat. I think the wheat works especially well, but for French in a Flash, it really is all about what is easy and accessible for you.
In a large sauté pan, add the onions to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, sitting over medium-low heat. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté slowly for 45 minutes, until the onions are soft and jammy. Be sure to stir them often, and lower the heat if they burn too quickly.
Meanwhile, dust the bottom of the pizza dough with just a touch of corn meal, to keep it from sticking. Dust the top of the dough and your rolling pin with a bit of flour for the same reason. You could just use flour for both purposes to keep it simple. Roll the dough out into a 15-inch round, and sit it on a nonstick cookie sheet or pizza pan. Brush the dough with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
When the onions have finished cooking, spread them out over the pizza dough as you would if you were using tomato sauce. Spoon 8 little quenelles (or mounds) of the tapenade around the middle of the pizza in a wide circle. Alternate the tapenade hills with anchovy valleys, laying an anchovy like a sunray between each mound of olive paste. Scatter the pine nuts all over the pissaladière, then olives. Divide the chèvre into little bits and scatter those all over as well. Place the 3 caper berries in the center of the pissaladière, and scatter fresh thyme leaves over the entire pizza.
Bake the pissaladière for 15 minutes. Then garnish with extra sprigs of fresh thyme, and maybe a slight drizzle of fresh extra virgin olive oil. Serve warm, or at room temperature.