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The perils of flouting convention

I felt grouchy the day we went to Co., Jim Sullivan’s renowned pizza restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan. In retrospect, I suppose that I was predisposed to be skeptical about Co. I’d heard raves about the Popeye (spinach and gruyère) and the meatball pies, about the oven and the crusts that were coming out of it. Accolades had reached me through Twitter, where friends had loved the place, and through the traditional media, where Frank Bruni had bestowed a coveted star. These kinds of expectations, coupled with a look at the menu – single-serving pies average $15-ish – had put me on alert long before arriving at 9th and 24th.

We were a big group, so we ordered at least one of every pizza on the menu. I would call several of the pies “good”. The Margherita was nice enough, the Popeye was indeed tasty, the sausage on the Boscaiola was pretty top-notch. The Rosa, more like pa amb tomàquet than pizza, was the best thing I ate at Co. that day. All the other pizzas were pleasant enough. For being heralded as a pizza-crust-lover’s paradise, I found the pies inconsistent in their doneness; a few had a char that bordered on burn, while others were paler than I would have liked. All of the crusts were puffier, breadier than I’d anticipated, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when considered as bread, but always strikes me as odd in pizza.

And really, this strikes at the heart of my feelings as I ate at Co. Set aside the fact that the meal itself was overpriced and overhyped. Considered qua meal, my lunch at Co. was actually pretty enjoyable. But as someone expecting pizza, the experience left me feeling sad.

While it certainly isn’t the worst offender out there, Co. symbolized for me a kind of emotional trick. When you open a restaurant and decide to advertise it as a pizza place (or when you have a very New Yorker “Pies” section on the menu), you bring the entire history and culture of pizza to bear on the dining experience. The diner’s expectations are framed by the pizza terminology, which evokes a family of pizza-related thoughts: red-checkered tablecloths, frozen pizzas, red pepper shakers, Pizza Hut. The baggage of “pizza” is especially impossible to avoid in New York City, where American pizza was born. Like no one else, New Yorkers are deeply connected to their corner slice joints and their favorite holes-in-the-wall. The connotations of “pizza” are surely different for everyone, but there are a few common refrains through those connotations: a certain humility that springs from pizza’s origins as a cheap food for and by immigrants, and is carried on in the $1.75 ($2.00? $2.50?) slices that are the mainstay of many a grad student’s diet.

If “pizza” evokes the quotidian, then to open a pizza restaurant that is highly unquotidian is to make a statement. Such statements can be a beautiful thing; to reject them altogether is mindlessly conservative. Pizza trends can relate to each other like big band jazz to the blues, like bebop to big bands. But if you’re going to evoke the lineage of pizza in order to flout it, let it be a meaningful artistic statement. Flatbread with béchamel and lardons is not the the same thing as *pizza* with béchamel and lardons. $16 flatbread is not the same thing as $16 *pizza*. As you multiply the vectors of contrast against the history of pizza, it gets harder and harder to justify the name; without a thoughtful reason for evoking the emotions attached to pizza, you risk exploiting them.

I feel a bit exploited whenever I visit a place that flouts my culinary expectations in an apparently thoughtless way. I do wonder, though, whether my reaction is a function of the fact that I think too much about pizza. For those of you who are fans of Co. and its ilk: what do you like about it? How do you place it against your pizza heritage?

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