Monday, December 11, 2006

UnMystic Pizza

Last autumn, to commemorate Ramadan, Pizza Hut in the U.S. introduced a new pizza so that its diners might "discover the Exotic Flavours of Morocco" - a catch-phrase best translated as "to further ensure that families never eat together at home and that American children become increasingly obese". Along with this so-called Mystical Moroccan Pizza - a square pizza, the import of which elludes me - patrons received a gameboard whose spinners sent players towards one of the board's four quadrants, each representing a holy site of Islam. Oi vey ...

I'm not quite certain how this celebrated Ramadan in any significant way, since practising Muslims would have been fasting until sunset and then, for the most part, would have broken their fast with family & friends (and a bowl of soup & a handful of dates). Perhaps Pizza Hut was hoping that non-Muslims would pick up the slack while at the same time, this otherwise evil multinational conglomerate could make lasting inroads to peace, mutual understanding, and religious tolerance while increasing sales for that quarter. And if you can't afford to go on the haj, a spin of the arrow might - if you've been a very good Muslim - land you at the kaaba.


I live in Morocco and I eat a crapload of pizza; at the risk of sounding a little immodest, over the past 15 months I have become a bit of a pizza pundit. Make no mistake: I am not particularly proud of this culinary accomplishment. But as a vegetarian who likes to dine out, my options are pretty much limited to:

1) pizza (fortunately, there is always a pizza margarita on the menu. Unless there isn't. Then I'm screwed.)
2) cheese paninis (at most restaurants, this is a special request, as in "I'll have the chicken
panini without the chicken")
3) spaghetti (only if it's on the menu).

... so yes, I've eaten a lot of za. And why not salad? They too are a special order, for most salads in Morocco include tuna, chicken, and/or seafood, and egg, and are woefully light on those unconventional crazy rogue salad-y ingredients like lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and celery. Consequently, I shy away from salads unless I trust the waiter implicitly. Last night for instance, I ordered a house salad at a rather upscale restaurant and told the waiter to hold the shrimp as I was a vegetarian. The salad arrived draped with a paper-thin slice of smoked salmon. I trust very few waiters implicitly.

Not too surprisingly, none of the pizzas that I've seen here hold a candle to its Pizza the Hut counterpart, this Umm al Bizza, with its "golden slices of dried apricots, roasted onions, olives, and chicken or beef marinated with exotic herbs ... all topped on a spread of savoury and sweet Moroccan sauce ... get a taste of Morocco with every bite!"

The Morocco that I know - or more accurately, the Moroccan pizza that I know - doesn't look or taste anything like that Mother of all Pizzas. Common pizza toppings include tuna, corn (corn? - only my brother would find this appetizing), olives, halal "ham" (sham ham), egg, every variety of seafood, chicken, beef, and lots of canned mushrooms. And the sauce is often a few pinches shy of "savoury and sweet". Generally, I order a margarita (and not its frothy green namesake that comes in a salt-rimmed glass): a plain-Jane cheese pizza. I probably eat 2-3 of these a week. Thin crust, thick crust. Fresh sauce, tinned sauce. Well-cooked, under-cooked. I haven't sampled them all, but I've eaten enough to get me through my next 83 incarnations on this planet. Spin the wheel of fortune, and I'll be back in Rabat eating pizza in the year 2152 (1577 A.H.). Spin the Pizza Hut wheel and you're off to the sacred city of Medina.

All pizzas are equal, but some pizzas are more equal than others. True, my gastronomic life has plummeted to an all-time low, but as a sentient human being, it behooves me to find some sense, some meaning in this, my Dark Night of the Stomach. I therefore offer the following public service to my dear readers: should you ever inexplicably find yourself hankering for a pizza - as well as wandering through the streets of Rabat - here are the city's Pizza Luminaries (in random order):

1) La Mamma (downtown) - order the onion pizza. Order the wine. Order more wine.
2) Don Pino (Agdal) - omigod! a pizza primavera and - are you sitting? - fresh mushrooms, not canned! You pay for the freshness of its mushrooms by its lack of liquor licence.
3) Weinmar Cafe (Goethe Institute, downtown) - big pizza, big glasses of draught beer.
4) California (Agdal) - it's taken me 9 months, but its head waiter grudgingly smiles at me now. Definitely worth his surliness.

.... and honourable mention goes to:

1) Couleur Café (Agdal)
2) Sale Sucré (Agdal)
3) Pizzaki (Agdal)

Morocco's Pizza Huts are conspicuously absent from my 'Za Zagat. Not only are their notoriously pricey pizzas served by uniformed sloths (try asking for a glass of water - try! try!), but exposing their patrons to MTV Arabia at ear-bleeding decibels should be added
as a definite no-no to the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Just after genocide & before arbitrary detention.

Bon appetit!

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