That’s Amore: The Inelegant Joy of Real Pizza

Last evening in most convivial company I ate pizza at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood.  My choice was the Napoli, consisting of tomato sauce, basil, black olives, anchovies, and buffalo mozzarella, on a superb crust having just the right textural combination of chew and crunch.  I probably inhaled my pizza in about five minutes, because it was so outstanding. On the other hand, it may also have been because my parents always called me “the vacuum cleaner”, due to my ability to suck up enormous quantities of food – a trait which, fortunately, is combined with a rather fast metabolism.

Il Canale has become a favorite among residents of the village, and it’s not hard to understand why.  This is not American-style pizza, doughy, perfectly symmetrical, and teeming with processed who knows what.  Rather this is the way pizza is generally prepared in Europe, employing long-established guidelines regulated by the Italian government.  This means that among other things, the bread is not a chemically based afterthought, virtually tasteless and designed merely to hold the toppings, which are themselves overly processed and lacking in genuine flavor.

Pizza did not yet exist during the time of the Italian Renaissance man among men Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of and inspiration for this blog, so we do not know what he might have thought of it as a food.  However based on his writings we can assume that he would have found it a rather problematic dish to consume. In his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione recounts a dinner party at the home of Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, where one of the guests picked up his nearly-empty soup bowl, said to his host, “Pardon me, my Lord Marquess”, and proceeded to gulp down the remaining broth. “Ask pardon rather of the swine,” replied Gonzaga, “for you do me no harm at all.”

Still, pizza is ultimately a peasant food, and treating it as though it were pheasant under glass when it was meant to be eaten directly with the hands would be a bit precious.  This is an inelegant dish, but part of the joy comes in figuring out how best to eat it.  I usually attack a whole pie such as this one, by eating the first slice with a fork and knife, in order to make access to the rest of the pizza easier, while simultaneously allowing the often molten-hot cheese to cool slightly.  I then follow by picking up each remaining slice in turn and folding it in half, sometimes folding in the point first and then folding the entire slice in half, so that the sauce and toppings have less chance of escaping down the front of my shirt.

Even if you can’t make it to Il Canale, it’s worth seeking out places that do pizza this way, particularly for those of us accustomed to delivery pizza and “discs emerging from the microwave”, as a friend puts it. Yes, pizza is still messy to eat, no matter how fancy it is.  What is quite different, in this instance, and very, very enjoyable indeed, is to be able to taste a combination of natural flavors when enjoying one of these types of pies.  That, at least, one suspects Castiglione would approve of.

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown

Pizza Napoli at Il Canale, Georgetown

 

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UPDATED: The Courtier’s 5th Birthday Contest

[N.B. I have changed the contest deadline to midnight on August 15, 2013.]

Regular readers know that this blog first appeared on August 16, 2008.  Of course this means we are coming up on the 5th year anniversary of its founding.  So as a special thanks to all of you who drop in to read and share your thoughts, I am inviting you to participate in a contest for a Courtier-related prize.

The Blog of the Courtier takes its name from the “Book of the Courtier” by the Italian author and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, Count of Novellata, who was born in Mantua in 1478 and died in Madrid in 1529.  In it, the Count uses the literary device of an imaginary after-dinner discussion between several famous Italian nobles and thinkers of his day, to discuss principles which ought to matter to anyone who cares about creating a good society, establishing a just government, and encouraging men and women to better themselves through education and polite behavior.  For centuries it was required reading for any educated person who sought to understand his place in the world, and how to contribute positively to the times in which he lived.

Sadly, in more recent years this book has become something of a historical footnote, as people have moved away from aspiring to be improve themselves and instead have reverted to the kind of slovenly selfishness which Castiglione saw around him and deplored.  In an effort to encourage us to think about the principles which Castiglione saw as forming the foundation for Western society, and to encourage others to rediscover this wonderful work, I will once again be giving away a brand-new, annotated English translation of Castiglione’s masterpiece to the winning entry in this year’s birthday contest.  Past winners have included subscribers to this blog, my followers on Twitter, and people who just happen to have come across the contest through social media.

To enter, simply write in 500 words or less about a person, living or dead, whom you believe embodies the ideals that Count Castiglione was writing about when he noted the following aspects of the character of a good courtier, i.e. the man or woman trying to live a virtuous and good life and do their duty, seeking to improve themselves while at the same time doing the best they can to behave well toward others:

Then the soul, freed from vice, purged by studies of true philosophy, versed in spiritual life, and practiced in matters of the intellect, devoted to the contemplation of her own substance, as if awakened from deepest sleep, opens those eyes which all possess but few use, and sees in herself a ray of that light which is the true image of the angelic beauty communicated to her, and of which she then communicates a faint shadow to the body.

Contest entries will be accepted from today through midnight on August 15, 2013.  I will announce the winner, either by full name or initials, as they choose, on the blog’s birthday.

To submit an entry, simply use the “Contact” tab located above the “Blog of the Courtier” logo on the homepage of this site, and be sure to include an email address on the contact form so that I know how to get in touch with you.  Due to the volume of entries I typically receive, I will not be able to acknowledge each entry individually, but you can be certain that I will read and consider all of them.  I am always greatly impressed by the submissions, some of which show insight into historical figures and famous people, while others praise friends and family members who have always tried to do their best to be a lady or gentleman in whatever they do.

Best of luck with your entries, and thank you for your continued readership of these pages!

Veronese,_Paolo_-_Feast_at_the_House_of_Simon_-_1570-1572

Detail from “The Feast in the House of Simon” by Tintoretto (1570-1572)
Palace of Versailles

Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970’s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930’s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.

menhikingjacket

Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)