Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It all depends what your definition of pizza is...

Last Saturday my husband and I had dinner at a newish restaurant called Serious Pie, a fancy pizzeria owned by Tom Douglas, founder of a miniature empire of Seattle restaurants. Needless to say the pizza is nothing at all like what you'd order from Domino's, and Dylan and I loved it. Dylan ordered the "green eggs and ham" (soft-cooked egg, arugula, and spicy coppa ham), while I had that night's special, which featured onions, garlic, and thin slices of roasted yam. Next time we go, I want to try the foraged mushroom and truffle cheese and the yukon gold potato with rosemary and garlic oil.

Yes, it's an eensy tad pretentious. But utterly delicious, and the crust is a revelation, thin but substantial, perfect in texture, and with a wood-oven char that ought to taste burnt but is the bread equivalent of the smoky, crispy outer bits of good barbecue.

So, after this blissful culinary experience, out of curiosity I googled the restaurant to see what other diners had thought. While official restaurant critics were near-universal in their praise, it got surprisingly mixed reviews from regular diners. People complained that the crust is burnt and weird-tasting. They griped that there isn't enough cheese (me, I think ordinary pizzas often have so much cheese it drowns out the taste of the crust and toppings, but that's neither here or there). They thought the toppings were TOO out there. In short, Serious Pie doesn't match their idea of what a pizza is.

At first, I was tempted to sneer at these reviewers--don't they appreciate great food when they taste it, and don't they realize this is closer to authentic Italian pizza? But then I realized I don't have a leg to stand on. Give me a choice between the best authentic Chinese food and the Americanized mu shu chicken and sweet and sour pork from the local takeout place, and I'll take the latter every time. I know it's not as good, but it's comfortable and familiar and is therefore what I want to eat. I'm just a little (OK, a lot) more willing to experiment with Italian cuisine, and less attached to the Americanized standards for pizza or spaghetti and meatballs. Quirk of the taste buds or something.

I thought of this yesterday when I received a thank you letter from the coordinator of an RWA contest I judged recently. Enclosed was a chart comparing the scores for the five entries I'd judged--always a useful thing, IMHO, so you can get a feel for whether you're being too harsh or too generous in your scoring. In this case, I was in line with the rest of the panel on all but one entry, but I noticed that one of the other judges was basically my opposite. Our scores were very close on the one entry that was strong on all levels (and happened to be one of the finalists). But for the other four, the two I scored low, she scored high, and vice versa.

The two I scored highly both stood out as different from standard historical romance fare. The settings were a bit off the beaten path, the characters weren't from Central Casting, and in one case especially I could just see the author's love for her characters and setting and all the research she'd put into their world shining on the page, without being at all over-researched or pedantic.

The two my opposite favored were much more typical historical romance fare--AND were to differing degrees completely historically implausible. I couldn't accept their premises, and therefore couldn't enter into the world of the story. Maybe my opposite judge didn't notice the inaccuracies. Maybe she writes contemporaries or paranormals or whatever and volunteered to judge the historical category because she was entered in one of the others. Or maybe she's just not a raging history geek like me. Most people aren't. (I've commented to Dylan that the part of the brain he uses for listing MVPs and Cy Young Award winners, I use for Regency-era marriage law, forms of address for the different ranks of British nobility, and Napoleonic-era military tactics, weapons, and uniforms. This led to speculation on our mutual uselessness in a post-apocalyptic society--"No, we can't grow food, but he knows who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1987, and I know how to properly address the daughter of an earl." But I digress. A lot.)

I know the moral of the story should be that it's just like the pizza thing. I don't have any more right to put on airs over preferring the unusual and the historically accurate than I do over liking my pizza exotic. But, and it may be snobbery on my part, I can't quite make myself believe it. IMNSHO, the two things the historical romance genre needs most right now are more variety of setting, era, and character type and greater historical accuracy. The variety issue IS a matter of taste, and I'm delighted to read popular settings and themes when they're executed with strong characterization and a fresh voice. But I just can't make myself accept that historical accuracy in what is after all a form of HISTORICAL fiction is trivial and optional.


Loretta Chase said...

Susan, you mentioned pizza and I couldn't keep away. I, too, love thin, crispy crusts with that hint of char. And I, too, easily unsuspend disbelief when historical inaccuracies speckle a story. It's one thing to find a pizza too cheesy or a book too trite but the pizza requires certain basic ingredients, and freshness, and care in preparation tells. Likewise the historical romance. Hmm. An analogy. Metaphor queen could go on forever, but won't.

Susan Wilbanks said...

Thanks for stopping by, Loretta! And if you're ever in Seattle, I recommend Serious Pie--it's amazing.

I try not to be too nitpicky about historical accuracy, because I know I have a better-than-average memory for stray facts picked up here and there. So I'm not going to fling a book against a wall or savage a contest entry for not knowing some random detail I read in some obscure out-of-print book. But I don't have much patience with writers who miss big-picture details.

Keira Soleore said...

Susan, we always look for new restaurants to try for date nights, so we're thinking of going there Saturday night. Did you guys go on a busy weekend night? Do you need reservations? Is there a recommended time when it's not as crowded.

Susan Wilbanks said...

Keira, they don't accept reservations. We went on Saturday, put our names on the list at 6:20, and got our table at 7:25. They take your cell phone number so you can go to one of the nearby bars or do a little shopping while you wait. I'd recommend getting there early, around 5:00 or 5:30, to get a quick table.

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks a bunch, Susan, for the tips. We plan on going this Saturday.

I'm glad Dylan liked the "green eggs and ham." That's the one I plan on having to check the ham for its spiciness-level. My daughter is currently reading the Dr. Seuss book, and coincidentally, she's been hankering to eat green eggs and ham. I was thinking about green food coloring, etc. But this is a much better idea.

Keira Soleore said...

The pies were absolutely delicious!! The topping was so carefully prepped. But the underlying crispy thin crust that was just slightly burnt around the edges was yum-yum-yum. If they'd offered me just the pie with a dab of butter, I would've taken it. :)The wait-staff and kitchen-staff were friendly and nice. It was a good experience.

Our only downside was the 45 minute wait that became a two hour one. Unfortunately, I couldn't take your advice and be there around 5pm. We were there by 7pm, and tonight the place was packed. They need to seriously move to new digs or start tsaking reservations.