Pizza is a holy grail for people all over the world. Yet we debate its origin, and what constitutes a good pie.
In Cuzco, pizzas sometimes seem omnipresent. Nevertheless, quality is as fragile as an ice angel in hot sunshine. It l wait too long while looking, it will melt before my eyes. Even places known for being good produces pies that are mediocre at best; the cheese turns out to taste flat, like melt-water and dust on the street, and the ingredients have no oomph.
There is a place where you can expect a righteous, hand-crafted pie that is like a jump into heaven, given the background of less than good pizzas in Cuzco. It even stands on the best corner in Cuzco for tasty pizza, the intersection of San Agustin and Maruri, in the a stark, slightly inclined Inca wall of well-crafted stones.
I am talking about a place with glass doors that open inward under lettering that simply reads Nonna Trattoria. Nonna is Italian for Grandmother (San Agustin 298). As warm and fuzzy as the name sounds, if the alone were good enough to guarantee a good pie then any place advertising “home cooking’ would be a gate to the divine.
Here though, there is a nonna, Mrs. Orieta Valdivia who greets customers with characteristic warmth and charm. Though not the image of a well cushioned white-haired nonna who keeps ladling
meatballs and spaghetti on your plate even though you have already said five times you are full. Instead Mrs. Velazquez is dignified and yet very warm. She makes you feel like you belong in her family.
Mrs. Valdivia says she named the restaurant after her mother, the true Nonna. Her mother gave her the space in a well-located colonial building with Inca walls that she owned. (The restaurant is just down from the new Mariott and across from the Hotel San Agustin.)
In her family, Mrs. Valdivia relates as her eyes drift into soft focus, they grew up liking good pastas and pizzas. That was part of the heritage their mother gave them and so it was natural she would like her daughter, and her son (the owner of Pizza Carlo–named after the childrens father).
Nevertheless, Mrs. Valdivia attributes the quality of their pies to her pizzaiolo, Isa, who she says has worked with her for five years. It is his skill and care, she says humbly, that makes her pizzas the best. He is the one who makes the dough every day.
Though her pizzaiolo works with a rolling pin, instead of stretching the dough and tossing it into the air, his pie crust still turns out well flavored and well baked. The art of tossed pizza crusts just does not seem to have made it here yet, nor has the idea of the Vero Pizza Napolitana.
Nevertheless, Isa’s pizza crust has the flexibility typical of the Vero Pizza Napolitana, speaking to his skill, care, and good ingredients.
After you watch Isa gently stretch a round of dough with his floured rolling pin on a well dusted cabinet top and, with the peel, carefully set it in the scorching hot, wood fired oven that is right there in the intimate restaurant’s main room to do its first bake, you will be intrigued. A couple of minutes later he removes it and begins the work of saucing the bread and layering it with ingredients, until it looks a mounded beauty, and you are enticed.
Then, with the peel he returns the pie to the oven from which bright line shines, like an opening into another world, while heat and scent pour out into the dining room. You can’t wait for it to come forth so you can dig in and let your taste buds be overwhelmed with the savor, texture and warmth of a decent pie.
In the meantime, you will be brought some buttered, parsley-ed and lightly garlic-ed bread, like in almost any other place, along with a dish of white cream, garlic sauce and another dish of hot-sauce. If you try them, you will immediately notice why Nonna’s Trattoria is above the norm.
You will appreciate the thick, soothing flavor of fresh cream and the rich bite of intense garlic that immediately follows. Mrs. Valdivia’s garlic sauce just has more flavor than almost any other.
You sip your drink, maybe a fresh, frothy chicha morada, poured from a pitcher gleaming with jewel like intensity. t tastes balanced and delightful, with no flavor overwhelming any other, yet it refreshes you and excites you for the coming pizza.
The pIzzaiolo lifts it from the oven, bubbling and crusty, lays it on a wooden base, slices it, and Mrs. Valdivia brings it to you. The aroma immediately strikes you and you lean forward to draw it in. It is full and rich, as if somehow this pizza just had a secret ingredient beyond what others could get, as if it held the secret of the grail.
When you lift the pizza to your mouth, whether you add cream and hot sauce, or not, it rewards you. The first flavor is just that of good toppings and good cheese with yeasty yet light, dough. Then the back flavor hits and the pizza stands transformed. It has a depth of taste that keeps coming and that, frankly, is rarely found.
Mrs. Valdivia claims the secret is not only Isa’s skill, but the quality of ingredients. Her cheese is locally made, from whole cow’s milk in Yucay in the Sacred Valley. As a result it has a flavor and quality industrial cheese cannot approach here.
Nonna also offers pastas. A couple ordered a fettuccine al pesto while we were there. I noticed these were not the ordinary, dried pasta of Cuzco or Peru, which frankly lacks the quality necessary for a good Italian dish although they are widely served in Cuzco.
I asked Mrs. Valdivia about the pasta and she said they make their own pasta. None of its is bought either from wholesalers or stores. Her fettuccine was fresh and formed a marvelous base on which to dish her freshly ground pesto. I did not get to try it, but the dish was enticing and full scented as it passed by.
This is not a restaurant with white, linen table cloths and a host of waiters hanging on your every need. Instead it is a corner restaurant with charm and personality that just happens to offer one of the best pies in Cuzco.