After I returned from a week in Argentina, everyone asked the same question. "How was the steak?"
Yes, there's hardly a city block in Buenos Aires where you can't get a cut of beef; yes, said beef is almost invariably well-prepared and cheap. But it's not as if that's all the porteños eat. And if I had to name another classically Argentinian food—well, besides the alfajores, helado, or anything else made with dulce de leche—it'd be pizza.
That's right, pizza. Argentina may be a Spanish-speaking country, but thanks to enormous waves of Italian immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more than half of Argentinians have some degree of Italian ancestry. As a result, Italian food may be even more popular in Argentina than it is in the United States. And pizza is thought of less as an Italian or North American import than as a national food in its own right. In short, there's a real pizza culture down south.
El Cuartito, in the Buenos Aires barrio of Recoleta, is one of the oldest pizzerias in the city, founded in 1934. According to my tour guide for the week, it's also one of the best.
The name, which translates to "little room," isn't quite accurate; El Cuartito houses two enormous cafeteria-like dining rooms, every inch of their sky-blue walls covered: boxing posters, Boca Juniors pennants, portraits of the tango greats (such as Carlos Gardel, seen here.) The crowd is as eclectic as the decor. You'll see old men putting back a slice at the front counter, gangs of teenage boys wolfing down slices and yelling at the fútbol match playing overhead, families sharing a pizza, impeccably dressed couples nibbling on empanadas. To drink? It's either Quilmes (the Budweiser of Argentina) or a pitcher of house red wine mixed with soda water—yep, soda water. You end up with a fizzy, fruity drink that's a surprisingly tasty way to lighten up cheap but drinkable wine.
Slices start at AR$4—just over an American dollar, as of this writing—and two should be enough for even a heartier appetite.
Pizzas are cooked in a gas oven, in heavy cast-iron pans, then turned out to serve; though one can order a whole pie when eating in, it's just as common to order an assortment of slices, brought to the table on a wooden tray. (Pies made to serve by the slice are slightly underbaked, then get a second pass through the oven before serving.)
At first glance, the crust looked a bit heavy and bready to my New York-biased eye. But I swallowed that skepticism along with my first bite. Though the base crust is quite thick, it's got a tender, airy interior that keeps things from getting too heavy, and the outer edge gets a satisfying crunch. And while I find that reheating New York-style slices can dry them out, these thicker guys survive a second heating admirably.
These are not sparingly topped slices; overflowing cheese seems to be the point. Of the kinds we tried, I was partial to the fugazza, a relatively common tomato-less pizza with sauteed onions, mozzarella, grated Parmesan, oil, and salt. The super-sweet onions, so soft they seem to dissolve, get a bit of a crisp from the super-hot gas oven; the cheeses are so ample as to ooze over the sides.
We also loved the verdura con salsa blanca (pictured at top), a white pizza with sauteed spinach in a bechamel-like sauce, covered in a layer of very melted mozzarella.
It's quite common in Argentina to top your pizza with faina—a thin, dense baked dough of chickpea flour and salt; a little bit gritty, it reminded me of a dry cut of polenta. Order a porción de faina along with your slice of mozzarella pizza, plop it on top, and you end up with something like a heavier pizza sandwich.
I'd imagine it's an acquired taste; truth be told, I preferred the balance of the cheese, tomato, and crust before the extra starchy layer gets on top. That said, it does help mitigate the grease factor and definitely turns a single slice into a heartier meal. I'd give it another chance.
And though we're on Slice here, I'd be remiss not to mention El Cuartito's empanadas, the best we had in Buenos Aires—particularly the flaky-crusted tuna.
All in all, I was quite impressed. Though I'm sure some would find the crust too thick, or too bready, that's the style; and though I'm partial to a fluffy Neapolitan crust, myself, I loved the substantial chew of El Cuartito's thick and crunchy base. With cascading cheese that crusts up around the edges and fall-apart sweet onions, the fugazza is one of the better slices I've had in recent memory. And certainly one of the most satisfying. Cheese-lovers, it's a pizza for you.
Talcahuano 93, Buenos Aires, Argentina (b/n Paraguay and Marcelo T. de Alvear; map)