Pizza in Havana is kind of the ultimate good news, bad news, proposition. The good news is that there is lots of it. In fact it's ubiquitous, on every street in tiny kiosks or vestibules where the pizza is not on view, it seems to emerge after you order it from some central oven shrouded in mystery. The bad news is that most of it is of frozen pizza quality. And I'm not talkin' state of the art DiGiorno's Rising Crust. Because Havana is, in many ways, in a fifties movie-set-like time warp. I'm talking about the frozen pizza of my youth (which coincidentally took place in the fifties and early sixties), namely Pizza Fours, the frozen pizzas which featured a cottony, tender, lily- white, never brown or crisp anywhere, spongy (do I have enough adjectives here? I want you to see this pizza in your heads even if you've never seen a box of pizza fours) crust. Domino's Artisan Pizza would be so many steps up from everyday pizza in Havana you could make it all the way to the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome with it.
That said, the standard Havana slice filled a need the way mediocre pizza always does: it was recognizable, it met or exceeded our low expectations, and at the end of the day, it was melted cheese on warm bread, which as Slice'rs know is always, at the very least, reasonably satisfying. We had it in pork restaurants, by the hotel pool on the roof, and on the street, and it always filled us up for very few CUCs, the Cuban currency visitors spend in Cuba (residents use Cuban pesos, Why? I have no idea. You're going to have to ask the Castro Brothers, and they're not easy to gain access to.)
The despair we felt after trying a couple of the highly rated pizzerias in Havana was palpable. Pizza, pizza, everywhere, and not a crumb worth eating. That all changed with a trip we made to Cojimar, the fishing village just outside Havana where Hemingway fished and was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea, about an epic battle between an aging fisherman and a tenacious fish. There was no really good pizza in Cojimar, just a cool traditional Cuban restaurant on the water where we had virgin daiquiris and listened to a great band that featured a guitarist who proudly told me he had played at Lincoln Center twice. I could see why. The dude could play. And before that Vicky and I had been personally serenaded by a husband and wife team on the steps of the little Hemingway Memorial who played and sang like a dream. We were only going to stay for five minutes, but we were so entranced by their improvised call and response singing and playing we couldn't tear ourselves away.
But after nursing our virgin daiquiris and listening to a couple of songs at the restaurant we set out for Guanabacoa, ten minutes from Cojimar, where we found the pizzeria of my Havana dreams in a nondescript working class neighborhood.
Rachel Weingeist, a senior adviser to Rubin Museum founder Donald Rubin, and the curator of The 8th Floor, one of the leading showcasers of contemporary Cuban art in NYC, had told us about the pizzeria started by a young guy, Jesus Granados, who had been her driver on one of her many previous trips to Havana.
We drove up in our mini-tour bus and saw the unassuming sign, Restaurante Mangle Rojo. It was a pizzeria paladar, one of the Cuban government experiments in private enterprise that allows Cubans to open restaurants in their home (the irony is that the only people that can afford to eat there (though they are not expensive) are tourists. The average Cuban makes a salary of $20 a month to go along with their free rent and food ration card. Our guide and driver, who works for the state-owned tour company (just about everyone in Cuba except for the artists works for the state) can't eat at paladares with us (the government mandates they only eat at state-owned restaurants with their tour participants). Thankfully they didn't have to go too far, as there was a state-owned pizzeria a few blocks away.
We asked for Jesus, and we were told he wasn't there, but that he might be coming back. I was not pleased, given my feelings about owner-occupied pizzerias (especially in Cuba, where the state owns just about everything, including the pizzerias). But he motioned us back to the restaurant, which turned out to be a lush backyard garden with ten tables in it, anchored by a gorgeous red brick pizza oven fueled by wood and coal. Sprinkled around the garden were gorgeous antique soda signs, including a circular Coke sign with a bullet hole in it (the revolutionaries were apparently fond of shooting up anything that reminded them of American business and its almost spiritual belief in capitalism).
We sat down at a table near the oven and ordered a focaccia, a Margherita pizza, and a calzone—three good litmus tests for any good pizzeria. Then, after a plate of the first twice fried fresh french fries we had seen in Havana passed right by us, we had to order a plate of those as well. Before anything we ordered came, three gratis dips and a bread basket immediately alerted me to the presence of knowledgable, passionate food people. The three dips were a vibrant salsa, a ham pate, and a hummus-like chick pea and artichoke dip. The bread basket was filled with house-made crackers, pita chips really, that were a revelation and a perfect foil for the dips. Compared to the brown 'n serve rolls we got in just about every fancy restaurant in Cuba (state-owned or not) these were a further sign that someone who knew what they were doing was in the kitchen.
The foccacia arrived first. It wasn't foccacia really, just a disc of freshly baked crunchy and crispy on the outside pizza dough that was practically hollow on the inside, and sprinkled with fresh rosemary and sea salt (the rosemary was a surprise, because other than mint we hadn't seen many fresh herbs in Cuba). But it was damn tasty, especially with the Spanish olive oil they gave us to dip it in.
The fries arrived next, golden brown, crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, obviously made with fresh potatoes. Another extremely promising sign.
Then our Margherita arrived. Jesus may not have even known it, but it was cracker-thin crust, Roman-style pizza. It was awesome. The crust had a lovely golden brown color, crunchy exterior, crunchy crust all the way through and around, slightly browned melted mozzarella-like cheese (Jesus told us the government stopped making mozzarella a few months ago, but that he thought he had come up with a fine substitute—he had), sauce made from fresh tomatoes, and shreds of fresh basil.
The calzone looked and tasted like an excellent calzone. Ham and mushrooms and cheese on the inside, and braided and crimped in all the right places on the outside.
We didn't have room for the quatre leches cake, but Jesus sat down and told us what he was trying to do at his place.
"I had a really good pizza chef, an Italian guy, but he was difficult to work with, he and I both realized that, so he found me his own replacement. Then I met a doctor who didn't want to be a doctor anymore, and he was a pizza chef, so I hired him. It's cool. He's our chef and our family doctor." In Cuba that's the ultimate win-win, a doctor who can make good pizza.
I asked Jesus where he learned to make pizza. "From the internet. Now I have my guys watching stuff all the time there." Most private citizens do not have internet access in Cuba, so it may turn out that the internet is pizza's savior, at least in culinarily remote Havana.
Jesus invited us to his house, where he had a gift he wanted us to bring back to Rachel. His house was a few blocks away (the pizzeria was actually in his in-laws' house, which was also a bed and breakfast).
We met his gorgeous, enchanting 8 year-old daughter, who spoke perfect English. She had just come home from school (the schools are one of Castro's crowning achievements. There is 100% literacy in the country, and free universities are sprinkled throughout.) The only problem now is that with the government broke there are very few jobs for recent graduates. Sound familiar?
Jesus showed us his vintage collection of Esso, Sinclair, beer, and soft drink signs. He gave me some Cuban school athletic medals to give to Rachel, and he gave one each to me and Vicky. Jesus also gave me this perfect miniature Coke bottle from the fifties that actually had some coke in it, which is now proudly standing in the middle of our personalized Serious Eats Heinz Ketchup bottles. I'm an intrepid eater and drinker, but I'm not drinking that Coke.
Jesus was a classic enterprising young restaurateur trying to do something real and meaningful under extremely trying circumstances in Cuba. His impulses were Danny Meyer-like, and that was incredibly refreshing and soothing in a country that doesn't place much of a premium on service (the state, not the customer, comes first). He even brought two cups of coffee out to our guide and driver, who could not come inside.
We waved goodbye and I found myself wondering if we had just experienced the best Cuban restaurant experience you could have. Fueled by Jesus' desire to learn and to please, and his enterprising nature, drive, and focus, I think we had. And maybe, just maybe, we got a glimpse of what all of Cuba will one day be like if the power of its people is unleashed. In the meantime, if you do find yourself hankering to go to Havana (and you really should, Vicky and I thought that it was the best, most interesting, most exciting, most eye-opening trip we had ever been on), head out to Guanabacoa for what just might be the best-executed restaurant in Havana. And say hello to Jesus. He cares, about you, his food, and his country.
Restaurante Mangle Rojo
Ave. 1ra #2 e/11 y 12, Rpto. Chibas, Guanabacoa, La Habana, Cuba
Reservations: 5 290 5255/ 5 295-3176, firstname.lastname@example.org