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Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

There’s something about summer that brings out our inner procrastinator: Temperature goes up; productivity goes down. Everyone bemoans the challenge of cooking in the heat, which is why with every July comes a parade of shortcut recipes for no-bake desserts, miscellaneous salad variations, and anything you can conceivably “toss on a grill.” But my general lethargy is not limited to the kitchen. Writing, reading, remaining conscious—it’s all just too hard to find the energy.

To urge myself into usefulness, I’ve been taking a tip from Susan Sontag: making lists. Sontag was a prodigious list-maker—though not necessarily with productivity in mind. Many of her lists are less things to do, and more how to be. They range from the mundane to the profound to the overwhelmingly meta; a list titled “things I like” includes “architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts” and, lastly, “making lists.”

In all these lists, patterns start to emerge: the comings and goings, friends and lovers, haunts and restaurants that make up a life. And for Sontag, one of the most regular of these habits was pizza-eating. In her notebooks, pizza becomes a familiar rhythm, a culinary mantra. “A + David and I go to Frank’s Pizza,” she writes in 1960. One week later: “Dinner at Frank’s (Pizza).” Every so often, she misses a beat: In Cambridge, Sontag notes: “Walked to Central Sq. and gorged myself on passable pizza at Simeone’s ($1.58).” Before long, she’s back to Frank’s.

For Sontag, who rarely cooked (her guests recall meals of canned mushroom soup, slightly warmed), going out for pizza was a preferred form of procrastination, a break from the list-making and essay-writing. Sigrid Nunez, who shared an apartment with Sontag for a year, recalls the writer emerging from her study with a fatigued air: “I can’t do this today. I’m just not in the mood. Why don’t we go out for pizza?” For me, food-as-distraction takes the form of “procrasti-baking.” Case in point: the brownies I made while writing this post.

But, just as often, food serves as the antidote to our idleness, providing the inspiration that impels us to act. It took a slice of pizza for Sontag to realize that her yearlong relationship (with playwright Maria Irene Fornes) was at an end. “It came to me last night (dinner, pizza, Frank’s) that I have lost her. Like a bulletin coming into view in Times Square.” A good meal has a funny way of making even those most difficult decisions a little clearer—and breaking up over pizza has an added benefit: When you’re mourning your loss the next morning, you can console yourself with glorious leftovers, straight from the fridge.

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Pizza Margherita recipePizza Margherita recipe

In searching for Sontag’s favorite pizza, my first mission was clear: Find Frank’s. There’s still a Frank’s Pizza in Manhattan, only a few blocks from Sontag’s longtime apartment on 24th Street. But if it is, in fact, the same spot, the years have not been kind. The venerable pizza blog Slice deemed it a “mainstay that I left wishing would not stay.” To put it more bluntly, look to Yelp: “THE OWNERS AREN’T THERE ANYMORE! IT’S SO BAD NOW!”

Her uptown haunt—V&T Pizza on Amsterdam—is also hanging on and still boasts Sontag-era prices (slices are $2, only a couple of quarters more than that passable pizza she devoured in Cambridge). But the crust is limp and soggy, with a sauce that’s overly sweet—not at all the “Roman bread” that Sontag praised in her lists.

This recipe takes inspiration from the pizza al taglio Sontag would have eaten when she lived in Italy: the thin, slightly charred crust, the freshness of the toppings, the squares you can order by the centimeter. It’s so perfectly simple, there aren’t many ways to improve upon it … unless it’s summer. Then, by all means, indulge that inner procrastinator, give up on the pizza stone, and throw this one on the grill.

(Adapted from The Kitchn)

For the dough:
3/4 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
Pinch of sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

For the sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 14-ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1/4 cup dry white wine
Salt, pepper, and red chile flakes to taste

For the toppings:
8 to 12 basil leaves
Fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

1. Combine water, yeast and sugar in a large bowl, stirring to dissolve. Let sit 5 minutes, then fold in flour and the salt until a shaggy dough forms.

2. Turn dough onto a clean, floured work surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. If sticky, add additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time, until slightly tacky but still moist.

3. Place in a large oiled bowl and cover with a clean dish towel. Let sit until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Punch down the dough, knead for a minute, form into a ball and let rest under an inverted bowl 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make the sauce: Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and wine, breaking up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Simmer uncovered 5 minutes, then cover and continue cooking an additional 10 minutes. Remove from heat; season with salt, pepper and red chile flakes.

5. Preheat oven to 425°F. Transfer dough to a sheet of parchment paper. Use the heel of your hand to stretch dough outward in a rectangle, until it is 1/4 inch thick. (Note: If grilling, gently flip the dough onto the grill at this point and peel off the paper. Grill 3 to 4 minutes on medium-high heat, then remove from heat and assemble toppings. Finish on the grill, another 3 to 4 minutes.)

6. Spread sauce on dough in a thin, even layer, leaving a 1/4-inch border around the edges. Top with mozzarella. Transfer, still on parchment, to a baking pan or pizza stone.

7. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle with basil leaves. Let cool 5 minutes, then cut with a pizza wheel (or scissors, Roman-style).

(Sontag Image Credit: Juan Bastos)

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