Pizza started out as a Mediterranean peasant’s version of pie: flat, and without a filling. The plebs ate staititai or pizza bianca as it is known today, a plain pizza with some goats cheese on top, perhaps a smidgen of honey. In Roman times, there were no tomatoes in Europe. The tomato only arrived in the 1600s with the discovery of the New World; pizza would never be the same. As it turned out, America and capitalism (which turned peasants into consumers) created what we understand by pizza – an army of edible flying saucers, colonizing every corner of the planet.
In South Africa, the invasion commenced in the 1980s, when we discovered what prolific American entrepreneurs with prodigious appetites and childlike palates had known for years: pizza is the ideal franchise food. It is simple, fast, idiot-proof. Even the dough requires little skill; and whoever can’t master that can buy frozen bases from the wholesaler.
Much like conveyor belt manufacturing, investors don’t need to employ qualified chefs, just an assembly line of commis. Exact ingredients and simple preparation (no hidden cooking costs and maestros taking liberties with the butter) makes costing clear-cut and profitability easily achieved. For consumers it is a quick-fix all-in-one meal. The word is universal to; it is pronounced “peet-sa” no matter in what alphabet it is written.
St Elmo’s opened in Sea Point in 1987. They now have over 40 branches with outlets in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. In Cape Town, Butler’s pizza delivery, started 20 years ago by the grandson of Lesley Faull, founder of Silwood Kitchen, is still going strong. Debonairs, established in 1991, has today 236 branches. There are over 120 Scooters, over 100 Roman’s franchises, Panarottis has more than 50. In our enthusiasm, South Africa would enter the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest pizza ever made, 34.7 meters across, cooked up at the Norwood Hyperama.
Such mass production inevitably produces substandard goods: stale or doughy, under-baked bases smeared with sweet ketchup and covered in a nasty farrago of tinned ingredients that turn foul when cooked, all suffocated beneath a sheet of plastic ‘cheese’ dripping toxic oil (some chains even have the gumption to advertise the indigestible elasticity of their yellow melt).
Consumers with more greed than sense have exacerbated this culinary catastrophe by demanding excessive numbers of toppings. You’re better off having your favourite things grilled each in their own time, served on a side plate. Even Italy was not immune; their legislature belatedly enacting EU Traditional Speciality Guarantee laws for Pizza. As of February 2010, Neopolitan pizza is trademarked. Among other specification it must be stretched by hand (no rolling pin allowed) to form an uncooked base 8mm thick and cooked in an oven fired up to 500˚ centigrade.
Soon, health officials started to blame pizza for sodium-besieged hearts and excessive saturated fats clogging arteries; dieticians and their fads became carbophobic; higher-end consumers turned pernickety. Diners began to demand quality bases, extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes with the right acidity, buffalo mozzarella, and premium quality toppings. A space opened up for a new kind of franchise, and it was filled by Col’Cacchio. They were the first pizzeria to list options on their menu with Heart and Stroke Foundation accreditation.
To begin with, unlike its competitors, Col’Cacchio has a great wine list. There is no central kitchen; all sauces and dressings are made fresh in the store. They claim to be MSG and preservative free. No frozen seafood mix here, but whole, juicy, shelled prawns. Weekly store visits and mystery diners keep the 18 nation-wide outlets on their toes.
The pizzas are thin crust and 31cm across. You can make your own pizza or do half and half (a surcharge applies). Amongst the dizzying array of choices (over 50) are many vegetarian options, and also wheat- and gluten-free bases. The stores recycle and separate their waste, and they only burn alien wood, such as bluegum, in their pizza ovens.
Last year they ran a monthly showcase pizza (paired with a wine) designed by a gourmet chef as a fundraiser for the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. They raised R120 000. This year, the celebrity chefs are Michael Broughton (Terroir), Nicky Gibbs (The Westcliff), Jodi-Ann Pearton (The Food Design Agency), David Higgs (Rust en Vrede), Chantel Dartnall (Restaurant Mosaic) and Franck Dangereux (The Foodbarn).
Named on a whim, Col’Cacchio is Italian slang for “up yours’. Perhaps this is directed at their competition. Among the franchise outlets, they are in my opinion unequivocally the best.
The original: Col’Cacchio. The Spearhead, 42 Hans Strijdom Avenue, Foreshore. Tel: 021 419 4848.
Branches in: Atholl, Benmore, Bloubergstrand, Brooklyn Square, Bryanston, Camps Bay, Canal Walk, Cavendish Square, Emperors Palace, Fairland, Fourways, Franschhoek, Gateway, Northgate, Stellenbosch, Willowbridge, Woodhill.
Published in the Mail & Guardian, March 2010.