Pizzeria Calvino, Act I

The first act of my Pizzeria Calvino tale begins in frustration. I am denied access to the rear dining rooms by unsmiling men-in-white-shirts and left to contend with the Sicilians-in-waiting who crowd the entrance area.

Inch by slow inch I slither my way to the counter and order takeout from Salvatore…, sorry, Signor Calvino, as he’s addressed even by elders who’ve been frequenting this Trapanese institution since 1946.

When choosing accommodation for a visit to Trapani you are advised to rule out all options more than 200 metres from Pizzeria Calvino (see map). In the likely event you’re relegated to a takeout pizza you don’t want to give it time to cool. The “five-minute” walk from the pizzeria to the palazzo apartment we’ve rented through Airbnb takes us four minutes. I set the pizza box on the dining room table and open it: Oh, good, our Margherita is still steaming hot.

Trouble is I don’t like how this pizza eats. Its crust, though exquisitely charred, is too bready. It’s smothered in a bland blanket of mass-production mozzarella with scant dots of cherry tomato. In despair I summon the phrase I repeat as the key to unlocking minds that refuse to open:

Sometimes you have to twist your head around and drop preconceived notions of how something has to be.

Isn’t it foolish, I reason, to question the judgement of Sicilians, of all people, and the Trapanese, of all Sicilians, when it comes to their pizza, a regional variation of Sicilian-style pizza? Next time I must leave behind my pizza reference points, from Naples to New York. I must give my preference for thin-crusted, puffy-rimmed pizzas with only a few select toppings a night off.

Pizzeria Calvino, Act II

Possessing a smartphone and the telephone number printed on the Calvino staff t-shirts is not enough to secure a reservation. Bereft of family connections we are barred again from seeing the seating areas, much less eating in one. This time I am too hungry to fear bodily harm as a consequence of my jumping ahead of the wrong person. I push to the counter and await my moment with the man who takes all orders and all the money and inspects all the cooked pizzas (few of them Margheritas btw). A busy man, that Signor Calvino.

I choose two pizza varieties with pungency and pizzazz: the Trapanese, with anchovy, tomato, garlic, mozzarella, parsley and orgegano, and the Alla “Salvo” con mozzarella, with tomato, mozzarella, potato, black olive, tuna, oregano and onion. This time the “five-minute” walk back to our apartment takes us three minutes.

We dig in: The salty bite of the anchovies in the Trapanese and the olives in the Alla “Salvo” are their salvation, cutting through the bloat and putting their mark on the mozzarella. The potato really works. I could get to like this pizza.

The following afternoon, at the conclusion of a private tour of the Donnafugata winery in Marsala, we are led from the cellars to a building in the rear of the property and into one of its handsome tasting rooms. We’ve gained admittance to the inner sanctums of one of Italy’s most prestigious wineries but not yet the back rooms of a pizzeria some 23 kilometres (about 14 miles) up the Mediterranean coast. As our charming host, Donnafugata’s Anna Ruini, pours us glasses of Mille e una Notte, an award-winning red of great complexity and elegance, my mind drifts. Between sweet sips of Ben Ryé I pose a question you, the casual observer, may view as unrelated to what makes it one of the world’s exceptional dessert wines:

“Anna, have you ever been to Pizzeria Calvino?”

Anna reveals she has visited the pizzeria she’s heard so much about since moving to Sicily from Northern Italy but it proved impossible to get anywhere near a pizza. Too many people spilling out onto the Via Nunzio Nasi. Nothing to resemble a queue. No sure route to the counter and Signor Calvino. I nod in sympathy.

At that very moment I receive a text from Giuseppe Venza, the well-connected Trapanese pharmacist who has rented us his apartment. He’s managed to reserve a table for us that night at Calvino. I suppress a smug smile.

Pizzeria Calvino, Act III

I introduce myself to Signor Calvino and point to my camera. Signor Calvino is all smiles. With sweeping arm movements he directs me to the kitchen. My wife and son are escorted by a man-in-white-shirt to one of six utilitarian dining rooms each too small to park a Vespa 98.

I take photos of the pizzaioli dressing pizzas on long wooden boards and loading these onto racks. (Calvino’s pizza queue is as organised as its people queue is chaotic.) I aim my lens into a pizza oven with two wood fires and enough room to park a Fiat 500. I photograph the men-in-white-shirts at the kitchen passthrough as they attack each new pizza with their two-handled mezzalunas, carving chessboards over the surfaces of the charred crusts with cross cuts of the rounded half-moon blades. I make a show of it for the locals who may be wonder how a foreigner and his camera have managed to get the run of the place. The Sicilians-in-waiting can’t be bothered to so much as to look in my general direction.

I take a seat with my wife and son. Watching as pizzas, none of them Margheritas, are served to the other tables I experience two epiphanies: The first, that the men-in-white-shirts are waiters; the second, no mozzarella. I repeat, no mozzarella.

We order two pizzas with grated Pecorino Siciliano in place of mozzarella. Each is a revelation. The Pizza Rianata is a platform for anchovy, fresh tomato, garlic, parsley, oregano and olive oil brought together by the intense aroma and salty accents of the grated Pecorino. As the cheese melts it marries with the rim of the puffy charred crust, a divine effect. I love this pizza.

For a triumphant exit I decide the only way left to impress the Sicilians-in-waiting is for them to hear me address Signor Calvino as Salvatore. As I bid him farewell I put my arm around his shoulder while initiating the sort of warm handshake you extend only to a favourite uncle:

“Grazie, grazie mille, Saaaa…..Saaaa….Salvatore.”

The Sicilians-in-waiting react with unrestrained indifference.