The leaves on my street are sludgy. Autumn's colour gone muddy and downtrodden. Everything smells dank. When I close my eyes, I dream of mushrooms. Specifically, mushrooms on pizza.
In winter, I like to wear extra layers. Scarves, gloves, cheese. When it's cold outside, pizza warms the heart.
I grew up in 1980s provincia (bacon, chicken and cranberry sauce). It would be another decade before I would experience the shock and awe of nothing but stretchy cheese, tomato and fresh basil; that international life lesson of less-is-more.
What makes a pizza perfect? Food writers have crossed continents to nail this. In Rome, the American Jeffrey Steingarten (It Must've Been Something I Ate) notes his shampoo will not lather: "We must," he proclaims, "Test the water."
Pizza is said to have originated in Naples but there is barely a region in the world that hasn't staked a subverted claim. The current trend towards a cauliflower base is an abomination. Far more credible — New York's pizza "pie". It is big and thin and often sold by the slice. You can still capture the cheese grease in a fold, but the New York-style pizza is not quite as floppy as its neopolitan counterpart. In Auckland, Epolito's does a pretty decent version.
It was raining so hard it took the taxi 15 minutes to advance a single block. We dashed across Richmond Rd like lunatics and fell through the doorway into a warm, yeasty bath. I'm aware that sounds like something you might visit a pharmacy to contain, but how else to describe the all-enveloping aroma of flour and water and heat? Pizza is the puffer jacket of the food world.
Epolito's set-up is simple. A handful of tables, a bench for people waiting for takeout orders and a sofa-and-coffee-table arrangement in the window. On the night of our visit, the latter was occupied by a man in a suit and a small boy in pyjamas and face paint. A lawyer ordered a red wine and took the bench. Later, a dozen 30-somethings (beards, pleated skirts, sneakers) would occupy several tables pushed together.
"I'm flat out," said the woman who had waved us to our table. "Would you mind ordering at the counter?"
Don't go here for a flash night out. The vibe is add-your-own parmesan casual and the paper napkins are stacked in a cane basket. They do five wines by the glass ($10-$12), Sawmill and big-brand beers, and the soft drinks are just $3. We settled in. Three journalists more accustomed to words than numbers. How big could a 14-inch pizza be? One apiece, please. If I'd thought about, I would have realised we were never going to finish the cheese-topped equivalent of a 42-inch television screen.
As one small car tyre after another filled our table, I closed my eyes and inhaled. Nothing. I stuck my face very close to Epolito's bacon and mushroom pizza, the "cabby" ($24). Still nothing. I swallowed my disappointment and those not very mushroomy mushrooms and moved on to the "meatball" ($24).
Oh my. THIS was pizza.
The blobs of beef did not look that appealing but they were packed with garlic and herbs. The flavour was homemade, in the best possible example of this word. I could have eaten a plate of them on their own; with melted cheese and a gentle tomato sauce on a charred and bubbly crust, they were divine.
I really liked the Epolito crust. Spun and stretched behind the counter, it was strong and crisp enough to eat by hand but also light enough to eat and eat and ... don't worry, eventually they gave us boxes for the leftovers.
Our third pizza was the olive, anchovy and caper "rocco" ($28). I feared a thwack of salt, but the olives were those soulless black pre-pitted bands of nothing. Olives by name, but not by nature. We should be better than this in 2018, I thought, but nobody at home complained when I lifted the lid on the leftovers box. By 10pm, every spare slice had been devoured. I confess I did not ask for a second opinion on the meatball.