Sometimes I joke with Gustavo that our favorite hobby is collecting passports. Between the two of us, we have three, in addition to a vast collection of visas and passport stamps.
You see, in addition to my American passport, I also carry a wine-red Italian passport. A few years ago, my mother and I went through the process to become dual citizens through my great-grandparents who emigrated from Italy in the 1900s. (That’s the story of, what, 85% of people from New Jersey? And, ironically, yes they’re from the same part of Italy as the Sopranos: Avellino.)
While I may not have grown up in Italy, I was imbued with a deep sense of respect for the tradition, especially around food. I often find Italy as a reference point when comparing Brazilian and American cultures. Italy is, after all, another Catholic country that struggles with economic issues (particularly in the South), prioritizes relationships over business, and, above all, loves family time. However, after a lot of thought, I was finally able to pinpoint the biggest difference between the two, despite superficial similarities: Italians have a passion for quality.
Italian food is famous because of its simplicity. The original pizzeria only serves two different flavors, after all: marinara (tomato sauce) and margherita (tomato sauce with juicy, sour, creamy mozzarella di bufala). It needs nothing else because the ingredients, the process, and the tradition are all that are needed to bring out the most balanced, flavorful, delicious combination of flavors.
Brazil, on the other hand, doesn’t have much use for tradition. Instead, Brazilians are known for their jeito brasileiro or Brazilian jerry-rigging, for lack of a better translation. Buying a toaster is too expensive? Grab a wire clothes hanger and rig up a manual toaster for the stove. Table broke? Grab a couple of boxes and cover them with a sheet. It doesn’t matter if it’s done correctly, it matters that it works… enough.
Pizza in Brazil was primarily introduced via Italian immigrants in São Paulo – where, by the way, the rules of pizza seemed to be followed slightly more closely these days. As pizza became more popular throughout the country, it became Brazilified.
Unlike traditional Italian pizza or New York-style, Brazilian pizza is thin-thin-thin crust, almost like a tortilla. Aside from a cultural preference – Brazilians tend to be more grossed out by eating with their hands than Americans, in my experience – it begs to be eaten with a fork and knife. Otherwise, half the pizza would end up on your lap since the crust can’t support the weight of the toppings.
Speaking of toppings, we come to the reason why I wanted to write this post. A few days ago, we were at a cousin’s house, playing games, snacking, and joking, when Gustavo asked, “Do any of you put ketchup on pizza?” Two raised their hands. “For the love of god, why?” he asked, on my behalf.
“What, it’s wrong?”
“Yes.” I cried, internally. On the outside, I snapped a photo of our cousin putting ketchup on her pizza and sent it to a friend. “They’re trying to kill me here,” I told her.
Brazilian pizza toppings are like a metaphor life. Dream big, but don’t get carried away. In addition to the standard cheese and pepperoni pizza, Brazilian pizza toppings commonly include chicken and Catupiry (a milder cream cheese/savory mascarpone), eggs and bacon, the entire deli counter, and sausage with actual Philadelphia cream cheese. Don’t believe me? Check the Domino’s website in Brazil.
On top of all of that, people still find room for condiments, including the aforementioned ketchup, as well as mayonnaise and olive oil. Why? I have two theories.
First, the Brazilian palette is very different from the American one. Salt is seasoning number one here. And number two, three, four, five, and six. Because other spices tend to be more expensive, the most commonly preferred flavor for savory foods is salt. (Salgado, the word for savory, literally means salted.) Because of that, people are used to a strong flavor and, without the top-tier ingredients so easily accessible in Europe, or even the US, it’s more effective to resort to extremely flavorful toppings and condiments.
Which leads me to my second point, which is accessibility. Because it’s difficult to find quality ingredients at a sustainable price in Brazil, many pizza places just don’t make very good pizza. They’re okay, but not okay enough to do without some extra flavor. Common household ingredients like mayo, ketchup, and olive oil take a jam-packed pizza and make it more flavorful, robust, and, possibly most importantly, moist. It helps the crust go down.
While it pains my Italian-American heart to see someone smacking a ketchup bottle on top of a perfectly fine pizza, I’m learning to respect it in its own way. Will I ever do it myself? Hell no. Will I joke that Brazilians are no longer allowed in Italy? Absolutely. But, hey, that’s how global cultural exchange works. You give a little, you change a little.