The trip is coming to an end, just one more day in Latin America before returning home, which means that time is running out for the most important decision of the past two weeks: Where did Leo and I have the best pizza?
There are four entries into the knockout round.
The first semifinal: El Cuartito (Buenos Aires, Argentina) vs. Harry's Pizzeria (Miami, USA)
El Cuartito is on a busy street, with a huge sign hung on the side of its building. The sign is a clue that something good is happening inside. Only killer places have signs like that. Inside, the same cooks have sweated near the big ovens for years, and the same waiters bring out slices, cold beers and the bottles of fizzy water to make wine last longer. I always order fugazetta, deep-dish style, artery clogging, cheesier than Ed Hardy jeans, covered in onions charred black by the close heat of the oven. The beer is Quilmes, and it comes in big, quart-sized bottles, ready for the all-important short glass, another sign that a place is legit. We watched the first match of the World Cup there, with Argentine fans desperate to see Brazil lose, surrounded by memorabilia of the ghosts of World Cups past.
Harry's Pizzeria is owned by my friend Michael Schwartz, who is the owner/chef at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Michael's Genuine, in Miami's Design District. Leo and I went there on a long layover in Miami, headed to Santiago, Chile, and we wanted to chill and watch games. I had pizza with bacon -- bacon! -- and a crispy crust from the wood-burning oven, and one of the many craft beers Michael keeps in stock. We saw Mexico play there.
The verdict: The winner is -- sorry, Michael -- El Cuartito, which I can close my eyes and picture right now: the half wood panel and half sky blue and white walls, the framed and signed Maradona jersey, the boxing posters everywhere. When I go to Buenos Aires, I start thinking about the fugazetta a few days before arriving. The combination of a slice, a cold beer and a soccer match on the television is as close as I've ever felt to really being plugged into the soul of the city.
The second semifinal: Bar Tasende (Montevideo, Uruguay) vs. Tiramisu (Santiago, Chile)
I first went to Tiramisu on the back end of a reporting trip to Chile, writing a story about Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player who was trapped in the Copiapo mine. It was a few blocks from my hotel. A few tables outside, beneath the bleeding neon light of the sign, felt like a café in Paris. Inside, ivy and trees made the place feel like a hidden bubble in some deep forest, and the low lights and flickering candles turn the memory of the meal into a kind of dream sequence. The pizza itself is American-style, and the otherworldliness of the room adds something to the flavor, because it existed in my memory as the elusive perfect pizza, and when I returned after Chile qualified for the second round of the World Cup, it was simply very good. Also, it had an egg on top, so bonus points.
Bar Tasende was introduced to me by Romulo Chenlo, the sports editor of a Montevideo paper. The beer comes cold out of the tap into a frozen mug. The oven fire is kept burning night and day. It's got tall ceilings, a metal statue of Don Quixote, and long tables filled with families and groups of friends. During the World Cup, they put up a temporary television, but usually it's a place for an evening to disappear in arguments and winding conversation, fueled by those freezing cold beers. The order here is called pizza al tacho, and it's a closely guarded family recipe that is basically the greatest cheese bread you've ever had in your life. Tacho tastes unlike anything else you've ever had, and you will crave and pine for it once you walk out the doors of Tasende, which is on a corner between the statue of Artigas and the city docks. Yesterday, over café con leche and two rounds of tacho, I watched the U.S. lose to Germany and still advance to the knockout round. I did a hit for "SportsCenter" at Tasende and wrote my story that ran yesterday from there, too.
The verdict: Gotta be Bar Tasende.
Now, for the final: Bar Tasende (Montevideo) vs. El Cuartito (Buenos Aires)
The verdict: It was always going to be Tasende, which might be my favorite pizza anywhere. I've always said the best tasting pizza I've ever had is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a dim bar room called Fleur de Lis cocktail lounge. My nostalgic love for the pizza place where I went to college, Shakespeare's in Columbia, Missouri, makes me long for it, too. Those have always been my two favorites, and Tasende is now among them, in the new top three. Thursday we went twice, for lunch and dinner. I worked there, cheered for the U.S. there and then we sat at a table by the window, Montevideo rushing past outside, passing the hours with cold beers and new friends. In that moment, it moved, however briefly, to the top.
Leo's rebuttal: Sin dudas el campeon del mundo mundial de la pizza a la pala tiene que ser de Buenos Aires. El Cuartito es un fiel representante de la estirpe pizzeria portena. El Cuartito Campeon del Mundo!
My final note: For those who don't speak Spanish, let me translate: "Wright, you are wise and handsome and your pizza knowledge is greater than mine, and everyone else's in Buenos Aires. I, too, support Tasende."