Translation can be difficult. Different countries have different ways of expressing what is essentially the same thing, but is yet so nuanced, so finely tuned, that the merest mispronunciation can lead to extraordinary difficulties. A friend spent a year in South America, to hone what was, until then, fairly ropey Castilian Spanish. Having somehow landed a job at an international company, he was, on his very first day, ushered into the biggest board meeting of the year. All the heads of the South American arm of the company had gathered around a large table, with Jim, a six foot six, red-haired Englishman (sore thumb, anyone?) plonked at the end. And like in a bad dream he was asked to introduce himself.
“Hola, soy Jim…..”, God this is awkward, he thought – I should tell them. “Soy muy embarazado”. I’m very embarrassed.
Except that isn’t what he said. “Hello, I’m Jim”, he said, “I’m very pregnant”. The room exploded, Jim’s face fast turning scarlet.
With the first hurdle having been limped over, his boss tried to put him at ease with some gentle, GCSE oral exam-style questions.
“How did you get from the airport Jim?” he enquired.
“Ah, si. Err, yo cogi un autobus. Duro cinco horas”. I got a bus. It took five hours.
Except that isn’t what he said. He actually said this: “Ah, yes. Erm, I fucked a bus. It took five hours”.
Because in Castilian Spanish ‘coger’ means ‘to take’. In South American Spanish it does not.
And in Britain ‘pizza’ means ‘flat bread with tomato and cheese’. In Pizza East it does not. I have been 4 times in a week, and only once has my pizza had tomato on it.
I’ll start at the beginning. Last Friday I met a friend for lunch at aforementioned and much-lauded restaurant, and I fell in love with the place immediately. It’s in the Tea building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, and occupies the vast, expansive ground floor. And yet it manages to be utterly cosy, warm and welcoming. The decor is a delight – proper distressed wood (not the furniture equivalent of ‘faded’ jeans – why spend £20 extra on jeans that look just like the ones you’re replacing?), great long tables with swing-out seats, and comfy banquettes to sit back and wallow in. It’s immaculate yet unfussy, the service attentive but unintrusive.
The antipasti menu is as good a translation of Italian grub as I have seen – no half-arsed parma ham and melon here. Proper food, beautifully cooked. Over the course of those four visits I ate a pingingly fresh and elegantly presented mackerel escabeche with lentils, the criminally underrated fish soft and yielding and singing with lemon. Wood roasted bone marrow, all rich and wobbly and flecked with sea salt, was a joy, slathered on toast and crammed in with radish and parsley salad. Mussels were also wood roasted, and were just about the plumpest I have eaten.
But my highlight was the soft polenta with chicken livers. These are stupendous – crispy little nuggets of liver with the gentlest, warmest spicing, sitting atop a golden hillock of creamy polenta, and adorned with a piquant sauce. Potentially my favourite dish of 2009.
Onto the pizzas, and I hope I won’t risk being turned away on my next visit (which, let’s face it, will probably be this evening) for saying that they’re a mixed bag. A great deal of thought has gone into creating these – so much so that when I asked to substitute toppings (on my 3rd visit) I was told that I couldn’t. They have been meticulous in their design, yet rigour and street food don’t necessarily go together. Call me a philistine, but I simply don’t think pizza needs tinkering with. The bases of these pizzas are terrific, with that magical, much sought-after combination of crispness and chew. So why the need to try and make them extra-special with bizarre toppings – sprouting broccoli on a pizza? That’s a mistranslation if ever I saw one.
Some of the attempts at ringing the tomato-cheese-pig changes do work. The veal meatball pizza with prosciutto, sage, lemon, parsley and cream is an absolute triumph, the duck sausage a glorious, rich delight. But the best pizza, like the best Italian food, is the simplest. The salami, tomato and mozzarella pizza is, while perhaps narrow-minded, splendid in its simplicity, the Margherita even more so.
Pizza East – you had me by the jaffers as soon as I walked in. After the starters – handsome, original, stupidly scrumptious – I was thinking about leaving home and squatting on your doorstep with a sleeping bag and a fork. You don’t need to fart around with the pizzas. It’s like the most beautiful woman in the world wearing make-up – perhaps minutely enhancing, but completely unnecessary.