I've visited Italy more than a dozen times in the past two decades, and that includes trips across the north, throughout Tuscany, to Rome and a few points south, a circumnavigation of Sicily and a stay in the north of Sardinia (or Sardegna, as the natives spell it). The country, to be sure, has a rich history that comes on display at every turn, from the millennia-old Greek ruins, the still-standing castles around each corner and the art treasures from the Renaissance.
But you tell people you've been to Italy and they want to know about one thing: the food.
So, yes, let me get this out at the very beginning of this post: Italian food is superb. Even when it's ordinary, which happens on occasion, Italian food stands above what you typically find in your average British or U.S. eatery. (Yeah, I know, my old anthropology professor is rolling over in his grave, muttering about my ethnocentrism — even if in this case I'm being harsh on my own culture.)
Up until relatively recently, this has been particularly true of pizza. Pizza-makers in the U.S., particularly the chain companies, have trained our palates to expect thick crusts, mounds of cheese and meats over bland tomato sauce, all shaped into pies as big as tractor tires. In Spokane, when I moved here in 1980, that meant what the chain stores served, what you could get in taverns such as the Park Inn or what they served in the old Geno's (though I don't recall Geno's crusts being all that thick, and the cheese was relatively sparse, the tomato sauce resembled Campbell's tomato soup and the whole concoction carried a taste that was quickly forgettable).
But then in the early '90s with the opening of David's Pizza (originally in downtown Spokane, later in the Gonzaga district), then Bennidito's and, in the past few years, Ferrante Marketplace, the former Villagio Pizza, South Perry Pizza, Flying Goat and maybe a few others (they seem to be popping up quicked than I can keep count), another, more authentic — or at least different — type of pizza came to the Spokane area. Thinner crusts, more diverse toppings, and most notably: better taste.
And now I think I have a new favorite: Fire Artisan Pizza. Open since January, Fire Artisan Pizza is an offshoot of the same business that's been serving pizza in Coeur d'Alene since the summer of 2011. I first had some of the wood-fired pizza at the closing-night party of the last Spokane International Film Festival, and I was impressed not only by the taste but by the range of pies the place serves — from pesto to pepperoni, margherita to mushroom, etc.
But, then, I never visited either actual location, even the Spokate site, which sits in the old Moxie spot, directly north of the Davenport on Sprague Avenue. Parking always seemed dicey and the place always seemed crowded. Besides, as I've pointed out, I had options.
Last night, though, I was planning on attending the SpIFF Professor's Series showing of "Pan's Labyrinth" at the Bing Crosby Theater. So I met my friend Gary at Fire for a 6 p.m. dinner. We were greeted amiably, shown immediately to a table and given water (our own bottle for the table) and menus. I read a fairly basic range of appetizers, salads, pizzas, desserts — and, of course, drinks.
Gary and I took it easy. We each ordered a salad (a Mediterranean mix for me, Spinach for him), and we shared the night's special pizza, which was a blend of pepperoni, olives and feta and some veggies that I didn't immediately recognize — but quickly, once they were in my mouth, I didn't care because they tasted so good. More important, not only did the flavors of the pizza — which was rich with the taste of oil that I assume came from olives — meld well, they augmented the flavors of the salads.
We stuck with water, so I can't comment on the drinks at Fire. And, yes, the $40 price tag (with $6 tip) was a bit steep. But the taste of the pizza was so rich, so memorable, I could have closed my eyes and imagined myself back in Naples, at that corner pizzeria my wife and I discovered one night and thought that pizza could never taste better.
Turns out, not for the first time, I was wrong. Fire Artisan Pizza, I will return.