Zanté’s Pizza and Indian Cuisine

Bringing the benefits of sociability to the apartments of the naturally solitary

Recent attempts to adapt one culture’s culinary technology to another’s ingredients have been sketchy. I’m thinking mostly of the ridiculous “wrap” trend—burritos with Thai chicken salad or steak and mashed potatoes in place of normal burrito stuff—which rose and fell in tandem with the Nasdaq. The wrap fad didn’t put down roots because it never had any roots: the first and only wrap restaurants were chain restaurants, with menus conceived in boardrooms and refined in laboratories. The wrap was less like cross-breeding than like bioengineering. We want cool new hybrids, but we don’t want them to smell of focus groups and flowcharts.

What we want is more things like Zante’s Indian Pizza. Almost two decades ago, in the Mission, Dalvinder Multani combined the ingredients and spices of Indian food with the Italian American technology of pizza. The result, like any new food worth inventing, tastes like it was waiting for someone to come along and invent it.

Pizza might be described as an underperforming technology: the concept of pouring sauce on a round sheet of flat dough, sprinkling other ingredients on top, baking, then cutting along multiple diameters to produce wedge-shaped slices has stayed close to its marinara-and-mozzarella roots. Which is a shame, because pizza’s technological advantages should have multiple applications. Like a sandwich, a slice of pizza can be easily eaten with the hands, thanks to the thick circle of crust around the perimeter. (This is why those pizzas that have been sliced in a gridlike pattern are so disconcerting: they’re technologically retrogressive.) But pizza has a higher sauce/bread ratio than a sandwich, and the time it spends in the oven while the dough is baking gives its ingredients an opportunity to get to know one another before they reach the plate—a bonding experience that results in a stronger gestalt. It’s like an unusually effective staff retreat.

Adapting this technology to Indian food is a natural fit, because Indian food (the kind that’s served in the United States, anyway) works with a strictly circumscribed palette. Certain tastes—curry powders, spices like saffron and fenugreek, lamb, lentils, etc.—recur from one dish to another. Dishes seldom push the extremes of sweetness or saltiness. That’s why the end of an Indian meal, when the scraps of a banquet mix together on your plate, is so delicious; those last few bites taste not like chicken tikka masala or rogan josh or saag paneer but rather like Indian food itself, the buccal themes reasserting themselves like the voices of a fugue.

There is something magical about this, because banquet-style meals are small models of communal living: everyone takes responsibility for a sphere of influence (you pick a chicken dish; I’ll get a vegetable curry) and then shares the product. (Sometimes a charismatic leader emerges from the group to integrate and implement the various suggestions and negotiate with the waiter; I have been accused of Stalinism when destiny has assigned me this role, because certain dishes are favored while others mysteriously disappear during the ordering process.) The end of such a meal, when everyone’s choices combine into that toothsome admixture, is the taste of social integration, gustatory evidence of the communal whole’s superiority to the parts’ sum.

The trouble is that this blending requires a big group at the table: eating a single Indian dish—even chicken tikka masala—is always disappointing. What are the lonely and isolated to do?

That’s where Zante’s harnesses the technology of pizza—and pizza delivery—to bring the benefits of sociability to the apartments of the naturally solitary. An Indian pizza from Zante’s recreates the taste of that wonderful end-of-the-meal ur-Indian amalgam. Saag takes the place of tomato sauce (to my knowledge, the Indians are the only people who have managed to make a must-eat dish out of spinach, the very symbol of all that is worthy and unpleasant). Curried vegetables, small pieces of tandoori chicken, and shreds of charred and aromatic lamb provide the local flavor variations that a traditional pizza might derive from pepperoni or green peppers or, if you’re a bad person, pineapple. A mild paneer takes over for mozzarella. The combination tastes not like tandoori chicken pizza or saag paneer pizza but like Indian food pizza. You take a bite and you can practically see the sauce-stained metal serving dishes and the spilled grains of brightly colored pilaf rice all over the starched white tablecloths.

This is very American, in all the bad ways: convenient isolation, immediate gratification, fake community. But the cultural cross-pollination that Indian pizza represents is American in the best sense, too. It’s no accident that our dominant metaphor for the fertile intermarriage of every culture under the sun, the melting pot, is a culinary one.

Zante’s will make the pizza for you without cheese (it’s good that way), or without meat (acceptable if you’re eating with vegetarians), or with neither, which was the only thing I could think of when I had to feed a couple of vegans. (They loved it.) The regular non-pizza Indian food is fine; the regular non-Indian pizza, in keeping with San Francisco tradition, is lousy.