January 4, 2012
Opinion: Tunisian pizza
There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.
Like when you miss your flight because the cab got a flat tire, then the plane you were supposed to be on crashes in the Atlantic Ocean. Or when you work a lifetime and hide all your money in your mattress because you don’t trust the banks, then the mattress catches fire and burns to ashes. Or, more immediately in my experience, when you resist eating at kosher dairy restaurants for 30 years because the food gives you heartburn, only to end up in a place at Pico and Bedford on a Wednesday night, eating pizza with cheese, fried egg, and tuna, and living to rave about it.
My mother has been recommending this place – 26 by Shiloh’s – for a year already. She talks about it like it’s Perino’s come back to life in Pico-Robertson, and maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but all I’ve ever seen of kosher dairy is Greek Salad (I make it better myself), humus (they sell a nonfat version at Trader Joe’s), and pizza with a thick, greasy crust and too much cheese. My mother is a very talented artist with an intensely accurate intuition – she dreamt JFK was lying with his head in a pool of blood two days before he was assassinated – but she tends to have one or two blind spots for the people she loves, her entire, very extended, very international family among them. You want to achieve sainthood in under three minutes? Be born or marry into the Merage family, and my mother will see to it that you’re fast-tracked ahead of Mother Teresa.
In this case, one of the owners, Geoffrey Ghanem, is related to her by marriage. Geoffrey is a French Jew who met his wife, Debbie, on the boardwalk in Eilat. They were both 21. He didn’t speak English; Debbie didn’t speak French. Debbie’s parents are Iranians who met and married strictly because of ghessmat: In 1972, Debbie’s mother, Shana, broke up with her fiance the morning of the wedding because she “didn’t know the guy well enough and didn’t want to get to know him anymore.” To escape the heat, she left Tehran to spend a couple of months with her sister in New York. If ever she got married, she told her sister, it was going to be after a long, long, courtship.
One snowy afternoon, an old friend of her sister’s came to visit. The friend had a brother, Ray, who had lived in Pasadena since he was 17, coming to the United States alone and with no money. He slept in a church or at the YMCA, started to work as a busboy at Manny’s Cafeteria in Pasadena; three years later, he was managing eight Denny’s restaurants, but he lost his job because one of chefs left the stove on when they locked up for the night. In the morning, the place had burned to the ground and Ray was told he should think about a career change. He went into banking. In 1972, he was engaged to the daughter of Pasadena’s chief of police when they decided they had rushed into something prematurely and broke off the engagement.
Ray and Shana met on a Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday of the following week, they went to City Hall in New York and got married.
Some 30 years later, their daughter Debbie met Geoffrey on a Wednesday afternoon in Eilat. She didn’t want to live anywhere except in Los Angeles; he had always known that he would live anywhere but Los Angeles. He proposed after a week and followed Debbie to L.A. to work in real estate; instead, he and Debbie opened two restaurants. They’re still happily married and raising 5-year-old twins and 3-year-old triplets. That, too, is ghessmat.
My mother is so fond of the twins and the triplets, she has their pictures framed and displayed all over her house. That’s very sweet, I think, but it does make her recommendation of 26 a little suspect. As far as I know, in Los Angeles you’re lucky if you get a plate with your slice of pizza; you want a tableside flambe and French and Italian tapas? Go to France and Italy. Then again, you can only withstand a force of nature for so long before you have to relent, and that’s how I finally ended up at 26 on a Wednesday night during its grand reopening, and I have to say, I was a little stunned by the elegance and beauty of the restaurant’s interior; it looks like it should be in the meat packing district of Manhattan instead of in Pico-Robertson, down the street from the kosher fish stores and Iranian grocery stores and all those other shops that could stand a few coats of paint and some major renovation.
That already makes it an anomaly. So does “sea bass with pomegranate sauce” and “baked fig with a cheese crust” and, yes, “Tunisian pizza” with fried egg and tuna. I order this last one only because I want to see what it looks like, but then the food arrives, and it’s all very good and not expensive. And then the chef comes out to talk to us about his “concept” of “Western European cuisine” with “essence of international flavor,” and “natural, seasonal, market-fresh items,” and how he was the executive chef at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland and later at the Carlton in Cannes.
All this is great and wonderful and, for someone who has underestimated the potential of kosher dairy for so long, rather humbling, but what are the chances, I’d like to know, that two Iranian Jews would both leave fiances at the altar, meet and marry in three days against all reason and live happily ever after, have a child in Pasadena who will meet and marry a French boy in Israel after a week when neither of them even speaks the other’s language, come back with him to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, have a set of twins and a set of triplets, and open a restaurant that serves pizza with fried egg and tuna that — I kid you not — is delicious?