It was literally a dark and stormy summer night when I headed to Luzzo’s La Pizza Napoletana, an Italian restaurant in New York’s East Village, known for their pizza. I arrived a drowned rat; skin crawling from humidity, my wet clothes, and the questionable puddles that soaked my feet. I rushed in out of the rain, feeling a bit antsy about what was to come. It was a fitting start to the meal that awaited me.
I’ve had just about every traditional topping under the sun on my pizza (except pineapple, because everyone knows that’s an abomination). And though I’ve had friends refer to my beloved anchovies as “slugs,” they are considered acceptable (and delicious!) pizza accompaniments. As a kid I used to enjoy “ants on a log,” but those raisins that sat atop the peanut butter coated celery just looked like the critters; this evening I was about to sample ants on a pizza and there were no raisins in sight. But there was a scorpion.
I can’t say I was feeling particularly grossed out; I’ve been in the food world for a while (and have watched enough reality TV) to know plenty of people eat things outside the typical American comfort zone. I myself have dabbled in the insect world and beyond in my search for tasty bites. What actually bugged me was thinking this was purely for Instagram shock value; yet another mediocre concoction created for pictures but not tastebuds. Except, I was familiar with Luzzo’s and Chef Michele Iuliano’s tasty and innovative menu, so I figured there had to be more to the story.
“But why?”was the very first thing I asked Chef once I was settled inside.
“Because insects are the food of the future, and we better start getting used to it.” He continued, “Much research has lead the public to believe that this is a new source of sustainable protein. And I’m the first to put them on pizza.”
“Ooh, good answer,” I thought. I’ve certainly been seeing a lot of articles saying that very thing and I’m liking the fact that although this will get people in the door, it is more than just a gimmick. This is a chef truly tinkering with a new ingredient. He went on to tell me he has been thinking about the idea for a few years but the timing wasn’t right. Now that insect food is gaining in popularity, he was ready to move forward. Also I could relate to his pride in being the first; I was about to be the first writer to sample the Insect Pizza.
“So how do the insects taste?” I asked. I mean, besides straight nutrition, that’s the whole point of putting edible things in your mouth, right? They’ve got to taste good, and I wasn't so sure about these critters.
Chef Iluiano responded, “I first ate ants this year and much to my surprise, they have a neutral and crunchy taste that makes it very easy to work with to create unique recipes.” He went on to describe the ants as “briny” and “seafood-like” -- and I wondered if they’d taste like my beloved anchovies or if the whole thing would taste like a clam pie, the famed New England pizza. He had my full attention now -- there was some depth and intrigue to the dish.
I watched Chef as he prepared the traditional Neapolitan pie his restaurant is known for; he topped the dough with mozzarella, basil and olive oil, then popped it in the coal oven for a minute or two. Now it was ready for the final touches; a layer of lemon, a sprinkling of ants, little tumbleweeds of dark red peperoncino strands placed around the surface, and a drizzle of hot honey to spice it up a bit. Lastly, a small dried scorpion was placed in the center, as if it were a white plastic pizza-saver protecting the cheese during a delivery. Since I was picturing something the size of a tarantula, I was pretty relieved he was only about two inches long.
Watching the insects being placed atop something I was about to eat made me wonder where they actually came from. I mean, I didn’t think Chef Iluiano wasn’t hunting for them in Central Park, setting up fake picnics as bait. Turns out they come from ant farms, a fact that made me giggle as I thought of the parents’ nightmare that was sold at toy stores and pictured kids across the country ditching their lemonade stands for the potentially more lucrative ant trade. Chef Iluiani sources his from a farm in Maine that raises insects for food; the scorpion came from there as well. All the bugs came dried; for the scorpion this process renders the poison inert so the entire creature is safe to eat.
When it was time for the moment of truth, Chef sliced up the pizza and handed me the scorpion. Without hesitation, I broke off a piece and popped it in my mouth to discover – it tasted like a potato chip! Put some salt and vinegar on that little guy and I’d knock out a bagful while binging on Netflix. It had a delicate crispiness with the faintest hint of sogginess, more like the thin kind of chips as opposed to the ones with ridges. I offered the remains of the arachnid to my two dining companions; only one would sample, so I popped the rest on my mouth barely registering that I just finished a scorpion because no one else wanted it. One kind of bug down, one to go; It was time for the ants.
As I studied the pie, the critters weren’t really that noticeable. They had sunk into the cheese, making them look like any other sprinkle of dark or charred topping. There wasn’t a Fear Factor gross-out thing going on. I picked up my slice and didn’t think twice before hungrily taking a bite only to discover ... this was good! The seafood-y essence wasn’t strong enough for it to taste like clam pie or anchovies, instead the ants provided the lightest taste of brine, which worked well with the lemon and hot honey. Because of the cheese and dough, I couldn't sense any texture of them, so there was nothing odd to interfere with this delicious pizza. I mean, if you’re going to eat something weird for the first time, you might as well encase it in cheese! Overall the bright lemon flavor and the hot honey sweetness made this a lovey pizza pie on a hot summer’s night. Though the scorpion was more novelty, the ants added a touch of complimentary flavor -- and both gave a nice little burst of protein.
After our pizza, Chef Iuliano debuted another innovative dish to me, this one not involving any bugs. This still-unnamed-as-of-posting dish that I took to calling The Fried Gnocchi Pocket, is a pizza fritte (fried pizza dough) filled with sauced gnocchi and sealed shut like a calzone, creating my newest guilty pleasure. As Chef cut into the beautiful lump of fried dough and little gnocchi babies spilled out onto the plate, a chorus of ooh and ahh erupted. I tried both the red sauce version and the four cheese, and I couldn’t even tell you which was better. This was so good, Chef could throw some bugs in there too, and I don’t think anyone would care.
The Fried Gnocchi Purse
I was so pleasantly surprised to discover that this attention-grabbing pie was actually wonderful to eat, and it did get me thinking about how it’s not a bad idea to start seeing food differently. I have to say, If this is the future of pizza toppings, I’m in. Just know I’ll still never put pineapple on my pizza.
The Insect Pie will officially debut in September 2019; but you can ask for it as a secret off-menu item before then.