I stood on a terrace in a small town in the Dolomites this fall, eating slice after slice of pizza margherita straight from a stone oven as the sun set. This is the pizza I should tell people about, I thought, the classy, gourmet, prepared-by-the-chef-himself stuff, the real deal. I was in Italy, eating pizza straight from the source in this idyllic setting. How much better could it get?
But I could not stop thinking about the half-dozen or so slices of eggplant pizza I ate over a few weeks in New York, at $3.50 apiece. The dive, with maybe eight seats, all mismatched, hidden on the side street, paper plates, sweating my ass off in the July heat, no air conditioning. I e-mailed my friend from New York and told him: Your neighborhood pizza joint has my heart, apparently. Go Mets.
You can look a million different places for the best food when you’re traveling: Lonely Planet guidebooks, Zagat, online reviews. Know where the best food you’ll ever eat is? At the end of a story. In some dive somewhere, that a friend or a local told you about. It’s tiny. Inexpensive. Bonus points if it’s served to you by the owner of the restaurant, food stand, or food truck. More bonus points if the owner is older than 65 years old. And surly. Or the friendliest person in the world.
Why is a good story important when it comes to discovering food? Studies have been done and books have been written about how human beings prefer stories to data when making decisions. Statistics be damned — we’re storytelling animals. Four out of five mountain bikers may love Fat Tire, but let me tell you about my pal Nick’s metal-themed brewpub in Denver. I remember when he started brewing beer in his kitchen in Capitol Hill. Then he won a few homebrew contests. A couple years later, he quit his job as an electrical engineer and started looking into starting a business. You go in there, all the walls are black, there’s no labels on any of the tappers, and there’s one 30-foot-long table that’s a single piece of wood, like it came out of a Viking ship. They blocked traffic on Broadway for a morning trying to get it in the front door. They serve two things: Beer and water. They play one kind of music: Metal.
If Chili’s was that good, there wouldn’t be one in every suburban strip mall in America. There would be one in the world, somewhere in Texas or New Mexico. And it wouldn’t even have a sign on the door. And my friend would have told me about it, and the ribs would be served on a paper plate, and they would have 10 chairs in the whole joint.
Neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Alan Hirsch claims that what we call “taste” is actually 90 percent smell. I would argue that what we call “taste,” at least when traveling, is 75 percent the story we can tell about it when we get home. Wanna know where the best fish taco in the world is? Don’t Google it. I’ll tell you.
My friend Mitsu was a vegan for years until living in Baja working for Outward Bound broke him. The fish tacos there outweighed any reason he could come up with for staying vegan. The best one he ever ate? At a hole-in-the-wall on a back street in Loreto. Only the local fishermen and a couple gringos in the know knew about it. You had to get there by 11 a.m. if you wanted a chance at getting a taco that day, Mitsu says. And it was a roll of the dice whether or not you were going to get sick from eating there. “But you didn’t care,” he says. “They were that good.”
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.