One would hardly think of Cuba food when thinking of pizza. However, even an Italian like me can enjoy a take away pizza from one of the “holes in wall”. Pizzas are cooked in small charcoal ovens and served really hot, and they cost less than $1,00 USD.
Ever since the Cuban government expanded private enterprise in 2010 and legalized small and medium-sized businesses in 2016, people all over Cuba have been coming up with clever ways to make a buck.
Since most of these businesses involve creating and/or selling wares out of an individual’s home budding entrepreneurs have to come up with creative ways to deliver products to their customers.
At A Mi Manera pizzeria creative delivery involves “flying pizzas“, because owner Marta Castaeda cooks the pizzas on the roof of her apartment building and sends them “flying” down on a rope.
When newcomers order pizza at El Tinajon, owner Ernesto Gonzalez asks them a simple question: Have you had Cuban pizza?
“I have to ask because it’s different,” he said. “It’s not what people are used to here.”
Mostly unheard of north of Miami, Cuban pizza is making inroads locally. Shops selling the Latin-inspired pies have come and gone in Lehigh and Naples.
But in Cape Coral, home to almost 22,000 Cuban-Americans according to 2013 Census data — making it the seventh densest Cuban-American community in the U.S. — Cuban pizzerias are on the rise.
Gonzalez took over El Tinajon on Del Prado Boulevard N. eight months ago. In May, Raul Rojas opened Havana Cuban Pizzeria on Pine Island Road. CubaItalia, owned by former Vitanova Pizza chef Rogelio Perez, has been selling Cuban pizzas from its small shop on SE 47th Terrace since 2012.
So what makes a Cuban pizza?
“It’s the dough and the sauce,” said Rojas, who also owns Casa Rojas Cuban Bakery around the corner in the same plaza as Havana. “The dough’s a little thicker. The sauce is a little bit sweeter.”
Cuba’s first Italian immigrants came to the island nation with Christopher Columbus in 1492. A larger wave of about 1,200 Italians came to Cuba in the 1930s, many of them engineers and architects commissioned to build Roman Catholic churches. But they brought more than blueprints. They brought recipes that over the years intermingled with Cuban ingredients and techniques.
At El Tinajon, Gonzalez, a native of Havana, makes his dough fresh each morning. Unlike Italian-style pizza dough — which is often nothing more than flour, water and yeast — Gonzalez seasons his dough with a secret blend of spices. He presses it into rounds about an inch thick that he places into simple pie tins greased with oil.
Now here’s where things get weird.
“I put my sauce right onto the dough,” Gonzalez said.
He does this in the morning, allowing the dough to marinate in the sauce until it’s ordered and baked, which “gives it even more seasoning,” he said.
Gonzalez makes his sauce from scratch, a blend of pureed tomatoes and more secret ingredients that give the smooth sauce a sweet, almost barbecue-ish tang. When an order comes in, Gonzalez tops it in his hand-mixed blend of cheeses — mozzarella, gouda, and a third he declined to name.
In Miami, oddly enough, gouda is essential to most Cuban pizzas. Dutch cheese on an Italian dish crafted on a Caribbean island?
According to Ana Heretoiu with Eater Miami, gouda was a common cheese in Cuba prior to the government’s food rationing in 1962, used even on the country’s famed sandwiches.
Cubans developed a taste for it, one they happily resumed after taking haven in the U.S.
Gonzalez moved to Miami when he was just 10. He has vague memories of visiting the corner pizza shops of his Havana childhood. He has clearer memories of Polo Norte, a Cuban restaurant and pizzeria with four locations in and around Miami.
“It’s the best,” Gonzalez said, “except for mine.”
After baking for eight minutes in a 500-degree oven, Gonzalez pulled out a personal-size pizza topped in crumbles of ground chorizo.
In Miami, Cuban pizza toppings include fried Florida lobster tails and sweet plantains. Cape’s Cuban pizza joints aren’t quite so adventurous, sticking mostly to chorizo, bacon and other meats. At Havana Cuban Pizzeria, Rojas tops some of his pies with shreds of the Cuban-style roast pork known as lechon.
Crustless and usually served uncut, Cuban pizzas almost taste like a slimmed-down Chicago-style pizza. Gonzalez said the vast majority of his customers order personal pizzas, which are also the most common size in Miami.
“You pick it up, fold it over and take a bite. That’s the Cuban way to eat it,” Gonzalez laughed.
Like a pizza taco?
“Exactly,” he said. “But I will give people a fork and knife if they need it.”
At CubaItalia, owner Rogelio Perez will cut your Cuban pizza into slices if you like. His eyebrows went up when a non-Cuban reporter ordered one last week.
EAT PIZZA THE CUBAN WAY
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