While it may be hard for some to be believe, there once was a time – not all that long ago – when pizza simply did not exist in Estonia. In fact, before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, you wouldn’t have been able to find a pizza anywhere across the Soviet Union’s 11 Time Zones. In preparation for the top international sporting event, GosPlan (the Soviet State Planning Commission) loosened its iron culinary grip on the country and gave permission for a Soviet-Italian joint venture to open the first pizzeria in downtown Moscow. Inspired perhaps by the success of the 1967 Fiat model 124 made in Tolyatti (USSR) and marketed as the Zhiguli (domestically) or as the Lada (for export) from 1970 until well into the 20th Century, Moscow’s state planners decided to green light the new venture. GosPlan also needed to feed the expected influx of foreign tourists – and show them that the Soviet Union was a “normal” country which even had pizza.
I happen to know this because I managed to get into that pizzeria – which I believe went by the imaginative Soviet name of either “Pizza” or “Pizzeria” – back in 1983 with some of my fellow American students. Wondering whether the Italians in the joint-venture were from Turin (Fiat’s hometown) or Genoa (Palmiro Togliatti’s hometown), I “accidentally” wandered into the kitchen before being ushered out. Still, I managed to walk out amazed – not by the kitchen itself or by its imported Italian pizza ovens – but by the fact that one huge wall in the kitchen was covered with the pizzeria’s Annual Pizza Plan listing their pizza making targets for each and every month of the year. Oh, GosPlan! Woe be those who failed to fulfill their plans. Ideally, all plans should be over-fulfilled by around 105% to demonstrate that Soviet workers – including its first pizza makers or pizzaioli – were the most productive in the world.
By my reckoning, Tallinn continued to remain pretty much a pizza-free zone until around 1989 when the Hotel Palace re-opened after getting the first Western-style makeover of any hotel in town. Its new restaurant was called Pizza Margherita and it served what were probably Tallinn’s first real Italian-style pizzas. Thanks to one of my Estonian friends who was able to get us in, I got a chance to enjoy one of Tallinn’s earliest true pies. As far as I can remember, the pizza was quite normaalne even if not otherwise particularly memorable.
From there, Tallinn quickly experienced a pizza boom. Peetri Pizza was hot on Pizza Margherita’s trail when Peeter opened up his first small stand in 1990. Today, you can find Peetri Pizza franchises all across Estonia. One of the reasons Peetri Pizza might be so successful is that it feeds Estonia’s culinary nostalgia – Peeter, after all, provided most Estonians with their very first taste of the forbidden pizza fruit. I must confess that I probably had Peetri Pizza for dinner at least once a week back in 1993. I would order my pizza from the small stand on Pärnu Road (it’s no longer there), hop on the number 3 tram headed to Kadriorg, and then enjoy my Topolino pizza at home. When Pizza Americana arrived on the Tallinn dining scene in 1996, their first pan-style pizzas caused a bit of a culinary sensation. These days, Peetri has adapted to the market by serving pan pizzas and Pizza Americana has followed suit by serving thin-crust pizzas. And so it goes.
Of course, many of the Italian restaurants which began to open in Tallinn in the 1990s also started serving their own pizzas of varying quality. However, if you were to ask my Italian-American mother for her opinion, she would tell you that a real Italian restaurant does not serve pizza. You order pizza at a pizzeria – such as at her favorite San Diego pizza joint known as Pernicano’s which first opened its doors in Hillcrest back in 1946. After all, no self-respecting Italian restaurant should serve both pasta and pizza. Don’t tell my mom, but I tried the pizza at many of Tallinn’s Italian restaurants in my ongoing search for a proper pie that might have been made in Naples (think Gino Sorbillo’s est. 1935) or New Haven (think Frank Pepe’s est. 1925). When I was back living in Tallinn a second time in the mid-2000s, I finally found a Tallinn-made pizza that almost came close: Da Vinci’s at Aia 7. Just don’t go looking for it at that address as the pizzeria is long gone.
My third and current Tallinn residency, however, has turned out to be the real pizza charm. At long last, Tallinn has a righteous pizza joint which could go head to head with the best that Italy or North America has to offer. You will find Kaja Pizza on a quiet back street in Pelgulinn as hipster Kalamaja somehow missed out on hosting this fine culinary establishment. At Kaja, two London-trained Russian-Estonian brothers named Andrei and Igor crank out some truly amazing ‘za. If they could be bothered to make the extra effort, they probably could earn APVN status (official approval of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) for their delicious Neapolitan-style pizza.
These days – while Andrei is getting his new One Sixty BBQ venture going over in Kalamaja – Igor holds down the pizza fort in neighboring Pelgulinn. My mom would approve of the Lesmet brother’s joint not only because it makes great pizza but also because it is a real pizzeria. Kaja only cooks up pizzas in their Neopolitan-made wood-fired oven using real Caputo flour and other quality Italian ingredients. Their impressive sourdough proofs for 30 hours before getting blast baked for just minutes in their Stefano Ferrara oven. It is Kaja’s crust – I just can’t understand people who throw away crust when it is the best part of any proper pizza – as well as their tangy San Marzano tomato sauce that keeps me coming back for more. My only complaint is that their crust could be a little bit crisper – or their toppings just a little bit lighter – as it is extremely difficult to fold one of their slices and eat it without ending up wearing half of it. But since their pizza usually does not fold that well, I’ve adapted and roll mine instead. Please don’t tell my mom about that either.
These days, there seems to be only one other guy in town who could even hope to compete with the Brothers Lesmet and their impressive Kaja Pizza. That guy is the hipster who runs Ahi Pizza in the Depoo Street Food Market. The only problem I’ve found is that he is so hip that he is seldom around. After hibernating all winter (if you’ve ever visited Depoo after a February snow storm you might understand why), he now seems to have vanished for the summer along with his FaceBook and Instagram pages. That’s a truly sad for Tallinn’s pie scene as Ahi Pizza also made a wonderful sourdough crust which could almost be folded and eaten as a proper slice of ‘za should be.
So, these days, whenever I want a proper pizza, I go to Kaja. There’s just no competition. I only wish their pizzas weren’t quite so big as their desserts are also delicious. If you decide to visit Kaja, please be sure to get there when they open at 11:30 or after their 12-1 lunch rush. Don’t delay too much as there is often no point in getting there after 3 PM as these Pelgulinna hipsters work according to the orders of their own homemade HipPlan. Every afternoon, they prep just 150 balls of their wonderful pizza dough. When they run out, they run out – and then they shut the place down to start getting ready for the next day. As a fellow slacker, I guess that’s the kind of Pizza Plan I would be willing to embrace.
You can find Kaja Pizza at Õle 33. They open for pizza at 11:30 and keep open until they have fulfilled their Daily Pizza Plan. They are closed on Monday. If you do go and visit, tell them that flatfish sent you.
Image: A flat Udmurt bone bead carved by Raissa Sõsojeva.