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Pagliai’s teams up with students to bring international flavor to local pizza

Divyansh Singh ’23 and Joey Pagliai experimenting in the kitchen of Pagliai’s. Photo contributed by Divyansh Singh.

Grinnell’s pizzeria Pagliai’s is teaming up with the Grinnell College’s Cultural Attaché Program to serve up some international flavors from Thailand, Brazil and India. In an event called Tastes of the World, Grinnellians had the chance to try some specialty pizza inspired by the tastes of Divyansh Singh `23, Carolina Novaes `23 or Sun Yuvachitti `24. Each student helped model a unique pizza after the cuisine from their home country through the partnership of the Cultural Attaché Program and Pagliai’s

Although the program was slated to offer the pizzas through May 16, as of May 4 all have since sold out. 

The Cultural Attaché Program links international students at Grinnell College with community organizations. International students apply for the program and work individually with Emily Perry, international student advisor at Grinnell College. The organization’s goal is to help international students share their culture with Grinnell and foster connections between townspeople and international residents of Grinnell.

Yuvachitti is from Bangkok, Thailand. He took inspiration from Massaman Chicken Curry, a Thai-Muslim dish that combines a curry created from a coconut milk base with ginger, garlic, lemon grass, chili powder and specific pastes, among other ingredients. The fusion pizza will be a simplified version of the dish that aims to be more in tune with American consumers’ tastes, said Yuvachitti.

“Pizza shouldn’t just remain as this one dish that is unchangeable with time. It is a dish that evolves,” said Yuvachitti. “Food is such an effective gateway to get to know other people’s cultures. Eating is something we all share. Like no matter where we are from, no matter our background, eating and dining is something that brings us together.”

The Romeu e Julieta pizza that Noveas helped create. Photo contributed by Joey Pagliai.

Novaes is from Porto Alegre, Brazil. She was inspired by Romeu e Julieta, a dish served throughout Brazil as a sweet treat. Guava fruit and cheese will be on top of the dough in the fusion pizza, introducing a touch of dessert to the typically savory meal known to most Grinnellians.

“It is just exciting to have something that is so common in Brazil sold here, in the middle of Iowa,” said Novaes.

When initially approached for the project, Novaes considered the flavors present in Porto Alegre; German and Italian cuisines and barbeque spices. But when she imagined a few possible fusions, she decided to do a dish that is more simplistic, with items more easily accessible in the United States. Once she saw the lack of dessert-type pizzas in Grinnell, she aimed to give residents a taste of the common meal, Romeu e Julieta.

Singh is from Kolkata, India. His pizza is based on Chicken Tikka Masala, a butter chicken dish that is one of the most common representative dishes of Indian food outside of India. Originating from Delhi and Northwestern India, the chicken is roasted in spices, cloves, cinnamon and more.

The sauce is created with tomato, garlic, ginger and onion, and blended with heavy cream to serve as the pizza’s base.

“My idea of cooking has always been mixing a bunch of spices to see how it works out,” said Singh, a self-professed fusion fanatic.

Singh says his mother didn’t allow him into the kitchen until the 10th grade, which lead him to sneak into it at night and experiment. Always looking to try something new, Singh said he has enjoyed cooking for his floormates in the Norris dorm and that he enjoyed having people eat with him as his family often hosted friends at meals back home.

In the past, as opposed to food-based partnerships, the Cultural Attaché Program has focused more on connecting students with the Mayflower Community and local Grinnell grade-schools, as the Program’s goal was to help students give presentations to larger groups. But the pandemic caused Perry to seek more creative outlets, since the ability to easily congregate disappeared.

Perry asked around for ideas that could promote more engagement with the Program’s Cultural Attachés, and she heard their desire to share cuisine. This led Perry to reach out to Donnette Ellis, the community relations and grant coordinator at Grinnell College, who introduced Perry to Joey Pagliai, the owner of the local restaurant. Perry then proposed the idea of a fusion pizza event that could expose Grinnellians to the home flavors of international students at the College.

“How it would integrate the town with these cultures was what was really inspiring,” said Pagliai.

Working with each student individually, Pagliai perfected the translation of the original dish to pizzas with advice and input from the students. This resulted in 20 frozen medium pizzas prepared for the Romeu e Julieta and Massaman Chicken Curry fusion pizzas and 30 Chicken Tikka Masala fusion pizzas. Each pizza will come with instructions on how to join the virtual event on May 16 at 6 pm CST for the Cultural Attachés’ explanation of their flavors and the history of the dish in their home countries.

“My hope is that it is an opportunity to not only try these flavors but to also learn more about how diverse and interesting food cultures are around the world,” said Perry. She said that although there are a limited number of pizzas for this event, if it goes well, she hopes to have similar partnerships within the community in the future.

The final product, a Chicken Takki Masala pizza, created after a night of culinary investigation between Divyansh Singh and Joey Pagliai. Photo contributed by Divyansh Singh.

The wait may not be long, as unexpected friendship blossomed in the Program between Pagliai and Singh. The two hit it off from the first pitch meeting in early April when Singh showed up with recipes in hand. The bond has only grown stronger as the two have tried out variations of Indian fusion pizza at Pagliai’s after hours and connected over their love for cooking.

Singh said the night was full of laughter and jokes as they tried combination after combination.

“This one is really props to him, I just kind of showed up and helped and he was able to show me how to do that – the process with [Indian fusion pizzas] was something I would never have done by myself. I actually made some at home and it was good, but it was nowhere near the level it was when he cooked,” said Pagliai.

The pair talked to each other about their perceptions of Grinnell and they both said they learned a lot from the experience.

“As international students we don’t really get to meet a lot of the non-student American population – other than our professors and administration staff. Getting to meet the townsfolk has really been an interesting experience,” said Singh. “I walked in expecting nothing.”

“I think sometimes if you don’t feel welcomed you would not want to try to learn from someone – at least from the town,” said Pagliai. “I think once people feel the warmth of the town then they will really enjoy small town living.”

Pagliai and Singh are in the talks of creating more fusion pizzas together, but first, they must see how well the event, Tastes of the World, goes.

“We do not really have a lot of options so Pagliai’s, just by introducing ethnic styled pizzas, is really like a push for the town to experiment with different flavors,” said Singh. “That is a really good step towards introducing more elements and variety and culture.”

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    Rob GomezMay 8, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    Wow I wishedI hadn’t missed them pizza’s I teared up with the loved you too have for cooking hopefully we can see more of these international flavors