Not many restaurants from the nineties are still around in Tartu. Most of them have either gone out of business or been demolished. Not because they were that bad, mind you, but progress is a powerful incentive for demolition. A place barely squeaks by, and when the shack is knocked down for, say, the newish Kaubamaja department store, it’s not worth the trouble to relocate. (I’m thinking of Toidu Torn, of course—Food Tower—the place that served the typical Estonian “meat” burger and dished out ketchup-and-mayo sauce from an open vat on the floor.) But there are two shining relics still on the scene, ironically both pizzerias. One is Taverna; the other is Opera Pizza. Or is it Pizza Opera? I’m not really sure.
When I first got here back in the late nineties, I asked repeatedly where I could get a good pizza. And I would always get three answers. The third was Pronto Pizza. Or was it Pizza Pronto? I’m not really sure. After having a daily special though, with egg and corn, I decided there were only two places to go for pizza, not three.
I’ve had pizzas all over Europe, and each country of course has its preferences for what is popular. French pizzas are surprisingly good, usually with one or four (not three or five) olives strategically placed at the center or the four axes. Italian pizzas for my tastes are a bit thin on the toppings. And obviously I am a big fan of American pizzas. Deep dish is one of my favorites, something the Estonians quite often offer but fail to accomplish (the secret is corn meal, guys!). And the best topping is sausage. I don’t mean the sliced sausage links, more akin to hot dogs, that are popular here, but what is for some reason called Italian sausage, and broken up into shapeless chunks. It has fennel in it. Ah, fennel. The best spice in the world. The Estonian name, pharmacy dill, probably causes people to think it's just something that helps old people pee. I can just imagine an Estonian ad for fennel tablets (herbal remedies are very popular here, and the ads are often amateurish): An old woman struggling to look at the camera, smiling with her off-colored dentures, saying, “Thanks to Fennelex Tablets, I don’t have to leave the room as often when I have guests. And when I was a young mother back before the war, I tripled my breast milk and my baby Tiit got over his colic.” (Whereas colic has no known cause or cure.) Whatever, but it’s a sadly missed ingredient in European pizzas.
Opera Pizza, on Vanemuine Street, has always produced consistently good pies. They have something close to a deep dish as well, called a maxi pizza. I’ll refrain from stating the obvious. And their signature pizza is the best, in my book. The only mistake they’ve ever made is changing the original salami topping to the Tuhat ja Tuline sausage. The name of this is a pun, in fact. It’s an expression used along the lines of “Holy moly” but literally it means Thousand and Spicy. The staff are usually more than happy to make the necessary changes though. I order the pizza with no olives, and substitute the Holy Moly with the old-school salami.But then of course I’m entitled to an extra topping. Extra cheese. It can still be fairly spicy, however, and when ordering you would do well to watch the oven—make sure they don’t leave it in too long. That’s a frequent mistake here—forgetting your pizza for an extra thirty seconds. That oven’s hot, and no one likes a burned crust.
Mrs. Mingus usually gets the Frutti di mare (seafood) pizza, and you can be certain they use the freshest seafood a can can provide. Another good one is the Romana, yet sometimes it can be a bit heavy on the blue cheese.
There are always people in here. Usually students and foreigners. Why? Because it’s good, it’s cheap, it’s fast, and I’d like to think it’s because Opera Pizza is owned by a Finn. He knows how to keep the place in shape, giving it facelifts every three or four years, but without committing Estonians’ usual bar and restaurant faux pas: sterility. It’s not overly modern, yet it is run down in a very comfortable way. And the pizza is great for hangovers! No oilier than its Yankee counterpart.
Back in the days when you had to put your dishes on a table by the kitchen, I wanted to use the jaan once. The cashier—Kristiina—seemed scared. She told me to go out the back door into the hallway, to the right, down the stairs, to the left, and then it was either the third or fourth blue door on one of the sides, she couldn’t remember. The whole building is used for various enterprises, as they say here. An art gallery, maybe some sort of school, people might even live there (artists who never go home). It was an unrenovated Soviet-era jaan, and I got lost on the way back to the pizzeria. I ended up exiting the other side of the building and walking in through the front door again. Kristiina saw me and gave me a polite and apologetic smile that said sorry, but it’s your fault for not eating our pizza with a fork and knife and then wanting to wash your hands.
That’s one thing that gets me in Europe. The lack of finger food. Maybe we North Americans are just cavemen, but certain foods require the use of fingers. French fries, pizza, buffalo wings. Maybe the habit developed because these are all mostly bar foods and it’s probably better to keep sharp, pointed metal utensils out of drunk people’s hands (and Americans are way over the top in safety, due to our culture of lawsuits). But I kid you not, I see people forking their fries all the time, and I’m sure there’s some scarfed woman somewhere in Tartu who cuts her chewing gum before nibbling on it for lunch.
So for this review, of course I went to the jaan, marked WC, for waterless closet. They had just remodeled in the past year, I believe, and the sink I guess had already been vandalized? There was a pipe sticking out of the wall. Two stalls though, one occupied, so I went in the other and almost tripped on the mop and bucket and stack of napkins in boxes. Incidentally they don’t cut their napkins here—anymore. I guess business is going well.
This place has the slowest card payment terminal I’ve ever seen in Europe. It takes at least a minute for it to go through. But at least you can pay by card now. For years it was the only restaurant where you couldn’t. That, and the fact that they don’t deliver home, are the only negative things about Opera Pizza. Honestly I don’t understand how places like Hagari Pitsakohvik (Hagar Pizzacafé) can stay in business. Wouldn’t word have got out now that the ante has been upped? Indeed was upped more than a decade ago? Expectations are just too low in Tartu.