|A 'jonghap' or combination pizza / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
South Korean pizza has come a long way over the last decade, but still the best pizza I've ever had in Korea was in Pyongyang in 2010.
It was a few days into our one-week visit, and we were scheduled to go to a famous restaurant to try raengmyeon, or cold noodles in the local dialect. But one of the guys in our group, Michael Spavor, had requested we go to a local pizzeria instead. He knew his way around Pyongyang better than anyone, and I trusted that this would be a memorable experience.
I recall the ride from the Yanggakdo Hotel, located on an island in the Taedong River in central Pyongyang, took quite a while. It involved a trip down Kwangbok Street, a scenic sunset voyage past some of Pyongyang's most "brutalist" architecture, including the Pyongyang Circus Theater. We saw massive concrete apartment complexes of majestic configurations, interspersed with colorful monuments to the Kim dynasty and connected by a system of trams, plus wide lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. The streets were lined with two-level buildings crammed with shops; one of these was the pizzeria. It was on the south side of the street, as I can remember seeing the Big Dipper when we left after dark, when all the apartments' windows were lit up with glowing lights of various colors.
|The interior of Pyongyang's pizzeria / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
We entered a drab, plainly decorated room, resembling the kind of pizzeria in other countries that specialized in delivery orders. There were a few other small groups, but looking at my pictures they seemed more focused on drinking.
The menu was one large multicolored sheet, offering 11 pizzas plus a calzone, with prices ranging between around 400 won and 1,100 won, presumably based on sizes ― according to Koryo Tours this was around $3 to $7. Some offered surprising ingredients, such as zucchini, hard-boiled egg and, yes, pineapple. I played it safe and ordered a pizza con salame. Notably, "pizza" was spelled differently in Chosongul from the South's hangeul letters: bbi-jja rather than pi-ja.
|The menu of Pyongyang's pizzeria is divided into five sections, with the first two columns for Italian food and the others mostly for Korean food.|
But pizza only took up the first of five columns on the menu. The second column offered other Italian delicacies, including five spaghetti dishes and two "prusctto" dishes and one Spanish option, paella.
Column 3 started to look more Korean: sashimi dishes featuring tuna, salmon, beef and cow liver, but also coffee and "premium Eskimo," a North Korean word for ice cream. The column also has another section for five bulgogi dishes, including ostrich bulgogi.
Column 4 offered warm meals, mostly various types of "jjim" ― which we know as dishes that are steamed or boiled and served as a stew. But their version of jjim was radically different, going by the menu pictures. Galbijjim, known in the South as a rib stew originating from Daegu, here more closely resembled some type of mandu.
And column 5 contained more recognizable Korean cuisine, including the renowned Pyongyang raengmyeon, stone pot bibimbap, yukgaejang, kimchi-fried rice and curry rice.
Let's be honest: it's not a good sign when the Italian restaurant's menu is 2/5 Italian and 3/5 Korean. Who would come to such a unique restaurant and then order plain old Korean food?
But the pizza came, and it was unbelievably good. Reportedly the ingredients were imported directly from Italy, and the dough was made on location.
My individual pizza was maybe eight inches across, sliced into quarters, each with a big piece of salami. The cheese, sauce and dough came together in sublime combination. I haven't found a pizza that tasted that aggressively good since then, although I've enjoyed the hunt.
|A pizza con salame / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
It was then that I noticed our Korean guides were at a nearby table, slurping down raengmyeon. They always ate separately from us, probably just to relax, and I liked to give them their space. But I reached out and asked if they wanted to try a slice of this amazing pizza I had.
"No thanks, too cheesy," one said, and went back to slurping his cold noodles.
|A cocoa-flavored carbonated beverage / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
Apparently Kim Jong-il, who was still the North's leader at the time, had pushed for offering more foreign foods in the isolated capital. The Guardian in 2009 reported that Kim had invited a team of Italian pizza chefs in the late 1990s to instruct army officers, and in 2008 he sent North Korean chefs to Rome and Naples to learn more. Their hard work paid off, and he authorized the restaurant in 2009, which I believe was the one I visited the following year, one of two active at the time.
The food was presented as authentically as possible, with absolutely no attempt to localize it. No pickles, no compromises on the ingredients or quality to cater to local tastes or lower the price. It was great to taste this authentic pizza, preserved like in a time capsule in Pyongyang, but I wish I could have experienced our guides trying it also.
|Outside the pizzeria on Pyongyang's Kwangbok Street, the lights came on in apartments and the stars came out in the sky. / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar|
Reportedly the same place is still open, but all the attention seems to be directed at a newer pizzeria opened in 2015 on Mirae Scientists Street, basically the Pyongyang version of Seoul's Digital Media City. That pizzeria uses lower-quality ingredients, according to Koryo Tours, and offers novelty options such as fruit pizza, fish pizza and tuna pizza.
It's difficult to decide: should North Korea offer authentic pizza and give their people a taste of the outside world? Or develop pizza that's customized for the North Korean palate and budget, so it can be more easily enjoyed by more Pyongyang citizens?
If I ever return to North Korea, it would be interesting to visit the same pizzeria again. But now there is so much more foreign and fast food there, and I would have to prioritize trying their version of hamburgers. And there is always the signature Pyongyang raengmyeon which should not be missed ― but more on that another time.