Pizza's Turkish cousin is covered in butter, and its U.S. popularity is bubbling up

The relationship between pizza and pide is no doubt part of the reason the popular Turkish street food is taking off in the United States. (Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post)
The relationship between pizza and pide is no doubt part of the reason the popular Turkish street food is taking off in the United States. (Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post)

At Tempo, a new fast-casual eatery in Washington, the setup is very familiar: Go down the line and choose toppings for a long, flat base of dough, which is finished with cheese and baked for a few minutes as it passes through a conveyor belt oven. But instead of pizza, people are lining up for its Turkish cousin -- an oblong flatbread called pide (pronounced pe-day). Think pizza, but with Turkish flavors - pide, if you will. Just don't call it that.

"I hate calling it a pizza because it's very different. A flatbread is a better example," said Selin Altintas, the marketing manager for Tempo and daughter of the restaurant's owner. "It's a thinner crust, and it's in a boat shape. The crust is folded over, across the entire edge, to give you a good bite of crust with every bite."

But the relationship between pizza and pide is no doubt part of the reason the popular Turkish street food is taking off in the United States. Thanks to the prevalence of fast-casual pizza, an office-worker population that wearies of the same lunch quickly is finding it a novel take on something that is comfortingly recognizable.

"It isn't something that's an acquired taste," Altintas said. "I think it's combinations that are familiar, but taste very different than what people can make at home."

Pide is found throughout Turkey, and its origins are not entirely clear -- some say it dates back to the Ottoman empire. But the modern boat-shaped open pide -- the kind you'll see in most restaurants that offer the dish in the States - is less than 100 years old.

The best pide have a few factors in common. The first is the dough. It has to be chewy and crunchy, and not too salty, Altintas said. "It's the perfect balance that you have to strike. It's going to be a little crispy and have a crunch, but the bottom is going to be a little soft and doughy."

Cagla Onal, the chef behind the soon-to-open Turkish market Green Almond Pantry in Washington, says the process of making the dough is similar to pizza - it's a simple mix of yeast, flour, water and salt that proofs overnight - but it's baked differently. Though it sometimes goes in a wood oven, it's "not like Neapolitan pizza. You don't need a char." Onal would know: She's a former chef at the pizzeria Etto and is originally from Istanbul. Onal plans to offer the dish as a rotating lunch special after her market opens.

Then come the toppings. They can be a mix of vegetables, such as eggplant and green pepper, or they can be an assortment of Turkish-spiced meats. Altintas likes soujuk, a Turkish sausage, or pastuma, which she describes as the Turkish version of pastrami, but with more cumin. Others can be topped with ground beef or lamb. Then there's cheese, which has to be melty and give you that "pull-apart effect," said Altintas, who uses a mixture of American mozzarella and Pinar, a brand of similar cheese imported from Turkey. Some pide are topped with an egg, which cooks only enough to leave the yolk runny - the better for dipping a crust in. And one key ingredient that ties it all together is butter, because unlike pizza, a pide has no sauce.

"It's good butter - not white butter," Onal said. "Yellow butter. Real butter."

Mediterranean food has been one of the top trends of 2018, and there are dozens of Mediterranean fast-casual concepts on the rise. Credit the proliferation of the Mediterranean diet - a model of eating that leans heavily on vegetables, whole grains and legumes, with plenty of olive oil and not as much red meat. While fast-casual chains such as Roti and Cava do not have pide on the menu, places including Tempo are a perfect cross of their flavor profiles with the assembly-line quick serve pizza that has become a part of the urban landscape.

And it's not just in Washington. In Seattle's Pike Place Market, Miss Cafe dishes out doner kebab-topped pide, and earned a rave review from the Stranger. Pide Oven, a London restaurant that specializes in the dish, has been popular enough to expand to a second location, and London's Babaji even has a British-Turkish fusion pide, topped with corned beef. The soon-to-open pide purveyor Noosh was named one of San Francisco's most anticipated restaurants this fall by Eater.

Altintas sees the fast-casual format as a fast way to spread the love of her heritage, in all of its flavor.

"It's personal," she said. "We don't just want people to like Turkish food, but to also have this sense of hospitality."

Pide topped with soujuk, or Turkish sausage, at Balkan Grill in Alexandria, Va. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)
Pide topped with soujuk, or Turkish sausage, at Balkan Grill in Alexandria, Va. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)

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