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A century ago, Italian immigrants in Argentina's capital gave pizza an unusual new topping: a chickpea pancake known as "fainá".
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At a bustling counter inside Güerrín, a central Buenos Aires pizzeria, a young server in a red-and-white uniform dished out slices. Laid out before him was an abundance of thick, golden pizzas, their toppings a bright blend of green olives, red peppers and crispy melted cheese. The queue reached almost to the door, as he cut the portions with movements as lean and efficient as a juggler, the wedges disappearing in minutes. 

Every so often, he turned to a stack of what look like crumbly pieces of pizza base and flicked a portion onto a slice as he served it. The result looked like a pizza sandwich, the mozzarella melting slowly out from between the layers. This extra topping isn't actually from pizza at all but a thick, baked chickpea pancake called fainá.

Made from just chickpea flour, water, oil, salt and pepper, fainá is not complicated. At one of the restaurant's enormous ovens, I watched as a chef whisked the ingredients into a dribbly batter, poured it into a flat, round metal pan and carefully pushed it into the oven on a long, metal peel. Over the next five minutes or so, large bubbles pulsated on the surface. In the back corner, a blazing log fire heated the oven to almost 400C. The whole kitchen was sweltering and the aroma of baking suffused the air. When the fainá came out of the oven, it was golden-yellow with dark patches, like a harvest Moon. It would serve 20 to 30 people.

It's really classic for porteños, people from Buenos Aires

At Güerrín, they go through 600-700 portions of fainá a day, according to Mauricio Nunes Aleixo, the restaurant's night shift manager. "It's really classic for porteños, people from Buenos Aires," he said. "It's different for people from the other provinces; sometimes they don't even know what it is." (Fainá is also eaten with pizza in Uruguay, which is just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires and has close cultural ties to the city.)

Avenida Corrientes is Buenos Aires' answer to Broadway or the West End (Credit: Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Avenida Corrientes is Buenos Aires' answer to Broadway or the West End (Credit: Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

With five ovens, seating for 800 and premises that stretch the depth of an entire city block, Güerrín is a palace to pizza. It's located on Avenida Corrientes, a theatre district that's the Argentine capital's answer to Broadway or the West End. The restaurant has long been frequented by people from all walks of life, from glamorous thespians to hippy backpackers. Previous customers even include former presidents Raúl Alfonsín and Mauricio Macri, according to Nunes Aleixo. But no matter who's eating it, porteño pizza is decidedly humble in origin.

Nicknamed pizza a caballo (horseback pizza), pizza topped with fainá likely developed in working-class Italian migrant barrios such as La Boca, probably in the early 20th Century according to Carina Perticone, a semiologist and anthropologist researching literary representations of local food at Argentina's Universidad Nacional de las Artes.

The recipe for fainá arrived with Genovese migrants, who came from northern Italy to Buenos Aires in the 19th Century. In Italian, the chickpea pancake is known as farinata (the word farina means "flour"), and the name "fainá" stems from the Genovese dialect. By the turn of the century, fainá could be found in the stores and street stands of the La Boca, Mercado de Abasto and Paseo de Julio districts, according to Perticone. By 1926, a baker nicknamed "Tuñín" was selling fainá and fugazza, another pizza-like favourite made of dough and onions, to fans heading to games at the Boca Juniors football club in the dockside barrio of La Boca.

Pizza a caballo (horseback pizza) looks like a pizza sandwich, with mozzarella melting out from between the layers (Credit: Amy Booth)

Pizza a caballo (horseback pizza) looks like a pizza sandwich, with mozzarella melting out from between the layers (Credit: Amy Booth)

"It was like a place to stop by, to eat standing up. But all the famous Boca football figures passed through there; it was very popular," Perticone said. In immigrant barrios with large Italian populations, fainá was "the original Buenos Aires street food".

We'll probably never know for sure why porteños started eating fainá on top of their pizza. Perticone suggests it might have been a practical way for hurried workers to eat on the go. Chickpeas were a cheap source of protein for the working class who didn't always have access to meat, added Francesca Capelli, a sociolinguist at the Salvador University's School of Modern Languages research institute.

In Italy, "it wouldn't even occur to anyone" to eat fainá like that

One thing is for sure: in Italy, "it wouldn't even occur to anyone" to eat fainá like that, Capelli said. Unorthodox? Perhaps. But the pair are a good fit: the subtle, creamy texture of the fainá softens the acidity of the tomato sauce and moderates the greasy tang of the cheese.

Pizza with fainá started as an Italian import, but has become a porteño classic (Credit: Amy Booth)

Pizza with fainá started as an Italian import, but has become a porteño classic (Credit: Amy Booth)

At first, the polite society of Buenos Aires took a dim view of Italian immigrants and their food. "There was a really strong anti-Italian sentiment, People thought they were mafiosos," Capelli said, pointing out that the notorious Galiffi gang was kidnapping and extorting in the Argentine city of Rosario in the 1920s and '30s.

However, porteños soon started to abandon their snobbery towards pizza and fainá, and pizzerias started to pop up all over the city. Pizza and fainá are often accompanied with sweet muscat wine, and the trio was immortalised in a song by Buenos Aires blues band Memphis La Blusera, which paints the food-and-drink pairing as a universal companion to the bustle of people coming and going from the theatres along Avenida Corrientes.

"Tuñín's fainería became so popular that politicians, artists, footballers, businessmen went, but workers and tango dancers went too. The classes mixed," Perticone said.

In Buenos Aires, it's clear that the link between fainá, football and popular culture remains alive and well (Credit: Amy Booth)

In Buenos Aires, it's clear that the link between fainá, football and popular culture remains alive and well (Credit: Amy Booth)

In Los Campeones, a pizzeria five blocks from the Boca Juniors stadium, it's clear that the link between fainá, football and popular culture remains alive and well. The walls are a mosaic of photos of sporting greats. The night I was there, the team was playing a Copa Libertadores match, and the waitstaff's eyes were glued to the game.

"A slice of pizza and fainá… is something that the average worker can treat themself to without having to spend a lot of money," said Matías Menéndez, a manager at Los Campeones. "Football in this country encompasses a wide range of social classes, and when they go to a game, everyone goes to see the same thing, to enjoy a football match." The pizza goes hand in hand with the match, he added. "We have clients who don't go to the game without stopping by for a slice."

A good fainá has to have "a creaminess, but the base and the top [should be] crispy", Menéndez said. On the counter behind him, a fresh fainá was slightly singed around the edges, as though someone had ironed it for too long.

He recommends heating the tray with a little oil before adding the batter to stop it from sticking and giving it a quick bang on the kitchen counter to make sure the mixture is even with no holes. "It's like a good omelette, it looks very easy but it isn't," he said.

Pizza topped with fainá likely developed in working-class Italian migrant barrios such as La Boca (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Pizza topped with fainá likely developed in working-class Italian migrant barrios such as La Boca (Credit: Hemis/Alamy)

Today, creative variants of fainá are cropping up in cafes across the city. Spring onions are a popular and typically Argentine addition, according to Perticone, but some restaurants serve it with pizza toppings and even stuffings such as ham and peppers. The plethora of cheese-free offerings make it a great option for vegan and lactose-free diners. It's usually gluten-free, although some restaurants do add a little wheat flour.

Fainá may have started life in Buenos Aires as an Italian import, but today, it has become an indisputably porteño classic with serious staying power. And the city's slice wouldn't be the same without it.

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place's heritage. 

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