Pizza Joint: A Baghdad Barometer with Extra Toppings

Sign of the Times: Waleed al-Bayati has re-opened his pizza restaurant (Credit: Larry Kaplow)

Baghdad's probably still too dangerous for western reporters to comfortably linger over meals in restaurants but it's just about right for pizza runs. We made one the other day to mark something of a milestone, the return of Pizza Italiana Napoli, which owner Waleed al-Bayati reopened six months ago. The tiny, crumbling storefront sits amid groceries, liquor stores and sandwich shops on a gritty street near gates to the Green Zone.

There are other pizza options in Baghdad. There's a pizza franchise in the Green Zone and I hear the Italian embassy serves up a great slice to those who can wrangle an invitation. A few restaurants around town offer variations of pizza along with menus of mixed cuisine. But for me and a lot of other reporters who have covered the war, when you think of pizza, you think of Waleed. His shop was a favorite among reporters in 2003 and 2004. We'd meet at the counter – with the gigantic brick oven there's only room for dining at a thin counter in the window – on our way to and from meetings in the Green Zone. A bulletin board was full with business cards from American, British and Italian correspondents. Soldiers also ate there or ordered out, back in the days when things were laid back enough for that. And it was popular with Iraqis who liked western food.

Al-Bayati, 42, learned his pizza skills near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, where he went to college and worked in a restaurant. He speaks Italian and a little English. He opened his shop in 2003 and he was described in Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," an important book about the war's early days (and being adapted in an upcoming film, "The Green Zone.")

Nearby bombings targeting the Green Zone's Assassins Gate rattled the restaurant and drove business away until almost no westerners would eat there. Al-Bayati closed down for about two and a half years. He says improved security makes the work possible again, a story being told by storeowners around Baghdad. But demand for his pizzas, which cost the equivalent of about $4, is down to a small percentage of what it used to be. The reporters don't come around anymore – in part because there are far fewer than there were in 2004 - and Iraqis are turned off by checkpoints and barriers used to protect the street. His complaints sounded familiar as Baghdadis are increasingly growing used to the relative calm but awaiting economic growth and public services.

When we showed up, it was around 100 degrees outside and he was sweating hard (no AC in the shop) as he shoveled our pizzas into the oven. There was the old pungent smell of sewage outside the door – this was never a big place for atmosphere. But the portly man had a wide smile for me when I walked in and the pizza tasted fine. He said I was the second reporter there in a month.