Ugi’s has become a bit of an institution in Buenos Aires. The rough and ready pizza establishment has been open for over 20 years in no less than 45 locations around the city and is famed for making only one thing; mozzarella pizza. That’s not to say it’s a mozzarella pizza to be hailed. As their advertising states: “The price is our pride.”
The pizza at Ugi’s seems to divide porteños; those who love it and those who consider it as appetising as the box it’s served in. One thing that no one can deny is it’s incredibly cheap; at $12 a pop, most don’t complain.
If you’ve ever been to an Ugi’s you’ll know that they throw the pizza together in front of you. The dough comes ready-made and is kept in a crate. The cheese isn’t so much browned as melted into a mass in the centre of the pizza and liberally spread to the edges. Here you tend to get the feeling mama’s secret recipe was thrown out long ago, if you see what I mean. The portions come in a whole, a half or a quarter and if you want to eat there, be prepared to stand.
Ugi’s has its very own Facebook fan club with 300+ members. On the site people can compare Ugi’s locations, bitch about the staff and get down to the nitty gritty of condimento. Fans of Ugi’s tell me that it’s this seasoning of oregano and chilli that makes or breaks an Ugi’s pizza. “I just go in and ask if they have any condimento and if they don’t I head to the next one,” Ugi’s regular and fan club member, Jorge tells me. “It’s the only variation on their pizza but it’s everything”, he adds.
So who is Mr. Ugi? I went to my local to try and find out more about the man behind the masa. My beloved pizza maker told me “He’s a big guy in his 70s. He has set up Ugi’s in Canada and the States as well but he chooses to live here in Argentina.” He also tells me the identity of Mr Ugi is unknown to most of his staff. Knowing this, he visits most of the chains during the day to keep an eye on them.
My pizzero says: “We used to sell about 400 pizzas a day and had 70 stores around the city.” With property prices rising many of the restaurants have been closed. Once priced at $2 for a whole pizza before the economic crisis in 2001, the price of Ugi’s has been steadily rising to keep up with inflation. As a result nowadays there are around 45 stores in the city.
The publicity campaigns run by Ugi’s are somewhat infamous for their shock tactics and tongue in cheek advertising. Ugi’s advertise their knockdown prices with much gusto. One advertisement in stores proclaims the following as a cost cutting effort: “Our pizza makers never touch the dough with dirty hands after going to the bathroom. We don’t have bathrooms.”
If the advertising or pizza isn’t memorable for you then the packaging should be. The box, which you have to fork out another 50 cents for, is designed with a distinctively 80s inspired print. “No to drugs, yes to pizza!” it proclaims. Surely a caption that is bound to perplex even the clearest of heads. For those unclear about the perils of crack, this should be the obvious selling point of Ugi’s.
It has been said to call Ugi’s a no frills-restaurant, is an insult to most restaurants. We all may have our own view on the matter but this is one view not upheld by my condimento friends and the 300+ members of the Ugi’s fan club on Facebook. Whatever your take on it, at $3 a quarter, there’s not much to lose in trying it out. At least then you’ll be able to decide if the box warrants the “Always imitated, never equalled” stamp.