Travel

A Massachusetts native revolutionizes pizza, a continent away

The Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world.

VALERIE VANDE PANNE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world.

There’s a place in Bolivia, in the heart of South America, 12,000 feet above sea level, that is so sparse, so barren, you feel as if you are at the end of the Earth.

It’s the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world that is — literally — breathtaking.

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Yet it’s here, where the air is thin and the night sky clearer than almost anywhere else on Earth, Massachusetts native Chris Sarage and his wife Sussy (pronounced “Susie”) have created the must-visit pizzeria of the hemisphere.

I arrived at Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza (or just Minuteman Pizza) in Uyuni hungry after a dusty, 12-hour bus trip from Cochabamba. The town was quiet, yetinside the pizzeria, tucked in the backcorner of the Toñito Hotel, there wasn’t a place to sit, and a line of people from all over the world waited to place their order. Germans, Australians, Japanese . . . people from all over the world waited, salivating, to place their order.

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Perusing the menu, I quickly decided the must-eat pizza was the “Spicy Llama.” Made with succulent llama, homemade Brazil nut pesto and garlic, it is so delicious, I order a second one. Had I had the time and the belly for it, I would’ve eaten a third.

“We only serve free-range llamas,” explains Chris with an amused, joyful smile that seems to always be there when he talks about Bolivian life. “They’re out eating shrubs all day, back to the pen at night. They don’t have brands,” he continues. “They wear a tika, [the Quechua word for flower] so they know whose is whose.”

Free range, unbranded llama. Could it get better? Yes: They have one of the best gluten-free crusts I’ve ever had, anywhere in the world, made from locally cultivated flax and co-op grown quinoa.

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They also serve gluten free and regular pastas and appetizers. And absolutely the best minestrone soup — with quinoa.

And there’s plenty of gluten, too: The smell of fresh dough and bread baking is delectable.

They also sun dry their own tomatoes. They cook their own sauce. They grow their own herbs. All of their onions and potatoes — anything that grows at that altitude — they get locally, including salt from the Salar. Everything else, from tomatoes to blue cheese, is overnighted to them fresh from elsewhere in the country. They even make and bottle their own lemonade. They bake their own cookies and cakes. Everything — and I mean everything — is home made.

Open from about 5 to 9 p.m. every day, they serve 80 to 100 pizzas a night, yet, “We only seat 90 and we don’t kick people out,” Chris says with that smile.

The next day I checked in to the Toñito, owned by Alejandro and Martha Duran, Sussy’s parents. It is spotlessly clean, the beds comfortable, and the showers are hot, solar-heated, and the water pressure is like a fire hose — luxurious after traveling through rural Latin America for a few weeks.

In the morning, Minuteman serves breakfast to Toñito’s guests: Pineapple and papaya and fresh squeezed mango juice. Fresh mandarin oranges, pan-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes, breads, yogurt and scrumptious butter — all included when you stay at the Toñito Hotel.

With each meal I ate there, I had to remind myself to eat slowly, to chew slowly, to savor every bite. But I wanted to inhale it.

With each meal I ate there, I had to remind myself to eat slowly, to chew slowly, to savor every bite. But I wanted to inhale it.

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It could be because Toñito Hotel and Minuteman Pizza are rooted in love: Chris met Sussy over the counter at Antonio’s pizza in Northampton in 1994. She was at UMass on a student visa, Chris and Sussy explained together, starting and finishing sentences for each other. Every day, her student group would come in for lunch. Bolivians don’t drink their sodas cold, so she was desperate to tell the counter guy not to put ice in her drink, but had no idea how to say it in English.

Chris, studying Spanish at the time, overheard her speaking in Spanish about it, and told her to say “no ice” — and the rest is history. A few months later he was in her hometown of Uyuni, making pizza for her family.

Two years later they opened a pizzeria in La Paz. At that time, pizza was so new to Bolivia, Chris had to make his own boxes with a putty knife. He made pizzas for the Americans in town — folks from the US Embassy, the Peace Corps, and the Mormons doing their volunteer service. When Sussy’s parents were opening the hotel in Uyuni, they made the move to the edge of the salt flat.

And of course, the Americans still came: “US Ambassador Phillip Goldberg came to visit and gave us the Red Sox banner, just before being booted from the country,” Chris says. (Since 2008, Bolivia has removed the US ambassador, the DEA, and USAID.)

Chris’s roots still run deep in Massachusetts. His grandmother is from Springfield. Celia Sarage is 96, and Chris tells a story of her parents making wine in their cellar, and how every Sunday they had an Italian dinner at her house in Springfield, where he learned to cook. There’s a picture on Minuteman Pizza’s dining room wall of her as a baby, with her parents, sitting on an Indian motorcycle.

My final night in Uyuni, I went on a spectacular tour of the Salar, and received a frigid view of the pristine, star-blanketed sky. When I returned, famished and ready for llama pizza, cook Melki, an indigenous woman who speaks Quechua and keeps her hair in traditional braids and wears traditional clothing as she cooks, taught me how to make their delicious and healthy gluten-free crust.

The Minuteman name reflects the perfect bridging of the cultures: a Minuteman is the mascot of Sussy and Chris’s alma mater; it represents the colonial revolution spirit of the United States, and Bolivia’s independence under Simon Bolivar; it demonstrates the revolution in how pizza is served in Bolivia — spearheaded by them. And it suggests they’re fast at serving.

Except translated into Spanish, “Minuteman” means “small man” . . . so, Chris laughs.

That laughter, that joy he and Sussy and their family share so freely, is what makes this little pizzeria outpost on the edge of the world as spectacular as the natural world around it.

Valerie Vande Panne can be reached at valerie@valerievandepanne.com.
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