|Arguably the best in town.|
I feel for those whose pizza experience is limited to Dominos, Pizza Hut, and Papa Johns. You see, when it comes to the food once called a "circular Italian food object" by future Oscar winner Tim Robbins in the weighty film Howard the Duck, I've been blessed. In my hometown, there are a number of real pizzerias, with real people making real food. (Spoiler: all the Dominos dough everywhere is trucked in, having been made in a factory.) Growing up, there were two titans of pizza; both were manned (literally--with no female workers during my childhood) by manly men born in Italy and transplanted to coastal New Jersey. Both were owned by men with thick accents, who's voices spoke of authentic Italian cuisine. (Yes, fine, pizza as we know it is actually American.) Sadly, now are both in decline. Why?
Let's start with Pat's Pizza, having been created and owned by Pasquale, a thin, smiling man whose teeth showed much metal and a heart of gold. His was the pizzeria where the many workers were always happy to make a standard pie with toppings; or a Sicilian pie, square and squat in its own sheen of grease; or a sub (aka the hoagie or grinder); or mozzarella sticks. To enter into the store was to hear a delightful din of workers talking, of the television set showing either the news or football de Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio. The only way to not hear such a din was to go most evenings, or any weekend day or night. The crowd, pressing to the door, could make space in front of the counter a tight proposition. Those of us in the know knew to bypass the line and stand towards the back of the crowd near the counter area. Invariably, you'd catch the eye of a worker who would ask, "Whadyaget?" and you'd be back in your car, hot pie next to you, before the newbies knew what was what.
About four years ago, tragedy struck. No, Pasquale didn't die, nor was there a fire. Rather, the eponymously nicknamed owner of Pat's Pizza retired, with the intention of taking all his marbles and going back to Italy. Signs of change had been in the air for a while: about two years prior, his daughter had started to work the register and phone (a female! behind the counter! la liberazione delle ragazze è arrival!). His daughter, una principessa italiana who started working there while attending high school in town, was always efficient and cordial, but clearly lacked the enthusiasm of... of what? Of taking pizza orders all day? Of the family business? Perhaps she lacked the enthusiasm of a future prospect: being behind the same counter for a generation and beyond, just as her father had done. But I digress: one day, a sign was posted, saying goodbye from Pat and his family. Shock went throughout the town. A coworker and I literally sat in her office and pondered a world without Pat's Pizza.
As it turned out, Pat's Pizza wasn't closing: instead, our English-as-a-second-language friend Pasquale had written the sign to say goodbye from his family's ownership of the business. (Apparently neither the daughter nor the sons relished a prospect of food service for a lifetime.) Pat's Pizza is still there, and probably the best pizza in down. Still, it's a bit different somehow... it lacks a certain pizazz. Was there some post-Pasquale tweak in the recipe? Or does the lack of that metal, toothy smile have some subtle effect when one chows down at home?
This is all contrasted by the rival pizzeria, Vesuvios. It is co-owned by a mousy, mustachioed man named Dominic and his burly, loud, bulldog-faced roommate. What is the name of the latter gentleman? I don't know. Such is the terror that one has with the man, having grown up going to his pizzeria. One does not name the four horsemen, beyond their vocation; nor does one name the giant pizza-making Italian.
The menu and Vesuvios is simple: they make pizza. They put toppings on it. They sell fountain soda--the same four flavors for my whole life: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, root beer, and orange soda. That's it. Either Dominic or the Giant makes the pizza, standing at the counter and throwing the dough. As a child, it was an endlessly fascinating thing to watch. More recently, I just scurry in and out, lucky to have gotten a pie without being yelled at. Case in point as to their customer service: last winter, as a terrible snowstorm was descending on us, I ordered a pie. It was to act not only as dinner, but as lunch the next day; further, it was to be a stopgap just in case we were snowbound a few days and our refrigerated food needed to stretch a tad more. I walked to Vesuvios; on a clear day, it takes five minutes. With the snow, it was doubled--but still better than driving. When I walked in, I was covered with snow, and Dominic and the Giant just stared at me--as though I was the jackass for braving the storm to their pizzeria which was open during the blizzard. (The snow ended up being so bad that their sign, aloft for 40 years, was torn down.)
The interesting thing is that it was around that time that their pizza started to decline. At first, I wasn't really aware of it. We don't get pizza that very often, and when we do, it's generally split between a few different places. (A third pizzeria, Cuzzins, is our go-to place when we are inclined to use a debit card. Neither Pats nor Vesuvios takes cards, though the latter has a paper sign posted saying "CASH ONLY. No credit cards or checks.") Most recently, the pie has been smaller than usual; it no longer touches the sides of the box. The cheese somehow seems to float on the sauce, rather than encapsulate the tomato paste. It looks hastily-made, as though the disdain that the Giant clearly has for all who walk through the door is starting to show in his vocation. Perhaps Dominic and the Giant are merely tired of their decades in the business, going from the downstairs pizzeria to their upstairs apartment. (Read into that what you may, though as good Catholics from il paese de il papa, I doubt there is much inespresso amore fisico.) Perhaps I've just hit them at a tired stretch: this is the time of year when, rather surprisingly, they shutter the business for two weeks in order to go on vacation to their homeland.
|Believe in a pizza future? Yes we can!|
Nonetheless... it does make me truly a bit wistful to think that these two pillars of pizza, Pats and Vesuvios, have fallen into relative (the former) or perhaps true (the latter) decline. Pizza--great pizza--is a wonderful culinary treat. Simple pizza, your Dominos and Pizza Huts and Papa Johns of the world, is a tasty treat... but food, not a meal. If we can't count on our local, Italian-run pizzerias to bring us the very best in "circular Italian food objects," what can we count on? It calls into question democracy and security and gravity.
Wither thee, pizza?