As Peter Reinhart wrote:
“After many hunts, many adventures, many conversations, I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of perfect pizza: contextually perfect and paradigmatically perfect. They are both important....It's the pizzeria where we have a special history, a memory that is woven together with the flavors, textures, and atmosphere of the place. It is necessary, I think, that such a contextually perfect pizza – that is, perfect because of the circumstances of a time and situation- at least aspires, even if it fails, to be paradigmatically perfect as well....Once in awhile, and only rarely, these two perfections come together in one pie, in one perfect pizza moment, and then we know a different reality, a moment of grace, and we attain an indelible memory. When that happens, if we are conscious enough even to recognize it when it occurs, it is like a gift, and the best we can do is to be grateful.”
It's with these words in mind that I set off to make New York style pizza again this weekend. It's a departure of sorts as I've been baking Neapolitan style for the past few months, but living in Southern California, you can be assured that I get homesick from time to time. And the catalyst to bring me back to those perfect moments growing up as a kid in the Bronx -- the voices of my parents having a conversation over pastries at the table, walking home from Cardinal Spellman HS through the leaves fallen throughout Pelham Bay Park, the clatter of the elevated train whilst dripping snowmelt from its tracks, the windows fogged from Sunday dinner, the TV on the kitchen table broadcasting the Phil Simms-led NY Giants, and the smell of garlic bread or my mom's lasagna -- is NY Style pizza.
My earliest memories include Louie & Ernies' very peppery, very thin style pizza. I remember waiting in our car, seeing the fog filled windows of this basement pizzeria, and wondering what was to come out of the neon glow of its signs. Anticipation gave way to reality, though, and upon opening the clay-lined cardboard pizza boxes, I didn't much care for it. In fact, I would strip the cheese from my slice and give it to my dad, who was more than happy to oblige. To this day, I'm surprised when I see it rated highly on NY Pizza polls.
Fast forward to my days in the seventh grade, when I somehow convinced my parents that the school lunch at Our Lady of Assumption wasn't cutting it anymore. My special dietary needs required that I be let out of school grounds over the lunch hour. At last I was to be done with the spoiled milk smell in the school staircase as it led down to the subterranean cafeteria. Now I would be free to roam Middletown Road, Buhre and Crosby Avenues in the search of real flavor. While all but the bakery are now gone, DeSimini Salumeria, Zeppieri Bakery, and John's Pizzeria were my refuge. DeSimini was a journey back in time. The moment you walked in, you might be thrust back on your heels onto "the avenue." The rich, pungent smell of aged cheese hanging from the ceiling was THAT strong!! I remember walking down her aisles, curiously looking at the Nutella spread, Stella D'Oro cookies, Drake's Cakes, and other delectable items and wondering what treasures these were. I'd sometimes get a ham and cheese sandwich and the cheese alone would make your cheeks pucker! And John's Pizzeria, across from DeSimini and Viking Cards & Books, now a sushi shop, I think, was fantastic. A delco with hard formica seating for about 20, it had a classic NY pie. I remember that my tolerance for granulated garlic had gotten so high that I would very liberally coat my $0.75 slice with it as I simultaneously twisted the pop-top off my Veryfine Lemon-lime drink. Only when the oil would no longer absorb the garlic did I deem that the slice was ready for consumption. As it turns out, garlic will saturate your pores and your clothing. My parents had to declare an end to that love affair, worried that I was doing irreparable harm to my relationships and also to my Catholic school uniform!!!
Other local shops pervade my memory. As a kid hanging out with friends, we'd sometimes drop into Crosby Pizza Stop for their fantastic Sicilian slice, Family Pizza for a standard slice, or Five Brothers, next to Catania shoe store, for a slice and maybe to put our quarters up, amidst the cigarette burns on the dashboard, to play the next available game of Centipede or Ms. Pac Man. Of those, I think only Crosby remains and Family Pizza was reincarnated recently under a new name.
Some time later we started getting our pies from Frank's Original NY Pizza on Middletown Road, just under the Lexington Ave #6 train's Middletown Road station, of course. In those days, Frankie and his brother, Carmine, who was more likely than not to be at the helm, turned out some incredible NY pies. They were just perfect. I didn't see much browning of the crust, but they were supple and baked perfectly, leading me to think they didn't use sugar in the dough. It was a very simple dough with a great garlic-heavy sauce and beautiful cheese. As a testament to how authentic this family operation was, my oldest brother would oft be disappointed that he couldn't get a spinach calzone because Frank's mother hadn't finished washing the spinach that day!! The significance of those Friday nights hasn't been lost on me - a few casual hours when my two working parents could relax with their three sons - is most meaningful to me. To this day, my father and I can still joke about the pizza college diagram Frankie had framed on his wall. The shop has since been sold off and now is in different hands.
Allora, as I was reading the news from New York City the other day, I realized that it's not the same. Crime and human apathy run rampant, more so it seems than in the past, but my memories persist. The break of the crust, the softness of the cheese, the bite of the sauce, and that drip of orange oil take me back to the days of my youth. And I'm sure that's what Peter was referring to. Oh, how significant a slice of this simple peasant's food, pizza, can be...