i love pizza.
this was the second blog i posted on here. lasers could have easily been “pizza,” but it would have been confusing. like dogma and doctrine in the catholic church, pizza is always lasers, but lasers are not always pizza. this makes sense when you write the words without thinking about them, so let’s just leave it at that. trust me- just… just… okay?
my love for pizza started when i was growing up in new england. at my elementary school in massachusetts, they would order pizza from a local chain called papa gino’s every friday for lunch, and students had a chance to place their personal order of cheese or pepperoni slices that morning in home room.
most kids would have one or two, but this guy? i’d get three minimum, four when they would let me- for some reason there was a limit on how much they were willing to order. the pizza would arrive around noon, and even though it had cooled off by the time we made our way to the cafeteria, i still devoured it like a hyena.
in addition to school pizza, every time i had something to celebrate with my family, like a birthday, a hockey game, or the last day of school, my parents would let me pick where we ate. i chose papa gino’s every time.
as a pizza connoisseur, i understand the outrage when i speak so highly of a chain restaurant. yes, i know that real pizza is made by the hands of a hunched over italian man who slaves away in a hundred degree stone kitchen, listening to opera recordings on full blast and weeping at each perfect pie that leaves his den. when this man is able to open a restaurant in suburban new england, you let me know and i’ll be first in line. until then, i’ll rely on the consistency and quality of the same place i’ve been frequenting for nearly three decades.
after moving from massachusetts to connecticut, my trips to pizza heaven took a considerable nose dive. the closest papa gino’s was twenty minutes away and had inconsistent hours, so my parents were much less willing to schlep all the way over there hoping that they were open, and instead opted for more local fare, which to me was blasphemous, and also the cause of repeated emotional outbursts.
by the time i was old enough to drive, that location had permanently shut down and the next closest one was 30 minutes away over by the goddamn airport. still, i tried to make 2-3 trips a month if possible. my friends did not see the big deal with this pizza, and i truly pitied them. it wasn’t their fault that they’d been raised on the everyday farmhouse slop that passed for pizza in our area, but their resistance was troubling.
“skyowner?” they’d ask, “why do we have to leave two hours before the movie starts just to have this stupid pizza?” i would take a deep breath before responding, as the overwhelming ignorance of this question left me befuddled and mentally impotent.
“this is not some ‘stupid pizza,'” i’d say. “this is a once in a lifetime collection of ingredients and flavors, mingling in a seductive pas de deux, all in the name of fine but reasonably priced italian-american cuisine, and ignoring that would be an insult to every pizza lover before us, for most were not so lucky. this is a responsibility, and like demi moore in a few good men, i take that responsibility seriously- i stand on that wall and say ‘nothing’s going to hurt you tonight. not on my watch.'”
when i left connecticut to go to college in the south, i would return home for winter and summer breaks eagerly awaiting my first trip to papa gino’s. the summer after my junior year, i worked on a political campaign that had a papa gino’s location less than ten minutes from campaign headquarters.
on my first day, we were sent out to go door-to-door with campaign literature, and i was paired up with my friend jim. i suggested we go to papa gino’s before heading out to have doors slammed in our faces for the next four hours, and he agreed. when we got inside, he asked me what i wanted, and i replied “a large cheese pizza.”
he said that he wasn’t hungry enough to split a large, but i corrected him: “that pizza is for me.” from then on, he knew. also, after eating a whole pizza and then walking out into the summer heat, i was in no shape to go door to door, so we drove into a residential neighborhood, parked under a pine tree and napped for a few hours.
weeks later i told tom, the guy in charge of ordering dinner for the office when we stayed late to make phone calls, to only order cheese pizzas, so the simpletons who’d never had papa gino’s before could taste how good it is in its natural state. he was one of those mouth breathers who thought ordering sausage and onion and what-have-you made him a more sophisticated pizza man, and ordered in kind, leaving only two cheese pizzas out of the eight total that were to be delivered.
when i realized that there were only two cheese pizzas, i knew that once the rest of these yokels caught on to how good the original tastes on its own, there would only be 5-6 slices left for me to enjoy. i had to act fast. i gave jim four slices and put the remaining twelve into one box, placing it at the end of the table next to the other pizzas but under the empty box i had just opened so people would assume that everything in that stack had already been eaten.
i devoured the twelve slices in under ten minutes, all while maintaining a running conversation with the campaign manager over the lack of responses to the literature we were supposed to be handing out. then i took the two empty boxes, walked up behind tom and slammed them over his back like a wrestler with a metal chair and yelled “do you see what you get, tom? do you see what you get when you mess with the warrior?!?”
as an old school pizza lover, i am a staunch believer that in order to taste the true character of a pizza, you can only judge based on a slice of cheese. anyone can add toppings and hide the pizza’s true flavor, but a simple cheese slice is where the professionals set themselves apart from the pretenders, and where the gods set themselves apart from the professionals. you don’t judge a whiskey by how it tastes with coke, so don’t give me your bacon lovers macaroni and cheese deep dish casserole slice when i want to sample your pizza.
after the campaign limped to its feeble conclusion in a huge loss, it was back to college. but not before one last trip to papa gino’s. my brother and i were both in the market for new guitars, so jim and my brother’s friend toby joined us for a trip to guitar center with the promise of papa gino’s satiating their boredom.
because guitar center was in the opposite direction of the airport, we had to go to a papa gino’s none of us had been to before that was supposed to be close by.
after spending an hour at guitar center fending off a salesman who resembled old gil from the simpsons, we took our cue to leave after he asked us to come to his open mic performance at tgi friday’s that night. sorry gil.
we left guitar center with accurate directions but after ten minutes we were lost. well, not lost, we were right where we were told to be, but there was no papa gino’s in sight. we went up and down the same road five times, then up and down the adjoining road another five times, and still found nothing.
we called friends, relatives, anyone we knew that lived nearby, and they were no help. 411 connected us to the papa gino’s location and they said we were right there. we drove up and down the street and all over the parking lot but just could not see it. it was like being in a real life version of the mothman prophecies, only worse.
after an hour without any luck, we decided to cut our losses and find the next closest place and just hope it was good. it was almost 3pm and none of us had eaten. i was fine with this plan, but i knew there were enough restaurants in the area that we didn’t have to settle for the first one we walked into.
another part of being a true pizza man is not liking or accepting that greasy mess that is cut into square slices. you know the kind. there are at least four soggy and crustless pieces in the middle, taking up space and contributing nothing to the rest of the experience.
i’ve never successfully eaten one of those because the cheese always falls off, and it always feels like it does so in slow motion, laughing and mocking you on its way down to the back of your hand where it burns your skin and kills your nerve endings.
you serve that to me and i will karate chop you in the larynx. it’s insulting to the very creation of pizza and the heroes who slaved away for centuries perfecting the ideal pie.
we drove less than a mile before seeing what looked like a rundown strip mall with a flickering neon green light that read “p zza” (the “i” was missing). as hungry as we were, we thought that this could be a diamond in the rough. being the middle of august, it was incredibly humid, so the fact that this place had no fans or air conditioning inside made the stench of desperation even more palpable. we walked in to see an older mustachioed gentleman sitting alone behind the counter. he perked up immediately when he saw that there were four of us.
he gave us the usual pleasantries before launching right into sales mode, offering us party sized pizzas, salads, breadsticks and all sorts of accoutrement that we were not looking for. i suspected that we were his first customers of the day, perhaps the week, and i did not like the vibe he was giving off. discerning a greek background from his high-pitched and overly excited voice, i asked him how he cut his pizzas: into squares, or triangles?
his voice jumped an octave- “i, eh, ehhh… i cut eet however you like!”
“no,” i said. “how do you normally cut it?”
he looked at me and smiled before realizing that i was not fucking around. he then looked down the line at my brother, then jim, and then toby. none of us gave away our desired answer. everyone brought their poker face.
sweat formed at the top of his brow as he panicked and formed an internal monologue that felt like it went on for an hour.
“ehhhh… i cut dee peesuh into… squares?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders so high i thought he was having a muscle spasm. he looked from face to face, hoping he had answered correctly.
i snapped my fingers and yelled “let’s roll!” as i walked out the door with my pizza brethren in tow. jim told me that he looked back at the pizza guy and nearly wept for him, as he had a look of despair on his face that few people witness in their lifetime.
years later, we wondered if our lack of pizza consumption had kept a grandchild in the homeland from being able to buy a pencil for the school year, or if he was just one sale shy of finally being able to bring his derelict wife over to the states so they could be together.
i don’t worry about hypotheticals, so i didn’t lose any sleep over it.
we found a decent looking restaurant a few streets away. the owner let me go back in the kitchen to see that, yes, they did cut their pizzas in triangles, so we all had a couple slices and were full enough that the day wasn’t a total wash. the pizza was adequate at best, but we were so hungry it didn’t matter. we left satisfied, aiming to make plans for the rest of the night since it was long past sundown.
as we drove down the rode we had already been back and forth on too many times to count, someone let out a groan from the back seat.
“no. noooo. nooooooooo!”
it was toby. i glanced out the window and saw it. both heaven and hell converging in the same beautiful logo: the light maroon and green papa gino’s sign we had been looking for. how had this happened? how was this even possible? what had we done to deserve this? all unanswerable questions that haunt me to this day. it was right there the whole time, right where everyone told us it would be.
and yet somehow it had escaped us. it wasn’t a giant sign or a standalone building, but we should have seen it. i should have seen it. i hold myself to higher pizza standards than most people hold their children’s pediatricians. the responsibility was mine, but the disappointment was ours to share.
i should have been the one to get us there so we could enjoy who knows how many cheese pizzas. oh! how we would have loved those pizzas. the stories we would have told. the memories we would have made. all gone. and why? we’ll never know.
it was a lesson for all of us.
every time you have an opportunity to further your experience in life, to be the best “you” you can be, whether it’s eating a delicious slice of pizza, visiting a grandparent, or petting your dog- you must take it, and you must embrace it.
spafford is playing two shows this weekend at prankster’s too in scottsdale, and if you don’t go, you will feel worse than i did when we drove by the guitar center papa gino’s.
see you there.