A PIZZA CALLED HOME
Grandma Pie or Sicilian-Style Pizza: there when and how you need it to be, always.
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*Preface: I am a lover of books/print of any kind— in my hand—not on a screen; To that end, I never set out to write long-form for you in a digital form, I simply wanted to tell you about the pizza I make with my kids so you could try it, too. But, it turns out this pizza had a more significant calling—bigger than I knew possible for a single food, especially one I didn’t start out loving. Please read on; I’d be delighted if you did, but pour yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable first.
This is a story about Pizza. Or rather, my story about Pizza.
I grew up in a middle-sized town in the middle of the country where they made middle-of-the-road pizza. It was close enough to Chicago to drive to the city once or twice a year and gorge on deep dish, fully loaded pizza, packed with cheese at the original Uno or Due Pizza (not the chain you see everywhere–there’s a wide gap there), which had a mildly sweet, cornmeal flecked crust and an even sweeter sauce.
These things seemed normal to a girl growing up in the Midwest in the 80s and 90s. Most delicious things were slightly sweet or packed with cheese. It was satisfying. But Due didn’t make me love pizza—not the way New Yorkers love pizza. Not the way my kids do.
Pizza was a generic term for anything with bread, red sauce, and cheese—something we had a few times a year: on these trips to the city, at our local Italian restaurant, and at the occasional Chuck-E-Cheese Birthday (though never mine).
This world of meh-pizza continued from high school, where an open campus allowed weekly trips to Little Caesar’s (preferred by my friends), into college, where a late-night order of Gumby’s Pizza came with a side of ranch, for dipping.
I had heard of and even knew people who loved pizza, but I figured—I just wasn’t one of them; you know, wholesome farm-y upbringing and all. A home-cooked meal with mashed potatoes, watermelon, and crispy salad, Mom’s chocolate cake—these were my comfort foods.
Pizza, I reasoned, was filler food.
Regardless, among the first things I did when I moved to New York City after college was head to The Original Ray’s Pizza in Little Italy (was it the original, though?). It was, in part, what made you a New Yorker—learning to fold your pie, and shovel it in while standing on a cold corner in Midtown waiting for a show, or on a side street in the West Village after a night at the bars. It’s a small comfort in a city that demands you to make peace with discomfort: crowded subways, small spaces, high rents.
In those first few years, I tried most Ray’s Pizzas and all the other places Zagats, Time Out New York, and New York Magazine said you should go in those days. But none of these pizzas did it for me. They were good enough—cheap and filling—but not revolutionary. Cheap and filling are touchstones to a young New Yorker, but cheap and filling aren’t memory makers.
A few years later, I visited Roberta's in Brooklyn; I was then deep in my post-culinary-school era—living for the Slow Food Movement. Roberta’s was a trek from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment, but all the people were going there–as in, all the food people, which were the people that mattered to me then.
Robertas, in these circles, was Mecca.
I remember this first visit to Roberta’s as vividly as my first trip to Le Bernardin. I toured the rooftop garden, spouting my devotion to sustainability to the resident gardener; I smiled and nodded as she pointed out urban growing methods I’d been quietly trying in my little plot of community soil on 49th Street.
At Roberta’s, I ate pizza with abandon–drank a beer in the afternoon. I felt, instantly, more adult—more sure of myself. Maybe, at Roberta's, I had made it. Here, sharing a beer with Patrick Martins, a leader of the Slow Food Movement, and Anne Saxelby, the (late) most pioneering cheesemonger in the city, the future was very bright.
There must have been more influential pizza in my life after that, but I don’t remember any of them—until Queens.
In 2010, after over a decade of living in New York, I moved to the edge of Astoria and Long Island City, to a street that had nothing but promised much. It was a risky move.