Once again, I enter the way back machine of my mind. I’m heading to the 1950s – a time when fast food was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread whipped up in 30 seconds by your mother. In those days, 90 percent of all food was eaten at home, period. Except in the summertime.
I’ve told you about the fantastic hole-in-the-wall take-out pizza place in the Onset of my youth. Truly, it was only a window that peered into a narrow room. On one wall were two pizza ovens. On the opposite wall was a long wooden counter where the pizza dough was prepared and sauce was ladled onto the raw pies. No cheese was added until you specifically asked for a ‘cheese slice.’ And that is how you purchased that tasty toast – by the slice.
The aroma of baking pizza was thoroughly intoxicating, drawing you closer until there you stood, mouth gaping, lips quivering, eyes fixed on the hands of the server who’d slap a slice on wax paper and hand it to you from the open window. Fifty cents worth of heaven on earth.
I don’t know how or when this seasonal food fixture stopped opening its singular window into pizza wonderland, but it, like many other fantastic childhood taste delights, faded away. By the late ‘60s, they were all gone. It would be more than a decade before I’d taste a pizza that good again.
I lived for a while in Italy. It was a fairly large-sized town considering the size of the country, and it catered to Americans due to the huge U.S. military base there. The locals didn’t particularly like us as I recall, but their economy depended on the military families spending loads of U.S. currency.
One day while out shopping at one of the several open-air markets that seemed to simply pop-up out of the cobbled streets every few days, I suddenly noticed a smell. It was magnificent and immediately evoked a long forgotten memory – pizza slices of my youth!
Following the scent that pulled me into a dark cavernous arched doorway down a few well-worn stones steps, I found myself inside a small cellar. The back wall was a huge brick oven. There were a few tiny tables and rough-hewn stools in the darkness of the space. One lone cook was toiling away stretching pizza dough onto long handled paddles and dressing the dough with olive oil and fresh herbs, a few tomato slices and a sparse sprinkling of cheese.
He acknowledged my presence, and with an upward gesture from his stubbed chin, he asked the unspoken question, “What do you want?” I nodded towards a large pie he had just pulled out of the oven and gave him an equally plain gesture, my index finger raised to indicate the number ‘uno.’ He zipped through the pie with a rotary cutter, slapped an enormous slice on a paper plate and then gesturing again with his chin, motioned for me to take a seat. I obeyed.
The señor carried the plate to the table, gently placed it before me, and then stood there waiting. I figured he wanted to get paid, so I reached for my coin purse inside my macramé shoulder bag. I held out a palm full of coins not sure how much to give him, and he shook his head no, saying, “Mangia.” Somewhat surprised but willing to go along with one of the few Italian words I understood completely, I took a healthy bite of the slice. In that moment when the brain clearly understood what the taste buds were saying, a chorus of angels heralded and I had ascended to heaven … I had found the pizza I thought never to taste again.
I looked up into his liquid brown eyes, into a face that wore years of hard work punctuated by vast silent plains and smiled. He nodded yes. I nodded yes. We nodded yes. He gave me a fatherly pat on the shoulder and shuffled back between the wooden counter and the roaring oven back to his work. I slowly, and with a pleasure I remember with a clarity yesterday’s pizza could never hope to earn, ate the rest of the pizza slice.
No one else interrupted what that baker and I shared. When I finished, I went up to the counter to pay for the food, once again offering a handful of coins. He nodded ‘no,’ refusing to take the money. I tried to insist but he stood firm with his arms crossed. If I had learned anything while living in Italy, it was not to refuse an Italian who offers a gift. That is an insult.
I pulled my hand away, deposited the coins back into the purse and said, “Grazie.” He said, “Prego.” I said, “Ciao,” and headed back up into the real world – a world where I’d never again taste a pizza like that. Standing on the top step, I turned around to see if there was a sign announcing the name of the tiny kitchen. There it was in bright red, white, and blue letters: “California Pizza Parlor.”
I’d like to tell you that I frequented the place many times before I returned to the U.S. but I did not. Really, once was enough for a lifetime, wouldn’t you agree? More than 40 years later, the flavor of that pizza satisfies my appetite still. Unlike the pizza I had on Thursday night. It was forgotten as I was eating it.
By Marilou Newell