Our flight lands at JFK at 3 p.m. It takes us a few hours to get all our luggage, load up and truck across the two bridges home. “I hope there’s no traffic on the Tri-boro,” Dad says to no one in particular. We eat the snacks in Mom’s handbag, reserved for emergencies. Still hungry, we start to bicker. There is always traffic on the Tri-Boro Bridge on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Typically, the George Washington Bridge entrance is where things clear up.
When we finally spot New Jersey, it’s almost dinner time. “Mom, what’s for dinner?” I ask. We’ve only just pulled into our driveway. The luggage isn’t even in the house yet. She sighs noncommittally.
Suddenly, I remember the shelves in our garage. “All the packets and tins in the cupboard.” I am the Tiger who came to Tea. I race through the front door, round the hallway and open the door, my brother and sister tailing me. Our eyes light up at the colours and choices, white and red Dorito packets, yellow and gold Lay’s Original, and my favourite: blue and white, a picture of a bowl of dressing, two spring onions artfully crossed nearby, Ranch-flavour Ridges. Anticipation. I open the packet, take a bite of the biggest one I can find. It disappoints. How do they powder ranch dressing for the flavouring?
I plop in front of the TV with its glorious thirteen channels, all in English. We have a remote control wired to the back of the set. I press down the keys in order, each with a satisfactory ‘click.’
In the background, Mom is on the phone. “Hi, yes. Please, can I place an order?”
The second and third chips help the palate settle back into its old routine. Yummy, salty, tangy goodness. Who’s she talking to?
“Yes, pick up,” Mom says.
It feels strange to be home, shovelling potato chips. PBS is boring, no family sitcoms for another hour. A Brady Bunch re-run.
“Two plain large pies. And one eggplant parmigiana,” she says, “No, not on pasta, in a sandwich, please.”
“Twenty minutes? No problem.” she hangs up. Needs met, Mom starts to unpack from our three months away in Mumbai. She throws in a load of laundry before driving the two minutes to the world’s best pizza parlour: The Fort Lee Pizzeria. Mom hasn’t sat down yet.
It’s Mom’s ritual. Pizza, the food she misses the most, maybe more than we do. In my sixth grade class of sixty children, twenty-three identify as Italian-American; twenty as Chinese-American. I am the only Indian-American. I know the count because that’s when we each are responsible for a cultural heritage project, culminating in a presentation day replete with posters, native costume, and food. Pizza is as much a part of our diet as chicken curry.
Saturday, a lazy morning watching cartoons is ending. “Mom!” my brother yells from the sofa. “Can we have pizza for lunch?”
“But I made dhal,” she shouts back from the kitchen.
“I’m not hungry for dhal.” My brother is going through a phase, pizza for every meal. He copes with frozen if he must: Mama Celeste or Elio’s. Mama Celeste makes individual-sized pies. The Elio’s come in a rectangle, pre-cut into thirds. My brother can make it through the entire rectangle. He stands up, intentions clear. He even leaves me alone with the remote, the prize I’ve wanted all morning.
“There is fried aloo and puris,” Mom responds, trying to tempt him with his old favourite. I say nothing, knowing I cannot sway her, but he might. I lower the volume a touch.
“Please, can we have Fort Lee Pizza? Please. I’ll eat dhal tomorrow. Promise.” He starts to whine. If I whine, we eat lentils with potatoes and fried bread. The End.
I don’t dare change the channel. I whisper, “If he gets Fort Lee Pizza, he can watch whatever he wants.”
“Putu (son in our dialect), I am still in my gown. I can’t go like this,” Mom says. Sure, the day after we get back from India, she can drive, jet-lagged, bags barely in the door, within three minutes of arriving, but now, now it’s too hard.
“Can’t Dad go get it?” he whines.
“Hah,” I laugh to myself. My dad considers getting out of pyjamas on the weekend to be reserved for special occasions, the Super Bowl, for instance.
My brother is small for his age. Mom buys his clothes a size too big, layers them up to make him look bigger. I risk a peek around the corner. She is behind the kitchen counter, pots bubbling away. He stands with his back toward me. They are in the midst of a silent standoff.
Mom will do anything to make him eat. She turns off the stove, moves to the phone, orders two large pies and an eggplant parmigiana. The dhal will keep until tomorrow.
The pizza arrives scorching hot. I need patience, else the cheese will burn the roof of my mouth. I can easily eat three pieces from the large New York-style pie, typically cut into eight slices. It is the ultimate icon: eighteen inches in diameter, where crispiness meets chewiness meets sauciness meets meltiness. Pizza prepared by pizzaiolos, trained to toss dough into the air.
I can eat pizza for any meal, fresh, reheated, or cold from the fridge. No toppings, please, especially, and definitely not pepperoni; it’s made from beef and we are Hindu. I have no other food I find as haunting, as necessary to my soul’s existence.
It is a kid’s birthday party staple. Mothers ask the pizzeria to cut the pizza into sixteen slices instead of the usual eight. The pizza arrives early enough for the cheese on top to congeal a bit, still good but in a slightly different way. I forego cake for an extra slice.
There is the occasional odd duck who doesn’t eat pizza and nibbles on the crudité platter put out for the adults who linger. I don’t understand them, but their loss is my gain. ‘Happy Birthday to Me!’
Pizza is my comfort blanket. Going to Rocky’s II is a tradition near NYU hospital where we have paediatrician’s appointments. Mom takes us for a slice to compensate for being sick, routine immunisations, or for any painful reason we cross the Bridge. Rocky’s has the best sauce, a little fresher than Fort Lee’s rich version. Individual slices come reheated from a whole pie baked earlier. Reheated can be better than fresh, giving the crust a second crisping, the cheese extra caramelisation. Vegetables, pepperoni, sausage, anything can be added to a plain slice after the fact. Mom customises hers with onions. The addition of pineapple and ham is an insult to the food itself. These pizzerias know a Hawaiian pie is a total abomination of the genre.
Thus raised, I will not forgive what Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou do to pizza. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck opens a restaurant in Los Angeles called Spago. The restaurant is located in West Hollywood, above a car rental agency, evolves into a legendary place for changing food, namely pizza, forever. The first menu has the subtitle ‘Spago California Cuisine.’ From 1981, before the doors open, Spago’s first pizza chef, Ed LaDou, develops a pizza menu, taking advantage of the large ovens Wolfgang had installed. Toppings include goat cheese or Santa Barbara shrimp, a nod to the California cuisine tenet of using local ingredients.
An iconic Spago pizza, the ‘Jewish Pizza’, topped with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, chives, red onion, and caviar isn’t even on the menu. An LA Times article ruing the closure of the original Spago notes that this pizza ‘was usually delivered to tables gratis, an edible greeting from the chef.’ The fact that chef and pizza were in the same sentence is mind-boggling. Ruth Reichl writes in the New York Times in 1985 that Puck is ‘the chef who invented the term California Cuisine when he opened Spago and made pizza chic.’ Thanks to these men, pizza is elevated to chic, the last food on earth that needs that label.
In 1985, Ed LaDou quits Spago to develop the menu at California Pizza Kitchen, a ‘chain that adapted Spago’s unconventional pizzas for the masses.’ Thankfully, California is 2,791 miles away from my home in Bergen County. It takes a long time for food trends to travel in the 1980s.
California Pizza Kitchen has 250 locations in thirty American states and eleven countries. The menu is renowned for items such as the original Barbeque Chicken Pizza with barbeque sauce and Gouda cheese, red onions, and coriander. They also have a Thai Chicken Pizza with mozzarella, carrots, bean sprouts and scallions. Versions of Italian-inspired pies are also on the menu but why would you go there for that? Our branch at the mall opens in 1992. We go just once. My brother orders Barbeque Chicken. I, ever the traditionalist, go with classic, cheese and tomato sauce. Individual pizzas arrive. I pick up a mini slice of mine.
“Ick,” is all I can say.
“Fine. Then, try one of your brother’s. It looks good,” Mom says. We are here in the hope that my brother’s pizza obsession may enable him to branch into new foods, maybe some protein from a source other than mozzarella cheese. She takes a piece of mine; she is vegetarian so won’t eat the chicken one.
That doesn’t stop me from saying, “If it looks so good, why don’t you eat it?”
Under her glare, I take a piece of his. Its crust has no chew. The pizza looks fine, the components are complementary, an artfully piped-on barbeque sauce, diced chicken, onions, and coriander leaves. I dislike it, when did food labelled ‘California’ get to ruin the real thing? Moreover, California Pizza Kitchen should not be allowed the word ‘pizza’ in its name for crimes against my favourite food.
Sometimes I wish for intervention on behalf of my pizza. If the name ‘Champagne’ can only be used for a traditional sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France, I would argue that only the article, traditionally made, can carry the name. The others are just flatbreads pretending. Italy mandates the required method to follow if you wish your pie to be labelled ‘Neapolitan Pizza DOC.’ I want someone to come to America and give New York pizza its own DOC: Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The appellation could be ‘New York Metropolitan Area Pizza DOC.’
Though I’ll admit, I waiver if pushed.
Freshman year, I buy Pizza Hut in Wien Hall, one of the on-campus eateries, using Dining Dollars. On the meal plan, I have more Dining Dollars than real dollars. The concession sells individual pies in paper boxes. I take the veggie option: onions, peppers, and barely flavoured sliced black olives. It’s unsatisfying at best, but it is bread, sauce, and cheese, and it is part of the meals my parents still pay for. Better yet is Sneaky Pizza to satiate a yawning hunger, when nothing else will do. The routine is thus: I go to an open house of some club or another, guaranteed a slice of the real thing on offer to entice people to join whatever they flog. I fake an interest in glee club, the newspaper, the TV station, anything so long as I can munch a slice or two while listening to the pitch. I time my arrival, early enough that there is still pizza but late enough, ergo crowded enough, that I can eat and run.
Eventually, I get a part-time job. With the means to branch out, I discover Coronets on Broadway between 111th and 112th. It has a jumbo slice, roughly the size of three normal slices for $2. The guys stay open until 4 a.m. Thrice weekly, a slice on the way home from the bars prevents hangovers. Even jumbo-sized, it retains that perfect New-York-style goodness. I hold the slice upright in its paper bag, keeping the top tented so it doesn’t touch before I get back to my dorm room. I am not a slice-folder, walking along, triangle folded in half, like a paper airplane made from pizza, taking bites out of the section protruding from the bag. I want to savour each bite, sitting down, cheese on top, bread on bottom. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner rolled into a single 2 a.m. meal eaten cross-legged on my twin bed, in bliss.
Years later, at work, every Friday the managing directors order stacks of pizzas as a small concession to our labours. A nod of thanks perhaps, but more likely a way to keep us in the building, motivated to stick around. Pizza Fridays probably contribute fifteen of the thirty pounds I gain. The classic New York move of over-ordering means I have a respectable two slices at lunch, and another as a cold snack a few hours later. Given the levels of stress eating, I am not alone when I go back around 4 p.m. to distract and refuel for the last push before the weekend.
When we have children, we create a new ritual. My husband would go to Patsy’s every week, loves the frosted mugs they serve beer in. I don’t love it; their sauce is too sweet, though we agree their pie has one of the best crusts in the City. Instead, we make a weekly pilgrimage, leaving no stone unturned, the journey as joyous as the discovery, as if such a thing as the Platonic pizza exists.
In time, I land on near perfection in Staten Island, even though I have yet to try all the options in Manhattan, much less the Bronx or Brooklyn. I drive us to Joe and Pat’s every few months. We borrow my parents’ car, pack the kids in and listen to their toddler music for the 45-minute drive. There is nothing to do in Staten Island near Joe and Pat’s, but pizza is an attraction enough. They serve the New York pie, but the crust is unimaginably a bit thinner, the tomato sauce perfectly consistent, cheese layer slim, perfectly distributed. The oregano, garlic, and basil are palpable. I think they make their own mozzarella. We order two large pies. The children, two and four, barely contribute to the consumption, but I want more than what I can fit into me during a single sitting. We eat until we collapse, bellies warm with cheesy wonderfulness, carrying the box of leftovers.
Out of a latent sense of embarrassment for my singularity, peppered with a bit of guilt for dragging them on my quest, we might stop to pick up some cannolis, find a park to play in, or make a tortuous trip to the Staten Island Children’s Museum.
“How was your weekend?” I ask my brother over FaceTime from my side of the Pond.
“Not bad. We went to Queens to get pizza.”
“Yum. Famous Pizza? How many pies did you get?” I ask. It’s like the Universe knows: someone has to take on the responsibility. He totes wife and child to a pizzaiola in Elmhurst. It doesn’t sell traditional large pies, but it is good.
“Five. Two plain, two onion and hot pepper, and a pepperoni.” Pepperoni is a departure from our normal order, our childhood avoiding beef. My brother opens the fridge, grabs a slice cold, takes a big bite. I am salivating, remembering the crispy, almost fried dough.
“You should go to Staten Island. Get some Joe and Pat’s. It is The Best. The munchkin will like the Staten Island Childrens’ Museum.” In fact, the museum is on the other side of the island, but I know adding something extra helps sell the trip.
“They opened a Manhattan branch,” my brother says. I am filled with longing: to try the new Joe and Pat’s, to get in the car to Elmhurst, to go with my nephew to any Childrens’ Museum. I haven’t been home since the summer of 2019.
After we hang up, I take Alfie for a walk. We pass a hipster takeaway advertising pizza by the slice, ‘California Style.’ I smile. Almost tempted, I picture the first bite, it would take the chasm in my gut, stretch, and spread it to my heart and soul, so I’ll stick to my memories.
Even in London, keep California away from my pizza.
Weinraub, B. (2001, Mar 30). For the old Hollywood, last suppers at Spago. New York Times | Avins, M. (2001, Mar 19). The last days of Spago; no more foie gras with mashed potatoes for dolly, pizza topped with caviar for Sidney or back-room lounging for Joni. Wolfgang Puck’s signature place is closing its doors.: [home edition]. Los Angeles Times | Reichl, R. (1992, Feb 16). RESTAURANTS STARDUST MEMORIES after 10 years, countless cool movie stars and plenty of hot pizzas, Spago is still cooking: [home edition]. Los Angeles Times | Reichl, R. (1985, Dec 08). THE SPAGOIZATION OF MANHATTAN: [HOME EDITION]. Los Angeles Times
Oates, M. (1985, Jan 12). PIZZA FOR THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE: [FINAL EDITION]. San Francisco Chronicle | Larry Lipson, R. C. (1999, Nov 05). FORGET THE PIZZA: CHAPARRAL DELIVERS; MAINSTREAM DINING WITH A WILD ASSORTMENT OF ODDBALL VEGGIES MAKE TOPANGA EATERY A WINNER: [VALLEY EDITION]. Daily News | Stewart, J. Y. (2008, Jan 04). OBITUARIES; ed LaDou, 1955 – 2007; California chef pioneered gourmet pizza revolution. Los Angeles Times