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- by Laura, January 25, 2010
Photo by Jason Perlow
I was never one of those pizza-crazed people. First of all, I’m a female always worried about keeping the calorie count down. Secondly, there’s just so much bad pizza around. And thirdly, pizza is a survival tactic for me as a working mom,--you could say I’ve abused it too much to love it.
But when NJ Monthly magazine asked me if I wanted to write a story on the “soul of New Jersey pizza,”
I said yes because well, there are a lot harder ways to earn a buck, but also this was one assignment where I could take the kids along.
In addition to learning (with fascination) all about the depth of pizza--ingredients, history, techniques, and endless discussions about ovens and heat--I was amazed to hear again and again how emotional--almost whacky--people get about the subject, particularly about the pizza places of their youth. I concluded that pizza in NJ is very much about memory. There are so many joints here where the pizza is really just okay, but people tell you it’s awesome. Why? Well the reason is that it brings back memories. And the pizzamakers--particularly at old beloved taverns--take great pride in never changing a thing to cater to this nostalgia and sense of the past. I listened with respect and duly noted all this, as an anthropologist might because, well, I wasn’t like that myself. And I continued to drive around doing my research discovering wonderful out-of-the-way places like Santillo’s (take-out only) in Elizabeth and Grimaldi’s in the back-end of Hoboken.
A big source for my story was one of my Dad’s best friends, Mike D’Amico, who is a lifelong New Jersey Italian American and ardent pizzalogist. He sent me in the right direction. And he reminded me of Pizzatown USA in Elmwood Park--still decorated in its original 1958 decor, covered from top to bottom with American flags and red white and blue. It has become a rather grim stretch of highway since 1958, but Uncle Sam is still up on the roof offering you a pie, ever reassuring the 1950s postwar population that Mussolini is really dead, and Italians can be trusted. How to describe the inside? Bizarre. Totally cool. A bit of a dump.... All of the above. I hadn’t been there in years.
When I took my family one November night, the pizza was ready in six minutes. It came out of the oven, bubbling and oozing on the platter—a beautiful thing. Thin crust, crunchy, light on the cheese and full of tomato sauce.
The only place to sit was at a communal bench with another family. We settled down, and I stole a sip of my son’s birch beer. Then a strange thing happened. Some archeological layers shifted in my brain.... Suddenly, I could see my Dad in the 1970s, slamming the door of his pick up truck, walking up the cement path to our house, past green lawn and maple tree. Pizzatown box in hand, a white bag of zepoles balanced on top. The sight of pizza in that childhood life, back then in the era when mothers cooked every night, offered a small burst of joy. Proust knew what he was talking about with those madeleine’s. And if you were here with me I’d say that for you with a serious NJ accent.
Here’s the story in full: NJ Monthly. http://njmonthly.com/articles/restaurants/searching-for-the-soul-of-jersey-pizza.html