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Pizza in NJ


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. 

Among my first stops:  The writing of Ed Levine:  (Pizza:  A Slice of Heaven) and his “Slice/Serious Eats” website (Serious Eats).

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

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Interestingly, my mother and father were never much interested in pizza--they more or less considered it an “American” aberration (which, of course, to some extent at least, it was). Occasionally, my mother would make one from scratch for my parties. Predictably, I thought it wasn’t “normal” enough… and predictably, years later, my friends talked about how good it was. Such is life. Wonderful excerpt--I can’t wait to read the entire article.

    –  (January 21 2010 at 10:53)

Of course pizza is about memory. You really hit the bullseye. And the place - good pizza in an upscale fern bar? Maybe not.
I also need to tell you I just finish LOST RAVIOLI RECIPES - much to my dismay. Couldn’t it have been longer? Do you have a new recipe to search for? I read it as slowly as I could. From the need to connect to the past through a recipe - find friends and family - through food - to the tale of your younger sister that mirrors me and my younger sister. The age difference, the intestinal problems - the hospitalizations - the differences and the love that still shines through. Even when irritated. Lovely. Connected.

    – Claudia Haas (January 21 2010 at 6:30)

I know about the lure of east coast pizza that satisfies spirit, soul and body. Interestingly, it is also from a Pizza Town; only it is in West Babylon, LI, NY. When I go home for the holidays, Pizza Town is a MUST stop. The smell is intoxicating, the calzone melt-in -your-mouth goodness and of course, the white bag of zepoles is required.

    –  (January 24 2010 at 7:03)

Laura - great piece in NJ Monthly. Next time you’re down my way, I want to take you to Nomad Pizza in Hopewell. They’ve got an oven they brought in from Italy and trained a couple of their guys in Naples. It’s the closest to a real Neapolitan pizza I’ve eaten since Naples.

    – ciaochowlinda (February 10 2010 at 11:13)

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