Letter From Camp NYC Pizza, Vol II
The view from the Staten Island Ferry is pretty amazing, especially at sunset when the great golden ball retreats to the West, to be closer to you, dear Austin. The ferry is packed w/ commuters returning from Manhattan to the fifth borough. They sit on the benches, not staring at the beautiful vista, not looking out at the bay where Ellis Island still stands, haunted still by the thousands and thousands who passed through it, carrying paper packages tied with string. We lean over the railing, catching the breeze in our hair. We are headed to Denino’s, and we are hungry.
Addie, short for Adeline, greets us with a loud shout over the packed restaurant, over the tables crammed with regulars, each of whom would later tell us: “I grew up at this place”. The Homies in Staten Island are legit, Austin. Friendly and fearless, so totally at ease and at home in this family shop stacked w/ a century’s worth of tradition and comfort. We sit at two long tables in the back room and try to remember to pace ourselves as the salads are followed by the wings followed by pizza after pizza after pizza. Their dough is so good; each pizza is perfectly round and cooked just right. They use gas ovens like ours, cooking directly on stone: no screens, no short-cuts – and every time nothing but net. Denino’s is like that old man at the playground who schools every hotshot by hitting three-pointer after three-pointer. Practice, it is clear, makes perfect.
I walk outside to call my sweet wife back home. It’s maybe 10:30 on a Wednesday night and the ice cream shop across the street has three lines, four deep, that constantly stay that way by the cars pulling up and the families getting out. The New England houses are simple and practical two story buildings. The trees that line the street are thinning; Fall is close. When I go back into the shop they’ve put “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” on the juke box in our honor. A few of us move to the makeshift dance floor between the tables in the main dining room and two-step. Nano takes a middle-aged Staten Islander by her hand and dances with her. She is giddy, her ruddy cheeks blushing. We are not the first to dance in this way, impromptu and joyous, in this shop. I can tell it has happened a thousand times before, and will continue on forever. As this is that kind of place: where the neighborhood ties of family mean something, where the heart of that neighborhood is that shop. We, as a group, are honored in that moment for being recognized and named as family. I miss my wife, at home w/ you Austin, more and more. Being in the center of a family like that reminds you of the family you have, the neighborhood that is yours. I sure miss you, Austin.
We meet the next morning and walk uptown to Madison Square Park with Shake Shack and EATALY in our sites. We go into EATALY first. This is the huge, and I mean like big-as-a-city-block-and-some-five-stories-high, super market. And I mean SUPER. It is like an old school European Market w/ constellations of counters and mongers of every type and kind. I stand dumbfounded in their bakery where three guys are cutting down a huge piece of dough, folding it into loaves. One of the baker’s apprentices off-handedly picks up a handful of flour and tosses it against the glass, where I stand. He smiles at me with the kind of playful irreverence we love and value at Home Slice. I love this guy. I make my way to the drawers of dried mushrooms and smell each, thinking about the earth they came from, the people who picked them, the travel they made to come here in the middle of Manhattan, and the vision of the great Chef Mario Batali who is the genius who knew that EATALY was exactly the sort of thing New Yorkers needed: a place where artists could work, and where the community would benefit from that art. Each department of the store is like an old Roman City State, separate and independent brought together by Caesar’s Road. Batali is that kind of Caesar. Hail Batali!
The line at Shake Shack is already curving the South End of the Park, already a good 30 people deep before we double it w/ our crew. There are probably 30 employees inside of the tiny building, each moving fast and fluid. There is no room inside for any kind of loose elbow, no space for any slumping body. The woman at the counter is cheerful and kind, her Bronx accent thick and lush. She doesn’t blink twice at the size of our crew, or of disorganization. She smiles sweetly as we bumble through our order, making changes as we go. Minutes later we are sitting in the park, being harassed by the pigeons, eating burgers and fries, each one equally as beautiful as the next. There is nothing slapdash in what they are doing. We are inspired by their stamina, and their dedication to excellence.
That evening we went to Lombardi’s on Mulberry in Little Italy. It’s just a short walk from the hotel, Austin, just a few blocks. Lombardi’s is THE OLDEST pizza shop. The apprentices from that shop, way back at the beginning of the 20th century, went on to open Totonno’s in Coney Island, John’s in the Village, and Patsy’s uptown in Harlem. Lombardi’s oven is bigger than your car, Austin, and runs close to 900°. The guy working the oven wears safety goggles and heavy gloves. The peel he sticks into the oven to move the pizzas around is as big as a Viking Oar, and heavy to boot. These guys in the kitchen are moving fast but quiet. There is no room for error, there is no space for indolence. They open up the coal feed and I stare into the fire. I swear, Austin, time stopped for me when I got close to that fire. I got as close as I could, feeling the heat come off the coal, staring into the white hot void. Feeling the skin on my face tighten, I could hear only the fire in front of me, where the coals have been burning for the last 100 years. I was transported, Austin, as if I were staring into Vesuvius. They pulled me away from my trance, as I would not have moved any other way. I went upstairs to join the crew.
The pizzas that came out were crisp and charred, each burn a birthmark, a badge of honor. Their tiny pepperonis curl up like the Grinch’s smirk. Their ricotta, so beautiful and scalloped, is charred at its wispy tips. The flavor of that oven is undeniable. The coal’s accent lingers on the dough. I walk Jenna, one of our cooks, over to the chimney that is built into the wall that runs down to that huge oven below. We put our hands on the brick and feel the heat. It isn’t so great that we are repulsed by it but rather so comforting that we both find ourselves moving closer to the stone wall, embracing the heat that feels like a warm hug, that feels like the sun baking your body after you just get out of Barton Springs. We hold hands while holding on to that wall. It is amazing how current runs through us humans, transferring at the fingertips and palms. We are conductors, all of us. I feel it in each slice of pie I eat. I feel the work and pride of Lombardi’s Army. I feel the history and careful dedication to excellence. It comes through loud and clear, above the din of the other diners, beyond the cacophony of Little Italy on the precipice of the San Generro Feast.
The weather has turned on our last day, Austin. The thick humidity has fallen even heavier on the concrete. The storm clouds rolling in from the West are menacing and serious. The light in the city is dim even at mid-day. Traffic is thick. We march West to the Highline, a beautiful park along the West Side Highway, built on the skeletal remains of the El Train. It is planted w/ wildflowers and herbs. It is strange, Austin, to be standing three stories above Manhattan, with a nose full of Sage and Rosemary. We wait on a few pizzas from the new addition of a respected shop from the East Side. We are tired, Austin, and the pizzas can’t really come soon enough. Soon enough for our bellies, which still demand more pizza. Soon enough for the threatening sky, which will open up sooner rather than later. They quote us a ½ an hour for the pizzas, which is respectable. The guys behind the line kind of balk when they see the size of our order (4 pizzas), and grumble amongst themselves about this weird pop in the otherwise slow morning. One guy shrugs his shoulders while building a large salad into a pizza box. “It’ll be done when it’s done,” he said to no one. The order takes double the amount of time, a full hour after all is said an done. The sky opens up as if on cue when Terri & Jen step out onto 10th Avenue to head up the stairs to the highline. The rain comes down w/ the intensity of a Central Texas gulley-washer. The rain is thick and fat, cold and heavy. We scramble, along with everyone else (including Alec Baldwin) to cover under a building built above the highline. There are stalls along the side with people selling coffee, or juice, or prints, and now umbrellas. We’ve lost Jen and Terri to the rain. Nano goes off in search and returns shortly w/ Jen, Terri, and the pizzas that took too long.
My Goodness, Austin, those pizzas just weren’t that good. I could tell from the cuts on the pies alone that the cats working that shop just didn’t care. The cook quality on each pizza varied wildly. Even their signature Artichoke Pie was flawed and runny. In that moment I felt so sad for those cooks who don’t know the satisfaction of continually pressing past the line of excellence. They don’t know the joy that comes from making a stranger happy. They don’t know how a promise is a promise, and thirty minutes means thirty minutes. I thought about my small gang of cooks back home, tending those ovens and making the magic happen. I thought about how each cook works to maintain quality above quantity, and how deeply they respect the customer they can not see. Each pizza, after all, is a kind of gift. It is that thing you open on Christmas morning. Wrapping paper strewn, boxes ripped asunder, revealing either that thing that was given with love, or that thing that was simply a quo following someone else’s quid. Those guys, at that shop, on that day, did the bare minimum and gave what little they had to offer. So sad for them. So sad for those who will go unsuspecting and receive only what money can buy. I think again of our shop there on South Congress, and the staff that continues to delight themselves by exceeding what had been possible. I miss my cooks, dear Austin, almost as much as I miss you. But I am happy, here on the West Side Highway, that you have each other.
It is our final dinner, Austin, at Rubirosa in the heart of Little Italy, on the opening day of the San Gennero Feast. Rubirosa is small and intimate, a kind of warm rabbit warren of a shop w/ twisting turns of hallways that lead to the back room where our group sits. The courses come with Italian timing, perfectly lazy with plenty of space in between for conversation and more wine. We are chummy, Austin, there together in that space. The dishes are large, family style; it suits us perfectly. Each of us makes a plate for the other. We feed each other in this way, course after course. Though our service skills are sharp it is our love that really makes this happen. We are all so happy to be together in this way, sharing ourselves and our meal.
Nano gives the final speech of the trip, raising his glass to the group. He breaks down “enjoy” linguistically and gets to the thesis that it really means BRINGING JOY. As he looks around the room, from cook to host, from host to waiter, from waiter to concierge, from concierge to manager, from manager to owner, he sees that unifying trait: each brings joy wherever they go, like the tiny tinder Prometheus stole from the bottom of Vesuvius when Zeus wasn’t looking. I am surrounded, dear Austin, by this gang of lovers, this team of caretakers. We raise our glasses to the work we’ve done in the past. We raise our glasses to the work we will do in the future. We raise a final toast to you, Austin. We are ready to come home.