Saturday, March 11, 2006

My Hobby, My Art, My Obsession (part I)

(First, to regular readers of Gower Street who have developed an appetite for theology, cultural criticism, and so forth: please be patient. More is on the way.)

Many of those who know me beyond the boundaries of Gower Street know that I love to cook. Until recently, I did all the cooking in my home; although that was in part because of our work schedules, all other things being equal it would have been by choice. (Although my wife is a great cook, too. When we retire we'll have to come up with a schedule so we each get equal time in the kitchen.)

I often go through phases where I will cook one dish, or one type of food, and really try to become proficient at it. Once, it was cajun. Two summers ago, it was fish. I've been through a roast chicken phase. And for the last year and a half, my phase -- no check that, my obsession -- has been with pizza. It's the closest thing I have to a hobby, or an art, but it truly is an obsession. There was a time while I was trying to get my dough recipe down pat that we would eat 3-4 pies three times a week. It was nuts.

Someone a month or so ago called me a 'pizza snob', which I hope isn't true but I fear it is. But it's risible, too: pizza is wonderful, but it's a humble food. I mean, we're not talking about caviar or truffles or fine wine: it's just pizza!

(To be a pizza snob seems like being a Vauxhall/Pontiac snob. It's not that Vauxhall or Pontiac don't make a fine car that gets you from point A to point B (and on weekends, point C), but these are not makes of car that warrant snobbishness in any way. BMW, sure; Mercedes, perhaps; Pontiac? No way.)

And yet there is something about a great pie that is so completely sublime, so heavenly, so wonderful. These guys described a great pizza at DiFara's in Brooklyn like this:

It’s surprisingly substantive, a mouthful. It's a mess, an exaggeration, and an epic event. It was the best pizza we’d eaten in our lives. Please don’t make us try to describe it any more--it feels futile to do so. (Here)

I totally get that. And so many of the familiar chains, increasingly people's only exposure to pizza, can't even touch the real thing.

As author Peter Reinhard points out, our pizza memories are formed early and vividly, and seem to hold sway over us through our lives. For him, it was Mama's Pizza, just outside Philadelphia.

Me, I grew up with three pizzas, before the chains became prominent in my area: Potestas, Friar Tuck's, and Quonset Pizza.

Potestas I don't recall being amazing, altough it was a local chain frequented and recommended by locals. It was better by a mile than the delivery chains or anything with 'Hut' in the name, but I don't have a real, stand-out impression. They expanded in the 1980's, and then I thought they closed up shop, but I just found out they are still around. But now they're making things like taco pizza, which is just embarrassing.

Friar Tuck's was the paradigmatic dive. It was mostly a bar, and I remember it always seemed really dark inside, and we were usually seated near the smeared front windows. We tended to go early because it was a place frequented by sailors, and fights would often break out. (Keep in mind I was all of seven or eight at this time.) The last time we went there, the roof had partially collapsed, and they had a huge, sagging tarp hanging from the ceiling. Shortly after that they closed, but the sign for Friar Tuck's was still out front, and I would pass by wondering if they might still be open. It was that way for years. Then it burned. Then the back of the building fell down. Then they demolished the rest. Finally, after a couple more years, they took down the sign. It is now a nondescript, weed-shrouded vacant lot. Whenever I drive by, I still find myself hoping that they've somehow re-opened.

It was an awful place, but the pizza was astounding, especially the sauce; I still remember the sauce. It must have been a marinara sauce, I'm pretty sure it was cooked; it wasn't just a crushed tomato sauce. And my dad always said that what made it special was that the cook put red wine in it. That's probably right, that makes sense of my taste memory. But I've tried and haven't been able to duplicate it. (Of course, I don't usually do a marinara sauce, so that might be part of it.)

But the king of them all was the Quonset. The Quonset is unparalleled in Waukegan for memory and for pizza.

Walking into the Quonset (which I did again last August) is like walking back in time. And I don't just say that because there are so many memories for generations of people there, going out for pizza as a family, or together as teens, or on dates or whatever. One friend even proposed to his girlfriend there -- she had the good sense to say yes.

But it is like walking back in time because the furnishings and decorating of the place have, no exaggeration, never changed. The place opened in, I think, 1946. And inside it looks just like 1946. I swear those guys sitting at the bar are vets talking about their time in Normandy. The place doesn't change. This isn't faux-pastiche-ironic-nostalgia with a wink and a nod. No, they just haven't gotten around to remodelling. In 60 years. (Heck, they don't even have a website I can link to!)*

For them, not changing is good, because its pizza is superlative. Super-thin crust which I would call a Roman style; a robust sauce; creamy stringy fresh mozzarella. The bold flavours all work together in harmony. When I was there I tried to steal a look into their kitchen to see what kind of oven they were working with. Most of the ovens outside of the Northeast are electric or gas and just don't deliver the flavour and mouthfeel of a coal-fired or wood-burning oven, but I wonder if Quonset might not be using an old coal-fired oven.

And no fancy pizzas**. In keeping with the blue collar nature of this town, the ingredients are simple, straightforward, and delicious: in a word, classic. I say, why mess? After all, they easily deliver the best pizza experience of the entire North Shore, and they could give most anywhere in the Chicago area a run for their money -- and that is saying something.

The best pizza I have had recently is from Tacconelli's in Philadelphia. I went with my friend Jacob and his wife and newborn daughter while at AAR/SBL last November. It was amazing. It's reputation is as the best pizzeria in Philadelphia, which is no mean feat. And although I did not sample every pizza in Philly, I can't help but think that it must deliver on that promise.

If you read my first footnote below, I assure you Tacconelli's meets all the criteria. It is just north of the city centre in a working-class neighbourhood called Fishtown. Decoration is minimal: wood panelling and some homemade wall decorations. It was a little like eating in someone's basement. No website. They're off the beaten path a bit. If you weren't looking for them, you would miss the place. No off street parking. And you are expected to call ahead early in the day to order your dough balls -- they make a few extra, but dropping in spontaneously is a risky venture.

They have a coal-fired oven which you can get an easy peek at as you walk through the place. The pizza peel has an eight-foot handle to get the pizzas in and out; it's a joy to watch the pizzaiolo at work, especially because it is all about the pizza.

And the pizza, especially the crust, was sublime. We had a white pizza and a red with mutz; I think we had garlic and spinach on the white, and pepperoni on the red. (The white didn't have white sauce, like with clams; it was just the crust with garlic and olive oil on it. The red sauce was a well-balanced fresh crushed tomato sauce with what I think is the crucial 'brightness' to it. The crust was superlative: light, almost pastrylike, with the kind of blackened bits on the cornicione. I'm salivating just thinking of it.) I just remember thinking that it doesn't get any better. No exaggeration, I have twice since had such a jones, I have thought 'You know, I could get on a British Airways flight to Philly, and in less than 24 hours be eating at Tacconelli's again!' Our resources, alas, are a bit more limited than that, but trust me, the next time we are in any proximity to Philadelphia (say, 200 miles), we will be back there.***

I'd love to hear about your memories and experiences of great pizza and great pizza places, in the comments.

Coming soon: my pizza; and links.

* If you are dead set on finding great pizza, you begin to notice some commonalities among the true greats. One -- maybe the one -- is that it is all about the pizza. Great pizza restaurants don't have themes; often they don't even quite have what you would call 'decoration'. They don't advertise on TV. They don't specialise in customer service. They don't worry about 'marketing'. They have long-time employees, at least working as pizzaioli. Often, it's a family operation.

**Not that I'm against experimentation with flavours and toppings, I do it all the time and recommend others do, too. But I'm a strange combination of purist and inventor: somehow, taco pizza just sounds like a bad joke, but chicken satay doesn't. I don't know that I can explain it, and it may defy analysis.

*** Part of the moral of the story is that so much of the way we think business (and much else) needs to be run these days is completely overturned by this. These places don't do marketing analyses; they don't have vision statements or five-year plans; they aren't concerned to be up to the minute and 'relevant'. They have no plans to franchise or take over the world. They do what they do. They do it exceedingly well. Word gets around. And I and others are willing to pass by innumerable other chains to go there. Church -- mark well. (See, I got around to theology and cultural commentary eventually!)

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Blogger Philip Young said...

Ah, Quonset. Now this I can talk about. As you have, my entire family grew up on Quonset pizza. Where I currently reside is a 20 minute drive to Quonset. While I don't make that trip all the time for pizza, I certainly do now and then. It makes for a wonderful treat.

One thing I like about them is their pizza hasn't changed in over 30 years. It tastes the same now as it did when I was little.

Right after I moved out to Grayslake, they opened up a delivery location just down the street. It was nice to be able to get Quonset pizza delivered hot to the door. Unfortunately, with the multitudes of other pizza places in Grayslake it didn't survive and closed around a year ago.

I grew up with Potesta's, but for the pasta, not the pizza. They are still around but I have not been there for a long, long time. Never been to Friar Tuck's.

As for cooking, I'm kind of in the same position. I do most of the cooking for my family. However, my specialty is lies in desserts. Brownies, cookies, cakes, etc. I've perfected a really tasty chocolate tapioca pudding and I'm still working on different types of cookies.

Sunday, March 12, 2006 6:11:00 AM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

I regularly get tagged w/ the epithet 'snob' (esp. about beer), so I know what you're talking about there. I've stopped protesting, because after all, as the saying goes, if hating Bud Light is wrong, I don't want to be right.

I am merely an amateur in all things pizza, but I do miss Chicago pizza (like really a lot); the ridiculously huge Chicago deep dish stuffed pizza thing was amazing (best - Guilliver's in Rogers Park down the street from us; even Giordano's was ok). We didn't know how good we had it - I've yet to find a place in Nashville with even a modicum of imagination or interest put into their pizza.

Sunday, March 12, 2006 8:20:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Sonderman said...

I used to be a lead singer for a band named 570 that used to play Friar Tuck's in the mid-70s. The owner liked us because we got people dancing and drinking.

Unlike many band members, on my day off, I would work in their kitchen, cooking pizza--my salary with the band scarcely covered my bar tab and the extra money was a God-send. The owner got a kick out of me working in his kitchen. He was a great guy and I enjoyed working for him--plus, I got fed REAL well.

Anyway, I can confirm that the sauce was indeed cooked, slowly and well. Having grown up in eastern Ohio (Warren/Niles/Youngstown) most of my friends were old school Italians. They (and their ancestors) taught me how to cook, so I appreciated the quality of Friar Tuck's. Since I never served as a their prep cook, I can't confirm that they used wine, but I would strongly suspect it, since their marinara was quite good. They took pride in it.

Their stuffed pizza remains among my favorites, and I've eaten the best, all around Chicagoland, for decades. Friar Tuck's was a diamond in the rough, one that continues to make me smile all these years later.

Friday, September 07, 2007 4:37:00 AM  

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