I was having an interesting night. I haven't always been comfortable just going out alone and sitting in a restaurant while surrounded by people who were out together enjoying a social experience. I don't remember when that changed exactly, but I do remember how it became that much more of a comfortable thing while I was working in New York. I realized that I liked it in a way because, in this city there is so much going on and it would be a shame to not go experience it all just because you were there alone.
I just had two great pizza experiences in a row, in the span of a couple of hours, and had only walked a couple of blocks. John's Pizzeria was a throwback to a classic New York style pizza that
remains deeply rooted in my memory. Pizza Roma was a delicious escape with a carefully balanced pizza in a nice cafe style setting. I was fully satisfied by both experiences and had found two places that would compete for my time in future visits. To me, it felt as though I had hit a home run. For a pizza nut, this was a near perfect night.
I was out and walking down the street, but my walk was again a short one. I turned the corner onto Carmen Street and I found my next and final stop: Joe's Pizza. Joe's is a take-out pizza- counter type of place. There are a few places to sit, and a few areas to stand at a counter, but it's designed to sell you pizzas to go, or slices for a quick lunch, dinner, snack, or late night "second dinner." It was about 10:30 PM now, so I was closing in on the beginning of their second dinner part of their business. When I walked in, the two guys behind the counter were having a boisterous conversation with a couple standing at the counter. This was the kind of conversation you only seem to find in New York, or on the East Coast. They were laughing and talking about things as if they knew each other for years, but afterwards I realized they were just a couple of customers that had wandered in that night. In Los Angeles this conversation only happens between New York transplants, or between people who actually do know each other!
I stood looking at the menu, but I knew what I was having. I wanted a straightforward single slice of New York Cheese Pizza. I was on a roll that night, living out my Valentine's Day dream (don't tell my wife!). I just had two great pizzas that were totally different, but equally satisfying. I was now standing poised to really re-visit my childhood. I grew up in New Jersey and remember coming to New York with my father and getting to buy those gigantic slices of cheese pizza and walking down the street with him. As a kid, those babies are huge. And, the memory of getting them with my father seared the experience deeply into my mind.
I made eye contact with one of the guys behind the counter. He looked over at me, while still engaged in his conversation. I said "Slice of Cheese." Without so much as a blink he slapped a hot slice of cheese pizza on the counter in front of me. It was as if he had a pizza oven under the counter that I couldn't see and had his hand on the slice just waiting for me to come in and make the request. It was that fast. Was he the Pizza Nazi? I thought about saying something, but was afraid he might take it back just as fast. "No pizza for you!" You might think he was rude because it was so fast, but it wasn't. He was just ready with that slice. I worried it wasn't going to be hot enough, but didn't dare question him!
I took my slice over to the counter stand where the salt/pepper and herbs were sitting, or I should more appropriately say laying around. I hit my slice with a little oregano and some red pepper flakes. Things looked good here. It was still lightly raining outside. The conversation still rolled along behind me over at the counter. My pizza looked like the images seared into my memory. Oddly, the thing was indeed piping hot, just as it should be. Was this guy a magician turning so fast and pulling my slice out of the oven without me seeing it, or did he really have an oven hidden under the counter. I think he is the Pizza Nazi! Did he know I was coming? Maybe they caught word of my secret pizzeria crawl as news was spreading down the street from where I started?
Suddenly, I was 10 years old! You know the feeling of Deja Vu? I think our sense of smell and taste is so strong that we can be easily transported in time when something makes that perfect connection to our memories. That first little triangular bite tells you everything. I smiled as the taste of the cheese and tomatoes and the classic New York Crust collided head on with my memories. I took a few more bites while I observed the little pizzeria. I noticed the rain again outside as I looked out through the foggy windows.
I then decided that I was finished here. My Valentine's Day Pizzeria Crawl was coming to a close. I was totally fulfilled. I took my slice and decided to go out for a walk in the rain and try to bring back a little balance to the evening by working off a few of the calories I had acquired on my trip down the block on Bleecker Street that evening.
Again, I can't wait to come back.