Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let's Be Frank

Gilda fried our 23-year-old microwave Sunday, which explains why I found myself on lower Central Avenue in Yonkers at a P.C. Richards on Tuesday. Didn’t find what we wanted, but it being around lunchtime, I had another choice to make—fast food or a trip down nostalgia lane. I chose the latter, in the form of a visit to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletano, a relatively new outpost of a famous New Haven, Conn.-based institution Gilda and I frequented when we lived in New Haven 35 years ago.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t eat my first slice of pizza until I was 14. Hard to believe, but keep in mind that back in the 1950s and early 1960s most mozzarella cheese was considered not to be kosher. The presumption was the cheese was aged in casings made from animal intestines (for the non-Jews out there, milk and meat products cannot touch, much less be eaten together, a restriction I do not follow now when eating outside the home, but did until my early teenage years). It was a truly big deal when my brother and his friends, especially Jerry who was far more religiously observant than we were, snuck a pizza into our home while our parents were away. Since that fateful day I have enjoyed pizza around the world, in Italy, of course, in Germany, England, The Czech Republic, even Japan.

Arguably the best pizza anywhere is served on Wooster Street in New Haven, where Frank Pepe started baking pies in 1925, to be followed in 1938 by his nephew Sally Consiglio, who opened a rival storefront down the block. On any given Sunday, rain or shine, lines outside form early as the hungry wait for the pizza parlors to open their gates to gastronomic heaven. Fistfights can break out among Pepe and Sally’s loyalists arguing the merits of their respective thin-crusted pizzas.

I’m partial to Sally’s, but that could be because I rather enjoy the Spartan, ramshackle d├ęcor that democratizes all who eat there. On our last visit to Sally’s a couple of years ago, ex- senator/governor Lowell Weicker sat at another table with his family. I was tempted to go over and say hello. After all, while working for the New Haven Register, I did interview him during the Labor Day weekend break in the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 and got him to go on record that he wouldn’t use his heightened public fame as a springboard to run for president (a stance he abandoned several years later). That story made the Associated Press wire, my first taste of national exposure. Perhaps he’d remember me. Doubtful. Since we were seated near the door, I figured my chance to reconnect would come when they walked passed. I was reviewing in my mind what I would say when I looked up and realized Weicker and family had ducked out a side exit. Another opportunity lost to history, and lack of initiative.

Ah, well. This time I’d seize the moment by stopping at Pepe’s for a personal size pizza. Nothing fancy, just a plain pie cooked in a coal-fired brick oven. The pizza came in a rectangular baking tray, thin crusted as I remembered it, with a few spots of charcoal. I chomped into the first slice and tasted...rubber. How disappointing! This was not what I remembered. Maybe it was just the first slice. Maybe the second. Or third. Or fourth. Oh, my, god...the whole pie was a concoction of rubbery, chewy dough.

Another memory of my youth shattered by the reality of the present. What’s next to vaporize? Will I discover I really don’t like Yankee Doodles? That would be like turning my back on my childhood. Better play it safe and not eat any. Besides, I’ll be a lot healthier if I stay away from Yankee Doodles. And, truth be told, pizza as well.