Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stop--Pizza Time!

          Pizza comes in many forms . . . thin crust, deep dish, New York style, Chicago style, meat lover’s, vegetarian, delivery, DiGiorno’s, and countless other varieties. You can get it at Gino’s on the east side of Chicago or you can get a frozen Tombstone out of the freezer at Wal-Mart. You can put whatever you want on it, too—pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, Canadian bacon, spinach, steak, extra cheese—even pineapple or something gosh-awful gnarly like anchovies. My point is, pizza can be whatever you want it to be, depending on your desires or needs—it’s pretty awesome like that. And, for the most part, you can get it whenever and wherever you want, which adds to its universal appeal. However, I submit to you the idea that it is not just the scrumptious taste of pizza that makes it desirable, nor is it merely its convenience of acquisition; rather, I believe it is the people you eat it with and the occasions it can commemorate that truly make pizza the cultural icon it is. As such, we’re going to look at a few different personal experiences I’ve had with pizza, and a few reasons why I see it as more than just something pleasant to eat.

First off: Pizza with Carol. The best pizza I ever had, heaven help us, came out of Alton, Missouri, from a tiny place called Blue Moon Pizza. Nobody made a great pizza like Carol—NOBODY. My formative childhood years were filled with the delicious aroma of freshly-baked pizzas, straight out of the pizza oven at the Blue Moon. Thick, chewy crust . . . excellent toppings . . . greasy, but not too greasy . . . and best of all, my cuteness paid off in spades, because Carol would always give me a cookie whenever my mom and I would come in with a pizza craving. Unfortunately, all good things must inevitably come to an end, and after a few years, Carol moved out of town, taking her fantastic pizza-making skills with her. The little building that housed such wondrous feats of pie-making did not go unused, however, as soon a new pizza place moved in—the Wagon Wheel. Unfortunately, the pizzas served there had about the culinary appeal of spaghetti sauce slathered over a cracker. It was an affront to the legend that was the Blue Moon, and naturally, the Wagon Wheel soon rolled away in shame, leaving the building an empty husk until, finally, it became a florist’s shop. Y’know, now that I think about it, I don’t even think that’s in business now. It’s a real shame how things work out sometimes.

Secondly, Pizza with Topper’s. I don’t know what this place was originally, save that it was a restaurant connected to a strange, nautical, almost pirate-themed motel, which was nestled slightly off the beaten path in Thayer, Missouri. I can’t really describe it properly, because it’s been a long time since it’s been in business. Walls were black, both inside and out, and it overlooked a bit of water, though I can’t even remember if one could see the river from there or not. What I do remember was that the pizza was really good, and my parents and I used to go there all the time when I was little. It was no Blue Moon, but it was good enough for us—certainly better than Pizza Inn, which was the only other pizza place in town, aside from the Jolly Roger over on Main Street in nearby Mammoth Spring(which never seemed to be open when we were in the mood for pizza; naturally, this was the place that looked most interesting, due to its mysterious nature, and unfortunately, it went out of business before I could ever try it). As has previously been mentioned, though, good things have a tendency to go out of business . . . or go under new management; either one can be a death sentence for a once-good restaurant. Topper’s definitely suffered, because when the new owner came in, the quality of the pizza went out. Scant toppings, less sensational crust . . . no need to go any further. Topper’s soon went completely out of business—why go out of your way to eat there if they do nothing special to make your dining experience memorable? Lackluster pizza certainly doesn’t do the trick, that’s for sure. Topper’s bit the dust, followed some years later by the elusive Jolly Roger. For a time, a new place called Pizza 500 tried to take a bite out of Pizza Inn’s crappy pizza monopoly, only to fail and be replaced by Patriot’s Pizza, and later Hog-Wild Pizza. Bottom line, if you go to the Thayer-Mammoth Spring area looking for pizza, you’re better off either going to a gas station or just buying a DiGiorno’s and baking it yourself; Pizza Inn is, unfortunately, an embarrassment to pizza connoisseurs.

Third, Pizza with Simon. My first two years of college, I didn’t really eat pizza. The university had a deal with Domino’s, so every time pizza was served at a school function, guess what? Domino’s. Yecch. This was back when Domino’s was just overspiced, overpriced delivery crap, and I hated it. They did improve somewhat after a few years, but at that particular point in time, they were terrible. I ate Little Caesar’s for the first time during my second year, and at first they weren’t too bad. Their $5 deal was pretty cool, too. Unfortunately, I got really sick of them really fast. Not only were they cheap, they tasted cheap, too. Again, yecch. Thankfully, there was one good place to get pizza in this town, and that was Simple Simon’s. Simple Simon’s had been there for years and years and years, but let’s face it, that ain’t the most appetizing name for a pizza place. Places like Pizza Hut and Pizza Inn, the name tells you what you’re getting, and at least Little Caesar’s sounds Italian. “Simple Simon’s” tells you nothing, unless you watched Die Hard: With a Vengeance in the past week or so and remember that at some point in his travels, Simple Simon ran across a “pieman.”  For a while, during their heyday, they actually had two locations in town—their traditional location toward the outskirts of town and another one right by Wal-Mart, which one would think would be prime turf. Unfortunately, I guess they overestimated the public demand for their pizza, because before long the Wal-Mart adjacent location was converted into a car lot, leaving only the original location. Two things about Simple Simon’s you need to know: one, they apparently used goat cheese on their pizzas. Odd, but it tasted okay, so I won’t complain. Two, a LOT of Russian immigrants eat and are employed there. I remember one time I was waiting on my pizza to bake, and there were two guys sitting at a booth chatting in Russian. One of them got up and walked up to the counter to talk to the girl there, and then they started talking in Russian to each other. It was weird, but kinda cool. Anyway, I never really went there much until my third year of college, when I started working as a writing tutor. I worked every night except Thursday, when I had poker night at the student center. The thing was, I got off work at 6 on Thursday, and poker wasn’t until 7, so I had an hour to kill every week. Most Thursdays, I’d go on a Chinese run. I loved the Diamond Head—still do. Their buffet wasn’t huge, but their food was quality stuff, and their takeout menu was dirt cheap. You could eat like a king for less than five bucks, and we did indeed dine like royalty, digging into our Styrofoam bounty with forks in lieu of scepters. But every now and then, we’d be in the mood for something different, so I’d make a pizza run instead. Simple Simon’s—so good. Of course, one time a friend rode with me because she wanted to go to McDonald’s, which was right along the way to Simple Simon’s. It’s a good thing we got her food first, because she ended up waiting in the car for almost an hour while they got my pizza ready. Sam, if you’re reading this, I’m ever so sorry that this is your most prominent memory of me . . .
        Now, almost a year since the first of the Simple Simon’s runs, I return to town to find that Simple Simon’s is no more—replaced by some unknown pizza joint called Mudducks or some such stupid name. I haven’t gone in—I can’t bear to. It looks . . . so bloody stupid. I can only hope that the quality remains unchanged or has been improved, and that the friendly Russians and Ukrainians who worked there still have their jobs. As for me, I weep (figuratively, not literally) for Simple Simon’s; they were the best pizza in town, but sometimes that’s just not good enough. Now I can only keep my fingers crossed for a Papa John’s to open up . . .

Pizza with Gino . . . ohhhh, my. The first time I went to Chicago, with Anime Viewers Anonymous (an eclectic little group that was the source of both my fondest and most bitter college memories), we spent our first night in town wandering around for hours in the rain, all because our “fearless leader” thought it would be fun. Now, I’m all for a little exploration every so often, but I’d much rather have a specific destination, and, most importantly, I like knowing my toil will be rewarded by amazing local cuisine. Not this night, unfortunately. Where did he lead us? With all these exotic restaurants lining the streets . . . Asian, Mediterranean, Lebanese . . . pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, whatever . . . one person suggested McDonald’s, of all places, but we ended up at SubWay. Now, I like SubWay, but seriously, kiddies, that’s just not right. So many options, and we end up eating at the same place we could have eaten at back home. I wasn’t overly thrilled, to say the least, but I figured the next day we’d make up for it. As we undertook the several-mile hike to the comic book convention the next day, we again passed by a number of interesting restaurants (can we say Belgian waffles? I don’t even particularly like waffles, but these smelled amazing!) . . . and then we passed into “Boys’ Town.” Now, I’ll admit, I’m a pretty crusty old right-winger, and homosexuality kinda weirds me out a bit—it just ain’t biological, I’m sorry. Still, it was a very nice, orderly, clean part of town . . . if you could get past the sexually explicit free newspapers on every street corner, the sex shops, and even “Gaymart” (!). There were restaurants there, too, such as Nookies, Too (Nookies too?! In addition to what?!!) and even Nookies Tree (not Nookies Three, Nookies TREE). Ooookayyyy . . . Anyway, after the convention, several of our number ate in the deli downstairs, and in retrospect, I probably should have, too. But I felt all kinds of awful after walking all over the convention center, and truth be told, all I wanted was to go back to the hostel where we were staying and crash and burn for a few hours. We headed on down the street back to our hostel, and on our way, two of our number, including “Fearless Leader,” decided to stop in at Nookies Tree. I was going to join them, but there was already a line out the door, and I was carrying a crap ton of merchandise. It was no decision at all, really; I ran to catch up with Ms. A (my mentor, former English teacher, and A.V.A’s sponsor, who had driven us to Chicago in the first place) and the others, almost losing them in the bustling crowd. It was a long and terrible walk, and I was so glad when we finally got back and I could lie down. My respite was short-lived, however, because as soon as the others got back, they wanted to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which was fun, but sheesh! I was exhausted!   
        That night, though, my patience was finally rewarded. We asked around in the lobby of the hostel as to where the best local pizza joint was, and a traveler remarked that he particularly liked a place called Gino’s. My, oh, my . . . he was right. It was a really long walk to get to Gino’s, too, and my feet were in hideous pain at this point, but it was worth it. Also worth it was standing in line for 30 minutes to place our order . . . and another 30 to get our table and eat. But it was so good . . . I can’t even remember what was on the walls there, but there was all kinds of neat, funny stuff . . . and the pizza . . . deep dish pepperoni, with the sauce on top of the cheese and toppings, oddly enough . . . it was excellent. And even though we split it at least three ways, we still had two huge hunks left over. The best part, though, was when Josh, one of our intrepid number, went to pay for his share. Our waitress was seriously cute, and Josh—of course—noticed, rendering him pretty much helpless. As he handed her a $20 for a $10 meal, he found himself mumbling, “Don’t worry about it” as she said, “Let me get your change” (I can’t remember the exact numbers or prices, but he did lose about $10 unnecessarily in that transaction). Yup, he definitely took some ribbing for that one. Alas, because I knew there was no way our leftover pizza would keep overnight, I forced myself to eat it later that night, and it was not a pleasant feeling, but it tasted so good, and I will most assuredly go back. Unfortunately, I did not get to return the second time I went to Chicago—I didn’t even get to go to Papa John’s, for cripes’ sake! Nope, guess where “Fearless Leader” convinced Ms. A to stop? Not Subway—oh, no, that would be too good! We ate at freaking ARBY’S. The absolute worst place imaginable (next to McDonald’s, of course). I mean, at least Taco Bell tastes good . . .

        Now, as we move into my junior year, Pizza with Shakespeare. My current city is known for its popular downtown college hangouts, and probably the most famous is Shakespeare’s Pizza. There are two Shakespeare’s restaurants, one downtown and one just a stone’s throw from my house. I like the one by my house because of its convenient location, but I like the one downtown better for two reasons—first, because of its atmosphere and secondly, because the cute girls work there, one of whom actually flashed me a “Live long and prosper” gesture when she saw my Captain Kirk T-shirt—HECK, yeah!! Anyway, the problem with Shakes’ is that they are really expensive, and they don’t really give out discounts very often, except for small coupons in the Add Sheet and occasional promotional deals on snow days and whatnot. Here’s the thing, though: they can get away with being pricey because they’re good. They have better ingredients and a MUCH better atmosphere than a lot of their local competitors, and they’re right off campus for easy access—only Domino’s is closer, and really, who’s going to go there if they want a good pizza (except broke college students, so I guess my point lacks the punch it should have had)? The only downside to their pizzas is they are VERY greasy, but hey, that’s what napkins are for, and you can also take your nice, plastic Shakespeare’s cup with you when you’re done—SCORE! Anyway, I don’t get to go to Shakespeare’s much, primarily because of the cost. I can get a Tombstone pizza for $3 at Wal-Mart, which is a whole lot less than the $10-12 I might spend at Shakes’ for a pizza of the same size. Dang, but they’re good, though! When I first moved into my new place, the roommates insisted we try Shakespeare’s. We went downtown first, because we had heard the atmosphere was better, but alas, there was no room at the inn, as it were, so we had to seek out sustenance elsewhere, so we ended up at the place by our house. Four guys, two 16” pizzas, OH yeah!! It was great, and for a while there, I made an effort to eat at Shakes’ whenever possible, even though I was usually eating alone. Still, it was always good, and I majorly regretted not having enough money to keep eating there.
        Good location, good service, good pizza, free cups, pretty nerd girls at the counter . . . couldn’t ask for much more. And apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. This year, when “Good Morning, America” held a contest to determine the top college hangout in America, Shakes’ won by a landslide. Best of all, to commemorate the event, Shakes’ offered a special deal: $4 off all their large pizzas AND free fountain drinks. I rallied my roommates, my friends, and my coworkers, and we all went out to eat one last time before the Christmas break (granted, some of us would meet again at Fuddrucker’s even closer to the end of the break, but it just didn’t have the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s). There is just something timeless and special about good friends sitting together and enjoying pizza—I can’t put my finger on what, exactly, makes it click, but it does. All together, all sharing, all happy . . . it’s what good times are made of, ya dig? Hopefully I’ll have enough money for another Shakespeare’s run next semester, too.

Next up, Pizza with Gumby. Nope, not kidding. There’s a pizza place called Gumby’s, also, and it’s a pretty famous college hangout, too. They pride themselves as being the town’s late-night pizza destination. Also, they’re famous for their breadst—er, Pokey-stix. They’re not bad, either. Their pizza has a thick, puffy crust and is always hot and gooey, and if you go in on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, they’re really cheap . . . the problem is, they kinda taste cheap, too. But there’s a great atmosphere there, too. Lots of nifty posters, such as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, and hand-painted murals of Gumby and Pokey adorn the walls from the cash register all the way to the restroom stalls. They even have an air hockey table, which is downright awesome. Gumby’s became an after-work tradition after a while, and we’d always take advantage of their Tuesday-Wednesday deals (buy one medium pizza at $8, get one free). That way, if we each put in $4, we’d have our own nice, gooey, pizza, and unless we were really hungry, we’d have enough for breakfast the next morning, too. This was also good because if one of us or a friend was low on cash, it was no real loss to make sure that person got something to eat—at most, we could each toss in a dollar, and at least one of us could share our own pizza. Even though Gumby’s will never be my favorite place to eat, it sure was nice having them around, and I have no doubt I’ll be eating there again over the semesters to come.

Pizza with Papa . . . John, that is. Oddly enough, my own papa doesn’t care much for pizza—he’s just a weird dude, I dunno. Papa John’s, on the other hand, is awesome! They have good wings, too, but it’s cheaper for me to make my own hot wings to go with my pizza. And yes, their pizza is great. I remember the first time I had it: like with Simple Simon’s, the VERY first time I ever had their pizza was at a church youth event—can’t remember where. It was love at first bite—apologies to George Hamilton.  Better crust, better ingredients, better pizza, indeed! The ultimate moment of vindication came when roommate G took a bite, mulled over it for a moment, and then, slowly, admitted that yes, it was indeed better than Gumby’s. Roommates B and D were a bit harder to convince, but deep down, I think they knew. Plus, being a shrewd bargain-hunter, I always knew the best times to get my Papa John’s fix. They’re pretty expensive most of the time (and so is Gumby’s, for that matter, on most days), but every so often they have a customer appreciation day, wherein their large pizzas run $5.99—by Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings (bonus points if you can place the corny movie reference)!! I love places like Shakespeare’s and especially Gino’s, and I’ll always have a certain nostalgia for the Blue Moon, but as far as pizza I can readily obtain goes, it gets no better than Papa John’s. Believe the hype!!

Finally, Pizza with Gandhi, and this one actually has a meaning. Now, this may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, seeing as how Gandhi was famous for his “hunger strikes” for the cause of peace amongst his brethren in India and later Pakistan as well. However, I speak not of a literal rendezvous with the long-deceased and lamented attorney and human rights activist, but rather a truly inspired event that occurs twice a year at MSU-West Plains. Dennis L., a teacher of philosophy, ethics, journalism, and also the honors program, is one of the finest teachers and mentors a student could ever ask for, and I regret not taking his honors program because I wish I could have gotten to know him better during my time there. Part of what makes him an enjoyable teacher is the fact that he likes to show movies in class to illustrate various points from the material. For instance, over the course of his philosophy and ethics classes, he showed the films 12 Angry Men, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. He also offered another film, on a non-class evening, for extra credit, and referred to the event as “Pizza with Gandhi”, Gandhi being Richard Attenborough’s 3.5-hour snoozefest starring Ben Kingsley and Martin Sheen and “pizza” being the meal of the evening, ours to have for $4 per person, including guests, who were welcome to attend also. That is, I expected it to be a snoozefest, but I desperately needed the extra points. However, as time passed and “Pizza with Gandhi” drew ever closer, a classmate, Jeff, and I started joking around about it, becoming more and more enthusiastic until finally Jeff suggested we have T-shirts made to commemorate it the event. I was just giddy enough from laughter to agree, so we drove all over town trying to find the best possible deal. Ultimately, 5 shirts were created, all in royal blue with white lettering. On the front was the slogan, “Pizza with GANDHI,” and on the back, in block letters, was written a last-minute addition of “YEAH!!” (which came about for two reasons, first of which being that whenever I would say, “Piz-za . . . with Gan-dhi” in a singsong voice, “YEAH!!” was usually Jeff’s response—I never said we were particularly deep thinkers. The second was that I always felt just having something neat on the front of a shirt wasn’t enough—it was just incomplete without something on the back, too). One shirt went to a classmate. Another went to Dennis. Yet another went to a girl I really liked who not only rejected my invitation to the event but never wore the shirt in public (although a friend suggested that maybe she slept in it . . . *sigh*), and of course Jeff and I got the final two. Finally, “Pizza with Gandhi” arrived, and I was there early, just in case. Dennis was already there, queuing up the projector screen and placing his order for the pizzas. Soon the auditorium began to fill, as lots of credit-starved students showed up to get their attendance points. After a few minutes, Dennis went to pick up the pizzas (that’s the thing about Little Caesar’s—they’re dirt cheap, but they don’t deliver. That’s the price we pay for cheapness, I guess), and I was left to dread the next four hours. Oddly enough, Jeff wasn’t there, and since I had no cell phone at that time, I had no way to reach him. This was strange, because nobody had been more enthusiastic about “Pizza with Gandhi” than he, but I figured he was just running late. Soon Dennis arrived with the pizzas, we all ponied up our cash, and the movie was underway!
        Here’s the kicker: the movie rocked. Unbelievably, this British film (a dull genre), directed by a British actor (who would go on to make even the role of Santa Claus dull in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street), held my attention from start to finish, and I will suggest it to anybody with a higher attention rate than that of a six-year-old. Ben Kingsley, an exceptionally talented actor, brought his A-game to the film, just as he does to every film he stars in (even though some films he did still kinda sucked . . . Tuck Everlasting springs violently to mind), and was easy to forget that I was watching an actor on the screen instead of the real, honest-to-Gandhi . . . well, Gandhi. I can ramble on for hours, in a very clich├ęd manner, about how great this movie is. The bottom line is, it really is great—trust me. The pizza, on the other hand . . . not so much. Little Caesar’s is about a notch above Pizza Inn, maybe even above what Domino’s used to taste like (before they revamped their recipe maybe a year ago, if that), but it’s still pretty terrible when compared to the better places, like Pizza Hut or especially Papa John’s. Still, it’s cheap and it’s filling, and for the purpose it served, I was happy to have it. Pizza was, at the risk of earning disdain for using a food metaphor, the proverbial icing on the cake for an experience which was both educational and entertaining, and I went back the next semester even though I had already taken the class and therefore needed no extra credit. It was even better the second time around because everybody wanted to know where Dennis and I got our T-shirts. Since then, Dennis has also offered “Pizza with Truman,” which is the same thing only with The Truman Show, another excellent film, but I haven’t been able to make it to that one yet. Oh, and as for Jeff, turns out he had forgotten what night “Pizza with Gandhi” was—go figure.

        So yeah, pizza is pretty amazing. I like it, as many have liked it before me and many more to come shall, also. Everybody has pizza memories, either birthday parties or first dates or post-game celebrations or even late-night study sessions. Pizza can help you through heartbreak and spur you on to greatness. It’s wonderful stuff, and frankly, if you have pizza memories, you should share them. There’s space for comments—mostly all I did was talk about pizza I liked and pizza that sucked. Tell me about the deeper, emotional side—the part I’m uncomfortable with. C’mon, it’ll be therapeutic for us both! Order some Papa John’s and start typing—heck, I had my mom’s amazing homemade pizza this very evening! That may be why I have pizza on the brain . . . mmmmm, pizza!

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