[CREATIVE NONFICTION] The Pizza Connoisseur
I always kept the saying ‘Pizza is like sex: even when it’s bad, it’s still good’ in my arsenal while spending my whole life in New Hampshire. Then I moved to Florida and was forced to write off this phrase in response to the hurt and betrayal I felt after leaving my hometown to attend college. I like to consider myself somewhat of a pizza connoisseur like the other millions of Italian-Americans living in America who enjoy pretending they’re fresh off the ship at Ellis Island. As a living creature with taste buds, though, I assumed that everyone could share my ability to differentiate between the awful and the heavenly. I was too generous and gave credit where credit was not due.
To my horror, I’ve watched hundreds from my species gorge themselves on what I view as a few grades above toxic waste. Che cosa! I cry to myself as I see people thoroughly enjoy the same food I’d gotten and couldn’t eat more than a few bites. I then adopted a new saying: ‘You can’t miss what you’ve never had.’ I realized most Floridians who have lived in the same area their whole lives grew up eating garbage, so they don’t even know there are wholesome things waiting for them outside this forsaken peninsula.
I have been relentless in my quest to find a palatable pizza. I spent hours pouring over online reviews from Yelp and Trip Advisor and only sampled the ones with the highest feedback. One pizza I tried marketed as “thin crust” seriously made me believe they took a tortilla, dumped a can of store-bought tomato sauce on it, and half-melted a few careless handfuls of old mozzarella unevenly distributed across the pie. I took a bite and tasted the tears of a quesadilla’s cry for help. The experience was so traumatizing that I needed a few months to clear my conscience (and palate) before trying again.
Another pizza I ordered tried to tickle a heart attack out of my innards. I wanted to spice things up with a topping, so I asked for pepperoni. To my dismay, I opened the box to see a grease monster gaping up at me with a thousand glittering red eyes.
“You’re going to be awful,” I said to it telepathically.
“You spent ten dollars on me and you haven’t eaten in hours,” it said. I struggled to figure out which of its eyes I should stare into as we silently challenged each other.
I cautiously wiggled a piece away from the rest of its pack and frowned as it hung limply, unable to support its own weight. If a pizza makes me think about sad old men who can’t get an erection before I eat, I know it’s all gone to hell. One trick I’ve learned is that pizza makers who hide the cheesy surface know their food is awful, and, as a last ditch effort, they try to cover their crime against humanity with an offensive amount of toppings. I gnawed off a piece of the slimy cardboard and wiggled the contents to the back of my throat like a depressed bird. I swear I felt my arteries constrict after this assault.
Another failed attempt occurred in the guise of a success. I went back to the basics and stuck with a plain cheese pizza. It seemed to taste relatively okay on the first bite. This was all part of some sick joke, though. I realized my body was being transformed into dust as the pizza was the catalyst to an inhumanly fast process of osmosis. I calculated some mathematical equations and extrapolated that for each piece of pizza ingested, two full glasses of water must follow in order to escape death.
All of these tastings have spread from the Daytona Beach area to Orlando. I became hopelessly committed and did not want to stop trying until I engulfed the whole state. I traveled out to Tampa and St. Petersburg and had bad experiences, and I traveled all the way down to Del Ray Beach and even Miami. With each new place I traveled to I whipped open my laptop and soaked in all the information I could about each local pizzeria.
In Tampa, I ate a pizza that was very thin. Its crunch was admirable, but it was like eating some seasoned crackers. My mom and I split a large pizza, and we were amazed to say that it was only an appetizer.
“We just ate a whole pizza by ourselves,” I said.
“That thing wasn’t pizza. It was air,” she said.
In Delray Beach, I ate pizza marketed as being cooked in a coal oven, which gave me more hope than any other place had. Back home, I used to eat at a brick oven pizzeria all the time, and it was simply bliss. I figured this unique cooking tactic had to give the pizza its good flavor. Since it was our first date, I wanted to skip past all the glamorous pretenses of toppings and see it with no makeup on. When the pizza arrived at the table, I was concerned because it was completely charred on the crust. I gave it a chance and was pleased with the light sauce and fresh cheese, but the last few inches of it were completely inedible. Had I not known better, I would’ve thought I was eating the actual coal as the crust. After attempting to eat the char, I felt sure that I had discovered what cancer tasted like from all the carcinogens lurking in that dead dough.
I am happy, however, to report that I have found a pizza place that makes a good pie in a surprising place: DeLand. I had overlooked them in my searches from Daytona Beach to Orlando. While I can’t tell you the names of all the miserable places you should avoid because I’ve suppressed it from my memory, I can earnestly recommend Forno Bello. They specialize in brick oven pizza, much like the kind I consumed back home.
Our meeting was an ethereal experience after all the disappointment I’d faced before. The waiter was faceless, my parents were faceless, yet I was disturbingly hyper-aware of how much face I had once we made eye contact. It was love at first sight. This steamy wonder batted its perfectly julienned basil lashes at me and invited me to gorge. It was crisp at first, due to the high cooking temperature in the brick oven, but it quickly melted in my mouth once I chewed through the light, herbaceous sauce freckled with shavings of parmigiano between the discs of gooey mozzarella.
My father was almost moved to tears when he tasted the pizza and asked to speak to the owner.
“Where ah you frahm?” he asked in wonder.
“Bawsten,” she said, and it was instant kinship. His gasp sounded emphysemic when he learned a fellow traveler from his motherland had not let him down.
I knew it would’ve been a mistake to assume someone who created the thin, crisp, authentic Margherita pizza I consumed could be a native Floridian. I won’t let myself digress into all the times I’ve been lied to when I ordered a Margherita pizza and simply got a cheese pizza.
But pizza has not been my only source of disappointment: everything in Florida is. I’ve sampled all the cuisines this state has to offer and can count on one hand the number of restaurants I frequent, one of them, of course, being Forno Bello. I imagine that eating the excrements of a New Hampshirite would be more spiritually satisfying than most experiences down here eating food sans intestinal interaction. It wasn’t until a turn of events during an evening walk with my dad when I realized the full scope of all the food I’d been missing out on back home.
“Aw, damn, I stepped in dog shit,” my dad said. My eyes lit in excitement.
“Let’s harvest it and market it as fancy, foreign chocolate. We will be millionaires down here,” I said, scared at my half-seriousness and elation about feces. My dad stopped mid-step, looked up into the sky as if he was contemplating the meaning of the universe, and slowly shook his head.
“No…no…” he said, still considering it as a real business proposition.
Although we found a suitable pizza place, my Italian family is actually quite cultured. When we were hankering for a mean fajita, everyone recommended a Mexican restaurant called Salsas. I visited their website, and the first thing I saw was text laid over conspicuous looking meat trapped between two soggy tortillas: “Let Salsas Fix Your Hunger…”
I chose to ignore the shady ellipses and the “100% Fresh” certification they listed above their lunch special, which suggests the only reason why it’s special is because that is the only dish composed of real ingredients. I brushed past the disconcerting feeling. I wanted to give it a real chance before I crucified it based on a virtual first impression.
We walked into a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall. The aggressive trumpet cacophony that contrasted with the lack of lighting convinced me that I’d walked into some fucked up Mexican circus and clowns wearing sombreros would pop out and beat me with churros. At least a circus would’ve been a legitimate excuse for the food we were served, but it was just a standard Floridian gem. If you set the food out, Floridians will scurry through dark, dirty places like rats and feast.
My parents sat down, so I was forced to continue participating in this mistake. I ordered the Pollo Fundido and it was the farthest thing from fun. The waiter set my plate down and I stared at the remnants of a chicken carcass drowned in a plastic-looking cheese sauce. All three of us ordered different meals, but they all tasted the same: salty. Any meat was just a textural vehicle to transport the salt licks to our mouths. My dad, being a dad, was obligated to make a joke. “Salsas? More like Saltsas!”
That experience was traumatizing enough to make us never try another Mexican restaurant, or any other culturally diverse restaurant, ever again. Whenever I get the urge for something spicy, I go to Chipotle since it is a national chain. Their recent E. Coli scandal has not deterred me. If I have to eat shit, I want to at least eat authentic shit.