I have an unhealthy appetite for pizza. For me, it’s always been the perfect food. I’m not sure why a pizza is intrinsically more appetizing than a burger, or steak, pasta, or pretty much anything else; it just is. When I was in graduate school, one of my jobs was at a Pizza Inn. I made pizzas, delivered them, and managed the buffet table. I’d never want to have that job again, but mostly that’s just about living on little more than minimum wage. On the upside, I ate pizza for one meal a day practically every day (and sometimes more than one meal a day), paid for almost none of those meals, and was still in the best shape of my life. (Being on my feet all the time maybe had something to do with it. Or being twenty-three.) My friends were certain this would kill my love of pizza, but it never did.
Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t work in an ice-cream parlor.
When I left grad school and returned to Miami, a buddy and I set out on a mission to eat at every pizzeria in town, searching for “mystic pizza.” I don’t think either one of us had seen the Julia Roberts movie, but the phrase had slipped into our zeitgeist, and on some level it seemed to feel like naming the thing had to call it into existence.
We weren’t so much looking for perfect pizza, though, as we were for a perfect pizzeria. A great pizza in a great setting.
This was before internet-as-we-know-it, so our brilliant methodology consisted of ripping the “Pizza” pages out of the yellow pages, keeping them folded up in my car, and crossing off each restaurant we visited, mostly in alphabetical order.
In hindsight, we really had no conception of how many pizzerias there were in Miami. I met Lisa and got married long before we made it even a quarter of the way through the list, and suddenly I didn’t seem to have time anymore for making our way through all two-hundred or whatever pizzerias in greater Miami.
We never did find that perfect pizzeria. We found a lot of places that did one or two things right but fell short of the mark elsewhere, and one pizzeria that was memorably bad: Rey’s Pizzeria. Rey’s is a Miami chain that’s open twenty-four hours (or at least, it was back then) and purports to serve “Cuban-style pizza.” Now I’m Cuban-American, and to me that phrase is without meaning. Apparently, though, Cuban-style pizza is nausea-inducing, with god-knows-what variety of cheese on top of a slab of (round) bread at least two inches thick, that was shown a picture of some sauce on its way from the prep table to the oven. Served in a dining room with all the charisma of a K-Mart.
It’s disappointing, though, that we couldn’t find even one place that made exactly what we were looking for. Different people’s ideas of perfection would of course look nothing alike, but I don’t think we were asking for anything all that crazy. You’d think we’d have found it just once.
Here’s what we were looking for in our mystic pizzeria:
- New York style pizza. This is the One True Pizza. We would brook no false pizzas before it.
- The pizzeria must not be part of a chain. It could be a local chain, because a really excellent place is likely to be successful and open one or two other locations. But if your manager can’t rattle off the locations of all your other restaurants, then you’re too big.
- Fresh dough mixed on the premises.
- Not stingy with the toppings–particularly not the sauce. In my experience, it’s the sauce where most pizzeria employees tend to skimp. After you spread the sauce around but before you put the cheese down, the pizza should be red-orange in color. If it’s closer to pink, you’re doing it wrong.
- This is pretty much already covered in bullet number one, but a pizza must be round. Also, it must be cut in an asterisk-like pattern, so that each slice has a bit of crust.
- The pizzeria must have excellent garlic knots, or, in a pinch, Italian-bread-style garlic bread oozing with cheese.
- The pizzeria must serve beer. It doesn’t have to be good beer, but beer is a staple.
- The pizzeria must be comfortable in decor, not trendy. Bricks should be in evidence, or, failing that, wood paneling. A television or a juke box are both okay.
- A staff that’s treated well enough to be reasonably stable–if I’m a regular, it ought to be possible to get to know my server, and maybe some of the other staff too.
- One or two (preferably classic) arcade games by the door are okay, though certainly not required or even encouraged. However, more than this is too many, and skee-ball is right out! Mystic Pizza isn’t a freaking Chuck E. Cheese’s!
What’s your perfect pizzeria like? Have you found it? Do you have some other food that you like way more than a sane person should?