I really should’ve known better. When you get right down to it, this all might’ve been my fault.
I should’ve known better than to order the Buffalo chicken pizza. I mean, in the full and flowering spectrum of pizza choices, the Buffalo chicken pizza is an anomaly, a bad joke among Neapolitan purists–like the Hawaiian or the Chicago deep-dish. It is barely a pizza at all, qualifying only because it is round, has a crust, comes from an oven and isn’t an apple pie. The Buffalo chicken pizza is less a pizza than it is an experiment in American overindulgence–in feeding the desperate need we have to always be stacking one good thing on top of something else or jamming one good thing inside another. Hmm, says the pizza man, standing thoughtful before his ovens and hoping for inspiration to strike. My customers do like pizza. But then, they ALSO like chicken wings. Hey, wait a minute! What if I were to…
Would that a runaway bus had chosen that moment to crash through the glass of the shop owned by the first man to consider Buffalo chicken pizza. Would that the vengeful food gods had access to mortars or a time machine.
But no. The Buffalo chicken pizza survived the moment of its awful conception and rocketed to popularity because, apparently, the gluttonous among us are unable to even stop for a fucking breath between the bite of pizza and stripping the meat from the chicken bone. We have to have it all at once–dripping sauce and oozing blue cheese dressing–and, seriously, if the Buffalo chicken pizza is a good idea, then why not boiled lobsters stuffed with strawberry cheesecake or delicate slips of seared foie gras balanced atop cupcakes filled with warm bearnaise sauce? All of those things are good, right? Then wouldn’t they be double-good when mashed together?
Still, I am as weak as anyone. And every once in a while, when very hungry (or maybe a little stoned), I see the Buffalo chicken pizza sitting there behind the sneeze guard of my local pizzeria, all covered in orange goo, doused in Frank’s RedHot, doodled with white loops of watery blue cheese dressing and lumpy with bits of questionable chicken, and I have to have it. It seems delicious to me even though I know better and, like commercials for Red Lobster or the promises of late-night infomercial debt-consolidators, I fall for it. I point. I tell the guy behind the counter to heat me a slice. I eat like it’s a race with only wicked heartburn and regret as the final prize.
At Tony A’s in Conshohocken, I got hooked again–my rational mind blowing all its governors the minute I saw the slack-jawed kid with the pizza stick shuffling the hot, wet, fresh Buffalo chicken pie out of the oven. Golden-brown crust, blaze-orange interior, the landscape of it pebbled with fat chunks of chicken still steaming as he laid it down on the counter.
“Gimme a slice of that,” I said, trying not to drool on the glass. I wasn’t stoned, but I was starving. “The Buffalo chicken, yeah. One of those.”
And when I said “those,” I pointed to the fresh pie, just out of the oven. I made eye contact with the counterman. I was polite, but firm. I wanted a fresh slice, hot and gooey and overwhelming. Because yes, Buffalo chicken pizza is a bad idea, but there are worse ones.
Like old Buffalo chicken pizza. Which was what I got.
The counterman had a few aged, raggedy, cold slices sitting on his board. A blistered slice of plain cheese that’d already scabbed over, a slice of white that was curling at the tip, a vegetable slice that likely hadn’t been fresh when he’d started his shift and wasn’t getting any healthier. And, of course, he had a slice of Buffalo chicken pizza there. One venerable, dried-out, dull, thin-crust wedge. It was a leftover among leftovers. If pizza slices could talk, all the new ones would’ve called this one grandpappy. Get where I’m going with this?
I didn’t want that slice, obviously. I kept my eye on that slice while the kid shuffled around behind the counter, found his stick, sliced the new Buffalo chicken pizza, looked through the ovens. I was distracted for a minute by the cashier asking for money, and then by… I don’t know. Something shiny on the ground. A pretty girl, maybe. But whatever it was, I missed the moment that my slice went in.
I waited. Customers came and went. When my slice was ready, the kid met me at the far end of the counter.
“This the Buffalo chicken?” I asked.
He nodded, dumbly.
“The fresh one?”
That kid was a liar. He’d pawned the old slice off on me–which I knew because, as I moved on down the counter and to the door, I saw that new Buffalo chicken pie sitting there untouched, whole as a full moon. Taunting me. I should’ve turned right around, demanded answers and restitution. But I didn’t. Like I said, I was hungry.
My slice tasted like day-old chicken, marinated in lighter fluid, slopped onto damp cardboard and warmed over a tire fire. There was a weird smokiness to it. The meat was so old it was pointy and stiff and the sauce had baked to it like it’d been painted there. As vile (though sporadically desirable) as a Buffalo chicken pizza can be under the best of circumstances, this was a Buffalo chicken pizza at its worst. I took two bites, spit out the third and dumped the entire thing in the trash.
This is why I hate you, Tony A’s counterman: Because you allowed your restaurant to live down to my worst expectations. Yeah, I know that there’s no Buffalo chicken pizza in the world that’s going to be as good as my occasionally overheated imagination might make it out to be, but what you gave me was the ugly, ass-end, nightmare version of the scale. You took my money and served me a slice of pizza that I wouldn’t have fed to an enemy. And why? Because your manager told you that all the old slices have to go before you can cut into a new pie? Because you thought I was an idiot and wouldn’t notice? You knew that was an elderly slice. That was why you were fiddling around behind the counter until my back was turned–until I wouldn’t notice you going to the reject pile, the pizza junkyard. And don’t say that you didn’t know. We had an understanding, you and me. I pointed. I looked you in the eye and I showed you the slice that I wanted, the pie that I wanted it from. You were holding it in your hands when I did.
But, hey. You got me. You got some sucker to pay good money for a slice that rightly belonged under glass in the Museum Of Bad Ideas In Pizza. Congratulations, champ. You saved the company a few cents in pawning off Methuselah’s leftovers on me. And while sure, I might’ve gotten just what I deserved (being so stupid as to go for the Buffalo chicken pizza in the first place), you really made the lesson stick by reminding me just how bad a bad thing can be. Well played, sir. Well played.
Man, it’s a good thing for your bosses that Tony A’s is the only pizza place in Conshy, right? Because otherwise…