On The Ground, Day Three: 6 Cold Beers And A Small Pizza To Go…

Those of you who’ve never gone away–who’ve never thrown all you own into a bunch of plastic trash bags, sold the TV for gas money, shoved the cat in its carrier and driven a 4th-hand used car with an oil leak and no spare tire halfway across the country in a wrong-headed search for fish tacos and clean, white sunshine–have no idea how lucky you have it.

Don’t get me wrong. I still pity you (a little) and will never understand how an animal with the capacity to drive–the ability to chug a pot of coffee, get behind the wheel and be three states gone by sun-up–chooses instead to stay willfully rooted in place, year after year. But that’s not the point here.

The point is, there are a few advantages to be gained by stability. By immobility. Like maybe your gmail account isn’t the most permanent address you’ve had in the last decade. Maybe you know for sure the route to the doctor’s office, where to pay the cable bill, how to maneuver around the rush-hour traffic when it backs up for miles around. And you probably don’t have to make a dumb-ass face and think hard anytime someone asks you your zip code because you’ve had six of them in the past three years.

More important, you’ve got the small, important stuff worked out. The food stuff. You know where to go for good Thai and sushi on a Tuesday. You’ve got a dependable red sauce joint in your back pocket and a secret bakery you hit up for bread. You know which Chinese restaurant delivers fastest, where to take your weird cousin when he comes home from clown college on a break and where to go when you’re out looking to get lit, have a laugh and get laid. Having stayed in one place, having never wandered far from the cradle of the Northeast, you can know absolutely and without a doubt that when you go out for pizza, no matter where you go, you’re going to be eating better pizza than I have had in more than 10 years.

No. This is true. I understand that the pat food writer’s response to any question of availability or scarcity of specific food items is supposed to be that one of the benefits of living in this modern age is that everything is available everywhere and that all of it is equally good, but that’s just bullshit. I might be able to get a “pizza” in New Mexico or Utah or Florida or the Pacific Northwest, but with remarkably few exceptions, the best pie I could get there wouldn’t be as good as the worst available here. The world beyond, say, the western border of Ohio (and yeah, I’m being generous) is a pizza wasteland–a dystopia of peppered red sauce and cracker crusts and cheese like melted bathroom caulk. It is bad and ugly and wrong out there. And while it is a perfectly normal thing to hear two glaze-eyed foodies in Denver or Santa Fe going on about the chef’s brilliant juxtaposition of corn and styrofoam packing peanuts on his artisinal clam sauce pizzette, or the totally traditional way he used crushed up Saltines to make a dough for his three-cheese Neapolitan with martini olives, breast of hobgoblin, and dandelion greens picked from the median strip in the parking lot outside, catch a couple East Coast expats in the same place and they’ll just be rolling their eyes and telling each other to drink a lot of water, eat a lot of bread, and to wait on the pizza until they can return to more rational latitudes.

Here, I had a pizza on the day I landed. I had pizza on the day after–cold and for breakfast. I had four different pizzas in three days and then, later in the week, picked up three different pizzas on a single day just because I could–because everywhere I turned there was another place selling slices, selling whole pies, selling reds and whites and in-betweens, and every single one of them was better than almost any pizza I’d had out West. Seriously? While in Seattle, I’d started regularly ordering from Papa John’s simply because I knew it would suck less than every other pizza available in the suburb where I lived.

I had my first red top from Charlie’s in Norristown and it was brilliant. I stood there at the counter eating the first slice out of the box and watching some Mexican dating show on the TV above the beer coolers with the cook while he shuffled pies in the big deck ovens behind me. It was the crust that did it for me at Charlie’s–thin but not too thin, perfectly crisp on the bottom with a crunch like it’d been candied, but still soft enough on top to make a nice bed for the greasy cheese and pepperoni. At Gino’s, I stood in an empty dining room at lunch time, waiting on a hand-tossed Neapolitan with prosciutto and turning the business card for an Italian accordion player over and over again in my hand. When the pizza came, it was worth the wait–rough and rustic, blistered at the edges, with a sweet sauce and the strange slickness of olive oil as an aftertaste.

Franzone’s in Conshohocken was sweet, its sauce tasting like someone had added a fistful of sugar, but I hardly noticed because I was already well into the to-go beers by the time I got around to trying a slice. At Dimeo, I was shocked. The place looked like a Tuscan Disneyland–all murals and faux-marble pillars–but they did a white pizza that I would’ve killed for a year ago, topped with curls of thick-cut and fried prosciutto that I ate with my fingers like candy until there was none left to go with the slices.

And after all that, there was still Barbuzzo, which I wrote about yesterday, for a more considered, more gourmet pizza than those I’d tried before. Anywhere else in the country, the words “gourmet pizza” (like “California pizza” or “Chicago pizza”) almost always mean “sucks like hell and costs twice as much,” but here it’s different. Here, where the competition from even the most run-of-the-mill pie is severe, the high-end pizza has to deliver something special, something extra. And with its flavorful crust, little jars full of Italian thyme, split Castelvetrano olives and hand-stretched fior di latte, Barbuzzo’s does. I demolished an entire pizza myself and could’ve come back strong on a second.

But I demurred. If I’ve learned nothing else in my (very) few days on the ground here in Philly, it’s that I’m going to need to pace myself. To be more selective and discerning, a discriminating connoisseur of…

Nah… Screw that. I’ve already got two more pizza joints lined up for tonight when I get home. A trip into Chinatown for tomorrow with a cheesesteak chaser. And now, with the weekend coming? Jesus, I’m doomed.  So if you guys hear a big pop sometime ’round Saturday night, don’t worry about it at all.

That’ll just be me exploding.