As an Italian/Polish/Irish/Scotch/German-Catholic growing up in a West Long Branch, New Jersey neighborhood teeming with multi-cultural Catholic families, we all celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef, cabbage and potatoes. We were expected to wear green unless we were Italian and then only if we chose to flaunt our non-Irish roots and risk getting pinched. Pizza was reserved for other holidays, especially birthdays. A birthday wasn’t complete without a trip to Freddie’s for Pizza.
Regardless of our lineage, all the families in our neighborhood agreed that Freddie’s was the gold standard of pizza. The crust was blistered from the intense heat of the wood-fired brick oven, thin and flexible, crisp along the edges and chewy everywhere else. The texture was unique, it seemed to have rippled beneath the unbelievably tasty sauce and the cheese (just enough, not too much) bubbled up on top.
At the tender age of sixteen, I moved two hundred miles inland and away from the best pizza in the world. Oh sure, Shippensburg had pizza and our family continued to feed our habit at the Pizza House a short walk from our new home. But their pies didn’t come close to Freddie’s in taste or texture. They were doughier, less Italian tasting and the cheese lay thick and waxy on the top.
In forty-two years, I have only enjoyed one slice of pizza that rivaled Freddie’s. In 1998, Bob took me along on a business trip from Tianjin to London and while he was in meetings I went shopping with a friend at Harrods. We stopped at their lunch counter and I ordered a slice of cheese pizza. To my delight, it was perfect and I ate it in blissful silence, savoring each chewy bite. Of all places, London – with its fried toast and clotted cream.
Until yesterday at Laura and Steve’s house when we tasted Elvira’s incredible pizza.
Bob, Amy and I were very happy for the invitation to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with our new friends Laura and Steve and family, recently re-located from Ireland. Like the other nineteen guests we brought something to eat and wore green. “Will we get pinched if we don’t wear green?” I had asked and Laura said, “No, but you won’t get anything to drink.”
So we all sat on the spacious deck, checking out the many shades of green worn by our friends, sipping beer and soft drinks and nibbling on appetizers. Many of us had a good frolic in their swimming pool showing off our splash tactics. At one point about a dozen of us lined up along the sides of the deep end and all jumped in at once. No one got hurt. We toweled off and the kids ran around on the lawn while the adults went back to sitting and talking.
When it was time to eat, the ladies gathered in the kitchen and served up a meal of Irish stew and potatoes, roasted chicken and soda bread. I noticed a couple of pizza boxes but with Nik’s pizza right around the corner, I figured that was for the kids. I was enjoying some potatoes and dill dip when Bob walked over and handed me a piece of pizza. I could see right away this was not Ghanaian pizza and realized at once that it must have come from Elvira’s wood-fired oven.
The first bite overwhelmed me with nostalgia. “It’s Freddie’s!” I cried out, happiness shining from my eyes. Wow! And after I finished my piece of heaven, I licked my fingers and thought, “Oh my god! – I can have this any time I want now!” As one of my friends told me last week, “Once you taste Elvira’s pizza, you aren’t going to want anything to do with Nik’s.”
I find it a bit odd that I would have come all the way to West Africa to rediscover a taste sensation from my childhood. I find it strangely reassuring to know that my taste buds have a memory too. It’s comforting to discover that my gold standard in pizza is real and not an exaggerated myth. After so many years of tasting other pizza that didn’t quite measure up, I began to question whether I’d created a phantom taste memory.
And yes, it’s ironic that I would get my first taste of Elvira’s pizza on the one day of the year I don’t herald my Italian heritage.