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For a long time, I thought the best pizza in the country was from Mama’s in Bala Cynwyd, just outside of Philadelphia. And then something happened.
I grew up on Mama’s, even worked there briefly as a delivery boy, and found warm comfort in its stringy cheese and crisp, yet floppy crust whenever I’d been rejected for a date, lost a basketball game, or got together with high-school friends for a Saturday-night poker game. My family was equally hooked, and we often picked up a Mama’s pizza for dinner when my mom wanted a break from cooking, especially if going out for Chinese food, our other favorite pastime, seemed like too much trouble. We knew the owners of Pagano’s Pizzeria in West Philadelphia and often went there when we wanted an actual restaurant experience to go along with our pizza, pasta, and broasted chicken (they were pioneers in this now rarely seen pressurized frying system). But as good as Pagano’s pizza was, it never measured up to Mama’s for deeply felt satisfaction, a culinary balm of Gilead. More than forty years after eating my first Mama’s pizza, almost always made by Paul Castelucci (though I never knew his last name when I worked as a delivery boy), the business is still in the family, and the pizzas are now supervised, but not made, by Paul Jr., Paul’s son. Mama’s is still extremely popular, with long waiting times not only for pizza, but also for fabulous stromboli, hoagies, and cheese steaks.
My brother Fred, who now lives forty-five minutes from Mama’s instead of the five minutes of our childhood, continues to make the pilgrimage whenever he needs a fix. He brought us a Mama’s pizza when my wife, Susan, and I were in Philadelphia for a big food event. Susan had sprained her ankle at the airport just after we landed, forcing us to cancel our dinner plans so she could keep her foot on ice. When I called Fred to explain our plight, he said, “No problem, I’ll pick up a pizza and some cheese steaks at Mama’s and we’ll eat in.” I loved the idea. It had been years since my last Mama’s pizza.
The pizza arrived ninety minutes later, accompanied by Fred and his wife, Patty. I rushed through the greetings—hug, hug, “great to see you”—while Patty comforted Susan. I was captivated by the aroma of the pizzas and cheese steaks, and my mind floated away to distant times. It was like a long-lost friend, triggering painful and joyful memories that were flashing like a deck of cards rifled in front of my eyes. I’d deal with those later. For now, as far as I was concerned, it was about opening the pizza box, unwrapping the butcher paper from the cheese steaks, and getting everyone to stop talking and start eating. We divvied up the cheese steaks, which tasted even better than I remembered them to be, and then, at last, passed around slices of the pizza. I took a bite and stopped, the pleasant image-streaming of food memories suddenly interrupted by a mental disconnect. I shook it off and took another bite expecting an automatic memory flash to kick in so I could resume my forty-year flavor retrospective. Instead, I got a blast of “Whoa!
There was definitely something amiss. The words just came out without forethought. “Fred, they’ve changed the crust.”
“No they haven’t.”
“Yes they have.”
“No, they haven’t. Maybe it’s you.”
“I don’t think so. The crust is thicker and there are no air bubbles in the lip. Definitely not the Mama’s I grew up with.”
“I think it’s you.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Fred took another bite. “Well, it does seem a little thicker than usual. I heard they were breaking in a new pizza guy. But, I gotta tell you, it’s still pretty close to usual.”
“Maybe it is me,” I thought. It wasn’t just that the crust was a little different. The cheese and sauce certainly still resonated with old memories, and even if it wasn’t the best Mama’s, it was close enough that it should have elicited, within my usually tolerant margin-for-error forgiveness code, at least a sigh of pleasure. But something had changed within me. My expectations, an internal bar of standards that is both conscious and subconscious, had been violated. A slow wave of realization set in, one that I couldn’t suppress even though I tried.
“Maybe,” I said to myself, “it was never as good as I thought it was, just the best I’d been exposed to during my sheltered youth.” I knew it was something I couldn’t say out loud because Fred and Patty still lived here, while I was going back to Providence and might not have another Mama’s pizza for years. Yet I couldn’t shake the thought.
Since 1990, when I left the communal setting of a religious order in which everyone lived a vow of poverty and thus had limited restaurant experience, I have had the privilege of teaching and writing about food, especially bread. I’ve traveled around the country and beyond, belatedly pursuing knowledge about my taste passions. These passions are simple, not of the great gourmand type. I have learned that one of my inherent gifts is the ability to recognize flavors and textures of universal appeal and show people how to reproduce them. As a result of this gift, I have carved out a career as an educator, writer, and product developer. Which brings me back to pizza.
I have had a steady stream of students who have their own sets of childhood food associations that have driven them to the gates of learning. Food memories, as James Beard and M.F. K. Fisher have shown us, are powerful and compelling forces. Wherever I teach, if I want to get a lively conversation going, I need only ask, “Where do I find the best pizza around here?” Nearly everyone has a pizza story and a strong opinion. Pizza, it seems, lives in everyone’s hall of fame.
In 1976, I worked in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a houseparent in a home for what we euphemistically called undisciplined teenagers; in other words, juvenile delinquents. There was a pizzeria on Hillsborough Street called Brothers Pizza, and although I barely remember the details of the place, I do remember the experience of it. I took the kids there whenever we needed to decompress from the latest dramatic event in our house, and there were always, always dramas. That pizza, and only that pizza among all the pizza shops in town, was a panacea, our emotional salve. It had a crispy, crackly crust, like hot buttered toast, comforting and satisfying. It was perfect. The cheese was stringy and slightly salty. Was it the best pizza I’d ever had? No, but it was “perfect” pizza, a peerless match of textures and flavors that fed more than our stomachs and palates. But if I had it now, all these years later, I imagine it would be like having a Mama’s now. It would be good, perhaps the same as it always was, but it wouldn’t be the pizza of 1976, when teenage boys and girls from shattered families, with broken hearts and raging hormones, felt safe enough to confess their fears to me and to one another as they ate their pizza. That pizza, out of that context, could never be that perfect again.
So here I was, years after Raleigh, in Philadelphia, realizing that I was caught in a nature versus nurture situation. Was it me or was it the pizza that had changed, or was it a little bit of both? I’m pretty sure that when I asked myself that question, I set this whole pizza quest in motion.
In the pages that follow, I recount the journey that took place between my two visits to Phoenix, plus some trips that followed it. (This is a journey with no clear endpoint; it doesn’t begin or end with Pizzeria Bianco or Mama’s, but is merely signposted by them.) I had become a hunter of sorts, a pizza hunter, and I enlisted others to join me on the hunts. With Mama’s no longer the benchmark, and with the memory of Pizzeria Bianco serving as a temporary beacon and standard, I sought out great pizza everywhere I traveled, and I traveled to seek out great pizza.
Some of the numerous pizza excursions I choreographed were thwarted by circumstances: trip cancellations, a restaurant Closed sign, logistical mix-ups. But almost every time something went wrong, something else occurred to make it all right. In fact, Plan B was often better than Plan A could ever have been. As result I came up with the Reinhart Pizza Hunter’s Credo, a sound axiom for anyone who decides to adopt it: It’s all about the adventure, not the pizza. The pizza is just grace.
Sometimes my fellow pizza hunters made the hunt itself a more memorable adventure than the pizza did. I had so many interesting conversations around a pizza, on the way to get a pizza, or in anticipation of a pizza, that the pizza itself became the excuse for the hunt. But every now and then, the quality of the pizza transcended the hunt, stopped all conversation and refocused everything on itself, the object and subject, and the thrill of the hunt fulfilled itself in the quarry. When that happened it was magical, and all that mattered again was pizza.
So, I followed the trail wherever it led. And where it inevitably led, to no one’s surprise, was Italy.