Monday, June 6, 2016

Pizza Royale

Horseshoe Casino Baltimore
Russell St.

It's great having a casino right here in Baltimore City. The casino's job is to create an atmosphere of luxury and excess that motivates you to spend money -- and moreover, makes you believe that you can win money from a system carefully engineered to take what you don't even have. For just one night, you can pretend you're the Mayor of Baltimore attending a real-estate developer convention in Las Vegas.

But this isn't Vegas. Baltimore isn't super committed to maintaining any illusions. Watch the Horseshoe Casino try: they put the set of Dynasty in a big box and dropped it from the sky onto the bank of the Patapsco, where it's surrounded by giant billboards for its suburban competitor, the Maryland Live! casino in Arundel Mills. The billboards urge motorists groping towards the Horseshoe's chaotic left-turn lane to just "keep driving". The Horseshoe's vast parking garage is an inclined highway; ascending its majestic heights, you can gaze down upon the self-storage center on one side and the city incinerator on the other. One of the first people who spoke to us was a guy asking for spare change or something to eat, bringing to mind the extensive homeless encampment displaced from the nearby woods by the casino's construction.

A sporting effort has been made to create an opulent interior, with elaborate multi-tiered light fixtures, custom-milled mahogany trim, and gilded drop-ceiling. This is a 24-hour entertainment destination for young, hip partiers, with local beers on tap and a live-music stage for millennials who prefer varied stimuli over the tunnel-vision of slots.

However, the floor plan tells. A small area for table games front-and-center at the entrance evokes the idea of a casino in old movies where well-dressed people drink fancy cocktails and engage in libidinous/criminal intrigue; beyond, a blinking ocean of slot machines opens out on all sides. This scene is just not sexy, but it's not the Horseshoe's doing. The industry seems pretty centered on slots, to the point where they give away free soda to keep people awake and pressing a button instead of free booze to loosen up their poker game.

Pizza Club's destination was the casual dining area of the Horseshoe, a pseudo-vernacular historic main street with hand-painted signs in distressed lettering, containing Guy Fieri's Kitchen + Bar, Lenny's Deli, and Piezzetta, a fast-casual pizza establishment. Restaurateurs created this pizza concept exclusively for the Horseshoe, though they plan to add more locations in answer to the nation's inexhaustible need for alternatives to Chipotle. Surely they will succeed at selling lots of pizza from within other stucco rectangles surrounded by ample parking and Disneyland evocations of the urban streetscape.  But the essence of Piezzetta's pizza is so casino-specific that it really should be experienced within the Horseshoe.

What we found inside Piezzeta's quaint brick exterior was a sleekly engineered workflow of custom order assembly. The pies are around 12 inches in diameter, awkwardly too large for one person but not enough for two. For $14 you can cover a standard crust with infinite toppings, or select a prefab specialty pie. Much like the casino itself, a facade of enjoyment gave way to a utilitarian exchange of money for the satisfaction of an addictive drive. 

Kate appreciated that Piezzetta, unlike its local competitors in the fast-causal pizza business, "isn't pretending. It's like, we're a fast food place in the casino but you can have some decent pizza. Pizza Studio is all like, 'we're your loving artisanal pizza artists'." A few humane touches, like a hanging roll of butcher paper with hand-lettered lunch specials, seemed advised by a consultant and were dwarfed by at least four huge flat-screens bearing the actual menu.

The special pies were kind of decorative and not really thought out. Ben enjoyed a "Pineapple + Pig" pizza but found it "wet..self-destructing, must be scarfed or abandoned." Similarly, Mike observed that "the wetness of the pizza encourages gulping it down quickly." A pesto and artichoke pizza left Kate "mad that I paid $13.99 for this. It's really oily and tastes like a drawing of pesto." (The pesto sauce in general was not recommended). The "Meat lover's", a giant pile of meat, was "meaty, greasy, decent, but undistinguished."

Instead, we recommend whatever impulsive combination of toppings you happen to point to when they take your order. Those who adopted this approach were overall much happier. "I like mine because it's exactly what I've always wanted in a pizza," Sophie explained. Piezzetta has their fast-casual game down to a science: individual toppings are fresh, of a high quality, and there's a lot of them. Everyone was excited about the "after-bake" options, a variety of flavored glazes and reductions. The availability of whole wheat and gluten-free crust also appealed to the health-conscious. In three minutes or less, raw pies run through a heat-blasting conveyor-belt oven cleverly decorated with fake doors to look like a traditional pizza oven.

The crust had a subtle, rich flavor, which many enjoyed. Piezzetta's dough recipe seems optimized for the assembly-line rapid bake process, so it doesn't bubble and crisp around the edges like a normal pizza crust would. Increased fat content, perhaps olive oil or butter, combines with decreased yeast activity to produce a crust that fades to soggy nothingness in the middle.

Glancing around a table of Piezzetta diners, Pizza Club observed rivers of grease running down everyone's hands and wrists. All the pies were literally sopping with oil. We don't know where it came from. It flowed through cardboard trays and plates and napkins like credit through a slot machine, but the grease was very real and would have made it difficult to operate any kind of touch-screen game while eating. Sophie made the best of it: "I've stopped trying to wipe the olive oil off my hands and now I'm rubbing it in and feeling super moisturized." Indeed, such luxuriant use of olive oil, a valuable commodity prized by the wealthy of ancient Greece and Rome and burnt as an offering to the Old Testament God, is not just a passive response to the generalized American craving for salt and fat, but an active ingredient in the potent consumer psychology of a casino. We felt satiated after the heavy oil injection, like no one was holding back on anything and we shouldn't either. "This place will find a way to give you what you want," said Ben, in relation to the pizza but also the casino generally.

We tried to play the slots but they're not wasting time on dilettantes like us. You can't actually put coins from your pocket into a machine to gamble -- you have to give it your credit card, entering a plane of frictionless, indefinite flow. The minimum bet for table games is around 25 bucks. Maybe we didn't eat enough pizza to rise to that plane, or maybe we ate too much and got bogged down by the aftermath of greasy unease. Back on the roof of the parking garage, we brooded on how the Horseshoe makes subtle contextual reference to the two nearby landmarks as a self-storage unit for humans and an incinerator for the funds that may or may not exist on their credit cards.

4.5/8 slices
Photo credits: Ben and Graham

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Eternal return: Maria's of Hampden

Pizza Club sometimes wakes in the dead of night paralyzed by the terror of eternal recurrence. If there are a finite number of pizzas, and a finite number of pizza parlors, must not the same pizza reappear again and again in different times and places? Nietzsche suggests that there is no escape from this iron law of the universe and Pizza Club's function is to write this review over and over. Even as the mundane world is wracked by paroxysms of change and capitalism vomits up its bilious stream of innovations, we'll always be sitting at the same vinyl-topped table and eating the same pretty average pizza. Except at the new Maria's of Hampden, where there is no table.

We recently found ourselves once again in that basement corner of Keswick and 36th, a site once associated with Angelo's Big Slice, the "biggest" slice of "pizza" in Baltimore. The Big Slice died an ignominious death and now haunts the retirement tower on Roland and 40th. Its ghost is still tasty enough and they need your business so get up there and support Angelo's while enjoying a fantastic view. Meanwhile, the corner shop at 36th and Keswick was commandeered by a Frankenstein's monster, 36th Avenue Pizza, stitched together from spare parts. We did not have the opportunity to sample this pizza before the venture self-destructed.

Currently Maria's, a dine-in/carryout in Parkville, is attempting to operate a Baltimore branch in the same accursed corner. First mistake, Maria, is that the space has plenty of room for seating but you have not obtained tables. We are used to sitting under the awning outside Angelo's to eat gross slices of pizza. Baltimore's memory is long. Go to Home Depot and buy a plastic table. The bereft interior, combined with the forlorn 36th Ave Pizza sign still hanging out front makes us think that Maria's is hesitant about making a commitment to the location.

Pizza Club has no reason to believe that certain pizzas in New York City don't taste exactly like the greasy, sweet, bready pizza produced in Maria's ovens. Indeed, one Pizza Club member compared the cheese pies to a recently-scarfed dollar slice obtained around Union Station. Thus, some will call it passable New York style pie, which they may use as a synonym for what Kate called "totally reasonable" fast-food pizza. Plain, pleasantly crisped, mild and inoffensive. The free pepper flakes, garlic salt, and parmesan are there for a reason, but you need to remember to take them with you in a little plastic container because there's nowhere to sit. The price is right -- Maria's wants you to embrace the circularity of the universe by buying one large cheese pizza and getting the second for a dollar. For good measure, Pizza Club did this twice.

We observed that the large pies look much less appetizing coming out of the oven than the smaller ones, perhaps a consequence of heat distribution challenges. Maria's friendly teenage workers humored our questions about the principium individuationis and helped us stack up the pizza discounts. We left them to their fate and marched up 36th Street in a ragged pizza procession to share our shame with the denizens of the mostly-empty Belgian beer hall where you're allowed to bring your own self-destructive food preferences.

The cheese pie, as noted, was chewy and bland but pretty reasonable for what amounted to like $4 per pie. A mushroom and pepper pie did not inspire much interest. The exotic entry, a Greek pizza, was laden with vinegary pepperonchini which gave it some spice and flavor interest but did not strike us as especially Greek. The white-bread style crust is sturdy enough to support numerous toppings. Ben speculated that this pie would be good next-day pizza, but we were not able to investigate this as we gave away the leftover slices to the crust punks encamped in the vestibules of the Avenue.

"This is not great pizza," said Ben. "It is rubbery and sweet and not too flavorful. It is good pizza." When in Hampden, Pizza Club prefers Bella Roma or an Indian pie at Philly's Best. We spent a lot of time discussing Maria's selection of the classic pizza box design that depicts a brutalist courtyard in perspective with a giant flaming pizza sun setting behind a restaurant. Or is the fiery pizza sun rising? We are indifferent.

4/8 slices

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Imitations of metropolitan splendor

Pizzatella of Security Square Mall
6901 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21244

The southern annex of Security Square Mall, with almost 100% vacancy, frozen escalators, and piles of 90s-era debris accumulating behind burned-out karaoke-club neon, is a harbinger of the post-apocalyptic future in which squatter communities repopulate America's abandoned suburban retail habitats. The mall's central body remains vibrant despite this ghostly appendage; indeed, passing from the hollow, dust-marbled pall of the annex into the main commercial avenue, one feels like a dead soul rudely shaken back to life. The mall's classic design features – luxuriant terraces of tropical plants arranged beneath domed skylights like a cartoon version of nineteenth-century hothouse architecture – gestural fake cornices masking ventilation pipes – invites visitors to take their leisure and edification among the miniature retail environments occupied by slightly off-brand replacements for the major national chains that fled Security Square for newer strip malls. There's a cavernous inflatable-jumping-structure palace for children's parties, a popular Japanese buffet, and a custom menswear shop currently stocking Hawaiian-print suit jackets for summer.

There's also a food court with slightly-askew versions of standard food-court fare. Heated tureens of Chinese noodles glimmer with the promise of the familiar. Up close, things are not what they seem. Pizza Club gravitated towards a jazzy-looking sign for “Pizzatella”. Vaguely evocative – is it a reference to mozzarella? Or piatella, an uncommon Tuscan bean? Pizzatella has customized its niche in the food court panorama with a fake brick oven formed by building a box of red tiles around a normal stacked stainless steel unit, and with some close-up images of Italian food postered on the wall. Multiple flat-screens also show surreally saturated images of pizza.

Pizza Club obtained two huge and perfectly-sliced wedges of cheese and pepperoni pizza. Its shine was so blinding that it may have been a mirage. Scott carefully tracked the progress of this grease through the pies and thence through the layers of paper plates. We found the cheese elastic and toothsome – plausible as real mozzarella – but quickly on the heels of this texture came a chemical aftertaste, suggesting a synthetic cheese whose oil had separated out during re-heating to form the above-noted oily sheen.

The crust was white bread in style, but perfectly toasted and crunchy when fresh from the fake-brick oven. As it cooled, it got chewier and heavier, until the remnant crusts began to weigh down the greasy plates and sag through the vinyl-top tables, pressing towards a dense gravitational center under the mall made from decades worth of agglomerated uneaten pizza crust.

Scott posited that we had just consumed white bread with marinara sauce and American cheese, distorted by the mall's occult aura to look like a fresh, delicious slice of pizza. “My hunger is satisfied, but I'm not sure how I'll feel in an hour,” he stated. In an hour, would he even be the same Scott? Something resembling daylight filtered through the glass dome, amplified by wrap-around mirrors in the ceiling -- the consumer simulacrum of a Crystal Palace -- or a museum of natural history filled with processed cheese.

3/8 slices

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pizza Club remembers memories: Chuck E. Cheese’s

My marketing department just had a shitfit: ‘You can’t call a restaurant a rat place! People think rats are dirty. It’s not going to work.’
-- Chuck E. Cheese’s founder Nolan Bushnell 

In the wake of a recent near-collision with a rogue pizza delivery vehicle – watch out for that drunk Michelangelo's driver, guys – many things were shaken loose and rearranged within the brain of Pizza Club. Memories of the distant past rose up vividly as Pizza Club wandered in a gauzy realm of fever dreams fueled by the heat of a million brick ovens coursing through its head and neck regions. Among the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of funny cat gifs, tessellating shapes, and talking trees, a fragmentary vision kept recurring – a band of anthropomorphic swamp creatures  lit by colorful spotlights on a shallow stage, strumming  and tootling their respective instruments with jerky, hypnotic motions. Sometimes the song  was “Happy birthday to you, sometimes “Sweet Home Alabama” – the creaking of their fur-wrapped metal joints was audible as they pivoted, “jumping and jiving” to the demonic melodies. At first Pizza Club feared that a long-repressed childhood trauma was surfacing from deep memory banks. Fortunately this was a more recent experience; we were at Chuck-E-Cheese only a few short months ago and just forgot to review their pizza. With the strains of swampy music fading once again, we hasten to put pen to paper. 

Pizza Club was out at the sewage treatment plant in Essex last fall, the one across from the abandoned Diamond Point Plaza mall. The only business still in operation at Diamond Point Plaza is Chuck-E-Cheese's. Hungry after a long afternoon of learning about sewage treatment, and with no standards of palatability left to uphold, Pizza Club decided it was time to return to a place which, for many, is the gateway into American pizza culture. 

The first thing to know about visiting Chuck E. Cheese as an adult is that the place is a seething ocean of kid-borne germs. Pizza Club has never been prone to germophobia but it has also never seen so many kids coughing, sneezing, drooling, and wiping boogers on every surface in a small enclosed space. The vigorous activity of pathogens was so palpable that we resigned ourselves to inevitable cold and flu. 

The second thing is that Chuck E. Cheese is still a paradise of childhood. Even in an abandoned mall across from a sewage treatment plant in a former red-light district on the outskirts of Baltimore, kids were having a fantastic time immersed in a self-contained universe of flashing lights and frantic over-stimulating games. Chuck E. Cheese has its own currency. It temporarily appropriates the signifiers of adult power and domination under the banner of its furry animatronic mascot. Children of all different races classes etc. etc. were playing in harmony, rolling on a collective sugar high while harried parents and older siblings sat back in germ-coated plastic booths enjoying a respite from the typhoon of kid energy swirling all around. 

Pizza Club was fascinated to find that no time has passed in Chuck E. Cheese since the late 1980s. Except for a different line-up of Disney themed cakes, everything is as it was and we saw that it was good. 

We rallied our courage, absorbing quizzical glances from parents alarmed by the arrival of multiple childless adults. We smiled and nodded at them as though to acknowledge that hanging out in Chuck E. Cheese is a creepy thing to do, but we were there for scientific purposes. Pizza Club marched to the food counter and ordered one personal pan pizza. Obviously a large pie would be more representative, but we were trespassing on these kids' turf and wanted to get out before catching the flu. While waiting for our tiny pizza we spent all our change on skeeball, won reams of Chuck E. Cheese tickets, got really excited, and then remembered that it takes a million Chuck E. Cheese tickets to buy an entry-level novelty eraser. 

Before we could register disappointment we got distracted by the arrival of pizza. There's no time to feel anything in the blissful Chuck E. Cheese vortex – it doesn't matter if you win or lose, if it's your birthday or some other kid's, if the swamp band is made up of benevolent or sinister robots. Gingerly we sat on slime encrusted benches and each seized a pizza wedge in unwashed hands, prepared to pay any price for knowledge. 
Chuck E. Cheese's pizza tastes the same as it did in 1992.

3/8 slices

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Beyond the Pizza Principle

Di Pasquale's Marketplace
3700 Gough St.

Pizza Club has often felt the inexplicable drive to put disgusting pizza into our bodies: pizza suffused with the hydrogenated oils of late capitalism, pizza desiccated under the wan lights of the 7-11 counter, pizza sodden with the cynical rhetoric of saving the world through consumer choice.

The death-drive is a well-documented motive force behind America's relationship with convenience foods, and Pizza Club is no exception. A veneer of ironic epicureanism makes the thing more palatable, the thing being our non-optional participation in a nihilistic system that will probably destroy everything we love. Maybe it's the potassium ions in our cells longing for a return to equilibrium, how the universe's matter wants to spread itself across an immense silent vacuum and pizza is merely a means to this end.

There are, however, things that make the daily struggle against entropy worthwhile. Some of those things, confusingly, are also pizza, like Di Pasquale's on Gough St. in Highlandtown. Di Pasquale's is a purely pleasurable experience of pizza. They're doing almost everything right, and also surrounding you, the pizza-eater, with towering shelves of Italian specialty foods.

Margherita: reccommended

We enjoyed “one of the best sauces in Baltimore” and the firm but elastic sound of fresh cheese masticating between our molars. The crust is thin, but has substantial fluffiness around the edges and holds its toppings.

Soppresatta: also much-loved

Pizza Club tried some exotic options, like pies with tuna fish and chicken on them. These are sometimes attention-seeking menu moves that don't pay off, but Di Pasquale's handled them reasonably well. The tuna pizza was “good-weird,” and a favorite of the group, though sauce-less and more like a flatbread. The chicken, “always a little weird” on pizzas, was intermingled with some slimy spinach and thus we'd recommend steering away from that combo. Get the most normal pizza you see on the menu – not a pile of toppings, just a pizza – and you'll experience a thing that this century-old pizza establishment does very masterfully.

Tuna: surprising novelty success

Pizza Club is even prepared to adjust its metaphysics based on this experience. We've long regarded Gill's as Baltimore's ur-pizza, but in fact there may be two pillars of pure pizza-form rising from the primordial chaos. Gill's represents the perfection of a suburban pizza mode that is cheap, tasty, feeds your whole family, and is unabashedly no-nonsense American which entails an undercurrent of darkness and destruction as you drive up Belair Road in traffic. Di Pasquale's is the brick oven Italian-style pizza that we thought wasn't even worth looking for because we stopped believing in authenticity or any fixed “reality” at all. Christine the librarian has been telling us about Di Pasquale's for years and we just weren't ready to accept that there might be a knowable past that we could touch in the form of a continuous pizza tradition. So listen to your librarian is the other take-home message here.

Chicken and spinach: not meant to be together

You could go back to Di Pasquale's again and again. They close at 6pm, which requires leaving work early. Adjust your schedule, be honest about your motivations, get the thing that imbues you with a will to soldier onward into the dissipating grey Baltimore evening.

7/8 slices

Photo credits: Dave

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween special: a tale of the ragged pizza

Italian Pizza Kitchen
4483 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC

Pizza Palace
410 Lincoln St, Rockville, MD

Beware the golden aura of overgrown drainage ditches passing by the MARC train window. Pizza Club is easily mesmerized this time of year when all sorts of influences are abroad on the wind. We were compelled to travel to the nation's capitol under such a geomantic power. Unfortunately, Pizza Club was going the wrong way, which we didn't realize until the conductor informed us that the MARC also runs to Perryville.

Why does the MARC system go where it goes? Why is Baltimore just a waystation along one wing of this fraught, frayed transit “V” that converges on Washington? A thread of dilapidated rail serves for the DC commute, but if Baltimoreans find employment on that fabled "Technology Corridor" to the west, they find no spoke leading from the gem of the Chesapeake out to Silver Spring, Columbia, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and the like. Hub-gravity eludes us – you must pass through DC or perish.

Many claim that another, better-connected metropolitan region is possible, but few apprehend the peculiar way in which it already exists. Baltimore has long felt the occult push and pull of suburbia. Space and time collapse in the force field of strip mall simultaneity; vibrant commercial matter coalesces in Canton Crossing as it decays on Security Square Boulevard. One can unknowingly bi-locate between a pizza dive in Timonium and one in Rockville. The same goes for the glitzy brick-ovens of Harbor East and those of DuPont Circle. Pizza Club has traversed the poles of the pizza Rota Fortunae and returned to tell the tale.

 I didn't actually go to Perryville because the very kind MARC engineers let me switch trains at Martin State Airport. There was a parking lot, a series of chain-link fences, and a rusty barbeque grill. I hung out in the crew trailer while everyone got drug tested for random drug testing day. I didn't have to participate because they assumed I was high, which was incorrect, I was just really absorbed in Nicholson Baker's description of tying his shoelaces and got on the wrong train, which could happen to anyone. Eventually an empty, nonstop MARC carried me to DC in its streamlined nose. Passing all the familiar commuter stops at full speed, we accelerated onto an extra-dimensional plane, the channel used mostly by thoughts, odors, and spirit animals, where there's always room to put your feet up on the upholstery.

Briefly flitting through the gilded circle of DuPont, I proceeded to rendezvous with a Pizza Club quorum in the wild and dreary Forest Hills. There, perched on the lip of a dignified suburban refuge, is an Italian Pizza Kitchen. Italian Pizza Kitchen sounds like a chain, but doesn't seem to have other locations. The neutral moniker establishes rapport with people in DC who gravitate towards unimaginative things. However, it lacks the uncanny tastefulness of your standard DC fast-casual restaurant secretly underwritten by Kraft Foods. Maybe it's just a pizza place, I have to do more research.

The encouraging Eastern-European staff made up a nightly special for us. We obtained a mushroom and garlic pizza with whole roasted cloves of garlic winking at us from a bed of mozzarella. This pizza achieved a pillowy crust with a meaty balance of mushroom savor. Then we watched a soundless documentary about pointy buildings in Bavaria projected on the wall behind our table. The solid scouting of Pizza Club alumna Katy saved us from the chasm of high-end fast-casual simultaneity. Gallons of cannoli cream that came with the nightly special anchored us firmly to Connecticut Avenue.

A cool stateliness, hinting at contempt only in its ornamented reticence, characterizes DC's Northwest suburban gradient. Pizza Club found diplomatic accommodations within the wood-paneled walls of a haunted 1960s Swedish embassy. However, the weight of history personified in a golden cherub-chandelier by our bedside took on spectral animation in the midnight shadows. We awoke with a desperate urge to flee that place, and history, towards an open vista of highways, parking structures, and desolate civic plazas. We had to go to Rockville, where the past is a distant nightmare because the entire city has been demolished and redeveloped at least five times since then.

Pizza Club ventured on foot into the winding suburban expanse seeking a place called Pizza Palace. Instinct led us onward through the dim, warm mist, past morbidly-decorated lawns and drifts of vivid but dead autumnal leaves. Suddenly we reached a clearing in the residential grid, and a wind swept away the fog, revealing a parking lot and a strip mall like a row of perfect artificial teeth. Each tooth had an identical glass face with identical food offerings: bread, chicken, steak, cheese, potato, and a deep fryer to meld them all together.

Pizza Palace belongs to no decade or region; it offers both low-calorie pizza and stuffed-crust pizza. We ordered the latter, honoring the ingenuity of those pioneers who first figured out how to put “ribbons of awesome hidden cheese” inside a pizza crust. It's still delicious, offering a differently-textured experience from the pizza's middle expanse. This cheese has been sheltered, coddled, allowed to retain its original ropey arrangement of lactose fibers.

The pie also had some toppings – perhaps Greek – which we found pleasantly abundant but inconspicuous. A baseline plain pie was absolutely standard in every way. The crust was bready and crisp enough to support a healthy slather of well-browned cheese atop a sweet unseasoned tomato sauce.

We asked the Palace's proprietor if there was any distinctive P.P. product we should try. He answered that the “Philly cheesesteak” pizza was popular. A man sat alone by the window eating a large plate of French fries, unadorned.

We breathed a sigh of collective relief – on this neutral ground we could once again attune ourselves to the subtler vibrations that would carry us back to the fringes of Baltimore. Passing through a heavy pall of darkness and nonentity, we rose above the grease-sheened ductwork of the Pizza Palace. A strange procession of failed urban renewal projects rose and fell before our eyes. The retail paradise of Rockville Pike receded – with a galvanic shock we found ourselves back in Baltimore and bent our steps eagerly towards home.

Italian Pizza Kitchen
6.5/8 slices

Pizza Palace
4/8 slices

Photo credits: Graham
A Tale of the Ragged Mountains: Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 12, 2015

The crust over Hagerstown

Il Castello II
Pizzeria and Tex Mex
156156 National Pike
Hagerstown MD

In the timeless gesture of "going west”, one passes through Ellicott City, Frederick, and eventually Hagerstown before drawing dangerously close to the Pennsylvania line and losing courage. Hagerstown crowns what some call the “Great Valley,” a gentle and bounteous region filled with very robust cattle. Some cats there are haunted, and opinions about the Civil War are still in flux. Did it happen? Some say yes. In many towns, a general promised a young child his sword if that child would betray the location of the local horses, which were hidden in the hills. No one knows whether the child actually got the sword, but he never trusted a living soul again.

Freshly-cut hay-fields and stately trees posed on luxuriant grasses could make people forget about the sordid politics of pizza. The Italians seemingly swung southward to the coal mines of West Virginia, leaving the agricultural heart of Maryland a bastion of the pure old stock. A traveler seeking relief from the unsavory urban welter could walk these country lanes with nary a whiff of oregano to plunge him into dark phantasmic torments.

As evening crept over this preternaturally vital landscape, Pizza Club decided to spend the night in a “bed and breakfast” or “inn” which was “probably not haunted.” Informational literature strewn about the quarters informed travelers of local history: the estate belonged to the same family for over two hundred years. The Civil War, which tangentially brushed so many Maryland civilians, was also known to have happened in this vicinity. The current heir transformed the farm into a vineyard for local wine-making and a tasteful B&B, “stripping to the bones” the old manse and installing the latest geothermal heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient stove, and bold faux-Victorian wallpaper. This very plausible story reassured Pizza Club of a quiet stay, and we ventured into Historic Hagerstown to seek some pizza for dinner.

Perhaps due to day drinking and lack of planning, Pizza Club was unable to locate any pizza and wandered into a Bavarian Biergarten, established by a Bavarian immigrant engineer who made his way West working for the railroad. He got as far as Hagerstown and built a homestead. This occurred in 1973. The biergarten's employees were clad in regulation lederhosen, as were a handful of the customers. A strange twilight had descended over the neat colonial townhouses of Potomac Street; the stern hosen-clad maƮtre d' nodded us inside. We ate some pickled herring in cream sauce and continued to drink.

Though fully intending to return to the Inn, once out upon the public way we were accosted by some flashily-dressed young people who plied us with an informational flier for a cultural event. We were to attend a “Prohibition-themed” 1920s party thrown by local patrons of the arts to demonstrate the town's vitality and commitment to fedoras. Intrigued, we entered a historic “Grand ballroom” recently remodeled into a warren of offices; a series of elevators and corridors led to a low-ceilinged studio where a tuxedo-clad DJ spun 78s. Local patrons of the arts in period costumes were dancing unwholesome 1920s dances, tassels flying and two-tone oxfords flashing. Drinks were free and no one seemed to notice that we weren't wearing costumes. A few vintage cocktails in, a certain character appeared dressed in a baggy red gangster-style suit, red fedora with very long feather, and gleaming red-and-white spats. He looked about middle-aged, possibly a dentist. He took immediately to the dance floor where he displayed diabolical proficiency in the foxtrot. Pizza Club crept quietly around the table of local donuts, took a donut, and exited the party.

Feeling somewhat ill-at-ease, and hoping that a bottle of cut-rate whiskey would calm our nerves, we unwisely drove the rolling country roads to Clear Spring, where a basement liquor store stood open to the night. This fateful purchase perhaps explains what transpired upon our return to the Inn. Falling immediately into a heavy sleep, Pizza Club dreamed that it was involved in a scheme to influence local elections by hiding under a sofa in Baltimore's City Hall while stitching a quilt from bread-and-butter pickle slices.

At 5 a.m. Pizza Club woke in a sweat, gripped by anxiety. A physical sensation of dread rolled over us as we lay surrounded by fake Victorian kitsch and one of the resident cats, possibly a succubus, who sat licking herself on the edge of the bed. It occurred to me that the house was two hundred years old, and the innkeeper might have misrepresented its non-hauntedness. But the feeling of empty dread took on no particular form, nor did any spirits manifest themselves. There was nothing to do but wait it out, watching the sky gradually lighten over the brown stubble of the recently-harvested fields outside.

By morning the dread had begun to dissipate. The dutiful innkeeper was wafting the smell of delicious breakfast throughout the establishment, and Pizza Club, motivated by food even in the midst of an anxiety attack, descended to the kitchen to sit beside the “heat-storage” stove, an infernal appliance of cast-iron that maintains a constant baking temperature and is better for the environment. In the light of day, we examined the Innkeeper more closely.

Although descended from a sturdy old Maryland family that had worked the land for centuries, the Innkeeper himself left for the city at a young age, studied law, and spent his career as a lobbyist in Washington for a variety of corporate interests. These worldly pursuits allowed him, in retirement, to redevelop the run-down estate. He was concerned with the local sourcing of food and the incubation of small businesses. He told the slightly off-color but not-quite-offensive jokes that I imagine men in the halls of power tell during comradely interludes in backroom deal-making. He looked a lot like Flip the clown in Little Nemo.

Thus, we hypothesize that the source of Pizza Club's paroxysm of dread lay not in the haunting of a house by memories and past deeds, but rather in the aestheticized lifestyle rebranding of history by dirty Washington money. Expressing gratitude for the scrambled eggs laid by on-site chickens, we left the Inn in a hurry.

Trying to shake the pall of communion with disenfranchised spirits, we set off across the guileless Maryland countryside. In Williamsport, a sandwich shop informed us that the local opera company was staging “The Turn of the Screw” in a few hours. We did not wait around for this and fled on foot, following a small creek uphill towards a huge, white barn (“one of the largest barns in Maryland”) where a military encampment of some sort was visible.

Knowing the Marylander's disproportionate affinity for the Civil War, we assumed that some local reenactors were staging a minor battle. However, a closer approach revealed that the period was World War II, the battle was Aachen, and a full brass band playing Ken Burns soundtracks was assembled in the cavernous historic barn lit with strings of Christmas lights that pulsed like a dim velvet constellation as our eyes adjusted from the outside glare. Recall our lederhosen friends from the Bavarian bierhall – as we retreated downhill they rolled toward the battle in a vintage black Volkswagen van, a small blonde child peering at us from the back window.

We reached a crossroads where we stood in the parking lot of an abandoned Sheetz. Promotions for last year's sandwiches still hung inside. Across the street was a new Sheetz designed to echo the town's historic architecture. It had outdoor seating. We got in a car and left that place forever.

Site of former Pizza Barn

On the road home Pizza Club was pleased to spot Il Castello II, which describes itself as a “Pizzeria and Tex Mex” establishment. It stands atop a knoll on Route 40, the National Pike, looking out over farms, trees, and the golden light of a setting October sun. Large windows admit this light onto the plastic upholstered booths and the fake-stone hacienda arches. The waitress informed us that the spot was formerly occupied by Pizza Barn, established “a long time ago,” and she didn't know when or what it was before that or why it changed because she only worked there. There were a few flies, but the pizza was pretty good. The crust had a particular delicate light moistness that I have not encountered anywhere in recent memory.

4.5/8 slices

Sunday, September 13, 2015

In the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility

Pizza Studio
3201 St. Paul Street
Charles Village

Pizza Studio's product is definitely pizza because Pizza Club “immediately recognized it" as such. We accept the evidence of our senses. But what subliminal machinations underpin this moment of recognition?  Even taste, smell, and cheese are constituted by a field of structural forces. The present is opaque to itself – “each 'now' is the now of a particular recognizability.” The people of Baltimore recently entered the now of infinitely-customizable premium-quality pizza served in under two minutes.

What's more, this pizza asserts its status as a work of art created by you, the consumer. Where the gates of Dante's Hell bear the inscription, “Abandon All Hope,” the gates of fast-casual dining entreat you to “Create Your Masterpiece."

Pizza Studio is a franchise “fast-casual” restaurant from California recently slotted in to the gleaming brick-and-glass arcades of the 3200 block of St. Paul, a block notable for looking and feeling nothing like Baltimore. Undergraduates can be observed through the plate-glass windows of Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, and Starbucks, enjoying the remarkable continuity of consumer experience made possible by the extensive geographical coverage of these brands. By substituting “a plurality of copies” for the unique existence of a particular place, they constitute a distributed zone of the familiar that empowers college students, families, tourists, etc. to move uninhibited through an 'urban' environment that would otherwise offer them few recognizable enjoyments.

There are already two pizza places in the Hopkins zone that should meet the needs of undergraduates, but they definitely haven't captured the current market. They don't belong to the particular recognizability of the now: freshness, 'local'-ness, hip design and branding, and the embrace of myriad dietary restrictions. They lack a story, ethos, values, or globally-oriented social commitments. Pizza Studio won't compete with any of the neighborhood pizza places – it's in the ring with Chipotle in a battle for which eight-dollar lunch-food spectacle can assuage the creeping bad consciousness of late capitalism.

Pizza Studio frees you from all limits and constraints as you queue up to order your custom pie. If you find yourself experiencing limitations, it's due to your own weak imagination and ultimately, your failure as an artist -- in which case you can select a pre-fab “Masterpiece” from a menu.

The fresh, all-natural components of a Pizza Studio pie flow rapidly through different stages of matter. As in the studio of a highly-successful contemporary artist, the transformation of raw material into art is carried out by assistants whose labor is not “creative,” and thus, effectively invisible. Since you, the consumer, are also the artist, you pay for the cost of materials, facilities, and cheery technicians to realize your vision under your supervisory gaze.

Also like a highly-successful contemporary artist, you the patron of Pizza Studio are plugging in to the front end of a cultural production apparatus with its back end in military R&D, management psychology, despoliation of the earth, and an endless chain of exploitative labor practices. Delicious all-natural ingredients and seamless customer service did not invent themselves. The employee motto of Pizza Studio is “SNAP” – “Sense of urgency, No excuses, Attention to detail, Pride of ownership.” This motto is inscribed in the frantic, slightly-unhinged slicing pattern of a Pizza Studio pie.

Samit Varma, one of the founders of Pizza Studio, spent eight years as a Navy officer on nuclear submarines before he got his MBA. His partner is a career corporate ladder-climber of successful food franchises like TGI Friday's. The duo billed themselves as “former Baltimore residents” for the opening of the Charles Village Pizza Studio, which means that one grew up in Rockville and the other lived in Owings Mills. Behold the mercenary reproducibility of the 'local' – witness the militarization of the artisanal – in a weapons-grade toaster oven that blasts your personal-sized pizza with 50-mph gusts of scorching wind generated by the beating of Satan's wings in the innermost circle of Hell.

 All of this is yours for seven dollars and change – another attraction in the college market which prizes the illusion of quantity. The actual quantity of food material on your pizza will not increase appreciably even if you select every topping. Pizza Studio is not stupid – economies of scale and scientific optimization underpin each casually-strewn handful of nitrate-free pepperoni. Consumer psychology revolves around a primal delusion of rational decision-making, the appearance of “deals” that give maximum value for money. Whenever you experience this instinct, rest assured, someone with a six-figure salary is laughing and snorting coke off a Pizza Studio to-go box emblazoned with the catchphrase “Your Hot Masterpiece”. 

 Since it is an important function of capitalism to deny us knowledge of our time and place – to produce a fully-realized phantasmagoria that masks the obvious material conditions of life – the presence of Pizza Studio on a Johns-Hopkins-owned block of Charles Village, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. explains itself. “It's gonna suck when this creative artist space gets driven out by gentrification and Hopkins development,” one Pizza Club member observed.

Pizza Club quickly located the “Starving Artists' Wall,” really half a wall, in the back corner of Pizza Studio. The concept is to have local artists – presumed to be starving because we all know the difference between creativity-branded commodity capitalism and creativity the disease that makes you actually go to art school – hang their work in the restaurant and sell it to customers. This is great synergy because the theme of Pizza Studio is the mind-warping lie of the creative economy. Dwarfing the local art are numerous restaurant industry stock photo canvas prints with pictures of weathered, brown-skinned hands holding vegetables.

I ordered the requisite plain cheese pizza. I felt like a failure because I hadn't expressed myself using the infinity of options available to define my unique pizza identity. However, when the Pizza Club Power Lunch Team took a synchronized bite of our cheese slices, we all experienced the mysterious confluence of sensory cues telling us that this was, indeed, Pizza – a good-tasting cheesy bread object fresh out of a heating device. “I thought the crust was gonna be bullshit,” said one PC'er, “but it's not terrible crust.” We ate a wide variety of pies from the menu and from our own rich imaginations, all of which tasted like pretty good food.

The Pizza Studio banks on a psychic economy of additive flavor, where “flavor” feeds back into the creative expressiveness and perceived value of their product – what we might call a flavor-creativity-value complex. The crust has “no particular flavor” or texture. The unlimited toppings, which Pizza Studio fully expects you to pile on, are the building-blocks of flavor-creativity-value. Then there are “glazes,” bottles of liquid salt and sugar that you spray on top of the pizza to further boost flavor-creativity-value. We hardly noticed the difference in pies with gluten-free crust and vegan cheese because these elements – normally the foundation of a pizza – are purely structural, like the tortilla in a Chipotle burrito.

 All of this is a long-winded recapitulation of Pizza Studio's mission statement. They're going to be the Chipotle of pizza, which for some reason no one thought of being until now. If you like Chipotle, and you like pizza, you'll want to add this to your lunch routine. Like Pizza Club, you might ask, “do I have to acknowledge my guilt for enjoying a corporate franchised business?” To which we say, “Be who you are.” We had an excellent time at Pizza Studio eating fun, creative personal pan pizzas. We sated our appetites and returned to the office to make shadow puppets on the back wall of a dimly-lit cubicle until 5pm, when we went home to watch TV. One can only hope to move through today's phanstasmic creative economy like a Pizza Studio pie through its turbo-charged toaster oven, and emerge out the other side a certified Masterpiece.

5.5/8 slices

Credits: Scott (pizza photos), Graham (photos & research), and Kate (photos)