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 maître 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)

Monday, August 10, 2015

The life and teachings of Serpico reconstructed by critical historical methods

Serpico Pizza and Pasta
10 Fila Way
Sparks, MD

Serpico has been called "the best cheese pizza north of Shawan Rd." Consider that if you keep going north, you get to York, Pennsylvania and thereafter to New York, where they have much better pizza than will ever be available in the vicinity of Shawan Rd. Is Serpico the "closest thing to an authentic New York-style slice" available in Maryland? Well I ate a slice of pizza with spaghetti on it and then more crust on top of the spaghetti. Do they have that in New York? Probably somewhere, yes, they probably do, because they have everything in New York, including better pizza than suburban Maryland.

Serpico is located next to a "Saddlery," where I think they make saddles for horses. We are in the rolling countryside particular to Maryland, a completely domesticated but unfussy pastoral. It's casual, just like Serpico's Italian dining. The people there were very nice and helped us choose an appropriate array of pizza slices. They sell by-the-slice, which is how they got me to try a "spaghetti pizza" -- it was the only thing fresh out of the oven when we walked in on a Sunday afternoon. The slices are very large in surface area; a modest but not indecent amount of grease pools in the depressions.

You'll want to stop here on your way back from swimming, tubing, or boating on the Gunpowder River and points north, because you'll be hungry but not ready to trade in the grid-less rambles of the afternoon for the strip malls of Hunt Valley. Take in the innocent dusk of Sparks, Maryland while it lasts. Across Fila Way from the plaza housing Serpico, a row of vinyl-sided, as-yet-unoccupied new homes stands on a ridge named "Fox Terrace" or "Fox View" or something with foxes. Pizza Club predicts that the children raised in these homes will often walk to Serpico and gaze upon its mural of the Cinque Terre, and think about going to Italy some day maybe for a school choir competition.

The crust was pretty good, crispy and thin but well-structured. The sauce was rounded and unobtrusive. There was cheese on it also. There is no New York slice to save us now. The historical "New York slice" never existed, it didn't die for us, it just never existed. It's a convenient lie told by generations of suburban pizza parlor proprietors to win the allegiance of the damned. In a countryside so abundant and gentle as Maryland's, one can happily believe that the world was created for us and types of pizza were ordained by a loving God. One can ascribe direction and agency to history. But our world is an accident and history is a tool of the powerful -- I suspect that people from New Jersey know it better than all the rest of us and they just aren't telling. Instead, they're driving up and down this blessed nation with their smartphones, producing a Yelp apocrypha of the one true pizza of which Serpico's is a fragmentary gospel.

4/8 slices

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pizza Club in Exile: Landscapes of Denial and Pizza in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

Mario's Pizza
322 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA

The suburbs of northern Virginia exude a particular terror: clean and new, built for people who don't want to live in a place previously inhabited by other people. The immense condominium complexes that stretch for block upon block in centers of “urban village” development around Alexandria, Arlington, and Tysons Corner turn their glass faces to the highway proclaiming transparency – walls of windows, the light of truth, a world without history, and a "Corner Bakery Cafe" on the ground floor. 

Crystal City skyline. By Kevin Bowman
Do they qualify as “edge cities”? They balance on the knife blade separating the visible universe from a dark covert universe of lies. When confronted with this phalanx of architectural obliteration one feels the dropping-away of solid earth. No less than the man-made islands of Abu Dhabi, this built environment is pure liquidity temporarily stored in concrete and steel. Listen closely and you can hear the flow of capital cascading into a bottomless void that opens up underneath the Pentagon City Metro station. These sites are worse than haunted. With signals scrambled and the map wiped clean, the dead have nowhere to rest; they and their secrets are caught in that planner's darling, the traffic-calming urban roundabout.
The whispers and spectral visions that visit me in the suburbs of northern Virginia are not, however, incompatible with eating pizza. Pizza is a cornerstone of Cold War American empire and as such belongs in NoVA as much as transplanted Iranian real estate moguls and Salvadorian refugee day-laborers. There's a pizza place called Shakey's that people who grew up around here remember fondly, but it's gone now, but at least they can remember something. Other pizza joints in this mold live on. They are frozen in a moment of 1960s suburban exuberance about pizza: we take bread, add a mealy tomato broth spiked with oregano, and overlay a slab of mozzarella white, flat, and thick as the grave markers at the nearby National Cemetery. 

Today's pizza palace of yesterday is Mario's in Arlington. Mario's is located on Wilson Boulevard – Wilson Boulevard, for our 28th president, a man who believed that foreign policy must spread democracy using a variety of means. On the other side of Wilson Boulevard is a thicket of condos. A Pizza Club observer describes “[an] unsuspenseful Rear Window… revealing frat boys playing beer pong and large flat screen TVs illuminating darkened rooms.” Transparency is meaningless, under the surface there's just beer pong in a condo lounge on a Saturday night. 
Mario's models the mid-century roadside dairy shack vernacular, low-slung building, towering swoopy light-box signage. Carvel ice cream novelties come from a front window, pizza comes from a counter inside where different people will talk to you and shout your order at each other until someone makes you a pizza. Pies emerge onto outdoor picnic tables over which darkened human forms hover. In the Arlington twilight, mozzarella catches the neon glow.

The pizza is a rectangle, rolled out with a rolling pin. Many compared it to “French bread” pizza products found in the frozen food aisle. Locals explained to us that Mario's pre-bakes, tops, and then bakes again for speedy order fulfillment. The crust is thick, bready, and chewy; it begins to dry out after the ten-minute mark. There's not much sauce to help you deal with this, only cheese, so much cheese. And toppings if you get them. They're under the cheese. It's not fake, it's just the inoffensive American idea of mozzarella still often spotted in elementary school lunches. The term “cheeze-lastic” was proposed as a descriptor. It recreates the flavor landscape of its time -- a flat line rather than peaks and valleys. Cookbooks were casserole-based, acceptable spices were salt, pepper, and oregano.
Mario's has been in this place for fifty years circa 2007 when they put up a sign to that effect. Why in the throes of a deep and abiding unease did we gravitate towards its lights? Among the history-swallowing anti-monuments of NoVA Mario's stands as a witness to precisely those decades when America's relationship with the past imploded in a mushroom cloud of denial, anger, and ignorance both willful and imposed. How fucked up was it? The quaint hamlet of Arlington was home to an “American Nazi Party" which picketed the local pizza parlor for serving African Americans and Jews; the year was 1961. Mario's, along with the rest of the town, reckoned with these bizarre hate-mongers in their midst until the 1980s. You can still eat essentially the same pizza that sort of stood up for Civil Rights because the pizza survived while the hate group bit the dust. 

Further reminisces confirm the Mario's pie as a historic survival. “This is old-school pizza you're not old enough to have a memory of,” a Pizza Club gen-Xer admonished the scribe. “It feels like I'm on a beach vacation when I was ten years old,” another remarked. “I grew up on this stuff,” our local informant added, instructing us in the proper microwave revival technique. You might be tempted to reheat this pizza in a toaster oven, but only microwave radiation should be used for period accuracy. 
Mario's rescued Pizza Club from a serious paranoia trip. We want to touch the good and evil of the past, we want to feel something (cheese) in the pit of our stomachs. By all means build the progressive dense “urban suburb” of the future and build it here where it can help the maximum number of people commute to work in defense contracting. But know that the sleek visibility is false and the transparency is an illusion – you'll only glimpse the truth in the distorted gleam off an expanse of Mario's mozzarella. 

5/8 slices
Pizza photo credits: Katy  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All Pies Go to Heaven

Angelo's "Pie In the Sky"
3838 Roland Ave.
Top of the Retirement Tower

At the end of a long, industrious life as Baltimore's largest slice of pizza with huge biceps, Angelo's was sacrificed in an ancient solstice ritual and reincarnated at the top of the retirement tower on Roland Ave. It's the best view in all of Baltimore. You can gaze down upon the graveyard to the north where rites of spring proceed apace with ribbons and flower garlands to win the blessings of the dead. Far to the south, the harbor god slumbers below a scrum of garbage-fed algae.

"Spring Break Walrus"

This space has seen the cyclical life and death of various culinary endeavors over the years. A cadre of dusty ghosts lurk in the rafters sipping burnt coffee; they cast an enchanted circle where pilgrims from the world below take refuge in the peaceful vale of senior citizenship.

Old age is humanity's most important accomplishment and thus many rituals have evolved to honor elders while also politely removing their autonomy. Modern rituals revolve around prolonging life at any cost. Maybe you can't raise money for mortal illnesses because your humanistic training taught you that the corporate charity-biomedicine-industrial complex is morally bankrupt and exploitative. But you can drape a flower garland over an elderly person. A great place to meet them is in the retirement tower elevator on your way to get pizza at the new Angelo's.

Cheese Pizza

The question here is, "does this pizza differ at all from the old Angelo's?" No. It's still really cheap and pretty mediocre, but now it comes with the sort of view that most of us will never have from the executive office that our slapdash career paths will never furnish us with. It's also BYOB so REMEMBER TO BRING BEER.

We ordered three pies. There was nothing particular about them. "I've always thought that Angelo's was adequate pizza," said Mike. Mark agreed, "It doesn't exceed or disappoint expectations." Adding toppings will help validate the time and effort that goes into chewing and swallowing this pizza. The best idea was selecting garlic as a topping -- this added the element of flavor that was absent from the sauce, a "really huge improvement." The crust is slightly sweet and achieves middle-of-the-road chewiness and crispness.

Peppers and Mushrooms

Some people think that Angelo's is like New York pizza. I can't support that position. It's clearly Baltimore pizza, that is, it was reverse engineered from a picture of New York pizza on a takeout menu smuggled across the Mason-Dixon line. The faded image was soaked in olive oil, left overnight in the woods during a full moon, and braided into the hair of a virgin. To this day, when wolves howl across the Jones Falls at the flickering lights of Angelo's Pie In the Sky, diners recall the sacrifice of our ancient ancestor, symbolically renewed each season with the daubing of tomato sauce on a pizza stone which is then hurled at a scapegoat selected by the CityPaper Best of Baltimore reader's poll.

Garlic and Pepperoni
There are a lot of confusing things about the myth of Angelo's that require greater philological explication. The schism, as I understand it, was the result of a Freudian intergenerational conflict within the Pizza family. Angelo's old space at 36th and Keswick became "36th Ave. Pizza," with predictable disastrous results.

Be warned foolhardy moonlighters, the "Big Slice" that is the signature of Angelo's is not available after 5pm. Do I need to impart the hackneyed Baltimore wisdom pertaining to the Big Slice? Okay: the Big Slice is a gimmick. If you want pizza, get a regular pie, unless you're drunk, which is hard for most working people to achieve before 5pm.


As usual, Pizza Club was both divided in its opinions and completely unanimous. Behold:
Tiffany: "I wouldn't come back here for the pizzas."
Mike: "I'll come back here all the time."
Tiffany: "There are other things I'll come back here for, just not the pizza."
Mike: "Maybe we're the bozos."

Quantitative findings:
Cheese pie -- 4/8
Pepper and mushroom pie -- 4.5/8
Garlic and pepperoni pie -- 6/8
Overall experience weighted for the "view factor" -- 6/8

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Emergency Weather Emergency

You might have noticed a weather emergency going on in Baltimore all the time since as long ago as anyone can remember. Weather emergencies and pizza are a volatile mix. The fear and agitation that snow inspires means that you may not be able to get pizza delivered to your house, or return to your house ever again. Ultimately there will be no houses left -- just gushing broken water mains and gas flowing from pipes sticking up out of the blasted earth.

The authorities will tell you to stay off the roads during emergency weather conditions. I don't know whether this is right or wrong. Pizza Club spent about an hour inching down 83 in the snow, but then we couldn't scale the off-ramp to 28th Street, so we glided slowly down to the end of 83, and thence down to Patterson Park, where we took shelter in the home of Eliza, a gracious Friend of Pizza Club. On the Baltimore winter driving meter this experience registered as 'harrowing'.

Secure in our weather-resistant shelter the group became hungry and didn't know what to do. This would have continued until we died if Eliza had not mixed up a batch of pizza dough. As the dough rose so too did our hope of survival. Here you can see an industrious stovetop where we caramelized onions and stirred sauces.

Two pizzas were produced: an olive, artichoke heart, and caramelized onion pie, and a Swiss chard and mushroom pie. A block of feta cheese was the only cheese on hand. Putting feta cheese directly on tomato sauce is a great idea. You don't really need mozzarella. You don't need anything besides a ruthless survival instinct and a bottle opener, but actually it's not that hard to open bottles with a spoon.

These were the most exquisite pizzas the Pizza Club has enjoyed in some time, even if we hallucinated them. Here's a recipe that Eliza endorses from America's Test Kitchen. Use a food processor to mix your dough, says the Test Kitchen.

When the authorities tell you to stay off the road for your own safety, that's when you call up your friend with an SUV who seems pretty rugged because he went to college in Maine. Are you going to obey the authorities, or insist on following through with your Saturday night plans -- in this case, drinking tea and reading Ed Dorn -- at any cost? In other words, are you an American?

We gave this pizza 7/8 slices, one point off because we were pretty drunk. It's all gone though and these circumstances can never be recreated. Matt, whose SUV conquered the icy incline of Charles Street, is the only other living person who tried it. He said it was good.

Photo credits: Ada. Thanks to Eliza for courageously navigating down I-83 and letting us make a mess in her kitchen.

Friday, January 30, 2015

From Pizzahaus to Our House

 “Our House” Pizza
1121 Hull St., Locust Point

I've been driving my car a lot because the month of January doesn't count. It gets wiped from the record, in case you weren't aware. I drive to work, I drive to the gym, sometimes I just drive around the block to make sure everything's cool on the other side of the block. From January 1-31, I don't give a shit – it's not that I do what I want, rather, I do what I fear I secretly want, which is to completely acquiesce to late capitalism and drown the constant enervating chatter of my conscience in $2-per-gallon gasoline and light it on fire. Does pizza matter? This is the true test. Can pizza summon me from the depths of seasonal nihilism? The answer is yes.

Locust Point in times past (Maryland Historical Society)

“Our House” Pizza in Locust Point is really out there in Locust Point. “Your average drunken wanderer from Federal Hill would not make it this far,” Scott observed, “and if they did they'd be scared.” Perhaps they'd be scared by the enormous hulking mothership of Under Armour Inc., located mere yards from Our House's front door. Perhaps they'd be scared if they wandered into the nearby rail switchyard at night and got hit by a train. Life is brimming over with horror, the unknown, and what's worse, humanity's dim awareness of our own abiding futility. That said, I heard this pizza was really good. Since, as I mentioned, I'm driving my car indiscriminately this month to hasten the demise of this doomed pitiful planet, I figured Pizza Club should go to Locust Point.

Our House was warm and welcoming on a sleet-filled night, with friendly ambiance and cozy décor, like mismatched chairs and cute napkin holders. Pizza Club enjoyed the space immensely and on atmosphere alone we recommend going here if you need a spot to hang out. It was so nice there that we had trouble disaggregating our enjoyment of the establishment's physical properties from our ratings of its pizza, on which more later.

Pizza Pretzel

They have a multi-menu system kind of like a sushi place. A descriptive menu describes the food items, and then a paper slip lets you check off the items you intend to order. The menu offers vegetarian and meat options, a crab pizza, and a whole page of breakfast which includes breakfast pizzas. We obtained a “pretzel pizza” and a “pretzel dog” as appetizers. Described as a “Bavarian style” pretzel, these were good and malty, with a lot of sweetness in the pretzel. However, when cutting a pretzel in half and covering it with cheese and sauce, one encounters the “pizza bagel trap” wherein the guts of the bread product, unprotected by a crusty surface, get soggy. We recommend, if you're curious, that you request a plain pretzel with mustard. The mustard is very spicy, as mustard should be.

Pizza Dog w/ mustard

Let's break for an allegory. Two dogs are on a see-saw; unbeknownst to them, this see-saw is in fact resting on one end of another, larger see-saw. As the two dogs see-saw back and forth, having a grand old time, the larger see-saw is slowly oscillating up and down, causing subtle modulations in the temperature, pressure, and gravitational field around the frolicking dogs. As long as the dogs don't realize this everything is splendid and they are able to enjoy their experience of see-sawing. One day, however, Dog A realizes that there is a pattern to these subtle changes in their surroundings. He thinks, "What if we are in fact resting on the end of another, larger see-saw?" Immediately followed by the question: "What is on the opposite end of that larger see-saw?" This allegory explains the feeling of dread that I now associate with pizza. Out there beyond the limits of our sight is something murky and immense.

Guess I didn't bother to rotate this one
The pizzas at Our House bear a striking resemblance in many ways to the item known as the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza, which many will recall from the 1990s. A house is a more sophisticated version of a hut, and so it goes with pizzas from these respective dwelling structures. Thick and buttery, light and airy inside and crispy outside, the Our House version is available in 7” and 10” sizes. It appears to contain cornmeal, which gives the crust an additional satisfying crunchy grit. One of these pizzas will serve 1 or 2 people. They cost about $8 for a small and $10-12 for a large. You could get much cheaper pizza somewhere else, but for the gourmet-pizza market this is pretty standard, plus you get more crust out of this bargain than with the Neapolitan style.

Not Super Popular
We ordered the “BOTH” Cheese pizza as a baseline. It's a mozzarella pizza with parmesan. “It has both cheeses but it tastes like neither,” said Scott. Others concurred that it was plain, not in the sense of having no toppings, but in the sense of lacking the deep satisfaction of a particular cheese experience. Perhaps it also needed more sauce to balance the thick crust, an issue common to all their pies. In the end half of the BOTH pie remained untouched.

That's an Attractive Pizza

The “Pepadew and Goat Cheese” pie was a favorite. It combined sweet carmelized onion and pepadew, which is a kind of pepper, and tangy goat cheese. The substantial but plain nature of the thick crust compliments intense flavor combinations like this one. 

Very Popular
The meat pies, an “Antipasti” (parmesan, prosciutto, pepperoni, roasted red peppers, provolone, and artichoke) and a “Hot & Spicy” (pepperoni, onions, hot peppers, and peperoncini) were intriguing to some and disappointing to others. The Antipasti was “like someone opened the deli drawer and dumped it on a pizza,” but the variety and abundance of toppings was also welcomed in relation to the bulky crust. The problem was perhaps that they didn't integrate well with the pie, perhaps due to insufficient sauce.

Hot & Spicy

The Hot & Spicy was not very spicy, but people liked it because the peppers added good acidity and the onions were enjoyed by all. In both pies, meat was not found in abundance. The meat toppings appeared as pleasant surprises, but were “not predictable,” and absent from some slices entirely. Off in the indeterminate distance, a giant pepperoni sausage rises and falls, levering all of our fates along with it.


General remarks: many felt that the cheese had “no flavor," although some pies had a lot of it, it just kind of sat there and was heavy. The sauce “is pretty tangy,” said Scott. “It tastes clean.” He later clarified this assessment: “the sauce is weak. It's too light, too clean, too crisp. It doesn't give you that lingering sauce sensation.” Pizza is a food that should haunt you in smell and pungent breath after its earthly form vanishes. It should hover in the air guiding you past the veil of sensation to an awareness of the unknowable. It needs more sauce.

Hilary was concerned that “the crust reveals an underlying misunderstanding.” There was much perplexity. At what point do we call a thing pizza? “It's kind of not a pizza, it's bread,” Scott suggested. Dave took a definitional view: “it's a pizza, it's got sauce, it's got cheese, it's got crust." The individual pan form is preferred in certain regions of the United States. "I'm okay with this crust,” he decided, “but maybe it's because I grew up with Pizza Hut.” Many agreed that a palimpsest of past experiences, varying from one individual to the next, will influence your fondness for this pizza.

On a holistic level, however, we were all well satisfied and none the worse for having fallen into a deep pit of ontological confusion. No one around us seemed disturbed in this way, so I conclude that we entered the establishment with problems entirely our own that we then projected onto the pizza. “This place is really nice, and run so well, and everyone is friendly, and they serve pizza,” Hilary mused, “but it's not exactly pizza.”

If you live nearby you should hang out here all the time because they have a wall of self-serve beer cases featuring all your favorite beers, and on Sundays there is brunch with bottomless mimosas. If you worry about the slippage of categories and the instability of concepts, this pizza place may upset you. But if you're also hungry, they'll sell you something that's pretty good and tastes like a better version of the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza of your youth.

Stock photo of Pizza Hut Pan Pizza for comparison
A note: some will say that the pizza here is a lot like the pizza at Barfly, a pub located a few blocks away on Fort Avenue, and reviewed previously on this blog. They would be correct. There is a story about the relation between these establishments (and Matthew's) that's not worth the time it would take to explain. It's the same crust with different toppings. We like the ambiance at Our House better, but Barfly is a great movie starring Mickey Rourke, and their pizza might taste a tiny bit better if memory serves.

5.5/8 slices

Photo Credits: thanks Scott for taking all the pizza pics.