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