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