Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pizza, memory and dad

"Sex is like pizza. Even when it's bad it's still pretty good" Woody Allen

"Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table." Charles Pierre Monselet

Ask any New Yorker what the best pizza in town is and you will usually get the same answer, whatever pizza it was that said New Yorker grew up with. I am no exception, though I think an excellent case can be made for me being more right than most.

That pizza is Sal and Carmine’s on Broadway between 102nd and 103rd street. Known as simply Sal’s Pizza when I was a kid, the place has been an Upper West Side fixture since the 60s when Sal first opened up his shop. He was later joined by Carmine, his brother in law (I believe). Sal passed away last year unbeknownst to me until a few months ago, but Carmine and Sal’s son are still there, still putting out this most excellent example of classic New York pizza. Here is a link to the best write up I have found on about this slice. I agree with every point made. You have to scroll down to the part about Sal and Carmine’s but it’s a great read all around. http://theeatenpath.com/2009/06/07/sal-and-carmine-best-slice-in-manhattan/ You’ll get no less than 12 pages of links to different reviews, blog entries and diaries just by googleing “Sal and Carmine’s”

I started eating Sal and Carmine’s when I was 11, not long after my parents split up and my dad moved to a tiny studio apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 95th Street. Back then Sal’s, was a hole in the wall with no tables and white tile everywhere. The counter had barely enough room for the two men to work. But work they did. Making pizza after pizza, serving slice after slice after slice. It was rarely empty, rarely navigable and always delicious.

Their pizza was, and still is, so good that a plain slice/pie is more than good enough. Adding sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms or whatever actually ends up distracting you.

This isn’t gourmet pizza, you understand. This is classic New York by the slice pizza at its best. And it is indeed the pizza I grew up on.

Sure there's Lombardi's (where pizza was invented), Grimaldi's and John's (who both got their start at Lombardi's) and they are great, but that's sitdown eat a whole pie kind of place. Sal and Carmine are of a more common New York tradition and you are hardpressed to find something as classic and authentically Italian as they are save for parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Mulberry street in Manhattan.

I started eating Sal and Carmine’s when I was 11, not long after my parents split up and my dad moved to a tiny studio apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 95th Street from our place on 103rd and Central Park West. Back then Sal’s, as it was known then, was a hole in the wall with no tables and white tile everywhere. The counter had barely enough room for the brothers in law to work. But work they did. Making pizza after pizza, serving slice after slice after slice. It was rarely empty, rarely navigable. It was always delicious.

When the neighborhood yuppified in the 80s they were forced to move up about 7 blocks. It was worth the extra time. Back then, the real estate line was sharp…at about 99th street the neighborhood remained a mix of middle class and sketchy, rental was still a bit cheaper than the rest of the area so the new space, now called Sal and Carmine’s had 7 tables in the back. The ovens and the flavor never changed.

Sal and Carmine never bought into the ridiculousness of putting every damned thing on their pizza the way so many of the newer, generally awful pizza places do. They stuck and continue to stick to the basics. Woody Allen's joke no longer applies in New York. The bad pizza here is pretty fucking bad. In my part of Brooklyn (Crown Heights/BedStuy) the local pizza makes you lose the will to live, it's that horrible.

When I moved out of my dad’s place 27 years ago part of my life became about finding places nearby that were approachable to Sal and Carmine’s. Not just because of the goodness but because of the memories.

When my parents split up I was of course pretty devastated. Dad was over ever Wednesday and we went to his place every other weekend. The distance between mom's place and dad's wasn't that far so we were lucky in that we still got to see him.

Dad had discovered Sal’s right after the move and Saturday pizza with Star Trek reruns on Channel 11 became the tradition when we visited. It was a tiny studio apartment and my brother and I slept on inflatable mattresses on the floor, but we had fun. There was always something to do and of course, Sal’s Pizza and Star Trek every Saturday.

Years later I moved in with dad so I could go to the high school I wanted to go to, my brother stayed with my mother who had moved out to Long Island and we switched off weekends. The Saturday tradition never changed, though there would be additions of Space 1999 (we would talk about how awful it was), UFO, Battlestar Galactica (to this day I wish dad had stuck around long enough to see the new one. He’d have loved it). But Star Trek was always on the Channel 11 lineup and Sal’s pizza was always in ours.

This was dad/son bonding time and just plain fun. We’d call ahead and order by phone, then go pick up. They never delivered so we always went to pick it up…always chatted with Carmine mostly, Sal was usually silent but never unfriendly. We would vary sometimes and get toppings, just for fun…and they were always good. Even better, if there were leftovers, we’d have cold pizza for breakfast.

Trust me, this is a sublime pleasure when the pizza is good. It doesn’t work for all pizzas.

More and more as the years pass and the pain of my father’s suicide is layered over by years, experience and perspective, Sal and Carmine’s pizza remains my favorite dad related set of memories.

As some of you know, this past summer I tried my hand at apartment showing for a real estate firm on the Upper West Side. This was not a terribly successful venture, in the two months I did this I made under $700 altogether and generally ended up wanting to go postal on “clients”. It is an industry I may return to but not with that particular venue.

A plus though was that many of the apartments I showed were in my old neighborhood and I had some pretty surreal experiences showing apartments on blocks that we didn’t even go to when I was a kid because they were too dangerous. Wild stuff, and fun.

Mid July I was showing an apartment in the low 100s to a couple of college girls. I was in a pensive mood. It was what would have been my father’s 72nd birthday and whenever it is his birthday or the anniversary of the day we found him I’m always a tad on edge. Even when I don’t realize what day it is.

It was warm, but there was a slight rain that tempered the warmth that made the day actually very pleasant. I showed the apartment (which I liked very much but the girl's typically didn't, that's another blog for another day. Spoiled young clients with no clue), afterward I chose to walk a bit before heading back to the office. Lo and behold, there was Carmine tossing away and spinning a pie.

At this point I was certain that Sal and Carmine’s was no more. I hadn’t been in this part of town in a very long time. The last time I had been I “misremembered” the location and found what I thought in it’s place one of those newfangled awful pizza places that specialized in dreadful toppings to mask the utter lack of flavor. At this moment I was in one of those rare states of mind here I am deeply grateful that I am wrong about something. I stared for awhile, took a picture and then walked inside and ordered a slice and a cherry soda which was my standard back at dad’s.

Carmine looked much older of course than the last time I’d been there which I think was about 10 years. I wasn’t aware at the time that Sal had passed a year earlier, but given how old they must have been I surmised and said nothing to Carmine, only that I was so happy to see him.

He remembered me after a few minutes and asked about my dad and brother. I lied and told him that dad was fine but had moved away years ago. I didn’t want to get into it. I was too happy with the sight of Carmine, the taste of my favorite pizza which had not altered a jot. I savored every bite, grinning the entire time. I wanted this moment to be about the good memory, not grief.

I thanked Carmine for the years of great pizza and that I couldn't wait to be back again then left. I stood outside for a few moments and said quietly “Happy Birthday, Dad”, then turned and headed back to the office.

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