A SLICE OF LIFE OR THE PIZZA WARS OF PUTNAM COUNTY

simpsonIf I had in my possession all the money I ever spent eating out in restaurants I would be a rich woman but I don’t regret most of it. My biggest regret in life is the money I’ve spent eating out in bad restaurants. Little did I know that moving to Putnam County I would be embarking on an epicurean’s wasteland. As two parents working fulltime jobs with a healthy commute and other time spent shuttling our charges to one lesson, rehearsal or activity after another we invariably threw up our hands in desperation and headed out to eat. Living where we live this is much easier said than done. When we moved into the lake house there wasn’t a single restaurant in our actual town- just delis and they almost all sold pizza.

The seller of our house told us the best pizza was located in a tiny strip mall across from the roundabout about a mile out of town. It was called Al Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza. He said it should not be confused with Forno III Pizza which was closer. Neither should be confused with The Original Al Forno which packed up and moved to a town further south. At some point all three owners of the Al Forno Pizza parlors worked in the same place but some bad blood passed between them and they splintered into three separate feuding restaurants.

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Both places claimed to make pizza like “The Bronx” whatever that is and in the end both places were pretty bad. If you went into either one the owner went into a ten minute diatribe about how the other Al Forno’s owner was a crook and couldn’t make pizza. Now normal house buyers would not put a lot of stock into which pizza was superior when buying a house but we listened to the seller and for a while the one by the roundabout was the spot.

The four corners of main street had a car repair shop on one side, an historic house that failed as a restaurant on the opposite, a hair salon called Untamed on the third corner and Maria’s Deli on the fourth. Maria was a super grouchy woman who spoke with a thick Italian accent and supported her large family from the proceeds of the deli. She made her own Italian bread. It was a bit cakey and had a very distinctive taste but she often sold it warm and we occasionally bought it. Based upon the success of her bread she decided to expand into a full scale bakery inside the deli. She made fancy cakes and cookies and displayed them under a glass counter in the back of the store.

“That’s beautiful,” I said one afternoon admiring a small decorated cake.

“You want it?” she barked at me.

“Weeell…” I demurred. “We do have a birthday coming up.”

“You want the cake?” she snapped.

“Well…”

“This is a great cake.” She said.

“Okay.” Something about Maria’s crankiness made me want her to like me even more.

After dinner I surprised the family with the cake. As I served it I explained that Maria was going to launch a full line of baked goods.

“So now we have a bakery in town which is something we actually need…what?” I asked looking at Rob’s face. “It’s no good?”

“It tastes just like her Italian bread except with sugar.”

I took a bite. “It does.”

“Does she just have a one size fits all dough recipe?” he asked. We avoided Maria’s for a while. Not surprisingly the bakery idea died. Maria decided to start making pizza. She expanded her deli as they pushed through to the closed up flower shop next door and installed a large pizza oven. When you went in to buy milk or a sandwich she told you about her pizza business that was coming soon. In addition to the fighting Fornos the town had a smattering of small delis servicing each lake community and each of those delis sold pizza.Mama_Celeste

Maria seemed almost pleasant for a brief period anticipating her new venture until the historic house across from the repair shop reopened as a…you guessed it, a pizza parlor called Pizza and Pasta.

This pizza parlor had something all the other places didn’t have, tables. Not to be outdone, Maria charged forward with her plans and by the time she opened up she had set up some plastic tables in the front of the deli but more people went to Pizza and Pasta.

After the first week of Pizza and Pasta, Forno III put a banner out offering free Pepsi with each pie. Then Maria hung a sign in her window that offered two pies for the price of one. Around this same time Al Forno’s Brick Oven near the roundabout started to look very grubby and we stopped going altogether.

Pizza and Pasta made a sign that said, BYOB and free salads with each pie. So Maria upped her offer to include two pizzas and two liters of soda for fifteen dollars. Then another small deli about two miles before the main corner decided to start selling pizza and they offered one large pie with two liters of soda for ten dollars and they delivered for free. They weren’t on the same block as the other three but they did start to siphon off customers who lived closer to their store.

“That certainly smells good.” I offered when I stopped inside Maria’s one afternoon. You can see I never learned to keep my mouth shut. The result was the same. Pizza that tasted like her bread and cake dough. It was as if she flattened out the bread into a pie pan and put tomato sauce on top.

So we went to the restaurant with table service, free salads and our own wine. Until the time we ordered a Marguerita pie which consisted of a can of crushed tomatoes spread over the dough with a sprinkling of basil on top. When we questioned the waitress she explained that it was the chef’s personal version.

“It’s a can of crushed tomatoes on dough,” we said.

“Yes,” she agreed.

Pizza and Pasta closed within a year for lack of business.

Apparently most people didn’t like pizza that tasted like cake batter either because Maria closed up the pizza portion of her business a few weeks later and the feuding Fornos went back to life as normal. During this period a bagel shop opened across the parking lot from Marias and they siphoned off the A.M. buttered roll crowd. Now less people had a reason to put up with a crotchety Maria. Eventually she closed her deli altogether and moved away.

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As for us we stopped eating pizza and most bread products about this time and maybe other people did too. Or maybe they crossed the county line and ate pizza at any number of other available pizza options. We went from a glut of pizza choices to very few when they ran each other out of business. Forno III closed up and remains an empty shop because they owed the landlord back rent. Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza was sold and now has a glowing neon sign in the window that says WINGS. Maria’s Deli turned into a small grocery store that doesn’t sell pizza and the bagel shop closed last year as well. A bar opened up where the restaurant was but as far as I know they don’t serve pizza. The service station closed because the owner owed the county eight hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. The town supervisor has tried in vain to get a developer to move in and open a brew pub. I could be wrong but I don’t think that will ever happen.

On Friday nights driving north to a childless house I never think about pizza anymore. Then last week I passed by the empty store where the bagel shop stood and saw a sign; Coming Soon Nonna’s Pizza.IMG_1499

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MY CHILDREN MY SELF

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Before junior high I always felt like a girl inside but to many strangers I looked like a boy. Unless I was in school or church clothes, both of which required a dress, I wore dungarees, sneakers, t- shirts and sweat shirts and I had very short hair. It was the 1960’s and when many girls my age had long hair my mother insisted on keeping mine very short. I was the only one of my sisters who befell this fate on a consistent basis year after year until I entered eighth grade and she backed off and let me decide how to wear my own hair. My high school freshman yearbook photo shows an adolescent working hard to grow out short hair. This class photo from my kindergarten class gives you a pretty good idea how different I looked from other girls. I am second from the right in the back row next to the teacher. It also shows you who the photographer felt should not be in the front row.

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When I had children of my own I remember looking at photos of me and my young son at various ages and it was remarkable how similar we appeared. Jackson and I have small close set eyes and big ears that stick out a little at the top. So I usually kept his hair a bit longer. It was a reaction to my own insecurity that developed spending a decade with my ears exposed.

“See how much he resembles me?” I would ask people when I placed our pictures side by side from similar ages. When Jackson was in the fourth grade he started wearing glasses and then puberty started and any obvious similarity ended.

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Conversely I have perpetuated the belief that my daughter looks nothing like me. I have always resembled my own mother to a certain extent and I was surprised when she did not. Instead she resembles my husband’s sister except in coloring. She has large, wide eyes and a small nose and ears. She recently measured her face according to the golden section in a math class and discovered that the proportions of her face were “perfect.”Image

I added this item to the long list of things my daughter and I will never have in common. For example I always hated school and she seemed wired to succeed at it from birth. She was a pretty natural swimmer and I struggled throughout my childhood to learn the skill. She read early and often and I didn’t pick up the habit until I was almost seventeen. These are the things that sit at the forefront of my brain when I think about my daughter being connected to me. It’s as if she could do so much better than be like me.

Quinnie’s enduring hairstyle throughout childhood has been to part it on the side without bangs and cut it blunt across her shoulders. This isn’t terribly interesting except I recently uncovered a colored snapshot of me taken in 1967 when I was in the third grade.(Note the date on border. Film took a long time to get developed in our house.) The photo stopped me in my tracks. It reveals the one small window in my entire childhood when I had somehow managed to grow my hair to my shoulders before my mother shuffled me back to the hairdresser for my routine pixie.

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When I look at both of these eight year old girls I see the things the viewer cannot. Our difference in age is exactly the same as my mother’s and mine. We are both the youngest and have a deep fondness for little things like fairies, trolls and gnomes. I see our imaginative selves that wrote poems and drew expressive people dressed up in fancy clothes or the beginnings of countless comic strips where girlfriends said banal things to one another. I see our love of Little House on the Prairie books and the caretaking of numerous dolls that needed more attention than we each had time to offer. I see  both our childhoods played out against an exurban backdrop.Image

I remember longing for the late afternoon to arrive so school could end or the Saturday chores were finally over and my mother would relax and serve a late day snack, free from the pressures of housework. I recently learned Quinn’s least favorite time of day is between 1 and 3 PM. She has always had a longing for a little four o’clock tea and biscuit which helps transition her into the evening. I suppose I encouraged and nurtured this habit.

I can’t say anymore that we are more different than the same or we never resembled one another. The pictures reveal that what we believe and what we remember aren’t always reliable indicators of the truth.

MOLOTOV COCKTAIL MIXED WITH LEAVES or LEAF BOMB

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In 2000 we moved from an apartment with no lawn responsibilities to our current lake house with a naïve perception of what lawn care entailed. The house sits one hundred and fifty feet above the lake at a steady incline. So steady that if you walk up to the house from the dock you’re out of breath.  In a previous post, Satan Zero Us One, I wrote about the challenges of mowing this lawn but all of that pales in comparison to leaf season. Just after the spring flowers pass and the trees are ripe with bright green leaves I pause and remind myself that this is the longest point in time when we can enjoy the benefit of the leafy trees and not have to think about raking. Leaf raking season lasts from the middle of October until the first week in December and no matter how much you rake and bag more leaves always seem to fall. One year we completed our leaf work on Christmas Eve.

That first autumn, the task began brightly as we piled into the station wagon and headed down to our then local hardware store to buy rakes.

“Oh, they’re so cute,” I cooed as I plopped two shrub rakes down next to the regular size rakes. I imagined our two young children heartily joining in the chore.

Ready to pay, Rob lifted a galvanized garbage can patterned with holes onto the counter.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Leaf burner,” the gruff hardware lady said, in a matter of fact tone that didn’t illicit any more comments from me. “Don’t forget to get a permit,” she added.

Dear reader, I know what you’re thinking. Leaf burning? Isn’t that illegal? Most places yes, but in lawless Putnam County it was legal and encouraged. Having a permit meant that we simply called the local sheriff and informed him we were commencing with a leaf burn and then called him back again when we had completed the task. I’m not sure what the phone call did to protect the town from a raging wildfire.

Rob’s idea was to rake all the leaves into the burn can, throw in a match or two and sit back while the fire did all the work.  This plan lacked some basic considerations. All the leaves still had to be raked into a central location to be close enough to pile into the burner which was the same amount of raking it would take if we stuffed all the leaves into paper leaf bags.  The only time saver was hauling the bags up to the curb. Our burn can was only twenty-five gallons which was equivalent to less than one packed paper leaf bag.

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The shrub rakes became swords until one was lost under a pile of leaves my seven-year-old daughter spent the day playing in. Our son Jackson raked just enough to stick around and watch the miracle of leaf burning.  It was a concept he had never thought about until that morning. Which meant I raked masses of leaves down hill to the burn site while Rob supervised the entire burn operation. The way he saw it, he would start burning leaves as fast as they arrived. After we had accumulated an enormous pile, but really a fraction of the sum total, the three of us peered into the can with holes.

“Why aren’t they burning?” Jackson asked.

Rob had already worked his way through half a box of large kitchen matches. “I need a stick so I can stir them. They need air.”

“Isn’t that what the holes are for?” I said.

“Don’t talk. Just find a stick, a long stick.”

Whenever Rob says, “Don’t talk,” you can be pretty sure he doesn’t have a clue about what he’s doing. Nevertheless a stick was procured and Rob stirred and stirred his smoldering cauldron as he continued to drop in lit matches.

“Maybe we need newspaper to get it going.” I suggested.

“I’m not even going to point out how idiotic that sounds.”

“You just did.”

Eventually he ditched the stick in favor of a shovel and started to turn the leaves over. After about an hour of this method the only fire he managed to generate was a few singed leaves and a heavy aroma of smoke on his clothes. At this point Rob declared it was time to really get this leaf burning going “Mario” style. Mario was Rob’s father, who believed that a little gasoline or naphtha could cure just about any predicament, including lighting a household barbeque or killing weeds. Rob went to fetch the gas can. “Now stand back,” he warned as he poured in a splash of gas. We all took one baby step back. He folded the mixture up with his shovel and tossed in a lit match.

What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. The instant the lit match hit the inside of the can a homegrown mushroom cloud explosion erupted upward about ten yards, knocking the four of us off our feet and onto our rear ends. The sound was so deafening it caused our ears to ring and it was several seconds before we even knew what had happened in order to react to the now blazing fire streaming out from the top of the burn can and out through each hole. Rob shook himself off, jumped to his feet and began to control the blaze with the small garden shovel. You could tell he had been raised to think fast in the event of a self-made disaster. Mario would have been proud.  In the end the gas did the trick and Rob and Jackson happily burned leaves until dinner.

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I know we’re lucky we all lived and the house didn’t burn down and it makes sense the county eventually outlawed the practice in 2010 but I look at this picture and I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that day.

The following year we purchased a leaf blower. The things we give up in the name of progress.