Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Passing of the Pizza

\Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

When I left Brooklyn, New York, for the prairies of Canada, I knew there were foods I would miss. There is no Manhattan Special Espresso Soda or White Castles here, even though A&W is trying with its “Baby Burgers,” to no avail taste-wise. These were a given. Collateral damage, as it were.

I also knew that Chinese food would change. Give me the kind of chow mien I grew up with, rather than one with ramen noodles and that different sauce they use here; or the sweet tang of boneless spareribs. They have rip tips (basically the gristle and bone at the top of the rib) and dry ribs, but again, not even close. If anyone wants to ship some of these my way, I would be grateful. Every day I appreciate that particular episode of M.A.S.H. where the gang orders ribs from some Chicago joint to ship over to Korea.

But who knew how hard it was going to be to get some decent pizza? Open the phone book and there is an entire section dedicated to the food, with 20 full pages of display ads and a “where to dine pizza map,” with a list for 53 locations in a town of 250,000, just for the Italian delight.

Sure, some are the usual chains are here, like Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, East Side Mario’s (a Canadian-wide franchise who’s logo is the Statue of Liberty holding up a tomato rather than a torch), and the omnipresent Dominos (which a past-life friend once described as tasting like soap-on-a-rope – but more on them later), but there are lots of places that are just restaurants, as well as pizza-specific shops.

[Still frame from Saturday Night Fever with Lenny’s in the background]
Back in Brooklyn, I would usually eat at Lenny’s Pizza, on 86th Street, just off 20th Avenue. If you’ve ever seen the opening of Saturday Night Fever, it’s the joint Travolta stops into and orders two slices, and them folds them together. Mind you, I have never seen anyone do that in real life, but I respect that he folded the slice(s), rather than eating them flat. Folding is the Brooklyn way, so the oil drains off as you eat (either into the napkin you hold at the base of the slice, or into your sleeve if you’re not thinking). My pal Dennis swears by DiFara, on Avenue J, which often is listed as the best pizza in New York City. Some prefer Grimaldi’s, under the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, I’m a Lenny’s man.

Shortly after we landed here, I commented to a few people about pizza, and there is one place they all said was the best called Vern's Pizza. We ordered a couple of pies from there for the workmen who were delivering our stored belongings - they also recommended the place - and I had a chance to try a slice. After two or three bites, I literally felt ill, it was so bad. The last time I had that reaction to a piece of pizza was when I tried the Hawaiian style in New York. ‘Scuze me, but pineapple does not belong on pizza. The only fruit that should rightfully there is olives and tomatoes, and only if the latter is in sauce form.

One summer we had a tween come stay with us for a few weeks, and since she is not from the US, we figured the first night we would get pizza from Lenny’s, as a pleasant surprise. When she found out we were ordering pizza, she threw a snit that it wasn’t from Dominos. We were aghast. That’s like going to Rome, and eating at the Olive Garden. Like going to Japan and eating at Benihana’s. When we ordered the pizza, she was all, “It’s okay, I guess.” Years later, when she was old enough to appreciate some of the finer things, we had it again, and she was duly impressed.

As I arrived in Saskatoon, I figured I would try all the pizza places until I found one I liked, but there was a problem. It’s rare to find anyplace that sells pizza by the slice, only by the pie. Now get this: Lenny’s cheese pie, all 18” of it, is $12.00. I have the new flyer to one local shop, and a plain cheese is $17.95 for 8”, $22.95 for 10”, $25.95 for 12” and $30.95 for 15”. You getting that? Over $30 for a pie that’s smaller than the $12 pizza from Brooklyn, with half the taste. It may be cheaper having Lenny’s mail one than to get one here.

[A Sicilian]
Looking further into the flyer, here are the names of some of the kinds of pizza styles they make: Beef Taco Pizza; BBQ Bacon Double Cheese Burger; Teriyaki Chicken; Mediterranean Popeye (includes spinach and olive oil, of course); Philly Cheese Steak. The toppings that can be added include – are you ready for this – bananas. One type they don’t have, and I have not seen it anywhere here, is Sicilian style, or as we called them in Bensonhurst, “squares.” These are thicker, and baked in a rectangular pan, so each slice has 90-degree corners, rather than being triangular.

This is making me hungry. When I get back to New York for a visit, you know where I am going. I’m gonna get me a wedge of “‘za,” as Stewie Griffen calls it, and chow down. The next day will be the White Castle, then some take-out, and so on.

On the good side, one can get some amazing salmon here, and deliciously fresh escargot. And then there is poutine…


  1. this was great! after having nyc pizza, it's really hard to go back to what is normal pizza in the rest of the country (+ canada, apparently). there is a new pizza place in indianapolis that is sooo good, but it's 100% nyc style.

    good luck in your pizza quest.

  2. Thank you Ms A! Even in NYC, there are crappy pizza places, like the one our - I mean your - company used to order from on those rare "pizza days"; sure I ate them (free pizza, after all), but I was totally underwhelmed by them, even though others raved. Or that place next to the Letterman show, which was way overpriced and kind of mediocre. It's funny that it's pizza I'm finding I miss among the most about NYC...

  3. Thanks for finding these rare interviews.