A long, long time ago, in the place where you live now, the children and most families who lived here knew the traditional pizza pie as a rare and luxurious treat. Dad arriving home with a hot pizza pie to surprise the family was like setting up a Christmas tree in your living room in July.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many families had one working parent and most moms stayed home to take care of the house and raise their family. We called them housewives because most often in those days, the men went to work and the women did the housekeeping chores.
Going out to dinner in those days usually followed a raise at work, an anniversary or Ma’s birthday. If we went anywhere it was usually Rutt’s Hut or some long-gone place my parents favored.
Most times Ma cooked everything we ate. In our household that meant usually meat and potatoes or something Italian with gravy and Italian bread. When dad went out to dinner, he usually treated himself to a steak, it being one of the foods he missed most while serving in Guadalcanal and the South Pacific during World War II.
Taking the family out for pizza in those days was rare in my working class family. Dad, a union carpenter, often faced months of unemployment depending on the economy and construction industry. There wasn’t a lot of money to spend at restaurants or pizzerias.
In the beginning, I only knew one kind of pizza. It was the round pie-shaped dough with melted mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce on it. Dad called them “la petes” or a tomato pie. All I could ever remember was pizza pie and that was all I ever really wanted to eat.
The only topping that turned up on our pizzas in those days was alice (pronounced ah leege), those very salty, fishy tasting anchovies which were anathema to a child’s palate.
I’d turn up my nose to any pizza with anchovy. It was worse than drinking club soda or that quinine water my dad kept around.
We kids never heard of toppings in those days. You wanted pepperoni, you got the stick of pepperoni from the fridge, a sharp knife and the box of Ritz crackers and you ate your pepperoni.
Olives? Olives were something Ma kept in a can for the fancy parties which were few and far between. We’d rather snack on the leftover pignoli nuts. Peppers on a pizza? Really, that’s something only a grown-up would eat.
As for folks who suggest sausage or meatballs on a pizza, well, the only place for sausage and meatballs was in the Sunday gravy.
It was one New Year’s Eve when our family was invited to a party where George De Lizio’s mother, or maybe his grandmother, would make her home made pizza for everyone.
Well, she may not have spoken any English but she translated my plain old ordinary pizza tastes to a new style that we would later identify as Sicilian or a deep-dish pie. I was converted, and yet disappointed, that it might be another year before we were invited back for more.
Fortunately, by the time the late 1960s came, things had progressed where I could stay home on a Friday night and order a pizza to be delivered. I never minded being home alone because I had my TV shows planned and my food, too.
As soon as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. came on, I’d call the local pizzeria – Paddle Pizza in Bloomfield – and my pie would arrive by the time Hogan’s Heroes was underway. My favorite came from a long-gone place called Lou’s Pizza Pit.
Sometimes there’d be a slice or two left over and my mom’d eat it when she got in from Bingo. Most times there was just an empty box.
These days when I allow myself a slice or two of modern pizza, the spices and flavor take me back to that house on Gless Avenue in Belleville, New Jersey, where I first tasted that exotic treat and my sister and my parents feasted with big smiles all around. And then to those pubescent years when a Friday night pizza was the harbinger of two days off.
Perhaps that’s why pizza has become a staple menu item these days, as youngsters like me have grown into the folks who make the dining decisions and eating pizza – even if it’s every day, or three times a day – still can feel like a special treat, a comforting food in uncomfortable times.
© 2011 Anthony Buccino, used by permission. Buccino has written several collections about life and growing up in and around northern New Jersey. His latest book is “Sometimes I Swear In Italian.”