Posted on June 10th, 2016
My father is a pepperoni lover.
Dad grew up in Sandusky, Ohio with one sister and two brothers. He is the son of a tennis player, go-cart racer, and pool shark (my grandma was a badass). He is the son of a German grocer who would take him to Chicago to select beef for his meat counter. He used to deliver groceries in exchange for comic books. He would ride his bike down to the train station and watch the trains come in and leave for points north, south, east and west. These visits turned into a lifelong passion for model trains. He loves being on the water, beer, photography, John Wayne movies, and the practice of medicine. He loves goofing around with the grandkids, taking walks with his partner of over forty years, helping his four sons with whatever they need, and giving lengthy updates about the comings and goings of his weekend. Who did what, where they went, what they ate, what they drank, if they danced or not, and what their plans are for the coming week and month. He is a man of curiosity and intense interest in the fields he chooses to shine his gaze on.
My dad is a pepperoni lover.
Not just any pepperoni. Not the fancy stuff. Or the cheap stuff. The pepperoni he loves is something special. When he utters the words “…and they had really good pepperoni…”, everyone in the family knows what he means. There is no real way to describe it to anyone outside the family. It is a code that sometimes excitedly passes his lips. If he were to say it to just any old so and so on the street, it may be hard to decipher the details he eludes to. You just have to be shown. Taken to the mount. Guided to the edge of the canyon. Lead to the light.
He brought all four of his sons into the church that is Pepperoni Pizza very early on. First in our single digits, we grew to our double number years in those hallowed halls of grease. The ruler of these was and still is Massy’s Pizza.
This great among greats started in 1949 with two brothers (Jim and Dan Massucci) and their pal Romeo, together they owned The Italian Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. They were the first to bring pizza to town. Cooking it on the hearth of their deck ovens, they then cut each pie into rectangular strips and served the slices in brown paper bags to go. The Massucci’s saw how popular the newly introduced food was and opened the first Massey’s soon after. These days, they have nine locations in Ohio and three sports bars in other states. As for the pepperoni, it is still the same and still exclusive to their operation.
My memory of this pizza is a combination of fresh cut grass, the first time I got a concussion, the first time I kissed someone, and watching Saturday morning cartoons. When I try and get back to eating this pizza, it brings with it smells of my dads office chair, the feeling of wind on my face while riding my bike, the first time I saw a horse and thought it was the biggest living thing I would ever see. There is so much wrapped up in this memory. A childhood that remains a magical, half remembered time.
When I was 11, we moved from Ohio to Virginia. Gone was the playground, the sandbox in the backyard, the reservoir, the creek, the woods, the neighbor I had a huge crush on. I even had to give up my pet mouse Houdini.
And Massey’s pepperoni pizza.
My world had changed so irreversibly that the only option was to lay down and adapt. To go to the ocean and learn how to boogie board was a new experience. Having our grade school mile run on the beach was a strange and wonderful thing. Distracted by hormones and trying to shyly make friends. To come into ones own in a new place, with a new tan and a new swim suit. A new life. So on it went. I went through grade school. Then to high school. Trying to find an identity, a group, a style. Running away from family to find my own. I revolted. I learned to smoke cigarettes. I got into weed, wore a drug rug, and did other goofy things that people who are lost do. Like listen to 90’s music.
Within those clouds of confusion, clear air was visible. I found restaurant work. After a brief stint bussing tables, I got my first pizza job. At my tender, angry age of 17, the door of Doughboys in Virginia Beach opened to me (after applying of course). I was making dough, saucing, cheese-ing, topping, cooking, serving. There was a calling in this work. My god, what a life! Slinging pies to the tourists, smoking cigarettes along the side of the building, talking shit, and generally just being a bunch of intolerable teenagers. So began my love affair with making pizza. It was a job that I looked for throughout my twenties. “Experienced pizza cook”. I made it in Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts. I’ve eaten it in France, Spain, England, Belgium, and Italy. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. I’ve made a lot of pizza. A kind that I thought was pretty good. There was a place on the Cape that I helped open and one of the main concerns was the pepperoni. It had to be the right kind of spicy. The right curl when it cooked. The right amount of grease. We thought we had hit it right on the button. I felt as if I had achieved something in the world of pizza. I made a good pie, with good sauce, good cheese, and good pepperoni. Good pepperoni.
I am a pepperoni lover.
Fast forward a few years……I had gotten fed up with the job I was working. I had made my way to being a chef. In charge of the food. Training, ordering, sourcing, work work work. I was tired and it was time for some change. That change came in the form of a road trip. The plan was to go and cook, go see friends, take in the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of this country. Scrimp, save, hatch plans, contact friends, come up with a route.
It’s a wonderful thing to think of, The American Roadtrip. Something that gets us out, changes us, spits us out on the opposite shore. Some may say, a birthright of the American experience. To go to the wilderness and come back with news. Some understanding. Some mysterious knowledge gained. The wonder. The awe. Scope. Scale. Power. Silence. The amber waves of grain. The purple mountains majesty.
The plan was to get in a car alone, travel to various cities, stay with friends, set up my tent, cook with people, see the desert, and learn a little bit about the country that we Americans all call our home. The trip was to last three months. Maybe somewhere out there I would get lost. Perhaps.
So off I went.
I went to New Orleans, shot an AR-15 and sat through a rainstorm. I went to Clarksdale, met the Iceman and saw what a Walmart can do to a town. Bow fishing from a canoe near Dallas. Music in Austin. The desert on the Mexican border. The mountains of Colorado. Snowstorm on the transcontinental divide. Mormons in Salt Lake. Sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Riding passenger on a motorcycle through Phoenix. Joshua Tree. LA. Route 1. The Redwoods. The Olympic Peninsula. Seattle. I had traveled for two and half months and was tired. I got drunk a few times. I cooked a few times. Had visited friends that I cherish from the then to somewhere in the distant future. It was time to go home. It was time to be done with the car. It was time for a sock drawer.
At breakneck pace, the Northwest, Montana, the Dakotas, The Midwest; they all flew past my windscreen. The high desert, the Badlands, amber waves of grain. Driving straight for long distances. Watching storms break on mountain ranges and suspicious stares at gas stations. Alone and trying to get home. So much of the trip was strange territory. Things never seen before and still unseen now. A language and way of life that was beyond my understanding. Places that draw my curiosity, but no place for my boat to dock for an extended stay. New terrain and strange practices. How’s that go? A stranger in a strange land?
Then things began to feel familiar. Somewhere east of Iowa City. The roads took on a familiar color, a familiar curve. The trees started to resemble something known. Green and lots of it.
The old house has new coat of paint that turns it more modern and less 80’s Tudor. The creek is way smaller than memory tells. The big hill ain’t that steep. The main street is so tiny.
Pulling into the parking lot, calling the number, placing the order. Waiting 5, 10, 14, then 20 minutes. Should be ready. I step into the heat. Walk across the divide.
First things first.
The smell. Wind, dad’s chair, laying in the grass, horses. Home. Family. Belonging.
This was an experience that was pleasurable and embarrassing. The first feeling of yearning for someone else. Seeing something beautiful and laughing out loud. A knowing. Some sort of reason for all the searching and looking and running.
A memory that matches the reality. A hard fact of being alive. An identity that is impossible to erase.
I had no idea how much I had missed it. How good it was. How good it still is. I understood something that I didn’t know I didn’t get. My brothers were there suddenly. My mom was there. And my dad was there. It was joy. It was confusion and comprehension. It was home. It was Family. It was belonging.
It was Massey’s. It was pepperoni.