GOP candidate Herman Cain wants to be your president. He wants to get you off the couch and back to work, put government on a short leash and, if possible, plug the hole in the sinking ship called the U.S. economy. One of his primary credentials for the job involves his nearly miraculous healing of the once-moribund Godfather’s Pizza, as if America were a midgrade Midwestern chain whose many problems could be solved with a few deaths in the family (read: store closings) and a tough-talking thug in a pin-stripe suit and fedora.
More than 15 years after Cain left his position as president of Godfather’s, the presidential candidate still has one thing in common with the Omaha-based chain: They both have a distaste for Washington. Cain hopes to ride his outsider status all the way to the Oval Office, but Godfather’s prefers to keep its distance from the nation’s capital. There is not a single Godfather’s in Washington — nor in Maryland, for that matter.
One of the closest locations to the District is nearly 100 miles away in New Market, Va., a town perhaps most famous for its annual reenactment of an 1864 Civil War battle in which the Confederate Army and cadets from the Virginia Military Institute expelled Union soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley. When I saw my first Godfather’s Pizza outlet in more than 20 years, I felt a similar urge to flee the scene.
The Godfather’s in New Market is not a free-standing restaurant or even one of those generic storefronts in a suburban strip mall, which is what I recall from my youth in western Omaha. This Godfather’s is tucked into the bowels of a Liberty gas station and convenience store, down a hallway with bathroom doors on the left, a cooler on the right and stacks of beer and soft drinks piled everywhere. This is your one-stop shop for Virginia lottery tickets, plastic gas cans, candy, toiletries, cigs, stuffed animals, chewing tobacco, condoms, batteries, playing cards, a sixer and a slice of Godfather’s Pizza.
If you can’t go home again, you also can’t re-create the pizza of your childhood. Companies change. You change. Your palate changes. And yet: When I sat down next to the cooler to review the overhead menu ($8.99 for a small with cheese to $13.99 for a jumbo with cheese), I experienced a visceral flashback unrelated to the physical space or a vague desire to pig out like a teenager, biting into one hot, gooey slice after another. This pang, part nostalgia and part ache for lost innocence, was entirely based on smell: The aroma of freshly baked dough and melted butter unlocked some sense memory buried deep in my skull. I realized that Godfather’s had imprinted its smell on my brain, as permanent now as DNA.
The pizza itself, like this hybrid store, was from another era. In my youth, before I had ever eaten the real thing in Chicago, I considered Godfather’s pies “deep dish.” But the two pizzas in front of me — one with pepperoni and the other with rabbit-foodlike pellets of Italian sausage — were rounds of fluffy focaccia-style bread slathered with sauce and toppings and buried under a mound of processed mozzarella. They had neither the cornmeal walls of genuine deep dish nor the thin, chewy, charred crusts of Neapolitan pizza. These were pies of no great distinction.