Our first date didn’t involve pizza. Instead, Neil — his real name — had a great suggestion: “You pick the cuisine, I’ll pick the place.”
I thought about it a lot. I’d recently moved to Chicago and could choose from just about any cuisine in the world. I ran through the options: Sushi was too cliched. Mexican was too gassy. Italian? Too boring. German? Too . . . encased. Ethiopian was too risky. Russian was trying too hard.
What about Cuban? It seemed just exotic enough while still being safe. (Still, my mother later accused me of choosing it “to be weird.”)
The dinner was fantastic. I was relieved when Neil ordered the ropa vieja and didn’t try to coax the chef into making some sort of plantain pizza. But the conversation did turn to pizza. I learned that Neil wasn’t just a pizza lover. He was a straight-up pizza nerd.
I listened as he told tales of his membership in the Chicago Pizza Club, which tours, samples and rates pizza all over the city. I leaned in as he threw down comparisons of Neapolitan style vs. New Haven style vs. New York style vs. Chicago style. My mouth watered as he told me of his own pizza recipe, in which he used a particular brand of hand-selected, vine-ripened tomatoes, a secret blend of three cheeses and a crust made from two kinds of flour. This guy was anything but boring.
Have pizza, will travel
It was his talk of travel that really turned me pie-eyed. He detailed the number of countries where he’s had pizza (13). At first, I admit, I judged him. In my mind, traveling means eating local fare and experiencing new cultures. With this pizza obsession, wasn’t he missing out?
I managed to shush my inner voice and listen: In Rodenberg, Germany, he’d eaten a pizza that substituted mashed potatoes for sauce. In Frankfurt, he’d had Pizza Hut pizza topped with corn. In Rome, a street vendor had told him to indicate with his hands the width of pizza he’d like to eat and then had wrapped the hunk in butcher paper and sent him on his way.
I started to feel like the ignorant one. I thought back to the fish and chips I’d recently had in London and the Dutch chocolate and Heineken beer I’d had in Amsterdam and wondered whether I was a cliche. Suddenly, pizza, which had always seemed like a late-night cop-out of a meal, became incredibly exotic. As did this card-carrying pizza club member sitting across from me.
After we’d dated for about six weeks, Neil asked me to accompany him to a wedding in his home town of Springfield, Ill. Our first stop in town was Gallina’s Pizza, the kind of classic family-owned pizzeria that so many of us were raised on. When we walked through the door, the owner, Vito Randazzo, welcomed Neil as if he were family. As the New Girlfriend, I got the once-over, after which Neil got a wink and a nod. The pizzaiolo approved.