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.
Gallina’s would be one of three pizza meals that Neil would have over the next two days. We’d go on to order late-night Papa John’s after the friend’s wedding. (Papa J’s is his go-to for chain pizza.) And the next day, we went to a bar and grill where Neil introduced me to his mother. Over a lovely get-to-know-you conversation, she and I had something called a horseshoe, a Springfield original consisting of Texas toast, two hamburger patties and cheese sauce, topped with a pile of fries. Neil had pizza.
The world loves pizza
Our travels grew more exotic, and we took our first international trip, to Costa Rica. We spent two nights luxuriating in the shadow of a volcano and traipsing through hot springs before driving to a cloud forest in Monte Verde. It rained the whole time there, so we didn’t do much hiking or zip-lining. But we did find a restaurant with a fig tree growing through the middle of it, aptly called the Tree House, that had pizza on the menu. Drenched from walking in a downpour, we hungrily awaited our meal. After days of eating fish, rice and beans, it was a rich and welcome indulgence.
A few days later, we headed down to the town of Jaco for a “Crocodile Man” tour. From the safety of our boat, we watched a tour guide repeatedly smack the ground in front of a giant crocodile, which hissed in response. After the tour ended, we stopped at a nondescript open-air restaurant. I can’t recall what I had there, but it had some kind of local flair, and it was just okay. I do remember, clearly, that Neil got a pizza that was delicious.
In Negril, Jamaica, we spent an afternoon at the famous Rick’s Cafe. While sipping a cold Red Stripe, I watched the cliff divers — including Neil — plunge 30 feet from the rocky heights into the lapis-blue waters below. It was a rite of passage, and a rite of passage calls for, what else? Pizza.
So we drove to a tiny pizza shack we’d passed earlier. Inside, one guy worked as server and chef. He took our order and disappeared into the back. When he emerged with the pies, Neil asked him about the flour he used, the tomatoes, the oven, and for the next 20 minutes, the two geeked out on pizza while I stuffed my face. Aside from the jerk chicken we’d eaten two days earlier in a restaurant made from a shipping container, this was the best meal we had on the island.
We traveled to Iceland, where our meals ran the gamut from late-night waffles from a waffle truck to an incredibly expensive seafood dinner. But you know what we both remember? The pizza topped with chicken and potatoes at the Reykjavik Pizza Co., which Neil proclaimed the best pizza he’s had outside the United States and Italy.
In Copenhagen, I remained determined to eat something locally inspired, so we found a compromise restaurant. Looking over the menu, which wasn’t translated into English, Neil had no problem ordering a pizza, which in Danish is called “pizza.” I, on the other hand, struggled to figure out what I was reading. I recognized the words for zucchini and salmon, so I ordered what turned out to be a pasta dish with a thick cream sauce and smoked fish.
When the food came, Neil dove into his pizza, burning his mouth in his usual boyish enthusiasm. As he saw me fight a look of disgust at the flavor of my gloppy meal, he offered to share his pizza with me. I was too proud to take it. On our after-dinner walk, I insisted that we stay close to the river, because I was sure that I was going to be sick.
Back in the USA
The almighty pizza has also guided our stateside travels. We’ve had pizza in a converted pharmacy in Milwaukee (Transfer), in a converted church in Springdale, Utah (Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.) and served out of a converted 1952 Studebaker farm truck/rolling pizza oven in Beverly Shores, Ind. (the Rolling Stonebaker).
When I went to New York for a writer’s conference, Neil came along and spent the day bicycling to four pizza places. I was so envious that the next day, I cut out of the conference early to join in the slice sleuthing.
When we visited San Francisco, we found a pizzeria (Tony’s Pizza Napoletana) that serves a plethora of pizza styles: Romana, Napoletana, Sicilian, New York, St. Louis, Detroit, classic American, California-style, classic Italian, gluten-free and coal-fired. We settled on the Neapolitan margherita, because that’s the one that had won the World Pizza Cup. Deservedly so, we concluded.
Today, three years into our relationship, we live together and recently bought a second pizza stone for our oven. We’ve been experimenting with new and different toppings. Although he has always been adventurous with toppings while traveling, at home Neil was in a long-standing sausage-and-garlic rut. Now, he welcomes my need for culinary adventure, and together we’ve made an Indian chicken makhani pizza; a pizza topped with smoked duck, pear, blueberries and Tallegio cheese; pizza with vodka sauce and roasted chicken; a chilaquiles breakfast pizza; a cauliflower and giardiniera pizza and a cinnamon dessert pizza. And the list keeps growing.
I have no doubt that in future travels, I’ll keep ordering new and different local fare, seeking new flavors and different experiences. But I also know that when my choices work against me, Neil will be there with a perfectly delicious locally inspired pizza that he’s more than happy to share, seven days a week.
Silver is a freelance writer in Chicago.