With its three-napkin glaze — I used at least that many to soak up the grease floating on the surface of my slice, like some gulf oil spill — this is not pizza designed to see the light of day. This is blackout pizza. This is a triangular cheese wad best consumed when you’ve already had your car keys confiscated and you’ve started making out with that loudmouth you loathed two weeks ago.
This is the stuff that has fueled generations of college students.
Almost every campus in America has its version: a pizzeria that slings greasy pies and slices late at night, after your willpower and sound judgment have been flushed down the toilet along with a gallon of cheap beer. Ratsie’s in College Park is such an establishment, and after 30 years of fattening up University of Maryland students, the place is scheduled to serve its last slice in September, if not earlier.
“I don’t know exactly” the closing date, says owner Mike Falamoun. The date, he says, seems to change daily as the next tenant, Nando’s Peri-Peri, practically foams at the mouth, thinking about those captive students roaming the streets like wildebeests passing through lion country.
Whenever the date arrives, Ratsie’s closing will feel like a closure in the more cosmic sense, like when Sabermetrics started pushing out those crusty minor league baseball scouts who relied on their wits and experience to evaluate future stars. Ratsie’s is like that out-of-step scout, not the least bit interested in some clean, fast-casual concept with its beet-and-goat-cheese salad, 24-hour fermented dough and a long-term business plan to expand up and down the East Coast.
Ratsie’s has been content to stay local, right there on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Knox Road, serving as a midnight fueling station and an occasional boxing ring for impromptu donnybrooks. The operation’s self-appointed sobriquet says it all: “A Terrapin Eatery.” That’s not a nickname that will travel far.
The original owner, Thomas James Paradiso, launched Ratsie’s in 1984 and sold it 14 years later. Paradiso was not some small-time business hustler, looking to con kids out of their tuition money. He was an activist and educator in his own right. According to his October 2005 obituary in the U-Md. student newspaper, the Diamondback, Paradiso recruited students to help clean up the community; he and his staff shoveled sidewalks after snowstorms; and he was a founder of a local merchants association.
Paradiso died young, at 46, when a dump truck turned in front of his 1986 Toyota pickup. Although Paradiso had sold Ratsie’s seven years earlier, many of his former employees, who had scattered in all directions, drove back to Washington for the funeral. It seems Paradiso formed lives as much as he did dough.
The years have taken their toll on Ratsie’s. Walk into the corner shop during the day, and you will see its scars. Threadbare pennants barely cling to life on overhead beams. Faded black-and-white photographs from unknown eras hang on the wall, the students forever young. The wood paneling sports stains from drinks probably ordered before the current freshman class was even taking solid food. The Bakers Pride deck ovens look to be permanently dripping grease.
This is not decor. This is an archaeology site, and the owner is not waiting for the wannabe Indiana Joneses to come around. Falamoun is selling off photos, posters and just about anything else. “Am I going to take it home?” the 53-year-old owner asks rhetorically.
If you ask him enough times, and in enough different ways, Falamoun will acknowledge that business has decreased in recent times. He won’t say by how much, but he doesn’t link the decline with the increased competition chasing after the same limited pizza dollar. In the past few years alone, College Park has added such pie holes as Blaze Pizza, Slices Pizza and Pizza Kingdom. Falamoun says the decline has more to do with the additional dining options in College Park, period.
“You’re not going to eat pizza every day,” he says.
And yet: Ratsie’s reputation has suffered since the new pie-slingers strutted into town. In October 2013, Ratsie’s made the cut on Thrillist’s nationwide list of “Best College Drunk Foods,” an award that perhaps Falamoun won’t pass along to his mother as evidence of her superior child-raising skills. But, still, it’s an honor.
Six months later, Ratsie’s couldn’t even make the top tier of College Park pizzerias. Wrote a BuzzFeed Community author, dripping equal amounts disdain, compassion and bad punctuation:
“Oh how the mighty have fallen. . . . Don’t get me wrong Ratsies is still a great place for late night pizza, and their pizza dough is incomparably soft and fluffy, but when I’m downtown and it’s 1am Ratsies just isn’t the spot anymore. But its still a great go to if you need a greasy slice of heaven on the fly.”
I think this kind of backhanded slap says more about the eater than the eatery. Once exposed to quality pizza, with better-developed dough and fresh toppings, young palates will naturally change allegiances, just as surely as graduates will progress from, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon to Stone Smoked Porter once they land jobs with decent pay. (Well, those who don’t cling to some retrograde philosophy that places hipster value on inferior products.)
It’s quite possible that Ratsie’s has been on life support for years, wheezing and hacking its way through a food landscape that has changed dramatically in the past decade or so. The college pizza that sustained you or me — or even our parents — is barely acceptable to a generation raised on higher standards. Sure, there have always been campuses situated in great pizza cities such as Chicago, New York or New Haven, Conn.; these fortunate students have probably been insufferable snobs for decades, dissing our local pies with an arrogance that made us want to shove a greasy pie in their pie holes.
To those of us who attended school amid a less sophisticated pizza culture — and I have to guess that central Nebraska ranks among the bottom in America — we had a love affair with college pizza, too. It was just a love affair with bad college pizza. It took us longer to discover that there were pies superior to those at budding chains such as Godfather’s and Valentino’s in Nebraska.
That’s the thing: These days, it seems you must be a chain, with a huge marketing budget and an app-based ordering system, or you must be an artisanal pizzeria to survive. There appears to be little room for the mid-grade, mom-and-pop Ratsies of the world and their pepperoni slices oozing oil like a Texas gusher. Their time has passed, and as with any passing, I feel this pang. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for lost youth. Or maybe it’s genuine gratitude for those independent pizzerias that fed us cheaply and often left us happy. Even when we didn’t know squat about seriously good pizza.