"I like Pepe's pizza just fine," I assure my husband, Mark, and our two teenagers as we wait for our meal one Sunday evening in a local Boston franchise of the celebrated New Haven restaurant. "Of course," I add teasingly, "it's not as good as Greek pizza."
Mark shakes his head in mock disgust. My Italian husband, born and bred in New Haven, was weaned on Pepe's brick-oven pizza and still regards it with reverence. I grew up in New Britain, Connecticut, where our pan-cooked pizza had a stiff, puffy crust and a lattice of mozzarella on top. A Greek immigrant family with two kids owned the shop near our house.
Our cheerful, young waiter sets down two large pies, and the four of us dig in.
"As good as New Haven?" I ask my husband who is savoring his first bite of white clam and garlic.
He nods. "Pretty close," he says.
"Do you like it, Mom?" my daughter asks.
As I chew with indifference, I casually consider my slice of spinach and mushroom. "Yeah," I say. "It's good."
My kids give me a suspicious look. They are wondering how any sane person with taste buds could prefer Greek pizza to the more respected Italian version with splashes of cheese and those signature burn marks? In fact, they think I'm lying.
"Why can't you just admit that Italian pizza is better?" my son presses. He's already reaching for a second slice.
"Because, for me, it's not," I say, remembering what pizza meant to me as a kid. But for all the times I've told them, I'm not sure they get it.
My middle-class family went out to dinner together once in my entire childhood. My mother had just come home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy; so instead of her cooking that night, we got burgers at the East Side. I tried Chinese food for the first time in college. My friends ordered out, then—chopsticks poised in front of their gaping mouths—listened as I told them it was my first time eating any Asian food. "Wait!" my friend from Manhattan said. "How is that even possible?"
How? You had to know my rigid family that didn't go to restaurants, but, once a month on a Sunday evening, would order a pizza. "Sausage or meatball?" my mother would ask, reaching for the phone. There would be a brief debate and quick decision.
Fifteen minutes later, my sister Betsy and I would drive with our stern father to Belvedere House of Pizza. Either Betsy or I would dash in, then come back carrying the warm, white box dotted with grease. At home, my mother had the table laid out with paper plates and, sometimes, a bottle of ginger ale she kept on hand in the basement.
As we ate, there was the same cool silence as usual. No laughter, no sharing of stories, no playful haggling over who gets the last slice. But, on pizza night, everything still felt different.
I could lose myself in the yeasty smell of the crust and thick gooiness of the cheese. I could eat with my hands and not be scolded, and even my parents took a night off from bickering to enjoy a simple, tasty meal that didn't require any cooking or cleanup.
"Good, huh?" my father might say as I nibbled on my crust. And, for just a moment, I would find respite at our dinner table, a place I seldom felt happy—except on pizza night
Later, when the last slice was gone, I'd stand in the kitchen, picking bits of hardened cheese from inside the cardboard box, trying to hold onto something.
"You don't know what you're missing," Mark scolds when I refuse a slice of white clam.
My son tries sneaking an uneaten piece of crust off his sister's plate, and all of us laugh when she grabs his wrist.
What Mark doesn't know is that it's not really about the pizza anymore. But this—the four of us laughing around the dinner table—is what fills me.