Last week I was invited to a birthday celebration for one of the people at my wife’s office. I am usually ambivalent about work birthdays where someone brings in a nasty supermarket cake with lard frosting that you have to gag down politely; but she works with a great group who are always lots of fun. Inertia Beverage Group is a winery web hosting and e-commerce company, so most all of them are food and wine savvy; and they do not suffer gladly any fools who would bring bad food to their office get-togethers. And these people will use any excuse to party: Cinco de Mayo, a birthday, Tuesday, whatever. IBG is always ready to represent. So a lunch party on a Monday sounded good.
We were to pick up a massive pizza that they had ordered from this great pizza place located in the last spot on Earth you would expect, a grocery store in American Canyon. It is a grease-spot-on-the-highway of a town in southern Napa County that grew up around a “city center” that consists of a Wal-Mart and a Verizon Wireless store. The store was known for years as “The Fruit Basket”, a serious misnomer. On the rare occasion that I stopped there for any reason other than to brave the World’s Nastiest Men’s Room for a desperation pee, the only “fruit” I saw were a dozen rotting black bananas, some sprouting potatoes and limp heads of Romaine. The new owners have cleaned it up somewhat (I’ve heard there is fresh graffiti in the bathroom now) but it is still basically a six-pack-lotto-and-a-Penthouse liquor store. The good news is that the “grocery” department merchandise has gone untouched for years by both customers and employees, so under the layers of dust and grime you can find packaged merchandise with prices from 1973.
Along with picking up the Uber-Pie, we were tasked with getting some birthday candles. We found these totally cheesy sets with a tiara-like structure that said, of course, “Happy Birthday” in 3-inch high silvery plastic letters and two dozen or so candles, complete with the little holders that catch the wax as it melted: $1.40. We bought four of them, so the office is now equipped for birthdays until the year 2028; and if they need more after that, they will probably still be in stock, still at $1.40.
The saving grace in this mess is the pizza joint, but it too has its quirks. Although it has its own entrance at the front, it is still inside this hole of a grocery store, so it has about as much atmosphere as the moon. The walls are covered with old photos of the owner/Chef and his customers, as well as yellowing, framed press accolades from his earlier ventures. There are a few tables lining the narrow space for those who wish to, and only God knows why you would, eat in. Over the pizza oven is a framed print of the members of Tony Soprano’s crew, standing in front of The Pork Store; so you know you better behave yourself.
The owner, who mans the stove and oven himself, is a bowling ball of a Sicilian affectionately known to his regulars as the “Pizza Nazi” and he has his rules. No cell phones; he has been known to physically chase customers from the place for violating this one (I personally consider this a public service). No orders “To Go” can be taken out of the box or bag and eaten on premise, as his pie deserves a fork, knife, napkin and a plate when eaten in front of him. If you even try to sample a piece on the sidewalk in front of the store he will chase you away (you gotta respect the pizza!). Stories of near-fisticuffs are legend enough to enforce this rule. There is a single table around the side, but judging from the Number 10 can half-filled with sand and cigarette butts as a centerpiece, it’s for employees only.
His 40-inch pizza, “The Big Gun”, comes with its own set of rules: you have to be pre-qualified to order one, with a vehicle large enough to allow it to lie flat (fortunately our Highlander made the grade). It has to be ordered 48 hours in advance; there is a three-topping limit to help maintain structural integrity; and you have to be there at a designated time for pick-up. When we arrived to pick it up, it was still in the oven. He somehow managed to transfer it from oven to a box so large two homeless guys could use it for a shelter. He then emerged from the kitchen, instructed us to back our vehicle in, and swung both his glass doors open as if we were going to be moving a piano, not a pizza. “Carry it like a-dis, one-a hand on-a da bah-dom, da udder on-a da side” he instructed while demonstrating the technique. “Don’t drop it, you own it…” he called after us as we left. This apparently was his way of saying “Thanks, enjoy, and come again”.
We managed, giggling madly, to get it out of our car and up the stairs back at the office. We were considering greasing the sides of the box so we could get it through the doors while keeping it level, for fear the Pizza Gestapo had us under surveillance.
But oh the pie! Usually Giant Food like this pizza or the Subway Sandwiches that are the size of an Anaconda are mostly for visual impact, with flavor and quality somewhat lacking. Not so with Pizza Nazi’s “Big Gun”. Even our 40-inch monster had a crust that was perfectly crisp and did its work supporting the toppings quite admirably all the way to the center. It had been cut crosswise into 5-inch squares, but really you could have done the traditional triangles from the middle, the crust was so consistent. With the size of it, though, they would have to be eaten as if you were playing the trombone, with arms fully extended. It’s a mystery to me how one goes about tossing a 40-inch pizza crust. The dough must have been the size of a basketball before spreading. But it’s alla inna daze-a work for the Pizza Nazi.