Two Liters With a Pie

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The flat remains of a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi. Yes, that’s my kitchen in the background.

A couple of months ago, I was at a work function where food was being served.  We had a few tables of fried chicken and some sides as well as a table of two-liter soda bottles.   As I poured myself a cup of Diet Pepsi, I couldn’t help but think of how ubiquitous the two-liter is—it’s a party and holiday industry standard and has been ever since I was a kid.

I suppose that is  not something to get really nostalgic about, especially since it’s a plastic bottle.  It’s not the iconic 6.5-ounce contour shaped glass Coke bottle that is the “nostalgic” Coke bottle and it doesn’t have the personality of the 20-ounce bottle, which is easily accessible and personal, plus it’s shaped like an old classic glass Coke bottle so it calls back to images where people from the 1950s or so pop a top of a glass Coke bottle.  The two-liter has never had that.  When you buy one of those, you twist off the metal or a plastic cap, and don’t think twice about it.

Which is indicative of the area and time period that constitutes my youth.  Having been born in 1977,  I have this attraction to the shopping mall, the multiplex, and everything else in the suburbs.  It is an era that is by and large disposable and I think on some level, even though nostalgia has turned its eye a little more toward my formative years, that nostalgia is selective at best—it’s the music, the movies, the fashion.  Nobody is going to look at suburban life in the 1970s and 1980s with the same rose-colored glasses our culture uses for the 1950s.  Because the decades of my childhood are the rose-colored 1950s’ unfortunate afterbirth:  Levitt homes and small towns gave way to shopping malls, gated communities, and McMansions, especially where I grew up.  You cannot go anywhere on Long Island without seeing shopping malls or multiplexes.

But then, there’s the pizza parlor.

Sal's Pizza in Sayville, NY.  Picture taken in May 2003.

Sal’s Pizza in Sayville, NY. Picture taken in May 2003.

While plenty of today’s teenagers are used to Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or Papa John’s, there are still plenty of mom-and-pop run pizza joints out there.  I’m sure that many deliver but there are still many where you call in and order for a pie (and it is always called a pie), they make it, put it in a box, cut it up, and you sit it on the passenger’s seat or the lap of your kid sitting in the passenger’s seat.  The pie itself is this greasy mozzarella, tomato, and crust concoction, which I’m sure would make some shriek in horror.  But that is truly what good pizza is.  It’s no wonder that from the time I was a kid until today, having a good pizza place around me has been a priority and has been an important culinary experience.  It doesn’t matter how much of a dive the place you’re going to is—if you can find good pizza, you stick with good pizza.  It’s a staple of the American diet, or at least the American kid and teenage diet.

While some pizza places are the dine-in red sauce Italian joints most are basically a counter with a couple of rows of books in a strip mall.  Working behind the counter are local teenagers as well as guys who have been working there for years, especially that one guy who seems to have been there since the place opened, even if that is mathematically impossible, because he’s just there, day in and day out, throwing pie after pie in the oven.

My hometown had two pizza places.  Well, there were more than two to be honest, but anyone from Sayville, when asked about pizza, will mention either Sayville Pizza or Sal’s.  Sayville Pizza was right on Main Street right up the road from me—in fact,  we used to go through the back entrance from Candee Ave.  The other one, a little further down the road in the Grand Union shopping center, was Sal’s.  And there’s been an ongoing debate for years on the level of Coke vs. Pepsi over which is better, Sal’s or Sayville.  When I was a kid I loved Sayville Pizza because that was all that we ever really went to.  Plus, it was awesome to eat inside.  The dining room was big and dark, lit only by the Tiffany-style lamps hanging over booths and tables, and you spent more time staring at all of the crazy crap on the walls than actually eating the pizza. There were mounted deer heads, framed copies of The Declaration of Independence and The Mayflower Compact, and  team photos of Little League and pee-wee football squads going back into the mid-1970s.  Sal’s, on the other hand, looked like what you would expect out of a strip mall storefront where you had a row of booths, most of which were that hard fake-wood finished, composite with a fake-wood laminate on it with a table and in the back there was the counter and the ovens.

Sayville Pizza on Main Street in Sayville, October 1996.

Sayville Pizza on Main Street in Sayville, October 1996.

My father would call in the order and make it for “Wayne” because I think we all thought that somehow made the pizza better (although they probably just couldn’t spell Panarese), we’d drive over to get our pie and our two-liter.  Once we walked into the place, there was always that same scene—that bustle.  They would be checking pies, throwing pizzas in the oven, rolling dough, putting the sauce on, putting the cheese on.  They had it down to a science.  That was important because it was something that you recognized from a good, good pizza place– the bustle.

Of course, it got easy to take them for granted and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t, but I did realize how special Sayville and Sal’s were when I moved away.  College might not count because in college I more or less ate what I could get my hands on—my roommates and I subsisted on Domino’s for the better part of four years, mainly because they took our college meal plan.  But in every place I’ve lived since graduating, I have sought out a pizza place, and in doing so, I always look for certain things, aside from good-tasting pizza. It’s like there’s certain signs that a local pizza joint is committed to its craft, and in order to determine the level of commitment you ask certain questions.  Are they charging enough for the size of pizza being offered?  Do they sell heroes?  What about calzones?  What about garlic knots?  Is there any other regular Italian food on the menu?

After it was gutted by fire a number of years ago, Sayville Pizza was completely rebuit.  Above is a picture of what it looks like today.

After it was gutted by fire a number of years ago, Sayville Pizza was completely rebuilt. Above is a picture of what it looks like today.

I base this, of course, on the knowledge I have of Sayville and Sal’s, having gone to both places for years.  Both had pizza but also had“eat-in” Italian food with a full menu.  There was something to say about that because they did some good work with that sort of stuff, even though when push comes to shove the pizza was what sold the most.  And they didn’t mess with it, which was key.  Sure they had their specialty pizza, but they didn’t decide to mess with the basic pizza.  It was what it was and they  knew what they had was good and never tried to tamper with it and  I think that’s what I love about these places.

And what I also love is that when you find a place like this, you grow to appreciate the continuity with what you remember from back home.  You walk in, get your pie, and you grab a two-liter bottle of Coke out of the sliding glass door fridge next to the take-out counter.  When you get home, you throw the oven on 200, you get your pieces, and you put the box in the oven to keep it warm while you’re eating your pizza.  The two-liter sits on the counter and gets pizza dust on it over the course of the night as you follow what is definitely a universal procedure of pouring and serving:  you twist off the cap, there’s a small click sound because you’ve cracked the seal on the cap and then there’s a hiss of the gas, and you try to pour it over ice without getting a ton of head but that’s unavoidable.  You always get this head that’s half the glass and you have to keep pouring and pouring and pouring to get enough soda in the cup instead of all of this head.  Try all you want too, but you’ll never get the perfect pour the way you can pour a beer or Guinness into a pint glass.  Plus, no matter how you store it, the soda goes completely flat by the next day.  You can position it all you want within a fridge, you can put it on its side, you can put it upside down for all I care, it’s still going to go flat over the course of the night.  It’s just one of things that for some stupid reason just always happens.  In fact, next-day flat soda is almost the perfect sidekick to next-day mushy reheated pizza (that is, if you aren’t simply eating it cold).

As far as I know, Sal’s is still around, but Sayville Pizza was gutted by fire a number of years ago and the dining room went with it—the restaurant now looks like its competition, with a counter and seating in the front rather than the back.  And while the places have changed over the years, that two-liter bottle is always there and as you go through life and get older, it’s weird how that of all things is a constant, even if it doesn’t seem very special.  You’re not supposed to get nostalgic for a plastic bottle and greasy take-out. Yet, at the same time, you do.

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