Anthony looked down at the charred crust of his latest pizza. He took another bite opposite the burnt end and evaluated the flavor.
Take the temp down about five degrees, he wrote in his notebook. Change the schedule to have the birch wood go in every ninth pizza. Put the first two rounds of mozzarella on cheese cloth.
Anthony put down his pen and looked up at the afternoon sky. The clouds were clearing for what should be an evening perfect for pizza. The Tenth Annual Food Truck Pizza Mixer was taking place in Clemente Park, located in the small town of Buena Vista, Colorado. The event was being held in a field, which was surround by trees on three sides. The fourth side bordered a parking lot where Anthony was preparing. He had a title to defend.
His legendary pizza cooked in a recreated Pompeii-style wood-fired oven was his own simple but perfected creation. The dough was made from a mixture of bread four and all-purpose flour. The all-purpose flour gave the crust its chewy center, while the bread flour bronzed the outside into a golden crunch. The dough balls for the crust were always hand-spun in the air, allowing air bubbles to stay populated in the dough. His mother had instructed to never use a rolling pin. You roll the dough out, you roll the bubbles out, she had warned. His thin tomato-garlic-basil sauce only accented the crust. He suspended dollops of fresh mozzarella in the sauce like lily pads on a pond. He sprinkled chopped fresh basil from his own garden. This was the Anthony pie: simple, Napoli style, with his crust launching it’s pizza rating into the stratosphere.
Anthony looked over at Tommy, his sous-chef. Tommy had worked in Anthony’s old pizzeria before the company had taken to the road. A little rounder than his boss, Tommy always joked that he felt it necessary to try at least one slice on a regular basis. To test for consistency, he had joked.
Anthony went back over to the oven that Tommy was now maintaining. Tommy adjusted the airflow and brought the temperature down slowly, as instructed. Anthony readied what he hoped would be the final test pie and slid it into the oven.
“Hey, you got a slice for me?” came a call from behind Anthony.
Anthony recognized the voice and smiled. He turned around and saw a short, pudgy man with a hand towel draped over his shoulder. Sal’s hair was gone on top, but it hung thinly on to the sides of his head. Fresh tomato stains covered pink stains from the past. He sported his usual ear-to-ear grin. In his hand, he held a plate adorned with assorted pizza slices from other trucks. He looked out over the rest of the festival.
“Sal, how are you my friend. Should have a fresh slice here in about three minutes,” Anthony greeted.
“Great, I’ve been thinking about that warm, chewy crust since Wednesday. I’ve collected these, but I want to have yours as my first slice of the day!” Sal replied.
Anthony looked out over the rest of the festival. Employees of the individual trucks were going around and sampling some of the slices before the crowds arrived.
“Hey Tommy, why don’t you go collect a few slices from our competition,” Anthony asked.
“And I suppose none from Gratz’s?”
“No, none from Gratz’s. Don’t ask me that every time. If you want to try it, you go right ahead and eat your traditions. My gravy tradition will stay where it belongs: at home and on Sundays,” Anthony said.
Tommy scurried away from the booth before running into Jenny not twenty steps away. Jenny was Gratz’s sous-chef. Tommy and Jenny had been seeing each other secretly for some time now. Tommy thought Anthony didn’t know.
“Still not eating Gratz’s pizza, eh?” Sal asked as Anthony turned his attention back to him. “You’d figure after all these years of competition and hate, you guys would have figured each other out by now. But I ain’t complainin’, apparently this bitter rivalry was needed to create some of the best pies I’ve ever had.”
“No, still not eating Gratz’s pizza. You know where I sit on this,” Anthony said. He began to stack wood.
“No Sunday Gravy Pizza for Anthony, yada yada. Sanctity of family, so on and so forth. This is a pizza food truck competition, not the Last Supper,” Sal said.
Anthony stopped stacking wood and exhaled as he stood straight up to face Sal.
“Sunday gravy is meant to be an experience and an all day event. It’s a day when generations gather, share stories, and cook centuries-old recipes. The effort and patience that go into it make it a part of the family by the time it is done.” Anthony continued, “It is not meant to be mass-produced, slung on a pizza, and distributed like a Big Mac. The great Raffaelle Esposito, maker of the original Napoli pie, rolls in his grave!”
Anthony’s tone had shifted from serious to playful with the final comment. Anthony slid the wooden pizza peel under the pie in the oven, and rotated it in a semi-circle the pizza to even the cook. After another minute of conversation with Sal, he took the pie out and placed it on the table. The rising steam from the pie did little to hide the bubbling mozzarella and vibrant-red sauce. The crust was laden with tiny, soft air pockets that met the glowing red simple sauce. The pungent scent of the garlic converged with the sweet aroma of fresh basil. Sal’s eyes got big.
“So that’s my slice, right?” Sal asked with a smile.
Anthony picked up the pie cutter and lopped him off half the pie.
“Share some with the rest of your truck,” Anthony said with a wink.
Sal looked down with glee. As he was migrating the delicious creation onto a plate, a man showed up at Anthony’s booth with a small package.
“Delivery for Anthony Denfro,” the courier announced.
Anthony went over and took the package. He rotated it in his hands and looked it over. Something shifted in the box when he inverted it. On the back was scribbled:
Good luck today. Remember to aim for that pie in the sky!
“Who’s it from?” Sal asked as the courier shuffled away.
“Ahhh, from my old mentor Ricardo. Taught me everything I know, he did. Under his tutelage, I cut my pizza-making teeth,” Anthony replied.
Anthony righted the box and savored the moment briefly. He grabbed a knife and slit the box open, then peeled back the flaps. Inside the small box he pulled out a note that he proudly read aloud:
Thought you might need this if you were running low on sauce.
Anthony, confused and hot, reached into the tissue paper inside the box and pulled out a can of V8 and a head of garlic. His face flushed and he could feel Sal smiling at him.
“Them’s fightin’ words there Anthony,” Sal said through a grin.
Anthony dropped the can and garlic back in the box and tossed it in the trash. He would return the gesture, but for now he had to focus on his pizzas. Tommy returned with a plateful of different pizza slices and the two began going about their own prep work. Anthony reviewed the schedule again and checked on the mozzarella. He took his first bite of the competition, Mezcal’s Pizza. It was good, with hunks of freshly cooked Italian sausage separated by long slices of green bell pepper. The oregano was a bit overpowering on top, and the outer edges of his crusts always took a beating due to the need to heat up the meat on top.
Anthony took another bite and shifted his focus to his ingredients. He opened his computer and began reviewing his timetables. He took a break to grab a different slice, this time from Mario’s Pizzeria. It was a thin crust that was like a flatbread. It was well done, but would never please your average crust connoisseur. He swallowed and checked the computer screen. With four hours of open time, multiplied by 6 pizzas every ten minutes….add in extra mozzarella….carry the one…..
Anthony looked back over his final calculations and was pleased. He brought his recipe to the center of attention. Another bite of pizza, this time Ramundos. Not bad, too much sauce. He set the slice down without losing focus on his work. The garlic would need to be minced before each pie was made, rather than all at once ahead of time. The cook time went up a bit due to the humidity outside. He reached down and grabbed the last slice. He took a bite. What about the-
Anthony froze. He felt as though someone had just put a cork in Mount Vesuvius during its eruption. Everything stopped. His eyes glazed over and melted into a distant stare. He chewed a few more times. His longing gaze now moved to the pizza. The parsley, garlic, and oregano that coated meatball chunks flashed to a warm confluence of flavors that dissolved in his mouth. The sauce was rich and thick, the onion not overpowering, but rather a vehicle for the other aromatics and fonde. He was transformed back in time to his childhood house in the Lower Bronx. The memory of Sunday family dinner. The heavy smell of roasted garlic, pork, and slow-cooked tomatoes draped over him like a blanket. He could see his father at the end of the table with his napkin tucked into his shirt. Slurping his mother’s Sunday gravy-coated noodles into his mouth, his father looked up and winked at Anthony. Anthony’s mother emerged from the kitchen with a family style platter and set it on the table. Italian sausage with a brown-seared casing sat doused in a sea of red gravy and sliced onions. Fresh Parmesan cheese turned from a pale white to a yellowish-red as it melted into the steaming dish. His mother kissed him on the head and with that he snapped back to reality. Tommy was saying his name.
“Anthony. Anthony, you’re eating my slice,” Tommy said.
Anthony tightened his now-waning grip on the piece of pizza and looked down at it. It looked like an abstract painting. The small bits of broken sausage were strewn messily about. The sauce was spotty and rather sloppily pushed around the crust. Meatball chunks hung off the edges.
Anthony could’t believe his eyes. It had to have been the ugliest piece of pizza he’d ever seen. It looked like a flatbread that had been created in the dark. Anthony looked up and saw Gratziella giving an interview in front of her food truck. He looked Gratz over, red sauce stains streaming down her apron, her messy hair contained under a hair net. Flour had rubbed off on her forehead where she’d wiped away sweat. She was as skinny as a twig and Anthony wondered if she’d ever eaten any of her pies she’d made.
Tommy’s hand came down Anthony’s shoulder.
“Pretty good slice of pizza, no?”
“What? This piece…it’s just kind of….and the meatballs….”
Anthony collected himself.
“And the damn crust is a brick!” Anthony said, slamming the slice on the table while standing up.
It wasn’t a pizza. It was a mish-mash of Sunday gravy components, strewn across what amounted to a chunk of limestone for a crust. The crust was way too thick and had no air bubbles, leaving it overly crunchy. There was no guarantee you’d get a bite of meatball in every bite, or at all. But those toppings. The slow-cooked spicy italian sausage had a crispy outside and explosive, juicy inside. The homemade meatballs erupted with flavors of pork, sausage, beef, italian bread crumbs, and fresh basil. All of it transformed him back to when he was a boy with his family on Sunday. Was it possible that this woman had created a feeling rather than a dish?
Anthony knew what he needed to do. He had the crust. She had the gravy for the sauce and toppings. He had to create a pizza that even the Napoli gods would approve of.
“Tommy, you and Jenny…I need you to go over and talk to her,” Anthony said excitedly.
“What…Jenny…why, why Jenny?” Tommy asked in a terribly acted feign of ignorance.
“Cut the B.S., Tommy, everyone knows. Hell, I think the birds were even singing about it this morning.”
“Well…” Tommy began.
“Tommy, we have an opportunity here. This is a rare moment to make a pie that could stand the test of Napoli time. You know we have the best crusts, and I now understand the craze revolving around Gratz’s gravy. This is the time to step up and use the connections we have, to leverage relationships and do what’s right. Tommy, I need you to get some of that gravy for me,” Anthony concluded, his long-winded speech turning again to humor towards the end.
“No problem,” Tommy said.
“What?” Anthony was taken off guard by the blaise manner that accompanied Tommy’s response.
“Yeah, no problem. While you guys are always busy fighting, our plan has always been to meld the businesses once you two….uh….”
“All right all right, I get it. So you can get some?” Anthony asked.
“l’ll go grab it right now,” Tommy responded.
Anthony went over to his computer and typed up a message. He printed it from his portable printer, folded it twice, wrote Gratziella on the outside, and handed it to Tommy.
“Give this to Jenny to give to Gratz. Tell Jenny to tell her that it’s from the judges,” Anthony instructed.
Five minutes later, Tommy returned with a small Tupperware filled with gravy. Anthony had dough tossed and ready and took the plastic bowl from Tommy, opened it, and the aroma overtook him. The same nostalgic, déjà vu feelings hit him again, and he closed his eyes and breathed the memories in. Anthony then took a few ladles of the gravy, making sure to get the meatballs, italian sausage, and other ingredients all out and accounted for. Anthony inverted his olive oil for a quick spiral around the pie, then slid it into the oven.
Gratziella removed the lid from the bubbling twelve-quart stockpot and inhaled. A deep-red tomato sauce bubble lazily burst on the surface. She grabbed her wooden spatula and gave the gravy a stir. She could feel the final pieces of meat from the pork chop separate from the bone as she stirred, the chunks relenting with no resistance. An Italian sausage surfaced. Tomato sauce ran down its sides and exposed its char marks. Garlic and onion aromas swirled around her as she added the final cup of water and replaced the lid. It smelled heavenly inside her food truck.
Even though she had lost last year, she had taken the trophy five out of the last nine times. Her switch to a new crust using active yeast was her ace in the hole this year. It was slightly more contemporary, but she needed a change-up. There were many new faces trying to claim the title, but Gratz knew one thing to be true: in the end, it always came down to Anthony and herself.
Anthony. He was a lone wolf who stuck very strictly to his recipes, he was known for being obsessive-compulsive about his pies. She had tried to be amiable when they first met, but his initial disdain for her ‘Sunday gravy pies’ had grown into a deep hatred of her for some reason. She, for this reason, found it very easy to despise him in return.
Gratziella went back outside and was greeted by Jenny holding a letter. Gratziella opened it and read the contents.
“Hello? Is anyone back here? Hello?” Gratziella’s voice rang out from a stone’s throw away. Anthony peered out from behind the tree at the arrangement he had laid out on the tablecloth.
“Hello? I got a message to meet back here at four o’clock? If this thing is starting in ten minutes I need to-”
Gratziella stopped mid sentence as she passed by the giant boulder by the lake. Behind it was a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. On top of it sat a piece of pizza with a note above it. Gratziella walked over to the arrangement and knelt down. She picked up the note.
Try me. :-)
She looked back down at the piece of pizza that was sitting on a blue-painted terra cotta plate. It was her pizza, but it wasn’t. She picked up the slice, which had more rigidity to it than her normally prepared slice. It now had a little muscle to it and the toppings sat on top of a golden-crusted throne. Gratz rotated that pizza slice in her hand and looked up, confused. She put the piece back down and started back to her feet.
Anthony stepped out from behind the tree.
“Gratziella, wait, take a bite,” he pleaded gently.
Gratz looked at him suspiciously.
“Why is my gravy on top of…what I’m now assuming is your crust?” she asked.
“Listen, ok, your gravy pizza is a mess. The toppings are strewn about a crust that’s too thick for what you are peddling. You’ve found a way to bottle the emotions of Sunday family dinner, and it transcends ordinary pizza toppings that rely on flavor alone. My crust has been handed down from generations, from the very same people that sat at the table for Sunday gravy. It is now my wish - and I hope and believe it is theirs - that we combine our two pies into one.'
“Let me finish-“
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Nice work, the descriptions of the pizzas were especially delightful. I was worried they were going to run into each other's arms and start kissing at the end or something, so I'm very glad they didn't!