It was the day of the family reunion, back in the summer of 1984, and we were having a picnic on the village green. Everyone had shown up; all the uncles and aunts, all the cousins, grandma and grandpa, everyone. It was absolutely marvelous. I love those big Italian get-togethers, they’re full of laughs and lots of food, and in my family everyone brings a specialty dish. My uncle Antonio had told me, in his conspiratorial way, that instead of bringing a lasagna or something, he had planned a special surprise for the picnic; one that he knew I would like. When I saw two flamboyantly decorated wagons coming down the path toward the green, I knew it was Uncle Antonio’s surprise.
The wagons were each pulled by two horses. This was unusual of course, and probably intended as some sort of niche gimmick, or so I thought. Even the horses were decorated. One had a green leaf design on its harness, another had a sun, another an autumn leaf, and the last a snowflake. The first wagon was smaller, half of it piled high with firewood, the other half concealed with decorated panels depicting pizzas and people making them. As the wagon-drivers turned to circle around my gathering family I realized the purpose of the firewood; on the second wagon was a mobile pizza oven! I looked over at uncle Antonio, just as my grandmother proclaimed happily, for all to hear:
“Antonio! I am so happy! I haven’t seen the Pizza Magico for so many years!”
Pizza Magico, I could see the name now, laid in the tiles that covered the outside of the igloo-shaped oven, just above the gaping mouth where the pizzas would go in.
I will tell you now, pizza is my favorite food ever. Uncle Antonio was right, this was the best picnic surprise.
It wasn’t long before the two pizzaiolos, a man and a woman, had a fire lit in the oven. They spoke only in low voices as they began to open up the elaborately painted sides of the first wagon. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I watched as toppings began to appear from the wagon’s nooks and crannies. Then came containers of pizza dough, cute little balls which they dusted with flour, flattened, and began tossing in the air. I was mesmerized. The woman noticed my watching, and then spoke to me.
“Young man, you seem interested in Pizza yes?” her accent was very Neapolitan. “What is your name?” she asked.
“Mahone.” I said. “And yes, I like pizza.”
“Sicuro! What young man does not?” She said, smiling. “I am Maria, and this is Vito. You shall have the first one ok? We must test the oven.” There was a knowing wink attached to the oven-testing, which I’m not sure I understood.
The oven looked good and hot to me. I don’t know how much time had passed since they’d lit the fire, for I had been lost in watching these two make their preparations. Maria made a pizza, not asking me what I wanted on it. Her hands moved with such assuredness, I dared not interrupt her with my wishes for double pepperoni and no anchovies. The pizza went into the oven, and mere minutes passed before it was finished and on the plate which she handed me.
“Margherita, l’originale.” she said. “Enjoy.”
She did not stand and watch me, but turned and went about her work. I let the pizza cool for only a few moments before taking my first delicious bite. It was then that it happened; how exactly I cannot explain. You may not believe me, but I assure you my tale is true.
I woke slowly at first, in a daze, with the scent of mint in my nostrils and the sound of happy water gurgling in my ear. The stone I found myself laying on was slightly damp, as was my clothing. I was fully awake then, why was I wet?! I opened my eyes to find that I lay on a large stone slab, next to a grotto pool. There was a warm beam of sunlight on a set of rough stairs that ran upwards alongside the small gurgling creek. How on earth? I asked myself, puzzled.
It was obvious that despite my disbelief of my surroundings, going up the stairway was my only choice. As my grandmother would often say - when you find yourself with no other path, then the one you are on is destiny. So up I went.
The sun warmed me as I climbed the steps out of the grotto. The steps themselves caught my attention, for they were obviously handmade. There were sections of pale brick, and then sections of larger flatter stones. Both the brick and the flat stone looked like they had been recycled, used previously in some fire or furnace. In the cracks and spaces between them grew a small-leafed plant that smelled of fresh mint when I stepped on it. It was amazingly fragrant and filled me with energy as I stepped and climbed - up, up, up.
The stone stairway switched back and forth up what was obviously a mountainside. As I climbed higher, I noticed that there were terraced gardens on either side of the path, full of tomatoes and basil. Further up were olive trees, This must be some sort of farm I said to myself. The scents that filled the air reminded me of the pizza I had recently tasted. The Pizza! That was the last thing I remembered before the grotto. What is going on? I thought perhaps I was having an allergic reaction, or had been inflicted with food poisoning and was hallucinating. I stopped for a moment, trying to remember. It was then I noticed something both strange and beautiful. There were flowers and herbs, growing peacefully here and there, but growing from the mouths and empty eye-sockets of human skulls.
I was briefly horrified, but at the same time I felt a sense of peace. I mean, what better place for a skull than on a sunny hillside, sprouting wildflowers and aromatic herbs? It seemed a fitting end for whoever had once lived in these heads. Perhaps I’m dead, I thought. It could happen I guess, this could be the stairway to heaven. I figured there was still only one way to find out, and on I climbed. I rounded two more switchbacks and then the path went a little ways around the side of the hill. Suddenly I heard the unmistakeable sound of a woman humming a song. Someone was here! I rounded the corner and saw a man and a woman, tending to the gardens. they were drawing water from the creek and watering the tomatoes. They heard my footsteps as I approached and smiled, greeting me not like I was a scheduled entrant into heaven, but rather like someone who belonged there, like we three met here often to chat over tea.
“Hello Mahone! Good to see you.” said the man, he hoisted a basket of tomatoes and set it on a ledge beside him.
“Uhh…hi?” I said. It wasn’t my best entrance, but what can I say. It was an unusual situation for me.
“You must have many questions.” the man said. “I will explain to you what you’re doing here.” He sat down on the ledge beside the basket of plump red tomatoes.
“Mahone, you are almost to the top of Mount Pitta. Only those who are destined to be the greatest pizzaiolos come here, if and when they eat a piece, or shall I say a pizza, of destiny.” I didn’t miss his pun.
“And what happens if they never get a piece?” I asked, wondering about the fairness of the selection process. Not everyone had an eccentric uncle to hire mystical pizza wagons.
“Then that too is part of destiny.” The woman answered. She could have been Maria’s sister, the woman who made the pizza for me. The man continued.
“At the top of the mountain, which is very close now, you will find the Temple of Pizza, and there you will be trained and tested by the pizzaiolo monks. You will learn to make the dough, for this is all you need to begin. With the dough, you will always have pizza. The toppings will be up to you. Pizza is like people Mahone, they are all different, they all have different toppings, different sauces, different crusts, but they are also all the same. They all have the dough, they are all human. Pizza is like people, pizza is life.”
As far as foods that I like, I’ve never heard truer words. The man was looking off into the distance, as if he were remembering all the pizzas he’d ever eaten, admiring them like the beautiful view. The woman spoke next.
“Once you have learned to make the dough, the pizzaiolo monks will no longer speak to you, at least, not with words. They will speak to you only in the language of pizza. You will be given a test, and if you can discern the message of the monks, your training will be complete. You will then continue along your many paths of destiny. It’s only here that all paths converge. You have two choices: to continue on the path, or to turn back to the pool below and dive in.
What will your choice be?”
I can’t say that it was a hard choice. I mean really, it sounded to me like I was about to be given all the secrets of pizza! At the very least I could use the pizza secrets in the fall, at university, to make great pizzas for my friends. Between elite mountaintop training from masterful pizza-monks and going for a cold wet swim, what would any guy in my position choose? I had just one question.
“Whose skulls are these?” I asked, looking around us at the skulls here and there.
“Oh, those belong to the pizzaiolos who have passed on throughout the ages. They all lived full lives, and then came here after they died, to serve for a brief time as teachers.”
“Sooo, the monks I’ll meet are…dead?” I asked.
“Only in the world, they are alive here, as we are.”
For some reason the phrase came to mind right then. Give me Pizza, or give me Death!
I left the couple then, and they told me they would see me later on at the Grand Oven. I didn’t know how grand it was at the time, but I certainly found out later. It was true that the mountaintop wasn’t much farther, I was there soon after leaving the couple. The path of course, led me right to where I needed to go - to The Doughmaster.
The Doughmaster was a kindly monk, and learning to make dough really wasn’t that hard. Once you get a feel for handling the wet, sticky phase of the process, you’re more than halfway there. After the wet-and-sticky part, I discovered the dough became a gentle little creature, soft and stretchy, warm and alive. The Doughmaster would often pat it lovingly, like it was good little puppy, so cute there on the table. I learned from him how to toss the dough in the air, and how to pull it just so to make it the size and shape I wanted. We caressed it with olive oil pressed from the mountainside, and then it was done. I could have gone on making dough forever, but suddenly he pronounced me finished, and it was time. I suppose he was right, I did feel I had the knack for this, like it was meant to be.
I followed the path to the oven, the Grand Oven indeed! It was a monster of a thing, as if all of creation might have been baked the chasm of its mouth. Four monks stood there, waiting for me and the dough that I bore with me from my work with The Doughmaster. The two from the path were there, and another two I had not met before. One of the these gestured to me to lay my dough on the polished wooden slab that they stood behind, and so I did. I didn’t know what to expect, aside from them not speaking and me having to figure it out, so I just said nothing and watched.
I had thought that they would make four pizzas, there being four of them, but instead they made one rather large pizza. Each monk took a turn shaping the dough into a disk, and then they put the sauce on together. Then they did a thing I had never seen before. They put a partition on top of the dough that divided it into quarters. With great ceremony, each monk put toppings on a quarter only, each being different. One quarter had artichoke hearts, one had tomatoes and fresh basil, one had mushrooms (which I had not seen on the mountainside), and the final quarter had prosciutto and olives. They removed the partition, and then into the Grand Oven the pizza did go. Still the monks did not speak, and it was with a reverent silence that we watched the flames of the oven and the slow rise and bubble of the browning pizza. A monk used the peel to turn it once, but aside from that intervention, nothing was needed until the pizza was removed and placed gently in front of me.
I looked at it, steaming in front of me, and pondered silently what it could mean. It was certainly like no pizza I ‘d seen before. I looked at the monks. They looked at me. It seemed the obvious thing to do was to eat the pizza, but for some reason I was afraid to. Perhaps because I was afraid to fail, afraid to not knowing what it meant. I’d heard once that the only way forward is through, and I do love pizza, so I got over myself and ate the thing. AND OH MY GOD, was it delicious. I ate the tomato and basil section first, and was reminded of the sunshine on the steps as I climbed the mountain, and of the pizza I had tasted at the summer family picnic. I ate the mushroom section next, and it reminded me of fall, when the leaves from the trees cover the ground and I walk to school in the light rain. The olive and prosciutto section was rich and salty, and warmed me inside like the fireplace in our living room on a January day. The final section was the artichoke one, and they’ve never been my favorite, but after the prosciutto and olives, it was perfect. The artichoke tasted clean and new, a slight tang of vinegar cleared my palate and promised new things.
It was then that I understood.
These were the seasons; summer, fall, winter, spring. The cycles of weather, the differences of pizza. One pizza, made by four separate people. Pizza, people, seasons, life. The answer seemed so easy, and almost too basic, but I’ve learned since that sometimes the most meaningful truths are the simplest. I looked to the monks, my belly full, and I told them what I thought they were trying to tell me.
“Pizza is Life.”
The looks they gave me said I was right. They raised their hands and touched their fingertips together, palms apart, like a prayer-type of pose. As they did so, I realized that their hands made the shape of a pizza slice when they were held like that. Memories flashed through my mind of pictures I had seen over the years, of people I had thought were praying. The the hidden symbology now revealed for what it really was.
The next thing I knew I was back at the family picnic, with an empty plate in front of me and a smile on my face. It was as if no time had passed. Maria turned to me and spoke, a knowing sparkle in her eye.
“So? What do you think Mahone, is the oven ready?”
Despite my shock at my sudden change of location, I knew the answer.
“Yes. Yes, I’d say the oven is ready.”
“Very good!” She said. “Vito! Let them come!”
“As you say my darling! Pizza is Life!”