Following the Chalkboards
A long time ago, I took a trip with my high school buddy, Milan. We went to Europe one winter to ski and roam around a little. The two of us didn’t have any real plans, beyond hitting some key ski spots like Chamonix, Zermat, Davos, St Anton, and Kitzbuhel among many others. We had a stop planned in a small farm town in Slovakia to visit his relatives but, other than that, our planning consisted of getting tickets and reserving a rental car.
We hit the ground driving. Leaving Frankfurt, we eventually made a stop in the Black Forest for some German beer on Lake Titisee. It was a cold day, and a blanket of snow covered most things. There weren’t many tourists there that time of year, but we found our beer and it was as beautiful a place for a cold beer as I had ever been. I would find many such places on this trip.
I remember sitting in an outdoor cafe in Vienna with yet another beer, or should I say bier, and just being amazed at how perfect everything was. It was winter, but the outside tables were set up in the sun, which hit the golden glass of beer making it shine against the grey backdrop of the mostly stone city-surroundings and bare trees. Now that was glorious!
Our adventure continued over the weeks, driving, skiing, eating, finding a hostel, or pensione to sleep in for the night and making sure we got a few cold beers. One night we got lost making our way through the Alps and ended up sleeping in the car in a small town in front of someone’s house. In the morning, we found a cafe where nobody spoke a word of English. We had the typical breakfast of coffee and a great fresh roll with real butter and jam, and stood with the cook pointing to our map as he tried to help direct us to where we intended to go. This was truly a classic road trip. We had decided to go to Innsbruck to see if we could get ourselves onto a bobsled. It seemed reasonable and a good idea at the time. After a long night out, at a place I believe was called The American Bar, we woke to the pensione manager telling us it was time to check out. It was about 2 in the afternoon. On our way out of town, we thought we would drive around and find that bobsled that we were hoping to ride on.
As we drove through the foothills, I saw a farm field off to the left. What caught my eye was the picturesque two-track dirt road that wandered over a hill at the end of this beautiful field. There wasn’t much snow on the ground here, which made traveling and sleeping in the car easier, but the skiing wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. In a way, it was more beautiful to be able to see the signs of Spring coming early as we made our way across so many beautiful landscapes.
As we got closer to the farm road I noticed a sign; it was a small black chalkboard mounted on the fence post and it said, “Pizza,” with an arrow pointing out across the field. That was it. This arrow, scratched onto a chalkboard, that promised some pizza, was pointing to a beautiful little dirt farm road with some trees in the distance where the road disappeared over the hill. Who wouldn’t turn down that road? My friend, Milan, woke up in the passenger seat as our car now rolled over the bumpy dirt road and asked me what I was doing. I told him there was a sign back there that said “Pizza”. He looked confused as he peered out the window, examining his new surroundings as he began to wake up.
Once we got over the hill there were some houses scattered around in the more forested area we’d now come to. The road turned and twisted a bit and, as I was about to give up on this little detour, I saw another chalkboard sign ahead on the right this time posted on a tree. It again encouraged that “Pizza” wasn’t far away, with another arrow pointing down a dirt driveway to a house. It felt as if the car turned itself at this point, and we found ourselves by the side of a house in what could have been a place to park, but was more probably just the side of someone’s Tyrolean mountain house.
I parked the car and Milan looked at me again and, if he didn’t say it, he thought it: “What on earth are you doing?” But, it was one of those days and I was just sort of following my gut instincts, or following the circumstances and the signs. As I got out of the car to look around, he followed me. We were standing on the front side of this house which was built on a hill. The main entrance appeared to be up above us but it was obscured by the hill and some trees. I don’t know why, but I looked down the right side of the house and decided to wander back there even though there was absolutely no path, no reason to think I should. The roof was lined with icicles that had been warming in the late afternoon sun and they dripped on us while we walked toward the back of this house.
As I describe this I still can’t believe we decided to walk back there. There was nothing but those two chalkboard signs we had passed, and now it seemed we were at someone’s house, not at a restaurant looking for pizza. In the back there was a door to a basement with a couple of windows. Whatever it was, it didn’t look open and there was no evidence of anyone anywhere. The icicles continued to drip into the growing stream of water that now surrounded the house like a small moat. We knocked lightly on the door and looked around the yard to see if we could see anything else as we waited, as well as to look as innocent as possible in case we weren’t supposed to be here. A man opened the door and invited us in.
It was indeed a restaurant! It was a small place, built in their basement, with about 6 tables. The man and his wife, who now opened things up for business, didn’t speak any English! But they were very nice and welcoming. We ended up ordering some biers and pizza by a combination of pointing to the menu and speaking English slowly (since, as you know, everyone understands English if you speak it slowly, right?).
As it turns out, this was the most memorable pizza I think I’ve ever had even though I can’t tell you exactly what was on it. But, in my mind and memory, it had a little chopped-up mild sausage, a very basic tomato sauce, and what I now think must have been some fresh mozzarella (based on how the melted cheese looked). It was my first small artisan style pizza. I remember the moment, and now realize that I was having an epiphany about what pizza could be.
I had always liked pizza; growing up on the east coast I at least had access to some great New York style pies and excellent pizza by the slice. One of my favorite things as a kid was to go into New York City with my dad and get a BIG slice of New York City Thin-Crusted Street Pizza. In California, the great ones were harder to come by at the time, but we had our favorites.
This pizza in Innsbruck was different. It was simpler and the flavors were more balanced. It was not over-done on any level – not over-topped or over-sauced. It wasn’t about having a few slices of pizza, but about having a meal. I didn’t fully understand this at the time, but that experience would remain with me to this day, helping to shape how I not only search for the next perfect pizza, but how I go about living my life.
I often think back about this trip with fond memories. Milan and I had the time of our lives just living in the moment on a wild ski vacation together for almost a month. But, interestingly, it was this little side-track detour, taken in the daze of a hang-over, that led me to my pizza awakening. I can still see Milan sitting across from me, nursing his bier, maybe not quite as far along out of his daze as I was and probably not having an epiphany moment, but enjoying the fact that the two of us were in a distant place, in someone’s basement, being served good pizza and beer.
This is what the “quest” in Pizza Quest is all about for me; that life is a journey. So, my simple advice is this: follow the chalkboard signs that appear during your own lives.
Note from Peter and Brad: If you have any such “quest” stories of your own, we’d love to hear them, either in the comments section below or as an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Recent Articles by Brad English
Pizza Quest Info
Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
...and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com