Guest Column: An Important Slice of Life
Note from Peter: This week we feature a guest column from Joseph Calcagno, whose life in pizza has come full circle, as he shares in this moving memoir, which is a beautiful example of our motto: A journey of self-discovery through pizza. See Joseph’s bio, below, at the end of his story.
It took nearly a year to plan a pizza party. In the last 14 months I’ve moved twice across state lines, changed careers, said goodbye to loved ones, built up walls, mended fences and found my way home. All the while, I’ve used pizza in the guise of metaphors to navigate this twisty, winding road. Let me explain:
I grew up in the pizza business. Had I pursued a full-time career in it, I’d be a third generation “pizza man.” My grandfather hailed from Sicily and immigrated to Brooklyn in search of the American dream. In the early 1970’s he brought his family upstate to the Hudson Valley and opened his flagship store, which is still in business today. It’s the smell and the sounds of a pizzeria that have haunted me into obsession. The opening and closing of the oven doors; that sound of a pizza cutter rolling through a pie; even the pop of a cardboard pizza box being folded. I have great memories of my childhood because of pizza adventures in Brooklyn with my father. The Sicilian square from L&B Spumoni Gardens, where my parents had their first date, and a slice from Lenny’s on 86th street (famous for that iconic opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever) stand out.
My father wanted me to aspire higher than a stack of flour bags. The NY style pizza-by-the-slice shop from my childhood wasn’t as romantic as the “hipster” fueled, craft beer and cocktail-paired, wood-fired Neapolitan trend shop that is dominating today’s pizza landscape. Also, the rise of frozen pizza and fast food chains has created some serious ripples of competition in an already over-saturated industry. After college I embarked on a career in event management for nearly seven years. Feeling burned out and depressed over life’s misgivings, I was ready for a change. My grandfather, the pizza patriarch, passed away and I packed my bags and moved to North Carolina just one week later, leaving my career and everyone I knew behind to roll the dice and chase an undefined dream that seemed to allude me.
Enter, La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. The foodie in me had already researched this bread haven before I had even set foot on North Carolina soil. How could something so simple be so charming and elegant? That question will forever go beyond my scope of wisdom and artistic prose. La Farm, headed by a master French baker, Lionel Vatinet, has created magic in a hearth oven. When I saw that La Farm was hosting a pizza and flatbread class with Peter Reinhart I knew I had to take part. It was the first reminiscence of a life I had left behind. Pizza, like most cultural foods, transcends the boundaries of the human experience. And it’s the experience I’m always chasing. The curiosity of the human soul that keeps me inspired. The class imparted one very important lesson to me: breaking bread with others. This revelation, in my humble opinion, is the recipe for a fulfilled life. And it was something I had not done in a long time.
So, after a year of studies and solitude I decided to move back to New York. I was a revitalized person. I had launched a new career and had all of my friends and family in close proximity. There was just one thing left to do – throw a pizza party they would never forget. My friends and I had spent many nights together nearly a decade earlier on the streets of Oneonta, New York during the late night in our college years, devouring the “cold cheese” slices that have become synonymous with the college lifestyle there. I knew they would be tough critics but I was confident I’d succeed.
In the quietness of my kitchen I got everything. I hand mixed the dough, using King Arthur bread flour, and coupled it with an array of premium products. The moment my fingers hit the flour I was lost in the tranquility of my own thoughts. Six pies later not a single piece was left. I had done it; a goal had been realized. A small goal, as it may have seemed, but important nonetheless. Pizza had saved the day. All of my recent worries been lifted for a moment and nothing else mattered. Pizza had led to this moment of friends, laughs and good conversation.
So how did the pies come out? Let’s just say I could use some practice. There were plenty of oddly shaped pies and holes to fix but the flavor was well appreciated. Pizza crept into my bank of life metaphors: It doesn’t always shape up the way you want it to – but it can still be great!
Later on that week I drove to my parent’s house, eager to tell them about the party. Questions rang through my head the whole way there: When can I throw the next party? How could I improve the dough? What toppings could I come up with? My obsession was rising faster than the dough itself. A pizza-to-life metaphor came forth: always evolve, always improve, and enjoy every bite along the way. The family gatherings are so few, far and between I can’t remember the last one. Life, like bread, had transformed into something new from when it was first shaped. As I got into town I passed my grandfather’s old store but gave it nothing more than a passing glance. A few minutes later I reached home. I walked in and there was my father shuffling around, still in his work clothes. “You couldn’t even change your clothes?” I asked.
“I didn’t have time. I told your mother to turn the oven on when she got home because I was working late today,” he said as his hands were covered in flour. “Your sister needs to pick up the pizza by six because the kids take a bath and go to bed early now with school starting up again soon.”
There he was, my pizza hero, stretching out a pie for his two grand-daughters. He is the best pizza man I will ever know and my nieces just love their Papa’s pizza that he makes for them every week. My mother is always the one who delivers it to their house. It’s just plain cheese because that’s their favorite. While I was busy wondering if toasted fennel seeds would go well with a fontina and mushroom pie that I had in mind, I almost lost focus on the big picture for a moment. Sometimes in life, like pizza, a simple plain cheese works just fine too. That beautiful aroma filled my nostrils a few minutes later. A new chapter of my pizza odyssey had come to fruition as the wisdom of Frank Sinatra came into my head as a new life motto: The best is yet to come.
“Wait until you try this pesto we made with the fresh basil outside,” he said, without looking away from what he was doing. “I used the Parmigiana Reggiano. You’ll love it.” He was right. I did. And it will go great on the pies at my next pizza party.
Joseph Calcagno was born and raised in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, where his father and grandfather were pizzeria owners. Aside from being an avid pizza and bread enthusiast, he works professionally as an Ophthalmology Technician in the New York Capital Region. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from the College at Oneonta and an Ophthalmic Medical Technician Certification from Duke University School of Medicine. His passions and hobbies include writing, cooking Italian cuisine, philanthropy, theater, martial arts and exploring farmers markets. He resides in Clifton Park, New York.
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.
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