I adore pizza. But when I moved to Pennsylvania, I could not find a place to make it the way I like it, with a thin crust and not too greasy. So I started making it regularly to customize it to our liking; I tweaked it again once the boys became confirmed pizza lovers, too and even manage to get some sauteed kale or broccoli, without any complaints. Pizza making became a science, from prebaking the crust, sans toppings, to adding toppings and then putting it in my one oven capable of browning on the top or on the bottom—depending on what the pizza needs. (You may have seen a piece I wrote this week about why I don't use a baking stone for pizza.)
I sigh. I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it. I love making it, but sometimes it's 6pm and I'm out of my favorite King Arthur Flour pizza blend which comes together in a flash and I don't have the luxury of rising dough. In those instances, I wish I could just stop on the way home and pick up a pizza like millions of Americans do on Friday or other nights, without even thinking, but historically, the excessive cheese and grease would often do me in—even with the requisite paper towel blotting.
But that's not even the real issue here.
Nowadays, I am making two different kinds of pizza: a regular one, with my sourdough starter, and one with a gluten-free crust.
You see, I discovered about two years ago that pizza makes me feel crazy, after overdosing on it while on vacation in Ocean City. You can thank the siren smell (well, you know what I mean) of Mack and Manco (now called Manco and Manco; that's another story and I don't acknowledge the name change) on the boardwalk in New Jersey. I did not digest it well, even with digestive enzymes in my system, and it made me wake up cranky, crying and fuzzy. I do not have celiac disease, at least according to the standard blood test my gastroenterologist administered. Last week, I had a dull, dizzying headache from eating gluten off and on for a few days because of various assignments and engagements. When wading through the subsequent brain fog, it's like a hangover, but without waking up with cotton mouth and the memories of an eventful evening. I have recently read that there are markers that can be measured specifically for neurological responses triggered by gluten and wheat, but most gastroenterologists don't order that test. Mine didn't. It's not even about the pizza exclusively—this particular food, perhaps due to its drug-like combination (the cheese! the dough!), is a huge trigger, though. I suspect, although I'm no scientist or nutritionist, that high protein flours aggravate the response.
I'm writing this as we gear up to go on vacation at this very same location. And I will be tempted to eat a slice, because the smell is positively irresistible, intoxicating. The pizza itself is a reliable product beautifully executed with precision over and over again. My boys love to watch the guys at Mack and Manco toss the dough into the air and their insistent, assembly-line approach. The sauce gets mysteriously pumped in at specified intervals from a tube that pops up from under the marble counter, as if produced by magic pizza Oompa Loompas hiding out of sight. (It's either that or monkeys on bicycles in the basement, making the pump go, go, go).
The line at Mack and Manco, consistent Best of Philly winners, snakes out onto the boardwalk and throttles up with a throng of baby strollers clogging foot traffic. That line gets 20-30 deep, really easily. (Despite a sign admonishing you for parking your stroller outside, next to the entrance, you can't fit a stroller inside the place. It's just impossible. Who are they kidding?) The beauty of that methodical approach means that even on the craziest of weekend dinner crushes, you never wait terribly long to be seated, nor for your pizza once you have been seated. If you are in a hurry, counter service moves more speedily.
Mack and Manco is a tradition. I grew up eating it, and now my kids are, too. They devoured their first slices when they were not quite two years old. Nostalgia breeds its own culinary responsibilities; shirking them feels strange, unfamiliar. On a more physiological level, their pizza is also hard to resist because there's something that happens to your appetite when you are at the beach. It goes crazy. Something in the salt air? (What is up with that? Does anyone know?) I'll want to have a slice, even if I know what will await me the next morning: the crazy-making pizza hangover, among other things. I'll have to balance my gut the next few days with loads of greens and kombucha and enzymes and alfalfa tablets, but maybe it will be worth it. Or maybe I will find a new food, a new tradition, a new equilibrium, and skip it altogether. Maybe.