Tuesday Is Frozen Pizza Night

When I was growing up, my Italian-American family and I had a slew of favorite local pizzerias. They were plentiful in our part of the Northeast: Sal’s, Sabatini’s, the multiple locations of Grotto.

My very favorite pizza place was Revello’s in Old Forge, Pa., about a 25-minute drive from my parents’ house. As a child, 25 minutes felt like forever, and during the drive, I sat in the middle of the backseat of my mom’s silver-colored Buick, scrunched between my two brothers, impatiently awaiting the moment I could take a bite of a Revello’s slice.

For me, the sauce is what made Revello’s pizza so good. It was a red sauce, marinara, and it was peppery. It definitely had a kick.

My family and I—my mom, my dad, my two brothers, my sister and I—usually sat at a table in the rear of the restaurant, by the back door. We often came in through that door, because my dad parked on one of the back roads.

An older woman named Mary was our regular server through the years. I remember her as skinny with short, curly hair; round glasses; and a quick, friendly smile.

Old Forge says it’s the “pizza capital of the world.”  This may even be true; I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of delicious pizza here, and so did two L.A.-based foodies on a “pizza crawl” through Old Forge this past fall.

When I go “home” to Northeastern Pennsylvania now, I love to stop by AmberDonia in Kingston and share a Romeo & Juliet pizza with my husband. We both love the flavor combination of prosciutto and basil atop the olive oil, crushed tomatoes and blend of cheeses. Heaven served wood-fired.

As a child, 25 minutes felt like forever…

As an adult, I’ve also been lucky to live in Richmond, Va., San Antonio, and Delmar, N.Y., and get to experience the (literal) local flavor of these three uniquely beautiful places.

In RVA, you can’t go wrong at Bottoms Up (downtown) or Mary Angela’s (Carytown). San Antonio may be better known for its tacos, but Luciano was a neighborhood favorite for pizza and calzones. And here in New York, Stanton, the girls and I enjoy many a Friday night at Romo’s (impossible to leave without ordering the fried dough knots for dessert).

All these years, all this time eating all kinds of pizza…certainly I can appreciate the art of freshly baked dough, tomatoes and cheese. Certainly I can. And yet in my house, today, we almost always eat frozen pizza on Tuesday.

That’s right, friends: Tuesday is frozen pizza night.

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Having a weekly frozen pizza night isn’t something to brag about, especially when you have a regular going-out-to-eat-pizza night too. But this is life as we know it, for the moment at least.

My older daughter, Grace, has an after-school activity on Tuesdays. My younger daughter, Anna, gets hungry right before this activity starts. Thus, I got into the habit of heating up frozen pizza before we left the house for Grace’s activity. Then I’d pack it up in two travel food-storage containers, and off we’d go.

“You make the best pizza, Mom!” the girls often say. “And the best macaroni and cheese, and Helper!”

“Helper,” just FYI, is our family’s shorthand for “Hamburger Helper.”

Frozen pizza, macaroni and cheese, and Helper—welcome to our home, friends.

…this is life as we know it…

There are two brands of frozen pizza that we like. The first is Against the Grain Gourmet. It’s made in Vermont, a relatively short drive away, so is considered “local” at our Hannaford grocery store. We alternate between the three-cheese and pepperoni varieties. Against the Grain Gourmet is delicious and filling. It tastes like real food. As a frozen pizza connoisseur of sorts (again, not something I’m bragging about 😉 ), what more could I ask for?

Our other tried-and-true brand is Caulipower. This frozen pizza has a cauliflower crust. I was talking up Caulipower to someone recently, and they noted that cauliflower crust is trendy now. I am rarely on trend, so I didn’t know this.

(Another friend told me he finds cauliflower crust offensive, which made me laugh. I can certainly empathize with the perspective of, why mess with a good thing?)

I have always loved cauliflower, and the reason is because when I was little, my Poppy made fried cauliflower. This is one of my strongest memories of him—walking in the front door of my parents’ house on holidays, carrying a bowl of fried cauliflower.

The bowl was white with a light blue rim.

If Poppy were here today, he’d probably laugh if I told him he was being trendy with his favorite side dish.

So I’ve loved cauliflower forever, and when I noticed Caulipower in the frozen pizza aisle for the first time, I had to try it. We really like the cauliflower crust, but if you’re more of a classic pizza lover, then this may not be the top pick for you (or my friend).

This is one of my strongest memories of him—walking in the front door of my parents’ house on holidays, carrying a bowl of fried cauliflower.

Chefs and home cooks alike enjoy building on the classics, having fun with new ideas, trying different things. For example, “flatbread” is a word I’ve been seeing more and more. Kind of like pizza, kind of not.

And now you can get gluten-free or dairy-free pizza (or flatbread). The toppings seem endless too, whether you’re in the frozen food section of the grocery store or your favorite pizzeria: pepperoni, pineapple, roasted beets, truffle oil drizzle, fried eggs.

Now, I’m an adventurous eater. If my friend Megan from Richmond happens to read this, then she can attest to my appreciation for all kinds of cuisines, from Cuban to French to Vietnamese. (What I would give for another weekday lunch at Mekong!)

I’m an adventurous eater…and I appreciate the classics too. Truffle oil drizzle is delightful, but plain cheese makes me happy any day.

I read once that pizza is the perfect food. It’s circular (we like circles). It’s easily shareable. It covers a variety of food groups, and it’s not expensive.

I’m not an expert on any of these points, so I can’t say for sure if all of this is true.

I am a writer, though. And I’ve dabbled in poetry.

Truffle oil drizzle is delightful, but plain cheese makes me happy any day.

The poet in me believes that pizza is the perfect food. Because it brings people together.

A hot summer day, or a cold winter’s night. A party for more people than you expected (everyone RSVP-ed yes!). En route to an after-school activity.

I realized, as I was writing this, that pizza often is the first meal we eat when we move into a new home, sitting cross-legged on the floor amid boxes and memories waiting to be unpacked.

Often too, it’s the last thing we eat when we leave. Steadfast, when other things are in flux.

Whether frozen, takeout or homemade, pizza is the food we count on. It’s the food that’s with us through all the moments of our life, ranging from joy-filled to sorrowful to mundane. All the moments—good, bad and indifferent—that make up the full human experience.

The human experience varies cross-culturally, I know. Possibly I speak too much from my American perspective, or Italian-American perspective…and if so, my apologies.

The desire to share a meal together seems universal, though. To break bread together—whether the bread appears as pizza, baguettes, churros, dosas, tacos or any other carb-based specialty.

In my experience, the bread has been pizza. The people I’ve shared it with the most have been those closest to my heart.

Today is Tuesday, and you know what that means.

But you could do worse than break out one of your favorite frozen pizzas for dinner.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: Devoured—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are

Devoured CoverWhen I was growing up, I loved taking the quizzes in magazines like All About You and Cosmopolitan. All I had to do was choose scenario A, B or C for, say, 20 questions, and instantly, I had the answers to, “Which celebrity style is most like yours?” and “What kind of friend are you—true blue, fair weather or just an acquaintance?” Pressing questions, friends.

These days, I don’t click on every BuzzFeed quiz that comes across my Facebook news feed. But I still do a double-take when a quiz, magazine article or book promises to reveal to me some secret of my psyche.

This time, the book turned out to be “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” by Sophie Egan (2016). Ms. Egan works for The Culinary Institute of America as its director of programs and culinary nutrition. She also holds impressive degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

What most impressed me about her book, though, was her love for the subject matter. Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book. And she really wanted to share this information with people—everyday people, not just academics. These genuine passions, then, made “Devoured” a compelling and fun read about our culture and its cuisine and eating habits.

Egan begins with an introduction into “the American food psyche” and then notes that “convenience has always been part of our national heritage.” (Yet another thing for Americans to be proud of…) “Devoured” blends psychology, anthropology and various other fields of study.

Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book.

In these early pages, a fact that struck me, because it hit close to home, was this one: “Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, signed legislation crowning yogurt as that state’s official snack. Yes, yogurt is a fan favorite, but this might also have something to do with the fact that Chobani and Fage have major production facilities upstate” (page 34). I didn’t know that yogurt was my state’s official snack (what’s yours?), and was interested to learn that. And once again, I was interested to see a probable connection between business and politics.

I loved Egan’s chapter on “The Democratization of Wine,” and especially her discussion of Trader Joe’s and its “Two-Buck Chuck” here. For those who may not know, Trader Joe’s store-brand wine sells under the label Charles Shaw, which fans nickname “Two-Buck Chuck” because it retails for about $1.99 per bottle. That is, obviously, incredibly cheap for wine, and incredibly cheap in general. A quart of Tropicana costs more than Two-Buck Chuck.

People…love…Two-Buck Chuck. Just like they (we) love Trader Joe’s. Here’s why, according to Egan: “Part of what makes Charles Shaw, like Trader Joe’s itself, so widely appealing and so American is the way it shrugs at refinement…We’re the country of the T-shirt and jeans” (pages 197-218).

That we are, friends: T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

“One of the traits we sought to shed from our British roots during the American Revolution was the snootiness,” Egan writes on page 218, as she sums up the chapter on wine (and Trader Joe’s/Two-Buck Chuck). “So it’s exciting to think that lowering the snobbery of wine—in the wine itself, and in how we market and deliver it—can also boost its sustainability.”

…T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

So, 200 pages in, did I figure out yet who I am, based on what I eat? Two hundred pages in, I would say I’m a fairly average American. (You probably are too.)

After “The Democratization of Wine,” Egan explores stunt foods, such as the Doritos Locos Taco (Taco Bell) and the Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich (Carl’s Jr.). Many folks loved these creations—Jimmy Kimmel said, Egan remarks, “‘Is Carl’s Jr. reading my dream journal?’” (page 231)—but just the thought of them makes me gag. Still, though, I’m a fairly average American, because I’m open to trying new things, including new foods (but hold that Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich, please).

In case you’re keeping track, our America list now includes convenience, T-shirts and jeans, mosaic-ism, and a sense of adventure.

“Just as we collect wine corks or shot glasses, coins or seashells, we collect life experiences,” Egan writes on page 243, adding that “checking off items on our bucket list of personal experiences seems a way of measuring how full a life we’re leading. It’s also about projecting a self-image of having done a lot of exciting things. And for many people, an important component of that experiential résumé is trying new foods.”

Egan’s comment about “projecting a self-image” made me think of a meme I saw floating around the Internet the other day. The meme said something to the effect of, “I’m so old I remember when people ate food without taking pictures of it.” I do wonder if Egan might have spent a little more time on the topic of how social media and self-image-representation may affect Americans’ eating habits.

(For those who are curious, a quick Google search produced this article from The Guardian: “Click plate: how Instagram is changing the way we eat.”)

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read. It touches on everything from Americans’ love for customization (Chapter 3: Having It Our Way) to the contemporary gluten-free trend (Chapter 4: Selling Absence) to the devotion to brunch, or “Secular Church” (Chapter 5). And it concludes with a chapter whose name makes me smile: “The Story of Spaghetti.”

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read.

In “The Story of Spaghetti,” Egan explains why Italian cuisine wins the popularity contest for most Americans: “Italian cuisine has on its side not only easy preparation but also easily accessible ingredients” (page 303)—pasta, sauce, cheese. She notes, “If as a child the first thing you learned to cook on the stove top was Kraft Mac and Cheese, your first encounter with the inside of an oven probably involved a frozen pizza…So Italian American food’s popularity both in and outside the home is what truly sets it apart.”

Egan notes, too, that pasta is a plain, simple food that children will eat. No spices to worry about. And for parents, how easy is it to prepare—just boil some water, right? We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

Our childhood. Nostalgia. Our comfort food.

“When you ask what comfort food means, different people will likely offer different answers,” Egan says. “Perhaps it’s something very simple that doesn’t set your mouth on fire or upset your stomach. But a common thread will surely relate to what we ate as children” (page 301).

Let me be honest here, friends: When I read that line, my eyes teared up.

I thought about my own Italian-American upbringing: my mom’s homemade Christmas ravioli, and the hundreds (really, hundreds) of cookies she makes throughout the year for family members and friends. When my mom comes to visit me these days, she comes with coolers of her meatballs, stromboli and zucchini fritters. She takes care of me still, with the food she nourished me with as a child.

I also thought about my husband and our own two children. Many a Saturday morning, Stanton gets up with the girls so that I can sleep in a little. And many a Saturday morning, when I join them in the kitchen, I find that he’s made cinnamon toast for them—a recipe his mom used to make for him.

“Look what Dad did!” Grace and Anna will exclaim.

We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

What we ate as children, whatever it was—someone who loved us prepared that food. They made it—the cinnamon toast, the ravioli—because they loved us. And even if our tastes have changed over time, that made-with-love food can bring up happy, cared-for memories.

When my daughters are grown, and making Saturday breakfasts of their own, I hope they remember their dad’s cinnamon toast—their grandmother’s cinnamon toast, really—and the love and the history behind it. I hope they remember my mom pulling up with a car trunk full of meatball-stuffed coolers. I hope they remember how much they were loved.

“Nostalgic sentiments tend to be shared by people with a common history,” Egan writes, as she wraps up “Devoured.” “Part of that has to do with geography. For example, Rabobank’s Nicholas Fereday was raised in the UK. He says, ‘You can keep your Reese’s Pieces—they mean nothing to me. But if you put a Cadbury Crème [Egg] in front of me, it would be gone in a minute’” (page 271).

What would be gone in a minute, if someone put it in front of you? Well, friends…that’s who you are.

Photo credit: HarperCollins Publishers

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

In Search of the Perfect Store-Bought Meatball

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, known for its breathtaking mountains, coal-mining roots and multiethnic food culture. There are German beer gardens (bars) and historically Polish churches, which serve up buttery pierogis and mouth-watering kielbasa at their seasonal bazaars. And in my old neighborhood, you couldn’t drive more than a few blocks without cruising past the front door of a pizza parlor or Italian restaurant.

My Italian-American family and I enjoyed a steady diet of “pies” from Revello’s, Three Guys and Victory Pig (the only pizza place I knew that offered pint-sized cartons of chocolate milk to accompany its square-shaped, deep-fried pizza). Meanwhile, you could find my parents, my three siblings and me at Perugino’s down the street for every birthday, New Year’s Eve and high school graduation. My standing order was Chicken Ala Andy, breaded tenderloins sautéed in white wine and then drizzled in a lemon-garlic sauce.

For a long time, there was even an Italian-American grocery store, Zachary’s, on the corner of Bennett and Kelly streets, just one block from my maternal grandparents’ house (and I grew up just one block from my grandparents, Poppy and Grandma). Zachary’s closed its doors some time ago, but back in the day, you could find specialty cold cuts like capicola and mortadella behind the deli counter, along with freshly made Italian sausage and containers of seasoned olives.

Mr. Zachary always asked kids if they wanted a slice of cheese; they always said yes.

Italians, of course, have a love affair with food, and this was true of the Italian-Americans I grew up with—my own family not least among them. This epicurean passion flourished in full force every winter, when my mom spent hours preparing homemade ravioli, sauce and meatballs for our Christmas Day dinner.

Now, my mom’s meatballs—mmm, I can almost taste them now. The three main ingredients were a combination of ground veal, beef and pork with Parmesan cheese and garlic. Succulent.

Meatballs

Today, I make my home in San Antonio, more than 1,500 miles from that old neighborhood and my mom’s cucina. It’s hard to find authentic Italian-style meatballs here in South Texas, where the main food group is Mexican cuisine. While I love ceviche, puffy tacos and fajitas as much as the next girl, I do miss my mom’s meatballs.

When my mom visits, she generously makes several Pyrex pans of her meatballs for my husband, our two daughters and me. On her last visit, my girls (ages 4 and 1) watched as she prepared her meatball mixture. They also enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor afterward.

It goes without saying: My mom’s homemade meatballs didn’t last long in my house after she headed back to the East Coast.

“Mom, is this Nona’s meatball?” Grace asked one weeknight, pointing skeptically at the meatball atop her plate of gemelli pasta.

I told her no, we had already eaten all of Nona’s meatballs. I had bought these at the local grocery store.

Grace slumped back in her chair. “This is too spicy. I want a Nona meatball. Can you make one?”

With my 1-year-old underfoot, I had barely been able to boil the water for the pasta and heat up the store-bought meatballs in the oven, let alone cook, from scratch, my mom’s meatball recipe.

“Can you, Mom?”

I scooped Anna up before she could begin pushing the trash can around the kitchen, her latest developmental milestone. Then I knelt beside Grace.

“I have an idea,” I told her. “We don’t have any of Nona’s meatballs left, and I can’t make them right now either. But we can find another wonderful meatball. A second-best, store-bought meatball. Deal?”

Grace still looked skeptical. Anna began wiggling out of my grasp. “It will be fun,” I announced.

We needed to find something not quite as zesty as our first store-bought meatball, the H-E-B Spicy Italian Style Pork Meatballs. Thus, the next time the girls and I went grocery shopping, I picked up a package of Aidells Italian Style with Mozzarella Cheese Meatballs.

I loved these chicken meatballs. I also loved that they were fully cooked; all I had to do was heat them up stovetop in my favorite (store-bought) marinara sauce.

Grace, however, found them too spicy for her taste, again. At first, Anna seemed to like this meatball, but then she began grunting for her sippy cup of water. Too spicy for her, too.

“I don’t know, Mom,” Grace said. “Maybe Nona should come back. Or you should make her meatballs.”

“Both good ideas,” I replied, gobbling up some dinner (while standing at the kitchen island, of course—moms rarely sit when they eat). “In the meantime, though, we’re going to find the perfect store-bought meatball. Sound good?”

Grace picked at her pasta.

I found myself grocery-shopping solo the next time, which gave me the opportunity to peruse the meat market shelves in a more laid-back state than if Grace and Anna were riding along in the grocery cart, asking for a snack every couple of seconds. I spotted a container of Italian-style turkey meatballs. Both the girls liked turkey. I decided to give these meatballs a try.

That night, I served Grace her pasta with a turkey meatball on top. I cut another one up into tiny pieces for Anna and put them on her high chair tray. Anna took a piece, tasted it and gulped it down. Then another, and another.

“Mom.”

I looked over at Grace, who was chewing and smiling. “Mom, I love this meatball.”

“You do?”

“Yes! And I want another one!”

“You do!” I spooned another meatball onto Grace’s plate.

She smiled again. “You did it, Mom.”

I smiled back at her. Mamma mia, how about that—I had found the perfect store-bought meatball.

The Italian-Americans back home wouldn’t think that was much of an accomplishment. A store-bought meatball? A turkey one at that?

“Mom…another one!”

“You want a third meatball?”

Grace laughed. Anna joined in.

Yes, I’d done it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

When I Go to My Mom’s House

My hubby, daughters, and I recently returned from a visit with my family in Pennsylvania. I was so glad that Baby G was able to meet my maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, during this time. They shared a heartfelt hello, and good-bye.

We stayed with my parents, as we always do. And as always, my mom made sure her house was ready for us. She put clean towels in our rooms, along with new clothes for the girls. (“Don’t worry about packing them anything!” she said.)

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My mom has a second freezer in the basement. When we arrived, she began thawing the food she prepared for our visit weeks earlier: breaded chicken, lasagna, stuffed cabbage rolls, zucchini fritters, and—per Little G’s request—lots of cookies. I think second freezers in the basement, bursting with goodies like these, may be distinctive of families of Italian-American heritage. 🙂

Towels, clothes, homemade food … all creature comforts. Who wouldn’t love to “come home” to these things? What I love about my mom’s house, though, is that these things symbolize her caring for my family and me.

All this caring takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort. Of course, this is what moms do.

I remember a moment soon after Baby G was born, when both my mom and Stanton’s mom were standing with me in my kitchen. My mom was staying with us for a few weeks to help out, and I mentioned that Charlotte did the same thing for her own daughter about a year and a half earlier. Playing with the new baby’s older sisters; getting their breakfasts, lunches, snacks (so many snacks!), and dinners ready; making sure they were clean and well-rested. Plus hundreds of other things that moms do every day, from putting Band-Aids on boo-boos (including the imaginary ones) to calling a plumber because the kitchen sink faucet is dripping (again). Basically, taking care of everyone and everything.

“You both did so much,” I remember saying to my mom and Charlotte.

They looked at each other and laughed. “Well, we’re battle tested,” Charlotte said. It was something any seasoned mom could relate to.

As the years move on, I want to create the kind of house that my mom has, and Charlotte has. And I want to be the kind of mom that they’ve been to their children (four each!). I want my daughters to know our front door is always open to them and their friends, and later their families. I want them to know I’ll always take care of them, whether they’re 4 years old or 40. When you come to my house, there will always be plenty of everything. Just bring yourself.

Another hope I have is that my girls will be as close as I am to my sister and brothers. During this recent visit, my sister took time off from her job in New York City to be with us. At one point, Jenna handed me a cup of coffee along with a plate of my mom’s Jimmy Carter Cake and said, “OK, let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To eat and watch an episode of Fright Night Lights, DUH.”

I laughed and followed my sister to the nearest TV, coffee and cake in tow. Because we love simply hanging out and sharing a cup of coffee together (Friday Night Lights reruns optional). It’s the little things, right, friends?

Yes.

I hope my daughters develop a similar bond. And I hope that as they journey along with their own lives, they come back to my house to reconnect.

I’ll need to get my own second freezer one day.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.