Lombardozzi's in Bloomfield was a culmination of every restaurant I've ever worked. The staff was family, the menu was too big, there was a piano in the dining room that never got used, and the website for the restaurant was very, very poor. Lombardozzi's was the first job I had when I moved to Pittsburgh. It was also a job predicated on lies and deceit. Weeks before interviewing, I had previously taken a job at the Rivers Casino, a contract which didn't start until July. I was in Pittsburgh in late May, without a job for 5 weeks and in need of money. I needed to work for a month before the casino gig so I could live, but nobody was going to hire a line cook for just a month. So, I lied. I lied to Tony Lombardozzi and I regret it.
Tony was such a nice, old man. He looked fantastic. He had slicked back gray hair. He was short and had glasses, two very endearing qualities you want in an old man. Sometimes old men look like assholes and then they turn out to be assholes. Not Tony. Tony was a teddy bear. He was sweet to his wife. He spoke English in a way that was deliberate and poised, but also very broken. Every word he ever said was enunciated perfectly except for, "Wha?" which he said often. When he sat me down for an interview, I could tell he was sick of dealing with line cooks. Erratic and emotional, being in charge of any junkie for too long will take its toll. I spoke to Tony knowing full well I would only be working for a month and then jumping ship to a more lucrative opportunity (the aforementioned casino). I neglected to mention I had another job lined up or that I was even thinking about leaving. The interview went well. Then out of nowhere, like he knew I was hiding something, Tony said, "All I expect is honesty." It shook me even though I convinced myself it was just a coincidence. It wasn't like I was sweating and he could tell I was hiding something, right? I look back on that interview and think, "Maybe I was twitching." It's a very ominous thing to say to somebody before you hire them, even for Tony.
Tony was married to Carmella and they both owned the restaurant. They got along well. The kitchen was led by a guy named George who was certainly a heroin addict. George would leave the kitchen if it was slow to play the slot machine near the bar, which I'm guessing paid out. I would get called into work early every so often because George was sick, and I knew what that meant. Also in the kitchen were Anna and Yolanda. Yolanda was in her 60's but would still go dancing frequently. Anna, maybe 10 years younger, was such a ball buster that I fell in love with her. They would speak passionately and intently in Italian. I think they always switched over from English to complain about their jobs or something Tony did, or to talk about George's heroin problem, or how the new guy wasn't cutting it. I started paying attention to their conversations and picking up on Italian phrases. The first phrase I learned translated to, "Sweep the kitchen or I'll throw you down the stairs." They spoke beautifully.
I was learning. I learned how to make pasta. I learned how to make soups and stocks. I learned how to cook Tony's way (he had me do quirky things like finish each order of red sauce with a knob of butter and a hit of Tabasco, which was actually quite good). I had a notebook on me at all times to scribble down recipes or Italian phrases. One day, Tony taught me how to make a killer clam sauce, and while slowly sweating leeks he said, "The French, they think they know – they don't know. Big shots." It's been almost 500 years since Catherine de' Medici supposedly scampered off to France with Italy's most treasured ingredients and recipes, and Italians still hold a grudge. Amazing. I was in love with my job - the alleyway where I parked, the small city neighborhood feel of the buildings and apartments, the customers, the food, the staff. One night Tony and Carmella left early while I was finishing a dinner service and they both smiled and waved at me in a way that felt paternal. It was a job that felt emotionally comfy. It felt like home.
I started to hear stories about what happened to the cook I had been hired to replace. I remember working a slow lunch one day by myself, and Carmella came back with a small framed photo of her son. She walked slowly, always in half-steps, all the way over to the line, held up a picture to me and said, "This was my son. He was a hard worker, just like you." She started to cry. I hugged her and didn't say anything. Half of me felt awful that her son had died of a heart attack so suddenly at the age of 30, the other half felt terrible because I was leaving this woman who had just compared me to her son. I felt like I owed them a longer stay than a month. Two weeks later I followed through with my plan and left. I think about Tony, Carmella, Anna, and Yolanda a lot. Sometimes I joke with my friends that Tony and Carmella's son visits me in the dead of night as a ghost, rattling chains and giving me shit for lying to his family. One Christmas, I went into the restaurant and nobody recognized me. I just drank anonymously, enjoying the pictures on the wall of Tony and Carmella's wedding, watching whatever was on the TV. A more recent time I walked in and Anna was there. She threatened to put me back to work. Often times I think I should.
Go to Lombardozzi's. More specifically, hit their lunch buffet which runs from 11-3. It reminds me of my grandma heating up leftovers the next day. Also, if you have a problem with leftovers, please excuse yourself. I'm for the concept of the lunch buffet, so if you're a fan, here's what Tony serves up:
Meatballs and sausage in red sauce
A rotating pasta. Sometimes penne and marinara, sometimes chicken and linguine, sometimes a vodka sauce – nothing flashy
A protein like chicken marsala or picatta
Stuffed clams (seafood stuffing molded into clam shells)
A kick-ass salad bar. This salad bar is tops for me. Anna marinates beets and they are the best I've ever had. They are acidic and sweet and loaded with herbs. There's pasta salad and a regular salad, too. They serve two salad dressings: Italian and ranch. Sometimes there's a dessert if they had leftovers from a wedding or a party. You really never know. It's cheap, quiet, and quality. It's a dying breed of restaurant, and it's a place I would go to often if I still had the option.
For most of my childhood, my Mom worked across the street at a convenient store called Tic Toc. When I say across the street, I mean like I would be sitting on the porch with friends late at night and my Mom would wave over on her break. Tic Toc was consistently robbed. They didn't have gas. I think old men just hung out there and played lottery tickets. The Pennsylvania Gambling Control Board has always had a tight grip on things, so at one time there weren't casinos in Pittsburgh. They were real fuckers. Bars were getting fined with regularity for having slot machines. Poker games got tipped off and shut down. Lottery tickets were it. Tic Toc called itself a food mart even though my friend's Dad was only there to gamble his paycheck. Tic Toc was the place I picked up lunch money from my Mom before school. It was where I bought Mountain Dew to drink Stone Cold Steve Austin style with my friends. It was where I got fat as a 10 year old boy.
The deli at Tic Toc was a great partner to the lotto ticket lifestyle. If you were a truck driver or an auctioneer, it was ideal. Hang out, scratch some tickets, don't hit on my Mom, and order from the deli. It wasn't much. The deli only had a few meats and cheeses, chicken wings, and cold salads. They also had a banger pasta salad. Actually, it was more of an antipasta; there was no actual noodle to speak of in the salad. Cheap, clear containers with lids marked with a Sharpie filled with salami, pepperoni, neutral cheese, olives, and canned banana peppers - all marinated in Italian dressing. When I think about every pizza place or deli back in Western Pennsylvania, most things you ordered contained the same two ingredients: Banana peppers and olives. Calzones, pizzas, house salads - they all came with these acidic buddies. They are a great 1-2. They are tart, low maintenance, and easy flavor. They are important to me in that bubble of Western Pennsylvanian, half-hick, Italian-American style of cooking.
So this is that antipasta salad with actual pasta added to it. Get a hunk of salami and pepperoni from the deli cut as thick as the slicer will allow. Same with an aged provolone. Cube them all. Add to cooked rotini. Rotini is the one true pasta for pasta salad. I think it is inexcusable to serve pasta salad with a cold, long noodle. I've seen pasta salads with linguine and broccoli and carrots and I can assure you those people are now outcasts. Pasta salad is for picnics. Asking anybody to do anything but shovel food into their mouth is bad form. Get your shit together and buy some rotini. Also, use jarred banana peppers and olives. Never mayonnaise. I'm a mayonnaise head, but it belongs nowhere near pasta. Most of my aunts back home will add bottles of Italian dressing to their salad. I can't stress enough how easy it is to make your own dressing. 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar and go nuts. Add basil, oregano, Dijon mustard, garlic - literally whatever you want. Speaking of ratios, Michael Ruhlman's Ratio is the best cookbook on the planet and if you have any remote interest in being a home cook, get it. It is a book that will teach you how to cook and experiment without rigid recipes.
My grandmother has compiled this giant Betty Crocker style cookbook over the years. This thick tome is filled with recipes spanning several decades. It started, man, maybe in the 60's? Back when people cut out newspaper clippings of recipes and tried them. Can you imagine? You get the paper and open it up to see how to cook dinner? Home cooks were en vogue. Julia Child was practically a sex symbol. Women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her. I imagine my grandmother, like everybody else, looked to Julia Child a lot. My grandmother also had 9 children. When I look at this cookbook, it represents the culmination of years and years of feeding 9 kids. The cookbook is very WASPy, by the way; things a foodie would turn their nose up at. Real submissive, roll-over-and-play-dead-in-my-mouth foods. There's a recipe in there for "Mexican Salsa" that calls for Italian dressing. It's like a youth pastor wrote a cookbook or the government censored flavor. Food was a utility. By all means, it's probably considered Middle American garbage, but when I look at it I think, "Who cares?" None of it's authentic, but guess what? It fed 9 god damn kids. I imagine my grandmother saying that a lot even though she wasn't that type of grandma. "I had to feed 9 god damn kids!" Like she was a one-dimensional character in a sketch show and that was her catchphrase.
So cornbread salad is in there, and it's a picnic style, random blend of ingredients that doesn't need to make much sense. It consists of corn bread chunks, mayonnaise, bacon, raw red onion, tomatoes, and also, pickle juice. This is one of those salads that isn't actually salad, know what I mean? There's no lettuce. In fact, as soon as you see "Corn Bread Salad" you're already being lied to. Salad somehow expanded to include all things mayonnaise. Whoever called chicken salad a salad, that person certainly was denying reality at every turn.
I eat cornbread salad because my Mom makes it; because it's there. I never crave it. I'll never make it at home. Imagine having to eat this for 3 days straight. OK, here's what cornbread salad tastes like: At first you notice the grainy texture of cornbread and the creamy, fattening flavors of mayo. Then you're like, "Alright, bacon." Then you're like, "Tomatoes?" Then when you're done you're like, "Hm, I definitely just ate some raw red onions." It's kind of perplexing. There are maybe a thousand different recipes online. One's from Paula Deen. Another one says, "This ain't your Mama's cornbread salad!" One is Tex-Mex. Another Southwestern. There's a billion different ways to make it and they all seem just fine. Sometimes food is just fine. I think it's best as a picnic dish when you're like, "Alright. I'm definitely not getting laid later. Let's just eat a bunch of meats and salads and start over tomorrow."
Here are some things that have happened to me over the years at work. For whatever reason, these memories pop up in my brain over and over again. Keep in mind that most of this occurred while I was a teenager. Also, I worked in very, very unprofessional kitchens up until I was 25. They are not in order.
#67 - I worked at a restaurant once for two days. On the first day, I realized that they were microwaving eggplant parmigiana. I slept on it. On the second day, as I was microwaving eggplant parmigiana, I walked out before the timer finished and didn't tell anybody I was quitting. As I was leaving the line, somebody asked where I was going and I said, "I've got to go to my car real quick." Real dumb answer.
#109 - Years ago another line cook thought it would be hilarious to set my chef pants on fire. He was a hillbilly from Texas. I grew up thinking lesser of Texans because of this guy and his brother. His brother was the dumbest person I've ever met. We asked him to label pasta one time and he spelled penne "penhen." PEN-HEN. Anyway, the guy who set my pants on fire, his name was Sean. He was maybe 10 years older than me. When you're 16 you just assume everybody over 19 is 40, but he was probably 26. He was tall and bulky and I'm sure he could have picked me up and thrown me in a trash can if he wanted. I got real pissed that I had a hole in my pants, so I put a bunch of chocolate syrup in his gas tank. When he found out (I stuffed the bottle in his tank), all I heard was, "I'm going to kill this mother fucker!" I immediately went to hide at the server's station. I remember seeing him through the swinging doors and he was sliding his feet like a bull waiting for me. It was one of the first times I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, you can do things and then get punched in the face for it." Sean and I are cool now.
#90 - At a restaurant called Sghetti's, there was this wild summer where fireworks were used for just about every prank. I didn't find it fun. I'd be trying to work and somebody would just throw firecrackers on the ground next to me. Real pirate behavior. You'd be getting to work and just get bombarded with bottle rockets as you were parking your car. Anyway, my brother put an end to all of this. In a genius move, he taped a pack of firecrackers to the back of a sauté pan and put the pan back on the stack. The "chef", who was behind all of this nonsense, picked up the pan and put in on an open flame when an order came through. This thing rattled and basically exploded on to the ground. He was so startled he had to go sit outside on a milk crate for a half hour to collect himself. Nobody messed with fireworks after that. Fun fact: My hometown, New Castle, Pennsylvania, is considered the Fireworks Capital of America.
#114 - There was a lot of prison antics going on when I worked at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. I used to talk a lot of shit to my coworkers, and I always got repaid in strange, violent ways. One time I was working an omelette station and a fellow cook very slyly walked past me and shanked the fuck out of my arm with a paper clip he twisted into a knife. I had to leave because I was bleeding. Even more ridiculous, one day when I was talking a particular amount of smack, a fellow line cook asked me to come in to the walk-in cooler because she couldn't reach something. Three fourths of me thought we were going to make out. I walked in the cooler - a huge, long, semi-truck style fridge with only one door, and she ran out laughing like something just worked perfectly. As soon as she left, three other cooks walked into the cooler with brute swagger. They had socks, fucking socks, filled with oranges. I remember one of them saying, "What's up, now?" and I just got beat with orange filled socks. I had to fight my way out and remember having bruises for a few days. We were all giggling like idiots as it was happening because it really was the most ridiculous thing.
#219 - A chef made up something one time called "sauté bowling" which was another prank I wasn't a fan of. Basically you start by getting a sauté pan scalding hot with oil. When the oil smokes, drop some water in there and look the fuck out because the flames reach a few feet high. Once the pan was on fire, you dropped it on the ground and then kicked it across the kitchen towards somebody. I know. Really had a lot of potential to be harmful. I'll never forget seeing a saute pan with flames three feet high sliding towards me from the other end of the line.
#13 - Back to the casino. I was on a lot of drugs and alcohol. I was good at my job but also a god damn mess. I used to mix energy drinks and white wine at 7 AM. I'd take Percocet at 9 AM. Chain smoke and drink caffeine all day. I used to get Percocet for free. A coworker would just give it to me. Then one day he said, "Hey man, I've been giving you a lot of Percs, would you mind throwing me a couple bucks?" Sure! After all, I had been getting all of this euphoria for free. Before I knew it I was buying drugs everyday and I don't know if he was trying to slowly work me in to being a customer with the freebies, but it worked. I was doing a lot of damage to my body at 25. One day my boss dangled my ID badge with his finger, a picture of me looking tan and healthy, then he looked at my face and said, "Jesus Christ Palumbo, what happened to you?" I got sent home one day because I was "too pale," which I think my boss was telling me to clean up or I was going to get fired. I developed a pretty nasty habit of having to be either intoxicated or high to work.
#5 - I shucked oysters for a few years in Austin. The guy that showed me how to shuck was Big Mike. Big Mike was this dude from New Orleans who sold drugs. I know he sold drugs because he was always saying, "Hey, I need to run to my car real quick" in the middle of a lunch rush. Big Mike taught me how to sharpen an oyster knife by scratching it against the concrete outside. I remember saying, "Oh, and then you clean it" and he was like, "Yeah" like he wasn't cleaning it. Big Mike passed away.
#300 - I stormed out of a restaurant one night because the owner was way too hands on. I tore my apron off, and as I dramatically slammed open a screen door to the outside world, I'll never forget he said, "You're not quitting. You're going to take a walk and cool down." I might have actually done that if he didn't tell me what I was going to do, but instead I responded, "No, I'm actually quitting." I remember he just watched me walk the whole way to my car. I was being groomed to be the chef at this place, and I was 19. That responsibility scared the shit out of me. Whatever we were fighting about, I think that fear of responsibility was the reason I walked out.
#35 - I got drunk, so, so drunk inside of a food truck one time with my friend Eric Krug (not a cook, just a friend who hopped on the truck), and we started blasting "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen so the whole neighborhood would hear it. Afterwards, when the other cook and I drove the food truck home, I was hanging out of the side door pretending like it was a fire truck. It is good that I don't drink much anymore.
#59 - Saw a coworker snort heroin once. He did it off of a white surface in the chef's office. We were talking for like, probably 20 minutes after he snorted the line. The whole time he was talking, I was just staring at a little half line that he left on the table and it dawned on me, "Oh, I don't think he knows that's there." I told him he left some heroin on the table and he goes, "Nuh-uh. Where?" I pointed at it again, and he peered in even closer to it. When he saw it, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "Oh, shit. Thanks!" then he snorted the rest of the heroin. I immediately felt regret over telling him there was more there. His name was Shane. I feel like people named Shane are trouble.
A few weeks before Homecoming sophomore year, I paid a junior kid everybody called Meatball 40 dollars to buy a case of Smirnoff Ice. I know this sounds like the first time I drank, but it wasn't (the first time I drank I was working a wine tasting as a dishwasher). Meatball was short and round. He looked like a meatball if you were a high school kid and you thought you were hilarious. A few days before the dance, I saw Meatball in the hallway and asked him if he picked up the Smirnoff. He said, "Oh, they didn't have it, so I got a case of Busch." Then he walked away without giving me my change. I got stiffed by Meatball. A case of Busch wasn't 40 bucks. Either he pocketed my change or bought more beer to cover the party. Either way, I get it. I was a soft, 15 year old recovering Jesus Freak with highlights in his hair asking for Smirnoff Ice. Secretly, I knew I was getting made fun of for wanting Smirnoff Ice and I never felt like more of a pussy. My school was full of hunters. Kids that knew how to hold guns. People that drank beer.
I bring this up because Root 174 in Pittsburgh served camouflage cans of Busch beer for $1.74. Camouflage, you see, because I went to Root during hunting season. This is Western Pennsylvania, after all. A place where last Summer I was warned by a gentleman in the woods, "You should wear brighter colors unless you want to get shot." As a kid, my friends would have sleepovers and wake up early to go hunting. I never went and I can't remember if I was ever invited. Getting up at 6 AM to go hunting seemed so foreign to me. I am sure my Uncle Mike referred to it at some point in his life as some "medegone shit." Growing up, everybody seemed to hunt, kill, and cook. Now I live in Los Angeles, surrounded by people that leave behind slider buns because of the carbs.
I loved everything about Keith Fuller and Root. The restaurant was completely approachable, which, Jesus Christ, I didn't realize how important that is. Three years ago, the first and only time I stepped into a Michelin starred restaurant, I immediately felt like I did something wrong. Everything was so quiet and orchestrated. Each plate hits the table at the same exact time. People talk to you as if you're high society, like you weren't drunk and yelling in the streets of Chicago the night before. "I don't deserve this," is what I thought every time a new course came across the table. Like, you guys know this dinner is 1/5th of my net worth, right? "I shouldn't be here" is what any sane person would think at a Michelin starred restaurant. Root, though, made you feel like you belonged. A small restaurant that sat maybe 30 people - Root served flavorful, simple, yet wildly creative meals. We're talking about a guy that dredges brussel sprouts in masa. Weird meats. Duck testicles and swordfish marrow. Proteins that seemed like they had to be cooked out of necessity but really they were just coming from a place of humble creativity.
Two dishes that sum up Root and the dining scene in Pittsburgh for me: One was a medley of sausage, squid, and potatoes, which is not something designed to keep your stomach open to the idea of eating more. I love potatoes and seafood. Combined, the two represent camaraderie to me. It's clam chowder, crawfish boils, and clam bakes. It's picnic tables and big pots with ladles. But, there's also something very old school Mediterranean about it, too. Like the potatoes have to go with squid because you've got to feed your kids. Potatoes are practical. A lot of shareable items at restaurants lack in sustenance, but not this. The other dish that struck me was a tuna bloodline bolognese. Meat sauce, made from the god damn bloodline of a tuna fish. I worked at a seafood market for a few years. Nobody uses the bloodline. Keith, I was told, froze the bloodline then used a bermixer to incorporate it into his bolognese sauce. It's inventive. It's thrifty. It's hearty. Google "tuna bloodline bolognese." Nothing shows up, just Keith Fuller and Root 174. Kind of amazing.
Root was also incredibly vegan friendly, which I love seeing in a chef-centric restaurant. I'm not vegan, but I really hate this movement of culinary types shitting on people for going meatless. It's lame. Hack. A popular opinion is that being vegan is a "1st world privilege" which is true if you're up all night stewing mad over the existence of gluten allergies and kombucha. My friend Josh is vegan, and he came with me to Root once. The day before, my brother and I had made a foie gras terrine for Keith. I gave it to him, and he came back with a plate of his own and said, "You give me foie, I give you foie." Josh was not happy. It had completely slipped my mind that being around foie might upset him. We were exchanging this controversial type of food, which was not on the menu at all, right in front of my friend's face. I felt like an asshole. This interaction aside, Root had this wonderful marriage of meat and vegan options. It felt inclusive. The restaurant felt like it was for everybody.
The kitchen was tiny. You had to walk past it to get to the bathroom. Each year on Thanksgiving night, the restaurant closed to the public, but, if you were service industry and had no where to go, you could go to Root and eat for free (the only cost being a side dish and a shareable drink). Root had tasting menus, but it didn't seem like a "small plates" type of joint. It didn't feel like when they broke ground there was an interior decorater establishing a theme with the furniture. It wasn't one of these places that sounded like an H&M. Nothing about it felt mechanical or trendy. It oozed personality, and the meals were filling and affordable. That's a restaurant in Pittsburgh. Everything about the city is no frills, so why would the dining scene be any different? Forget about molecular gastronomy and trends and James Beard awards, how well are you feeding people? I loved that the no bullshit attitude of the area was flowing through the veins of this restaurant.
I've always had a love/hate relationship with the city of Pittsburgh. As a comic, it was a frustrating place to start doing stand-up. A lady shouted, "Go Steelers" at me one time and it was enough for me to hate football forever. There's probably a direct correlation between bad audience members and good food. Most good food doesn't come from pleasant, artistic types who are willing to listen to a comedy show. In Pittsburgh, it comes from loud descendants of immigrants with almost zero patience. You know what I mean? The guy at Lesvos Gyros on Carson Street yelling at his employees to "shave the meat!" would probably heckle the shit out of me, but damn he makes a good gyro.
After numerous accolades and substantial success, Root 174 closed. I have no idea why, but Keith is back downtown with Pork and Beans, a BBQ place that Pittsburgh sorely needs. I don't know what fine dining is, but Root 174 felt like what it should be. Maybe I've got a chip on my shoulder, that I know if I ever had to work in a reputable restaurant I wouldn't be able to hang, so fuck the things that I know I can't do. It could be that. But also, deep down, I just like places that are doing cool things and remain accessible. My whole issue with fine dining in the first place is that the more artistic and creative things get, the more it prices out people who can enjoy it. Restaurants should be casting a wide net. Most people should be able to enjoy a good meal, and everybody should be able to afford a nice buzz. Maybe you'll spend a little more than you want to on dinner, but hey, here's a can of Busch beer for $1.74 to help soften the blow. That was my kind of place.
One of my favorite, absolute favorite things to do is to throw an insult at somebody's food. One time a chef looked at a garnish I made and said, "This isn't the fucking Holiday Inn, dude." Burn. I was the new guy at another restaurant and a few days in a coworker remarked, "Where did this guy learn how to cook, prison?" A+. Probably my favorite was when I watched a chef comment on one of his cook's knife skills, "What the fuck is this? I didn't say crazy dice." For some reason, "crazy dice" always struck me as the funniest thing ever. Like it's an actual knife technique. "Crazy dice that celery." Yes, chef. My friend Aaron Brooks is also good at razzing food. One day I made marinara for a bunch of us and he kept insisting that it was SpaghettiOs. "Hey Danny, I think I saw an 'M' floating around in there." Aaron grew up near St. Louis. I wanted to make something from St. Louis.
I ate a St. Louis Slinger once. The first time I had it, I was working at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. The Executive Chef, Matt Eaton, was from St. Louis. When I worked at the casino, I did a very hack thing and adopted the bad boy chef attitude even though I was a glorified prep cook. I was on a lot of pills. I was drinking at work. I smoked a ton of cigarettes and didn't stop drinking caffeine until my shift ended. I might as well have been praying to a headshot of Anthony Bourdain every morning. I remember one day Matt looked at the ID badge on my chef coat, which was a photo taken from when I first got hired, then looked at current day me and said, "Jesus Palumbo, what happened to you?" Matt made me a Slinger one morning because I openly confessed to still being drunk. The Slinger is a dish open to interpretation. Matt's consisted of eggs, potatoes, bacon, a hamburger patty, chili, cheese, and onions. I took a really long break until I finished eating all of it, which was hard, then I went back to work. It was gross, but I didn't feel drunk anymore and it got rid of the pill sweats.
Aaron insisted that we do not make Slingers. "This is a train we shouldn't board," he said. Instead, Aaron suggested that we make an IMO's style pizza. I don't really know what to say about IMO's other than that it technically qualifies as pizza. Brooks took me to IMO's when we were in St. Louis doing gigs, and he thought I was going to love it. I could see the excitement in his eyes. Instead I said, "Is this where you went when your parents got divorced?" IMO's is thin crust. Sweet sauce. Cut square. To me that's cafeteria pizza. Lunch table, hairnet style, plastic tray go sit with the other nerds pizza.
Brooksy pulled this recipe for IMO's pizza. First of all, I don't think sugar belongs anywhere near a tomato sauce. Combine sugar and tomatoes and to me you're on your way to making ketchup. Do you want ketchup on your pizza? You do? Are you OK? Oh God, I'm sorry I didn't know. IMO's pizza also uses provel cheese. What's provel cheese? I don't know. I just know that people in St. Louis go parade bonkers for provel. The recipe says to combine swiss, cheddar, provolone, then add liquid smoke to make it. I told some other St. Louis friends about how we mashed three different cheeses together to make provel and they said, "You can't just fucking do that." A lot of recipes out there are bullshit, guys.
So when you roll out the dough or whatever you add this sauce that has sugar and shit in it, and then you top it with what I'm told is not at all provel cheese. Great. So, to recap, we made this really half-assed recipe for a dish that I don't think you can actually recreate anyways. IMO's pizza only exists inside of IMO's. If you try to make it at home everything in your life will cease to make sense. Just keep going to work, paying taxes, and getting your IMO's pizza out of the house.
By all means this was a complete failure. Normally taking the time to cook something feels good. This felt awful. Let's say we cooked something close to an IMO's pizza. I would still think it was bad, but we would have recreated a comfort food that Aaron loves. We didn't do that. We should have made Slingers, damnit. The whole experience files under, "Yeah, sometimes cooking is a waste of time so why do it?" IMO's isn't for me, but for the sake of fairness, hear out cake boss Aaron Brooks about his favorite pizza back home.
"Imo’s will always be, to me, unassuming and charming. The floor was a tacky red and white vinyl tile checkerboard. The walls were lit with beer neons. Those were the spots for the junior high kids to go to get a laugh. The nerdy kids, desperate for attention, standing in front of a Busch beer mountain, wobbly and slurring, his prepubescent pals chuckling into their fountain Cokes. The pizza? It’s polarizing. You love it or you’re wrong. It’s cracker thin, born on a razor’s edge. The crispy, golden crust supports the expanse of a sweet red sauce. It catches you off guard like a seventy degree day in a St. Louis July. The cheese is provel. What’s that? Provel. It’s blend of swiss, cheddar, and provolone. It’s a bit smoky and bit buttery, and makes me feel 13 when I taste it. It’s delightful.
Imo’s is my early teens. Imo’s was where the cool kids worked. The kids who smoked in the alley behind the bar every morning before school. The kids who wore their hair parted down the middle. The kids who were the subjects of the first stories of peer-on-peer sexual deviance I ever heard. The kids who weren’t kids anymore, first. If you would’ve shown up for the interview in your older brother’s truck reeking of mystery and Marlboros, you could have worked at Imo’s. We all wanted to work at Imo’s. I worked at Hardee’s. We had a uniform. Imo’s had a lifestyle. Hardee’s made us buy special shoes. Imo’s didn’t make you wear them if you didn’t want to, dude. It’s gone now, the Hardee’s. Burned down a few years back. I think my step-brother was working there when it went up, but I can’t be too sure. We don’t talk much. I digress. Imo’s was where marriages worked. It was some sort of sanctum where the past didn’t matter. It was the place where the bills were paid, where she really was just a friend, where they’d look at each other, promise to work on it, and mean it. I’m an Imo’s lifer, and nothing will change that. I pray at the altar of the toasted ravioli. Hallowed be thy taste."
I've been making a lot of pasta this week, and I really don't know who has the time to cook. I used to look down on people eating fast food all the time, but I get it now. Time is precious. I have felt incredibly overwhelmed recently and I'm sure it's due to spending an hour or two everyday pumping out pounds of pasta like everybody at De Cecco went on strike.
Pasta is my favorite thing to make, though. It's nice to let my mind wander for a few hours, and I've convinced myself that I'm actually writing while I do it. It also releases some stress for me. I don't think punching the dough is part of the kneading process, but boy is it fun to do. Free tip from me to you: Punch your pasta dough extra good.
Orecchiette is easy to make; you don't need a machine, but it is a huge pain in the ass. It's 2 cups semolina flour, 2 cups all purpose, and 1 cup (or 1 1/4 cup) tepid water. Combine both flours into a bowl and mix them until they're the same substance, then just make a well or whatever with your flour and add the water and look man, I can't tell you how to make dough. You just got to do it and keep fucking it up until you learn how.
If you make orecchiette right, you're going to be upset. You need to roll out little "snakes" of dough and cut them into coins, then press them with your thumb to make the shape of orecchiette that we all know and love and have seen a local Italian man throw at his kids. A lot of times I see orecchiette cut really thick. It's going to take 20 minutes to cook if you do that. Cut them small. The dough might stick together a little bit as you cut it, and it's a lot more thumb work, but the end result rules. You can pick up like 4-5 orecchiette in one spoonful. Also, orecchiette in Italian means "little ears." Isn't that precious? Sometimes I like to picture I'm collecting the ears of everybody who's wronged me! Use your imagination!
I had this conversation with my brother where I asked him if he ever liked to cook sauce this way, and before I could finish he knew exactly what I was talking about. It's just a very oily tomato sauce with peppers. I sauted some hot banana peppers in A LOT of olive oil until they were soft, then added some garlic, then added the juice from a can of San Marzano tomatoes, then crushed up a couple of the tomatoes with my hand to add just a little bit of thickness. Also, not that you give a shit, but I'm trying to cook without butter nowadays. Not for health reasons. Butter just seems easy. Everything has butter in it. Everything calls for butter. Can you make something taste good without butter? You should try.
Maggie Maye and I got super high and enjoyed this. Maggie is my roommate and a killer of a comedian. I think Maggie might be my favorite person to get high with. Her laugh is incredibly infectious and makes you feel like you're having the best time ever (because you are). She also has extensive candy knowledge and knows when the new candy drops at the store. Maggie put cheddar cheese on her pasta and I was too high to be upset. Do you, Maggs.