Pizza Odyssey Luke Brennan
Articles,  Radio Hour

Pizza Odyssey

by Luke Brennan


Luke’s essay appears in episode 28 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.


In the beginning, it was Tiger King and the phrase: “It can’t be later than July.” Then, for a while, there were Zoom happy hours. Springtime was when I started leaning on a strict walking schedule; I remember watching the flowers perk up along the sidewalk, either oblivious or ambivalent to the growing threat of Coronavirus. In order to remain sane throughout the pandemic, I sought out a variety of support structures. Many rituals came and went…but one comfort remained a constant. 

Pizza.

In October of 2019, I moved to Chicago — City of Pizza — to start a job as a technology consultant. The city was chilly in October, and breezy. Downtown was busy; conversation could be completely obliterated by the elevated train roaring on tracks above. I liked Chicago. Its neighborhoods were quaint, or cute, or hip, riddled with coffee shops, donut stops, and pubs. 

My first pizza in the professional working world was a Detroit-style, cheese-square from Jet’s, which felt a bit promiscuous with the famous Lou Malnati’s just around the corner. My boss bought the pizzas for our team as we plugged away at a chunk of software that was due to our client the next morning.

 

My boss bought the pizzas for our team as we plugged away at a chunk of software that was due to our client the next morning.  

 

The pizza squares from Jet’s were saturated with grease – almost dripping – and our keyboards soon were covered in an oily sheen, despite the growing pile of white napkins at the center of the table. We made long faces at each other and at our screens and kept eating, hoping to figure out why our data was all warped out of shape. Another slice, another edit, another ill-shaped chunk of data. 

The next memorable pizza pie came two months later,  in December. It was a delicious pot pie pizza from Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. where your only choice was to get the half-pound or the full one pound pizza. I’d never seen a pot pie pizza before: they arrived upside down and inside out. All the gooey good stuff sat  in the middle of the pizza-ball, and it puffed with steam when you poked a fork through it.

The restaurant itself was underground, with dark wooden booths and amber lamps. I went there on a date, and we ate, drank beer, and talked about whether or not we thought married people were crazy for being married. 

 

Pizza was not on my mind when the pandemic rolled around in March, but maybe it should’ve been.

 

Pizza was not on my mind when the pandemic rolled around in March, but maybe it should’ve been. It certainly was on my mind when my pizza – ordered as a crucial component for a self-care movie night – never arrived. I ordered the pizza through Grubhub and checked my phone repeatedly throughout the movie: during the exposition, before the climax, during the climax, and afterwards, as the credits rolled. The progress of my pizza never moved from “processing order” to “en route.” The next morning, Grubhub reimbursed me the $24 when I found out that the pizza shop was out of business. Slightly traumatized, I decided from that point on to take a break from ordering food through apps. 

So I turned to something I eyed warily: the grocery store pizza. 

Aldi. It was the first place where I felt stressed, in a physical way – in a “it’s really hard to breathe” kind of way – about the pandemic. I was tempted to count my breaths or to try to keep them as limited as possible or to time my visit —  I wanted to do anything that I could to minimize the amount of time spent inside Aldi. It was my biggest exposure to other people, and felt insane, given the other precautions that we were taking to avoid exposure.

Each breath felt suicidal, murderous, both. The elderly lady who decisively punctured my six-foot bubble in order to reach for the cherry tomatoes was a goner. I practically breathed on her as she passed by, and holy moly, was that her nose peeking out of her mask?

It was during this time that I connected with Mama Cozzi’s Pizza Kitchen Take and Bake Deli Pizza. For a mere six dollars and a full 16 inches, this supreme and refrigerated pizza became a weekly ritual.

 

For a mere six dollars and a full 16 inches, this supreme and refrigerated pizza became a weekly ritual.

 

It started as an impulse buy. “Ah, what the heck.” The kind of thing you say to your kid when they ask if they can have Pop-Tarts for breakfast when you’re at the beach. 

Mama Cozzi’s Pizza Kitchen Take and Bake Deli Pizza found itself in my shopping cart – the brown box lying precariously (and with a sense of superiority) over my bell peppers, spinach and hummus. 

“Why not,” I would’ve said if I weren’t holding my breath. “It’s a pandemic.”

For a store bought, refrigerated pizza, Mama Cozzi’s was actually really good. By which I mean: amazing. On Friday nights, I prayerfully prepared my meal: oven at 375, pizza in the oven. Done. In less than a half hour, Mama Cozzi’s cheesy pizza was steaming on my plate. 

The cheese was decadent: greasy as Jet’s; the crust, supple and not even distantly related to cardboard. ANot to mention the toppings – mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni, sausage, leafy greens – this pizza had it all.

In fact, this pizza was so good that one day, as I was walking home with my groceries, a man across the street did a double take as he saw the hefty, 16” box in my hands.

“Hey!” He said, eyes on my pizza box. “That’s a really good pizza.”

I’d met another disciple. 

The next September, I moved away from Chicago, and away from the comfort of Mama Cozzi’s. I moved to Seattle, which had its own Aldi equivalent: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. Gross-Out or Grout-Let, for short. On my first trip to Gross-Out, I anxiously searched the frozen pizza section. My heart sank as I looked into the freezer box.

 

On my first trip to Gross-Out, I anxiously searched the frozen pizza section. My heart sank as I looked into the freezer box.

 

No Mama Cozzi’s. There was no pizza as big, or as cheap (or as supreme).

I settled instead on a DiGiorno pizza (just pepperoni) and assured myself that I could add peppers and onions and whatever else I liked when I got home. 5 dollars and 12 inches – by no means a steal. I made the pizza that night, and when I ate my first slice, I began to reflect on the choices that had brought me to this point. 

I left Chicago on a leave of absence from my consulting job. I wanted to move out west to mix things up, to be closer to the mountains, and to try writing a book – something that I’d attempted when I was ten and then gave up on. 

Eating that DiGiorno pizza, I wondered vaguely what the heck I was doing with my life. I did some thinking, I ate a slice, I scratched my head. 

Grocery Outlet was a godsend, despite the lack of affordable and delicious pies. Often you saved as much as you spent at Grout-Let, according to Grout-Let. Its big downside was that it sometimes didn’t have the food you were looking for, and when the week came where they were out of chickpeas, I decided on principle that I could no longer shop there.

I moved on to Trader Joe’s, and while their staff was cheery, their pizzas were about the same price and size as Grout-Let, which made me sad. 

My roommate suggested a build-your-own pizza.

A relatively cheap option, it was two dollars for the dough, and the sky was the limit from there. They were fun to make. We kneaded our dough, prepped some veggies, conspired about adding a sunny side up egg on top, and made our own sauce.

Our first slices we ate in silence. After that first bite, we nodded to each other and enjoyed the pizzas for what they were: mind-blowingly amazing. I thought warmly about Chicago and the fabulous, on-demand pizzas that came from Jet’s and The Chicago Pizza Co. Mama Cozzi’s came to mind – how could it not – that pizza was on a whole other level. 

But this experience was something new. One of our own creation. I felt like Trader Joe’s, and also Fleetwood Mac, were reminding me that I could, in fact, go on my way.

 

One of our own creation. I felt like Trader Joe’s, and also Fleetwood Mac, were reminding me that I could, in fact, go on my way.

 

A few months later, on an uncharacteristically sunny and warm evening for April, my roommates and I joined our neighbors on their roof for pizza and much needed socialization. Vaccines were on the way, and for the first time, it felt like the end of quarantine was in sight. 

There were eight of us on the roof, three boxes of delicious pizza from Whole Foods, where on Friday’s you can get a large cheese for just six bucks if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

Nothing novel. Nothing fancy. But there was something special about having a pizza dinner together, and we stayed out on the roof, chatting and exchanging neighborhood gossip until the sun went down. It felt good, surprisingly good, eating pizza with friends again. The world was returning to normal. 

A couple weeks ago, I stepped into Vegan Pi, a neighborhood joint with big booths that feel like caves. They reminded me of Mykonos. I’ve never been there, to Mykonos, but the booths were cavelike and white, so there was, I’d like to think, a likeness.

I’d been in Seattle for almost a year, and this spot had become a frequent spot for personal celebrations. As the name suggests, the menu is completely vegan, so you can feel good about not killing the earth while you enjoy a slice. 

The man at the cashier wasn’t wearing a mask, which was at first alarming, then comforting, and I ordered myself a Coke (“no diet today”) and a slice of buffalo (emphasis on faux) chicken pizza. It was the first time I ate inside at a restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic, and it felt a little strange.

This slice of pizza was a celebration, both of the year, as well as the first draft of a very messy, and potentially (at times) incoherent novel. 

 

This slice of pizza was a celebration, both of the year, as well as the first draft of a very messy, and potentially (at times) incoherent novel.

 

The cheese was not as greasy as I wanted it to be (probably because it was made of cashews), and the slice seemed to conduct less heat – it was getting cold fast. 

During the course of the last year, I’d felt random pangs of frustration, anger, and sadness. They came and went as they pleased and often didn’t give any reason for their arrival. So when I found myself smiling at the slice in front of me without knowing why, I just let it be.


Original artwork by Alex Knighten

Luke Brennan

About Luke Brennan

Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh. More of his work can be found at https://lukejhnbrnnn.medium.com/ and scribbled on napkins, mistakenly left at restaurants.

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