Doctor's Orders: "Tell me where the good pizza is in town."

March 26, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A few days ago, I found myself lying prostrate on an examination table, with a gastroenterologist prodding my abdomen with his fingertips.

"That hurt?" he asks.

"No," I reply, lying a bit.

Steve Coomes

"Hurt there?"

"Not until you did that."

He chuckles.

"So you're a writer, right?"

"Yeah, I cover the pizza industry."

"Pizza? Really?" He's clearly happy to discover this. "Then maybe you know where the good pizza is in this town. Tell me where you go."

His Northeast accent tells me where this conversation is going: I'm in for a brief lecture on "real pizza." He continues before I can answer.

"I grew up in Connecticut, and I'll tell you, that's good pizza up there. Pepe's, Sally's all the best. Thin crust, really good sauce and great cheese. Not like the cheese down here at all."

"That's fresh mozzarella," I say. "You don't see it much on pizza down here."

"Is that what it is? Well, it's great. The best. That's New York-style pizza. The best."

"Doesn't get -- ooh -- much better -- ouch!" I add between palpations.

"So, c'mon, tell me whose pizza you eat here."

His phrasing stops me for an instant: "whose pizza," he asks, not "what kind." Pizza's personal to this guy.

I tell him "who," and he wrinkles his nose, which tells me he's not that crazy about it.

"Yeah, that's acceptable -- depending on what day you get it," he says. "It's too inconsistent. Some days the dough's good, other days it's tough."

I nod in agreement. Much as I like the place, he's right: it's hit or miss.

"And the reason that happens ... sit up straight now ... the reason that happens is that there aren't families running these pizzerias any more. Nobody wants to stick around and learn from the grandparents or the parents, learn the old ways of making pizza. And that's the way you learn things."

"Like gastroenterology?"

He laughs. "Right. But you know what I mean."

"You mean the traditional way of doing it," I add.

"Exactly. The traditional way. We need some place like that down here ... like that guy who used to be across the river. Whatever happened him?"

"Which one?"

"I can't remember the name of the place. It was a dive, but the pizza was really good."

The name comes to me, and I say that the operator sold his concept to a larger restaurant company that built a real showplace for him.

"Oh, yeah! I forgot that was him. He really did get a nice place, too. But I went there once and it was terrible; they really messed up the pizza. What they brought to me was awful," he said, putting down his clipboard and taking a seat before continuing. "I asked the waiter if this was the same place that that guy had, and he said yes. But when I asked him what happened to the pizza, he said, 'We've changed the recipe some.' 'Changed the recipe some?' I said, 'You ruined it, is what you did.' "

"You're right," I reply. "It's not the same. It was better when the place was a dive."

Switching back into doctor mode, he asks rhetorically, "So, you're having trouble swallowing."

"Yeah, seems food gets stuck right here," I say, pointing to my chest.

"That's not good for a food writer," he adds, grinning.

"Tends to take some of the fun out of eating pizza, especially."

"Well, I'm pretty certain you have a Schatzki's ring," he says, "which basically is a narrowing of the esophagus. It's not unusual, and it's easy to fix, too."

"Good. I'm not in the mood to give you a career challenge."

"Not a big deal," he says, smiling. "We see these pretty often. ... Sit up. I want to hear you breathe again. ... Oh, you know who used to have really good pizza? There was that guy from up north, from Connecticut even, I think. I can't remember his name, but he had a great little place off Westport Road: wood-fired oven, thin crust, all the right things. Whatever happened to him?"

"I'm not sure," I reply, exhaling, "but rumor had it he was running from the law."

"That would make sense -- because he just disappeared! One day the place is busy, and the next, he's gone. Probably didn't pay his taxes or something."

The conversation stops as he asks for more deep breathing. "What I can't understand," he says, sliding his stethoscope across my back, "is that this city has so many really good restaurants, but it doesn't have great pizza. ... I just got back from a trip to New York -- can you tell? I was in heaven there. Pizza on every corner. Pizza there looks so simple that I can't understand why they don't do it like that here."

I inhale and exhale and then add, "Maybe because it's not as simple as it looks."

Taking a breath of his own, he pauses to weigh my remark. "I guess you're right. It's probably not. Nothing good is very easy."

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