I'm a fan of good pizza. So how in the world did I end up on the west coast of North America?

In the Beginning

My first food memories are from the early 1970s. My parents would occasionally take the whole family to Joseph's, a nearby restaurant. It was more than just food, it was an experience. The menu probably included pizza; I don't recall, since I was about five or six. The place had an interesting atmosphere, with padded booths, string art on the walls, and a jukebox. It was there that I heard the first rock song I ever liked: Elton John's "Crocodile Rock". Funny that it's a throwback to the 1950s!

Though I don't remember the food, the experiences at Joseph's indelibly linked Italian food with the excitement of eating out.

Albany, NY

When I was a teenager, I ate pizza, but the local variety wasn't anything special. It wasn't until I went to college that I grokked pizza.

For this I have my friends Dave and Priscilla to thank. Dave is a pizza connoisseur; he enjoys trying new eating places, and finds good food. He was the person who introduced me to J.G.'s Pizza, a pizza joint on Lark Street in Albany, NY.

[An aside. A pizza joint is not the same as a restaurant like Joseph's. A pizza joint mostly does delivery business, and has minimal seating for customers. It has a few tables, with seating for a bit more than a dozen people. The pizza is served on paper plates, and the drinks (soda or water) come in paper cups. Subs are often on the menu as well. The floor is linoleum. There are photographs and news clippings on the wall.]

J.G.'s was a classic pizza joint. It made good pizza, and had a regular clientele. The pizza was thin, hot, and tasty. It did a good business on a busy downtown street.

Priscilla introduced me to another item on their menu: calzones. I'd never heard of them. Imagine a crescent of wonderful, garlicky dough, stuffed with cheese, pizza sauce, and other good things. J.G.'s were really good, and quickly became one of my favorite things to order.

(Later, I learned that J.G.'s calzones were a little unusual. At a Sbarro's in a nearby mall, a calzone was a boring dough sack with a lump of cheese inside. Think of a tasteless, deflated football. J.G.'s were fragrant, curved pockets of great flavor.)

After a few years, the owner franchised the Lark Street store and opened a new place, Jeff's Pizza. Thus began a new era.


Jeff's Pizza was just two blocks from where I lived. It was a classic pizza joint as well: three small tables and a counter with several diner-type seats. It was in the middle of a section of student housing, and did good business.

Somehow, a group of friends started going there regularly on Thursday nights. At six o'clock, you'd find anywhere from two to eight people sitting together, chewing pizza, calzones, and subs, and catching up on the past week's events. We kept this up for years, and it was easy with such good food.

[Jeff's Pizzeria sign]

Ahhh, the pizza. Jeff Goldman is a pizza artist and a good businessman. Rather than rest on his achievements, he continually tried new things. For example, one year he created a pizza he called a Bahama Mama. On a thin crust he put on a layer of poppy seeds, then sausage, cheese, and sauce on top. The result was a red pizza, with all the traditional "toppings" hidden underneath. The cheese bound to the crust, so it didn't all slide off on the first bite (which, I have to admit, is part of the fun of New York pizza).

The Bahama Mama wasn't successful enough to stay on the menu, but he'd make them by special order. We ordered a few over the following years.

"Oh, that pizza!"

Another innovation was the All You Can Eat special. For a reasonable price, four people could sample quite a variety of the pizza master's delights. It might start with a garlic twist, then be followed by a pizza. That could be followed by a meatball sub or a calzone. Jeff kept bringing it out, and we'd keep eating until we were absolutely stuffed.

And oh, that pizza. I haven't had any as good since I left Albany. That thin, flavorful crust. That's the secret to good pizza: a great crust. And Jeff makes far and away the best crust I've ever had. It's wonderful. As a matter of fact, a garlic twist is nothing more than a long loop of pizza dough twisted up, baked, and served with pizza sauce on the side. Rip off a piece, dunk, and eat. It was great.

The pizza was a joy. What should I mention: the yummy cheese, the variety of the Madison, the meatball ricotta, the white broccoli. The Chicago-style thick crust. The ham and broccoli calzones. It was all good. You could design your own if you liked; if Jeff didn't have the ingredients, you could bring them in and he'd use them.

There was a time when I could eat more than an entire calzone. On one occasion I ate not only a calzone, but also three slices. It was a personal record. I'd stop for lunch before going to the doctor, hoping to increase my weight.

I even remember the bit of doggerel on the wall at Jeff's:

Jeff the Chef got his
Degree in Doughology
From the foothills
of Nassau, New York

Jeff came from a family of pizza-makers. His parents ran Lou-Bea's Pizza, also in Albany. I think his brother was also in the business as well.

The Rest of the World

Then I gave it up -- the pizza, the calzones, the Thursday night gatherings -- and moved to Tennessee. It was only then that I learned what I'd given up. I missed it more than I missed my family.

Now I'm out on the west coast of North America, and haven't found what I'm looking for out here. In Corvallis you can get things like pizza with sun dried tomatoes, chicken, and artichoke hearts, but what's the point. The crust is fluffy and tasteless. Why bother using interesting toppings if the crust tastes like cardboard?

It's not all bad. In San Francisco and Portland there is Escape from New York Pizza, which serves a decent pizza in real pizza joints. Yesterday I even found a NY-style pizza place in Bend, but it's a little strange to have it served on plastic plates. It just didn't have that great pizza joint atmosphere.

So here I am, far away from the best pizza in the world. Once again, I idly toy with the notion of apprenticing myself to Jeff the Chef for a month. I'd sign a non-competition agreement, certainly; I just want to know the secret of that great crust.

I'm a pizza snob, I know. That's life. No place is going to be as good as the place in which I spent so many good hours. I miss it.

Last updated 3 June 2000
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons except pizza sign image ©Eric Zuckerman