by G. Murphy Donovan (January 2012)
The devil came and asked what I wanted for my soul. I can’t believe I said pizza. – Marc Ostroff
Frances O’Grady was, if we can mix a metaphor, lovely lace curtain Irish gone to seed. She was born in Mount Vernon, New York; one of four pretty girls. Her parents died while she was a teen, leaving the O’Grady girls to fend for themselves. Her sisters married well; and in some cases, often. As young women, the O’Grady four were long distance telephone operators for Ma Bell, a tribute to vanished skills like good diction and legible penmanship. Frances O’Grady married, unfortunately, a conscientious Irish stereotype; a handsome bounder who never missed a day of work or a night at the pub. Frankie O’Grady had four kids herself and spent most of her adult life in a series of East Bronx tenements and, eventually upstate, in Rockland State Hospital.
When the breadwinner drinks his paycheck, mothers must improvise. Frankie O’Grady was no exception. She remained sane long enough to get three of four kids through Our Lady of Solace grade school and then her children were taken away to one of those institutions; the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Home, a Bronx custodian for the detritus of broken families. Nonetheless, those early days in the East Bronx were not without merit. Frankie O’Grady invented Irish pizza. Or at least her kids believed she did.
Back in the day, Friday night was pizza night in the east Bronx for a couple of reasons; one cultural and the other pragmatic. The sixth day of the week was, for Catholics, still primarily a no-meat day of fast; the alternative was fish. Most Irishmen wouldn’t eat fish on a dare; or even when surrounded by an ocean. Another option was a frugal night out for tomato and cheese pizza, a pie that was big enough for a family.
When pizza was young, most of them were made in small kitchens behind a bar in joints where the cash crop was whisky and beer. They might have cocktails at the Algonquin, but in the Bronx, it was a shot, a beer chaser, or a “highball.” The most popular highball was a big dollop of Seagrams in a little glass of 7-UP. If the truth is ever told, cocktails and highballs were invented because serious drinkers prefer the effects, not the taste, of alcohol.
Early American pizza was a gimmick, an easy way to comply with “blue laws” that required taverns to serve food to drunks. A nosh is not a cure for alcoholism, but food and drink allows a tippler to stay upright on a bar stool, not indefinitely, but long enough to blow half the rent money.
Folks who frequent bars more than twice a week have one of three aspirations; they want to get drunk, lucky, or both. Unfortunately, alcohol actuaries have established an inverse correlation between booze and romance. Indeed, too much alcohol might be a homeopathic cure for sex of any sort – ever.
First, there were pickled eggs on the bar; then there were small sandwiches, the so-called “free lunch.” Of course, these snacks were free in the same sense that public school lunches are free today. Pizza was a late addition to tavern fare: a mammoth open faced sandwich, a fast food that became a standby and an American phenomenon.
In an instant, the smell of taverns changed from stale beer and tobacco to toasted cheese and tomato. The pizza that was fashioned in the back rooms of gin mills, like the Step Inn on White Pains Road in the Bronx, was a study in diversity; the guy pouring drinks was usually Irish and the lady making pie in the back was usually Italian. The chap who owned the building was probably Jewish.
Ingredients were basic too; freshly made dough brushed with olive oil, a smear of fresh tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella cheese. The basics were finished with a sprinkle of basil, oregano, and parmesan cheese. The later might be considered an Italian salt substitute.
There were no optional toppings on early American pizza; except maybe for anchovies, a favorite of Sicilians. All pies were riffs with the same notes and no blue collar ever argued with local sheet music. New York beer parlors developed a following based on the quality of variations on a simple pizza melody. A good Irish pour and a good Italian pie made for Friday night magic.
This is not to suggest that the Italians invented pizza, surely they did not; any more than they invented pasta. Bread with a schemer, open faced or closed, is common to many ancient cultures. Plates like the taco, the empanada, falafel and even Welsh rarebit are all first cousins to pizza. However, as in so many things Italian, flatbread in Italy was elevated it to a higher plane. Bread is to pizza as leather is to high heels; one is useful, the other is eye candy.
So it was not much of a stretch, in America, for the best early pizza makers to be first or second generation Italians. Indeed, the single factor that separates good pub pizza from today’s derivative junk food is age. Of course, we speak of the age of the pizza chef, not the ingredients. The women behind all those early joints were usually mothers with grown kids; or better still, as was the case at the Step Inn, a fastidious maiden aunt who could smell rancid oil or bad cheese across a soccer pitch. Back in the day, that matron in front of the oven; made the dough and the sauce. She knew her cheese, herbs, and oil too.
Alas, the neighborhood pizza palace was undone by a unique American invention; the assembly line. Chain restaurant pizza turned the original formula for qualitative simplicity on its head. Discerning matrons were replaced by surly teens or minimum-wage immigrants, neither of which know, nor has to know, anything about food or its preparation. The modern pizza chain is formulaic, testimony to quality deficits; the American tendency to throw craft under the bus, if there’s a buck to be made on quantity. Indeed, rumor has it, that the chain version of mozzarella cheese can be recycled today into tennis shoes.
But all of this was after Frances O’Grady’s time. When places like the Step Inn were thriving, the downwardly mobile often couldn’t afford a weekly trip to the pizza parlor. On such occasions, women like Frankie would improvise at home. She would take a slice of day-old Wonder Bread, a slice of American cheese, a slice of tomato, and sprinkle of paprika; and bubble it up under the broiler. When her oldest boy would complain; “Hey Ma, this ain’t pizza!” She would invariably reply; “Yes it is; it’s Irish pizza.”
Frankie O’Grady captured a kernel of a culinary truth whose time had not come. The most obvious solution to chain store pizza today is homemade pizza. Indeed, any pizza pie made in an ordinary kitchen beats the take-out variety by miles, not inches.
The ingredients for pizza at home are the same as those for the old tavern pie; dough, olive oil, tomato sauce, cheese, and a couple of common herbs. The only tools required are a rolling pin, a pizza screen, and an oven pre-heated to 500 degrees. A pizza takes about five minutes to cook in a hot oven.
Many Italian delicatessens sell freshly made dough balls, large enough for one or two pizzas, for a fraction of the price of a prepared pie. Rolling out a pizza round on a flat surface with a little flour is not advanced algebra. For the rolling pin impaired, any large multi-grain flatbread, such as a wrap or tortilla grande, can be used too. Do not use plastic-wrapped, pre-baked pie crusts, ever – they’re worse than chain pizza.
Pizza crust thickness is one of those arguments that never go away. Nonetheless, good crust is like a shoe model’s legs; they can’t be too thin. If the emphasis was bread, there would be no need for toppings. Roll out a thin crust, or buy something tortilla thin!
Cheese choices might include authentic mozzarella, provolone, fontina, and parmesan or any mix of these. If you are fond of single cheese pizza, parmesan doesn’t solo, unless you want a tomato praline. Parmesan should be added, like the basil and oregano, just as the pie comes from the oven. Never insult an herb with direct fire.
The tomato sauce is also an exercise in simplicity. A good marinara sauce is made from a pound of peeled, crushed Roma tomatoes, with the liquid cooked down. When the tomatoes get saucy, add a half cup of sautéed garlic and onion, a splash (your call) of white wine or vermouth and some basil, parsley, and black pepper at the end. Salt if you must. You can use some combination of tomato paste and canned crap, but fresh pomodoro from your garden raises your kitchen game to another level.
Refrigerate while the flavors blend and keep sauce on hand for other purposes, like lasagna – or any pasta for that matter. If you are fond of a little heat, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes makes the sauce “arrabiata.” Every busy kitchen should have a basic tomato sauce in the cooler.
Another riff on homemade pizza uses cheese, dried tomatoes, and fresh basil instead of tomato sauce. You have to rehydrate the tomatoes in some liquid first. Wine and water make for a blessed combination. This simplest of pies is, indeed, an otherworldly treat for most famished tax deductions.
Irish Pizza Update
A cynic might see Irish pizza as an open-faced cheese and tomato sandwich. Done right, a kid will see it as a memory. Take a slice of good multi-grain, adorn with a square of cheddar and a slice of Brandywine tomato with a sprinkle of paprika. Toast bread bottom in a skillet with a smear of garlic butter and bubble the top under the broiler. If you are wary of too much dairy, olive oil works as well as butter. Cut diagonally into four triangles and rearrange like a star.
Children and the entire Japanese race appreciate the virtues of presentation. When you don’t have time to make a basic Italian pizza, Frances O’Grady’s Bronx Irish alternative will do. Any kid will love to help make, and devour, them both.
G. Murphy Donovan usually writes about national security, military affairs, or politics. He is the second son of Frances O’ Grady.
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