A Meditation On Pizza

Pizza, pizza, pizza. For how long have you been a part of my life? Why do I adore you so? Have my feelings about you changed over the years? And most importantly, where the heck can I find really good examples of you? These are questions I am about to answer. They also are questions to which I will return in future articles on this blog.

Some people write about politics or religion or nanomechanics. I have yet to address those and other heady subjects, and probably never will. I don’t have the smarts for that. I’m not too sure I have the wattage to say anything dynamic about pizza either, for that matter. I’m a preschooler compared to the Einsteins out there whose knowledge of and insights into the world of pies are dazzling. But I’m not embarrassed to lay out some thoughts and observations. Take it away, Neil.

Pizza is my favorite food and has been for 40 or so years. I grew up on Long Island, and it was there in the early 1960s that my pizza habit began. The habit grew, and somewhere in the early 1970s became pretty well an obsession. I was living on Long Island for part of that decade, and in Manhattan and Philadelphia at other times. In all of those locales the pizza was similar. I, and I’m sure most people, didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pizza in those days. Basically, you ate it and you liked it. There were only two varieties back then, regular (a round pie that I suppose now would be referred to as New York style) and Sicilian (a square pie whose crust was thicker and chewier than the regular pie’s). You could get mushrooms or pepperoni with the former if that was your wont.

By the late 20th century though, pizza became a complicated subject with a nomenclature that I can’t keep straight. New York style, Chicago style, Neapolitan, Margherita, thin crust . . . on and on it goes. And then there’s the whole matter of toppings. We live in an age when figs, pineapple, you name it, are fair game to bake atop a pie. For ease of discussion I’m going to keep this essay focused on the type of pizza I like best, the humble round darling composed of crust, cheese and tomato sauce. No toppings.

In the 1970s regular pizza seemed a-ok to me. It was chewy and floppy, often heavily laden with cheese and tomato sauce and usually dripping with oil. That variety is alive and well to this day. Its top makers, such as Di Fara (in Brooklyn) are truly famed. I’ve never had a Di Fara slice, but I gather that that establishment has taken the regular (aka New York style) pie to a new level, probably by using higher quality ingredients than those I grew up with. I wish that Di Fara would open a branch near me. While I wait two or three millennia for that to happen, I’ll instead continue to visit a couple of places in the Philly burbs that make New York style pizza similar to what I devoured years ago. The quality varies from visit to visit at these parlors, but I can’t complain too much. I like their wares fairly well overall, though I now have better alternatives.

There’s something about pizza that strikes a chord with my elemental self. It’s not a fussy or complicated product. The three main components seemingly were created to join blissfully together to make taste buds swoon. But as I’ve learned over the last 20 years, a great gastronomic marriage can become even greater. In other words, pizzas better than those I knew in my youth and middle age exist in this world. Di Fara’s baby is an example. In the USA, pizzas have reached rarified heights of deliciousness.

I’m not talking about all pizzas by any means. Most American pies still are very ordinary, maybe way too heavy on the cheese or cursed with a cardboard crust or hampered by an indifferent tomato sauce. However, new pizza orientations have taken hold in many establishments, and the one I’m especially all for is this: Thinner and charred crust. High quality cheeses and tomato sauce in balanced proportions. Oil in moderation, not cascading from each slice like a waterfall. This is not New York style pizza, though I’m a bit uncertain as to the name(s) it has been given by the pizza intelligentsia.

The above paragraphs are a long lead-in to my recent visit to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a chain with a branch in Horsham, PA, not far from my home. My wife Sandy and I dropped in on a hot August Saturday night. We’d been there before, each previous visit knocking our socks off. I know of a few places in Philadelphia with pizzas that match my updated criteria for excellence. In the burbs, Anthony’s is the one and only that I’ve discovered.

Our lovely salad at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.
Our lovely Italian salad at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

Anthony’s has a small menu. I’d guess that pretty much everything on it is swell. Sandy and I, though, have had only the Italian salad and what Anthony’s calls its traditional pizza. Both are so good we order them again and again. The other night the salad was fine as usual. Crisp lettuce, chick peas, tomato and hard boiled egg wedges, all glazed with a tart light vinaigrette dressing. Simple and satisfying.

Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony's.
Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony’s.

The pizza came on a flat wood throne. Visually the pie was beautiful — you have to love those darkened areas, the basic color palette. Tastewise, beautiful too. The cheeses, mozzarella and romano, were earthy, the plum tomato sauce bright and lively. And the crust’s charcoal bite brought me joy. I’m an easy guy to please, given the right circumstances. At Anthony’s I was a happy eater. Good salad and superb pizza. And a hoppy brew to wash them both down, Arcadia Brewing Company’s Cheap Date Pale Ale. There was nothing more I needed or desired.

I’ve previously written about Capofitto, a fine joint in Philadelphia serving up blackened soul-satisfying pies. I know that pizza greatness extends far beyond Capofitto and Anthony’s. Fussy me will continue to search for pizzas way above the pedestrian, and will report back now and then as I discover them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Putting Up The Good Fight: A Review Of Mr. Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle published his final Sherlock Holmes opus in 1927. Copyright laws in Great Britain and the USA allowed him and subsequently his heirs to collect gazillions of pounds and dollars in royalties and fees since then, but the flow of those monies has become a trickle. Wikipedia tells us that the last of the copyrights expired in Britain in 2000. In the States, a handful of the final Holmes stories still are under copyright, but all the rest have fallen into the public domain. And a 2014 federal appeals court ruling stated that the creators of books and movies and television shows inspired by Sherlock no longer are obligated to pay licensing fees to the Conan Doyle estate, whose members must be grinding their teeth. I mean, is there a more enduring fictional figure than Holmes, the masterful detective? He’s hard to miss. Robert Downey Jr. starred as Holmes in two big screen productions from the 2000s, and a third undoubtedly will be heading our way in the near future. And two Holmes series currently are alive and well on the small screen: In the aptly named Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a modern day version of the great man in London for BBC television. Also set in the present day is Elementary, a New York City-based Sherlockian study, this one on CBS.

Books too have kept alive the Sherlock character. Dozens and dozens of them. For example, 2005’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind. Mitch Cullin wrote Slight Trick, and it is the basis for Mr. Holmes, the movie now gracing art houses and multiplexes worldwide. My wife Sandy and I recently watched it, and liked it, at the friendly and classy Ambler Theater in beautiful downtown Ambler, PA.

We saw Mr. Holmes at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA.
We saw Mr. Holmes at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA.

I’ve given some thought to Mr. Holmes, not an easy feat for me to undertake or accomplish. And I’ve come away with the opinion that the flick needn’t be looked at as part of the Sherlock Holmes continuum. It certainly is about Holmes, in fact a 93-year-old version of himself trying to stare down his failing mind and the end of his earthly existence. But the movie would stand just as handsomely if a few plot strands were reworked to undo the Holmes references, and if the lead figure were given another name. The movie I’d say is less about Holmes and more about understanding oneself, coming to grips with one’s shortcomings, trying to become a better person even as the end of the line draws near.

It is 1947 in the county of Sussex, England. By choice, Sherlock Holmes lives there in semi-obscurity on a small farm near the English Channel. He has been retired from the investigator game for about 30 years, having decided to hang up his detective tools because, because, because . . . Sherlock cannot remember why. His brain power, and body for that matter, are pretty strong, but some memories have begun to fade away. Holmes knows that his powers are slipping. An avid bee cultivator, he has doused himself for some time with his colonies’ royal jelly, a presumed mental strength rejuvenator. As the movie begins, he returns to Sussex from Japan, laden with that country’s prickly ash, a herbaceous product likewise touted for its restorative powers. Sherlock Holmes is not one to settle back and accept a drowsy and inevitable descent into a muddled mind.

At home, Sherlock and his property are tended to by Mrs. Munro, a widow with a bright as can be 12-year-old son, Roger. And it is here, in the mixings of these three lives, that the story finds its epicenter. Holmes, who has aged gracefully, is no longer the flinty and brusque superman of his younger days. He is fairly gentle with fellow humans and tolerant of their ways. Yet deep love is not, never was, an emotion he feels at home with. Spoiler alert: By movie’s end he will have opened his heart wider than ever.

A good chunk of the movie concerns a mystery from the past, from the years of the First World War. And that mystery, which involved Sherlock and a troubled woman, led to Sherlock Holmes’ abandonment of his Baker Street digs in London and his retirement to the English countryside. Throughout the film he strains to remember the why of his resettlement. But put aside this artistically designed and developed aspect of the movie and you still are left with a lovely character study. Ian McKellan, face creased like an accordion’s bellows, handles the elderly Holmes character with nuance and charm. His Holmes is quite yet smart as a whip, and not ashamed of the emotional vulnerabilities he has begun to develop in his golden years. His is the most complicated character on screen, the most multifaceted and the one with the most growing to do. Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), the great American actress who to my ears has her English accent down pat, and Milo Parker (Roger Munro) at varying times coexist, bond and brawl with McKellan’s Holmes marvelously.

Bill Condon sure-handedly directed Mr. Holmes. The movie’s languid pacing feels right, and I’d bet that much of the credit for the actors’ strong performances belongs to him. Mr. Holmes is not a tearjerker. Oh, maybe one Kleenex will be of use. What we have here is a mostly cliché-free look at the tail end of the life of a proud man determined, maybe destined, to be a mensch.

(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on the photo a larger image will open)

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A Pretty Park Can Be Pretty Hard To Find

Back in 1981 the Philadelphia Museum Of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs by Robert Adams. Adams took the photos in the 1970s. They were images of western American states, the desolate areas, primarily deserts and mountains. I remember the show fairly well. No matter how remote the locale, nearly every photograph bore evidence of man’s hand: A telephone pole, tire ruts in the sand, roads winding like barber pole stripes around magnificent mountains. One of Adams’s points was that pure wilderness is long gone, so we better get used to it and be glad for the great though adulterated spaces that exist. I imagine that even if you found yourself in the middle of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, and I don’t wish that fate on too many of us, you wouldn’t have to wait impossibly long before an airplane passed overhead. Man is everywhere. Yikes.

Now, a half-baked embryonic distillation of those thoughts was in my head recently when my wife Sandy suggested that we walk around the grounds of Abington Art Center, a few miles south of our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sure,” I said, “good idea.” But what I didn’t say is that I’d prefer to stroll some expansive Adams-like terrain. In my dreams. Around here in the burbs, man for the last 75 years has been relentlessly busy cutting down trees and pouring cement. Around here, you have to count your lucky stars that any good-looking patches of territory of any sort still exist.

Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.
Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.

Abington Art Center is one of those patches. The center contains the manor house and some of the grounds of a former estate. The house is used for art classes and gallery exhibits and the like. The grounds mostly are a huge lawn that slopes away from the rear of the house and 10 or 15 acres of woods. It’s a lovely place. And it is more than manor, grass and trees. Scattered here and there on the great lawn and on side lawns and in the woods are all manner of sculptures, about 50 all told. Sandy and I had a good time at the center. For two hours we looked at trees and artworks and burned off a few calories while walking a couple of miles.

The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.
The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.

I like the outdoors. But I’m hardly a naturalist. My knowledge of flora and fauna has more holes than you can count. And so at Abington Art Center I found myself admiring a specific leafy tree species, of which many examples exist in the center’s tiny forest, having no clue what I was looking at. They weren’t maples or oaks. Those I can identify. Whatever the trees were, they were  the tallest at the center. They measured well over 100 feet from bottom to top and didn’t wander leftward or rightward on their way towards the heavens. Their mothers must have told them from an early age to stand up straight. What also fascinated me was the play of light within the woods, how one tree’s upper reaches might be caught by the day’s intense sun, while others only a few feet away were out of the sun’s direct path. Contrasts of this sort always have appealed to me.

Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora's construction of burnt tree branches.
Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora’s construction of burnt tree branches.

The sculpture I thought the most of in the woods was Alison Stigora’s Mazzaroth. It’s an assemblage of burnt tree branches fitted together tightly to portray . . . what? A serpent? The movement of time? As the years go on, Mazzaroth will crumble and become one with the forest floor, as will the trees surrounding it.

You’re not going to confuse many of the sculptures at Abington Art Center with creations by David Smith, Louise Nevelson or other deservedly famed artists. Few if any are on that level. Some though, like Mazzaroth, had me looking them over from different angles because I liked them a lot. Take two on the great lawn, for instance. They are placed near each other and are as different as they can be.

Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.

What is a lopsided small wooden cabin doing on the grass at Abington? Well, it’s a whimsical piece of art and is right at home there. Weather-beaten, cute and loveable, it contains within, of all things, a bed, chair and table lifted straight out of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom in Arles, France. This work is Knox Cummin’s Habitation Suite: Cabin Van Gogh. Vincent I believe would have been charmed  by Cummin’s idea to build such an unlikely homage, and also by the view of foliage from the cabin’s open back side.

David Schafer's orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.
David Schafer’s orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.

Uphill from the cabin stands what looks a bit like a lifeguard tower painted in bright orange, some of its support slats atilt. David Schafer, the creator, named his piece Untitled Expression: How to Look at Sculpture. I suspect that the notions behind the giddy orange tower are partly conceptual. Sculptures, like just about anything, are multifaceted. No need to try and pin down a precise meaning. Observe, surmise and enjoy. One of my takes, subject to change, is that the sculpture is alive yet indecisive, that it is shaking out its stiff bones and readying to inch forward but hasn’t gotten into gear quite yet. And what’s going on with that public address system speaker? I remembered later that it had a practical purpose once, as a recorded message played from it for months after the sculpture was first installed about six years ago. Sandy and I were at Abington Art Center at that time and heard the message. If we were put into a deep hypnotic state, maybe we’d recall what the message was. Gone silent, to me the speaker now just looks cool.

(All photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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Beer Here!

I’m not much of a shopper these days. I don’t spend a lot of time in most stores. A huge indoor mall is near my home, but I rarely go. My visit there recently, a fruitless search for a pair of humble bedroom slippers, was my first in several months. Supermarkets, though, are another story. They are where I head to  indulge what’s left of my urge to buy. I look forward to visiting them, not only to purchase the items that my wife and I inscribe on our refrigerator notepad, but also to check out the remarkable amounts and varieties of just about anything you can name that Americans are able to choose from. There are two supermarkets not far from my house that I especially like to visit, though not to buy food. I go to these stores, Wegman’s and Weis, to ogle (and buy) beers.

In my pre-beer days as a kid in Brooklyn and then Long Island years ago, I wasn’t too big on shopping either. But I did like to spend plenty of time in candy stores. Candy stores were modest establishments that sold a wide variety of items, and usually included a soda fountain and lunch counter. Adults might pop in for cigarettes or greeting cards or a grilled cheese sandwich. The younger set primarily was interested in candy bars and other important stuff like comic books and yo-yos. At candy stores I used to gaze at the colorful rows and rows of teeth-destroyers before making a pick. PayDay, Mr. Goodbar, Chunky, Milky Way, Chuckles and on and on. What a choice. What a decision. What a pleasure. Candy stores linger fondly in my memory bank, but probably all are long gone. I haven’t seen any in decades.

For the last three or so years great pleasure has been mine at Wegman’s and Weis, whose beer aisles are my adult candy store. Wegman’s and Weis are among the few supermarkets in my area near Philadelphia that sell beer. I guess I’m lucky to have them, because it’s not easy for Pennsylvania supermarkets to sell suds. Only a few years ago, Pennsylvania’s State Liquor Control Board, the alcohol overlord, opened the door a crack to supermarkets willing to jump through hoops to obtain a license. So far not many supermarkets have chosen to deal with the process. Pennsylvania has gained fame for its archaic and labyrinthine rules governing the sale of alcohol. Possibly a Talmudic scholar would be able to understand them.

A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What's not to love?
A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What’s not to love?

In any case, my eyes widen and my heart flutters when I enter the beer section at my local Wegman’s or Weis. Loyal supporters of the microbrew revolution, these stores specialize in the types of beers that I swoon over. Hoppy ones and dark ones and spicy ones, for example. I love nearly all of them, as long as they are loaded with flavor. To me, the craft beer explosion in our fair country is one of the greatest and most positive developments of the past 20 years.

The thrills that rock me in the beer aisles are not very different from my younger self’s thrills in candy stores. Basically, eagerness to ingest the products and giddiness from staring at terrific looking packaging. Yes, not only do most microbrews taste really good, as with candy bars they also are well-dressed. In fact, beer labels are way cooler than candy wrappers ever were.

The six beers that I brought home from Weis.
The six beers that I brought home from Weis.

My aim during my visit to Weis last week was to assemble a create-your-own six pack mostly of beers that I hadn’t had before, and I know that in a few instances my right hand was stealthily guided towards bottles whose labels were too pretty or funky to ignore. I headed home with winners, taste-wise and label-wise, such as Victory Brewing’s Summer Ale and  Left Hand Brewing’s Sawtooth Ale. The photo to the left shows all six purchases (click on the photo to get a bigger image). Dig those crazy labels (excepting the one on Flying Fish’s offering).

More about beer as this blog progresses. Till then, drink in moderation and drive safely.