Monday, February 22, 2016

The Fly Exorcism and the Big Bang Pizza

So my boss and I were brainstorming possible social media pizza memes to increase engagement with our loyal PMQ audience. My mind, as it will relentlessly skew, crashlanded on my weird pizza encounters over decades of rarely discriminating faceoffs. I once ingested a two-day-old slice of curled-over, rock-hard pepperoni scaffolding a dead fly to make my unhinged toddler daughter stop screaming like a heretic burning at the stake.

I’m not proud of it. I was a single dad dealing with a lost pacifier and a postcard-cute, but temporarily bug-eyed, demon-possessed little girl who was clearly NEVER going to return to adorability mode short of someone immediately popping a giggle-inducing projectile into his or her mouth. I chose my mouth because I faintly feared the diseased insect might carry bubonic plague. Thirty-plus years later, I’d still rather suffer a horrible feverish death than endure screaming rugrats—and I adore my grandchildren.

Old pizza never fazed me. In October 1975, I was a freshman at Boston University watching the Red Sox lose nobly to the Big Red Machine at Fenway Park from the Day Room window of our 11th floor, Commonwealth Avenue high-rise dorm. A short-circuiting hot plate and a box of elbow macaroni stood between my skinny butt and starvation. Scrounging the occasional sliver of naked crust left over from the previous night’s smoky bacchanalia was a bonanza. Not as awesome as going to the all-you-can-eat Bonanza with the strip steaks and chocolate fountain, but good enough in a pinch.  Heck, my mother’s care package of a whole bologna—that’s right, she spared no expense—nearly incited a Lord of the Flies riot on my floor one night. It was after another one of those devil-may-care get-togethers 19-year-old college boys love to indulge in. I won’t go into detail, but for some reason—lost in the pungent clouds of my memory—that everyman’s sausage log attained the rabidly coveted status of a five-pound King Crab leg. I do vividly recall the bologna being launched like a Minuteman missile at one point to keep it out of enemy hands. Talk about the deadliest catch.

Which begs the question: Would you eat bologna on a pizza? How about crab legs? Since I already established my germophile cred as a young man with my fly-pizza exorcism, you can probably guess I’d eat crab legs off the floor at Bonanza, or Taco Bell or the once-monthly cleaned bathroom of your local Jiffy Lube. In fact, I’m one of those odd ducks who enjoy my pizza crawling with anchovies. Dead ones are manageable on your plate—but I’m flexible. Pineapple? Dig it! Pair it with that old odd duck, or better yet, salty ham, and I’m half way to Honolulu in the misfiring synapse range between my ears. Which begs the other ubiquitous challenge: Could you eat the whole pie?

When I really crave something, my MO is to do it some MO, until I pass out from exhaustion—or throw up. A handful of times, I’ve put my mouth where my bravado was and killed an entire meat-heaped dough dinghy.  Only once (see my Jan. 5 blog post) did my gluttony grab me by the collar and kick me to my knees to hug the porcelain throne behind door No. 2. In fact, pizza deliciousness has only really hurt me a couple of times. Actually, it stuck to the roof of my mouth at a temperature approaching the heat produced when the Big Bang went off. They should warn you that the gooey string of molten mozzarella that snaps back in your face from the initial bite while you recoil in pain is actually several thousand degrees hotter than the host slice.  I know what you’re thinking:  Pizza IS cosmic and you’re old as dirt, dude. You have to know it burns…it burns…I’ve got blisters on my gums! I bet you’ve also determined that delivered pizza cools off in a ratio equal to the rate that BB, and a pre-existing pizza-loving Creator, blew matter to the ends of the Universe. Gosh, fresh pizza is so good, that I submitted to the cheesy, saucy immolation again recently as I prepare to enter the dreaded seventh decade, frequent-napper leg, of my lifetime pizza roadtrip. OK, I’m only 59, not 69. Do the math! Yep, that makes three times pizza hurt—but it’s still soul food to me.

Even given my hairy earlobes, I don’t pretend to own the pizza chops that my younger colleagues here at PMQ have earned.  I have learned one thing, though: Even if you agree with me that it looks ridiculous to keep blowing on the glowing lava tip of that come-hither slice like you’re whistling the entire score of Les Mis, it’s worth the wait.

If you’re nodding your head and want to share some of your own pizza journey observations, feel free to email me at If they move me—and I cry at Preparation H commercials—they just might find their way into the PMQ cyberspace.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Love Don't Stink--It's Covered in cheese!

Mayowa Tomori, born in Nigeria, tried his first slice of pizza at age 10 after his family moved to the States. He fell in love instantly. Last year, on Valentine’s Day, the cash-starved Indiana University graduate student shared his pizza devotion with battered women and children at an Indy-area domestic abuse shelter.Tomori was simply following through on his firm belief that “pizza can bring people together in an amazing way.”

The musical technology student occasionally volunteered at a shelter in his Irvington, Indiana, neighborhood, east of Indy, called the Julian Center. The non-profit agency offered a safe refuge for folks dealing with violence, instead of love, handed out by those they trusted most. Despite his own shallow student pockets, Tomori’s imagination soared to the tune of a pizza dream for people hurting for some hope and a comforting meal.

The African immigrant, who sports a pizza tattoo and considers his favorite edible an “enduring symbol of love,” describes pizza as the quintessential comfort food. During a grad school internship creating a Pizza Hut ad campaign, Tomori fully grasped the worldwide explosion of pizza passion. “I noticed posts on Twitter like ‘I love you more than pizza.’ An ad for a domestic abuse shelter depicted a woman calling up a pizzeria and instead of ordering, she simply said, 'Send help!' I realized I needed to change my approach to life—and LOVE sounded like good place to start.”

Tomori fixed his loving gaze on the Julian Center, where he knew real humanitarians were offering empathy in the face of despair. “I really believe that pizza is just about the nicest thing you can do for someone,” Tomori says. A real-life musical scientist—he recently designed his own pizza-controlled synthesizer—Tomori rocked out his heart-felt anthem accompanied by 45 Jackamo Upper Crust Pizza-supplied pie high fives. Together, the community-minded three-location pizzeria and Tomori and friends fed 110 Julien Center residents on V-Day, 2015.

But the Nigerian whiz kid and his volunteer band did much more than share pizza with their grateful shelter neighbors. “We made Valentine’s cards with the kids and helped out in the kitchen,” Tomori recalls during a phone conversation from his new home in Oakland, California. Since graduating and moving to Oakland, Tomori runs his own business, endearingly named PizzaLabs. The pizza-fueled entrepreneur develops interactive multi-media presentations for museums and schools. He works with his girlfriend, who he met back in Indy while recruiting volunteers for his “Valentine’s Day Miracle.” “I sent a pizza over to her after-hours school art program and then I invited her to join my team. It’s literally true that pizza brought us together,” he explains.

Tomori has equally nice things to say about the wonderful people at Jackamo’s Upper Crust Pizza back in the Hoosier State who discounted Tomori’s 2015 pizza Valentine. “They have great pizza and they gave us a 15% discount for something like $300 for the 40-plus pies,” he says. “As a struggling college student, I could have never pulled this off on my own.”

This year, circumstances dictate a more modest contribution to a local Bay Area bakery that employs the developmentally disabled. But Tomori’s torrid love affair with his adopted country’s hottest delectable shows no signs of cooling down. “Nigerians don’t eat lot of cheese, but the first time I tasted a slice as a kid I was hooked forever,” he recalls. "I’m lactose intolerant—but I love it too much to stop.” That’s right, Cupid! Love don’t stink—it’s smothered in cheese!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If You Can Make it (Pizza) in Columbus, You Can Make it Anywhere

Maybe you've heard the expression, “Will it sell in Columbus?” Which, can be translated roughly as “Those salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern German folk know something about the value of good knockwurst.” Despite all the traveling I’ve done in my 35-year writing career, the closest I ever got to Columbus, Ohio, is Dayton, home of the coolest aeronautical treasure trove in America, the U.S. Air Force Museum. The North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show at the Columbus Convention Center, which took flight Jan.  24-25, wasn’t anything like a museum. Think noisy, aromatic, thickly packed throngs of exhibitors and visitors showing off and sampling awesome pizza- and ice cream-making and marketing technology that never actually became airborne. That’s right, even the propeller-spinning decorative drones pitched by Marty with Vehicledrones didn’t actually fly—they’re delivery buggy roof-squatters designed to turn heads and get your pizzeria noticed.

Speaking of spinners, one of the highlights of the show was the Winter North American Pizza Trials sponsored by PMQ and the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team, where pizza athletes squared—and rounded—off in amazingly frenetic  pizza throwdowns tagged with misleadingly prosaic designations like “Largest Dough Stretch,” “Fastest Box Folder” and “Fastest Pie Maker.” Now “Freestyle Pizza Acrobatics” is more like it! This show-stopping event capped off NAPICS with a comeback tale for the ages. When I first met very-extremely-young-looking Scott Volpe of Tucson, Arizona (Never been there either) on the showroom floor, I asked him what pizzeria he worked for. “I run my own authentic Neapolitan pizza operation,” he replied with an endearing smile and the worldly assurance of an entrepreneur who has earned his pizza peel. When he told me he was 24, I said I had socks in my drawer that old, but he only repeated his determination to rebound from his previous year’s razor-thin second-place NAPICS Acrobatics finish and take it all. He proceeded to back it up with some new dough-spinning moves paced to a funky musical beat.

Volpe was a whirling dervish on the flour-sprinkled stage, dancing and striking theatrical poses, sometimes blindfolded, while propelling dough discs heavenward… behind his back…over his shoulders…and between his legs, with an aerial nimbleness that any F-15 Eagle driver could dig.
In a thrilling climax to a dramatic routine, Volpe took top acrobatic honors over veteran (but a whippersnapper himself) Bradley Johnson of Mellow Mushroom in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before Pizza TV packed up for our long road trip home, we rushed Volpe in front of our camera (Did you hear we’re launching a new streaming online video network later this year?) for his exhilarated explanation of how he became the Comeback Kid. The co-owner of Fiamme Pizza Napolentana credited the same values—hard work and commitment—that drive his mobile pizza oven business with fueling his dough-dealing dexterity.
It was better than the Super Bowl—and Columbus, home of THE Ohio State University, was definitely worth THE 10-hour jaunt in the new PizzaTVmobile. That’s true even though we had to outrace a raging blizzard northward from Mississippi and the PMQ Mother Ship. I even ate a couple of knockwurst—and threw back a couple of steins—at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Restaurant downtown (Columbus reminds me of Indianapolis, where I have been, lots). Believe it or not, I tasted not one teaspoonful of ice cream at North America’s biggest ice cream social —and I adore the stuff. Type Two Diabetes is crueler than the bone-chilling gale that blew down High Street in January in Columbus.