Sunday, February 18, 2024


The air was stifling, the smoke detector down the hall was blaring, and I glanced around the kitchen at the mess I had made. I could hear Mom and Aunt Lou talking in the living room, but Aunt Lou's words were the loudest: "I could never spend three days making a pizza! I would just take a frozen out of the freezer! That's good enough for me!" In my mind, I could see them both smiling and shaking their heads in disbelief. 

I quickly dove into the hot, sudsy blue Dawn dishwater, where I cleaned the dirty bowls and cooking utensils. The timer, I thought to myself, watch the timerI closed up unused ingredients and stored them in the cupboard and refrigerator. I was nearing the finish line in my race against self-doubt. I was multiple lengths ahead, and an invisible opponent who had bested me often in my life had no chance of winning now. Not this time. I had worked too hard. I had overcome so much.

Making an old-fashioned Grandma pizza had moved from one weekly to-do list to the next long before Christmas. I was scrolling through YouTube when I found a video on a channel called Sip and FeastJames Delmage, the cook in the video, was calm and relaxed while making this famous Eastern New York pizza. Once I watched him open the video biting into a crunchy square piece of Grandma's pizza, I was trapped in an overwhelming mission of my choice.

No one in my family understood why I would place a stainless steel hand-held strainer on our Secret Santa Family Gift Exchange list. But that was the first step towards making my very own Grandma pizza. That strainer sat in a cupboard for over a month. Much like other interests, my desire to make the pizza waned. I wondered if I could do it, questioned whether I had the proper cooking utensils, and doubted my ability to not make a burnt mess of the kitchen.

In mid-January, I picked up Matthew McConaughey's book Greenlights. I put it aside during the holiday and never returned to it. As Fortune would have it, the present became the perfect time to do so. McConaughey's family had always expected him to become a lawyer, so when he called his father during college to tell him he wanted to forgo law school to enroll in film school, McConaughey was unsure how his father would react. His father's response: "Well... Don't half-ass it."

That is what I was doing - half-assing it. Why was I waiting? In Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey writes, "It is not about win or lose, it is about do you accept the challenge." So, I took thoughts about whether I could or should attempt the pie and pushed them as far away from my mind as possible. If I make a burnt mess of the kitchen, so be it. 

That Friday was my run-around-town day. I did not have a simple list of ingredients in my small and worn spiral notepad. I had the Cadillac List of Ingredients, recorded from watching James Delmage repeatedly, writing down the specific flour type, particular canned peeled tomatoes, and all the fresh ingredients I would need to make my first Grandma pizza. No shortcuts. No cheap ingredients. I would not complain about a five-dollar can of tomatoes from Italy or a small six-dollar container of Pecorino Romano cheese. Who cares about a seven-dollar bag of bread flour? I told myself: Don't half-ass it.

That evening is when the process began. Keeping my phone nearby, I modeled how James made his dough, slowly and calmly pouring in the ingredients, kneading it, and placing it in the refrigerator to cold ferment. James told me to leave the dough alone for at least 24 hours, but 48 would be even better. And so, Day One of the grandma pizza challenge calmly ended with my dreaming about melted cheese and San Marzano plum tomatoes. 

I waited 48 hours for the dough to fully ferment. The anticipation had been overwhelming as I woke early on Super Bowl Sunday to make my first Grandma pizza. I set up all of my utensils, prepped the oven, and cleaned my new heavy-duty baking pan I found at Boscov's. I was ready to ascend. Mom rested quietly in the living room. The house was peaceful. Then Aunt Lou arrived.

I love my aunt, but I wanted to make my pizza with a clear mind, without anyone asking questions or interrupting me. I am a work in progress. I still exhibit those rare moments of impatience and frustration, but I work so hard to rein in my negativity. Aunt Lou asked what I was doing. Sigh. Just explain this, so she will go into the living room. "I made the dough from scratch on Friday...48 hours in the fridge...fresh 100% whole milk mozzarella cheese...San Marzano peeled plum tomatoes...blah, blah, blah."

"Wow," Aunt Lou said, grabbing some recently shredded cheese from my container. "Oh. This is good cheese. Use plenty of that."

I forced a smile. "I promise I will. The entire pizza dough will be covered edge to edge with cheese." Just don't eat any more of it.

"I am going to go talk to your mom for a while. Let me know if you need any help."

"Aunt Lou, I will be fine without anyone's help. I just want to focus on following the directions." I took a deep breath and returned to my preparations. I began to unclench my shoulders as she headed to the living room. I took several fresh garlic cloves, smashed off the outer peel, and minced each clove into tiny pieces. The kitchen was quiet again as I was zen-mincing the garlic. Then Jim and Lisa arrived.

I love my brother and his wife, but I just wanted to make this pizza without interruptions. I said that already, right? Lisa slipped into the kitchen first to say hello and put some chocolate-covered strawberries in the refrigerator. I knew how I looked when she saw me dressed in my old khakis and grass-cutters with a sleeveless faded yellow t-shirt. "So what are you doing, A.J.?" Lisa asked, somewhat weary of my disposition as she looked at the scattering of bowls and utensils. 

"I am making Grandma pizza," I told her, holding up my stainless steel strainer. "Look! This is to strain these!" I held the opened can of San Marzano tomatoes up to her. "These smell so good. Smell!" God. I sound stupid. Don't ask her that. As I said, I am a work in progress. I exhibit those manic looks when I am engrossed in something. I am sure that Lisa recognized it. 

"Are you having fun yet?" she asked, still careful not to break me.

"You know...I actually am." I was attempting to convince myself that I was enjoying this. I smiled, hiding what I was thinking behind some disturbingly deep breathing. Lisa, you are so sweet. Please. Go talk to Mom and Aunt Lou and keep Jim in there.

I poured the can of peeled San Marzano tomatoes into the strainer, where the excess liquid seeped into a bowl below. The plum tomatoes were absolutely gorgeous and had the most vibrant tomato smell. I was so glad that I bought only the best. Now, for the best part, I would use my hand to squeeze the plump tomatoes into small pieces. Like James Delmage, I would become one with the food at that point. Then Jim walked in.

"What the hell are you wearing?" My brother gave me a playfully judgmental up-down that he should have known would send me over the edge. We always do this dance, but we struggle with learning to walk away. "What are you doing?" he continued, inspecting my clothes and messy work area.

"Jim, please don't." Shit. Be nice. Don't take the bait. I took a deep breath as I put down the tomatoes. "I am making a Grandma pizza."

"Relax. Why are you so stressed?" He looked over at the dough stretched across the baking pan. "Did you make your own dough? What's a Grandma pizza?"

Why is this kitchen so hot? Why does he keep asking questions? Please do not mess with me right now. "Hey! Smell these tomatoes!" I offered, lifting the bowl up to him. 

He stepped back. "I don't want to."

"Just...smell...the tomatoes. They are really good." I could feel my James Delmage calmness slowly slipping away, yet I was determined to remain in my world, accepting my challenge. He took a quick whiff of them and then retreated to the living room. Whew.

Over the next hour, I remained in the kitchen, continuing my inspired pursuit of the perfect Grandma pizza. Everyone seemed to resist the urge to revisit the kitchen. Jim and Lisa left, but Aunt Lou agreed to stay for a slice or two of Grandma pizza.

Yes, I did manage to set off the smoke alarm while baking the pizza. Too much olive oil in the pan. Aunt Lou eventually returned to check on me and offer suggestions I quietly disregarded as I repeated, "I just wanted to do this myself." The Grandma pizza turned out fabulous. The crust was so crunchy and full of incredible flavor. The mozzarella cheese had carmelized along the sides, and the hot tomatoes pulsated in their succulent flavor. I did it!

Mom, Aunt Lou, and I respectfully agreed on two things for next time. I need to use fewer of those plump tomatoes. They were so good, though. We also agreed that there was something special about the crust, something magical and tasty, made with love and patience over three long days.

The crust on the bottom is excellent.
I used a little too much tomato (so good, though).
A little "extra done" cheese never hurts, right?.
Actually, it's a Grandpa pizza (extra cheese and extra sauce).

Give it a try yourself.

Read this book.

1 comment:

  1. AJ, I can relate to sooo much of what you have said here -- sometimes doing things "half-assed," wanting to try new things in retirement, getting annoyed with constant interruptions, being "in the zone" of a creative project and just wanting to be left alone. :) You definitely didn't "half-ass" this pizza! It looks so durn good. Homemade pizzas are by far the best! (Maybe only for special occasions, as they take a lot of work.) As always, you inspire me to do better.