April 22, 2010

(This is one of those columns where I just have a little bit of fun writing about something that is not theological or pastoral. I started a column on one of those topics and realized I couldn’t finish it without more reading and research on the subject. I’ll leave it for another day. )

Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza each day, or about 350 slices per second. Pizza is a $30 plus billion per year industry. There are approximately 69,000 pizzerias in the United States. Approximately 3 billion pizzas are sold in the U.S. each year. 93% of Americans eat at least one pizza per month. According to a recent Gallop Poll, children between the ages of 3 and 11 prefer pizza over all other food groups for lunch and dinner. If only the Eucharist could be so popular.

This week I experienced a sure sign of spring in the great state of Maine. Bill’s Pizza in Old Orchard Beach opened for business after its winter hibernation. O rapture! O joy! Bill’s has been proudly serving pizza on Old Orchard Street right near the beach since 1949 (pretty much around the time my family bought our cottages) and has been a staple of our summer eating for years. While I know I may be prejudiced by youthful nostalgia, I nevertheless think that Bill’s makes the best thick-crust pizza anywhere. Now, some “pizza experts” might have an issue with my categorizing Bill’s pizza as thick-crust pizza. They would argue that you have to get to the thickness of say Pizzeria Uno deep-dish or a Sicilian sheet pizza before you can call something “thick-crust.” The pizza in this case must be about the crust before it is anything else. Anything else is “thin-crust” pizza with, for example, Regina Pizzeria leading the way (Did you ever try and eat a slice from Regina Pizzeria by picking it up? The tip of it flops down like the tongue of a dog on a hot day? Now that’s thin-crust!) I think they have an argument up to a certain point. The problem is that Bill’s pizza is just on the border of thick-crust and thin-crust. It’s too thick to be thin-crust but it’s not quite at the level of true thick-crust. For me, I’m just like the little bear in Goldilocks. I think “it’s just right.”

Bill’s does a ton of walk-up business. Even the other day when a cold breeze was blowing off the ocean and whipping up the street, people were lined up for a slice and either sitting in their cars or bundled up in sweaters and jackets on the sidewalk benches in front of Bill’s chowing down on pizza. The slices are these huge chunks that don’t quite fit on a normal size paper plate so there’s always at least one part of the pizza hanging over the plate. Of course, Bill’s also sells whole pizzas. Sometimes while we’re on the beach in the summer, someone (usually me) will say “let’s have pizza for lunch” and an order will be placed at Bill’s. During the day, pick-up is a two person job as summer parking on the strip at Old Orchard is at a premium. The car pulls up to the loading zone in front of Bill’s and the passenger jumps out and gets the pizzas at the window, hopefully before one of the summer rent-a-cops on their bikes tells the driver to “move along.” Then it’s back to the cottage and pizza and beer on the beach on a glorious summer day – the best!

What is it that makes Bill’s such great pizza? Well, it’s a combination of the crust, the sauce, and the cheese, of course. While you can buy extra toppings like pepperoni on your pizza, in this case it is unnecessary. Bill’s cheese pizza stands on its own. The crust is just leavened with enough yeast so that it’s airy without being spongy. One of their secrets is that the pizza is cooked in large pans, not directly on the oven floor. I think they oil the pans so there is a great fried crunchiness on the bottom.

The tomato sauce is perfect – not too sweet or over spiced and cooked long enough to lose any bitterness. They spread it out on each pizza so that the sauce, as well as the cheese, is less than a half an inch from the edge, leaving the smallest end crust possible. This is perfect and the way all pizzas should be made. (Any pizza that is made so as to leave you with big hunks of crust at the end is wrong, just plain wrong. How do I know this? Because little kids, as we saw earlier the statistically biggest and fussiest pizza eaters, always leave the crust! I rest my case.) I have never asked if Bill’s makes their own sauce because I would be devastated to learn it came out of a can. I just don’t want to or need to know. [note to self: you may really have to get a life if you are paying this much attention to pizza.]

Finally, there is the cheese. They obviously use a blend. One can taste the mozzarella and the parmesan but there is something else in there, again which I’ve never asked about. The cheese does stay together so that as it cools you sometimes have to hold it down as you bite so as to not pull it all off the slice at once but it doesn’t come off in those long annoying strings that get over your face and clothes. Whatever ingredients Bill’s uses, it all adds up to one great slice of pizza perfection.

What about pizza here in Westwood, MA? Well, as they say, “fools rush in where wise men fear to tread” and I’m not about to go there. Let’s just say, that the restaurants here in town all make a good slice, but, of course, not as good as Bill’s.