Sunday, February 02, 2014

“Pizza Proud”

c. 2014 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

An old joke about Chardon used to be that the locale had a limited mix of for-profit businesses. Namely, banks and pizzerias. Both of these institutions were plentiful to a fault in Geauga’s capitol city. But for a genuine mix of other venues, one needed to visit Middlefield or Mentor.
Those days are long gone, of course. But my personal indifference to the opening of a new pizza parlor in Chardon has remained strong.
After living in New York for five years, I became something of a “pizza snob.” The style of flavor-rich pies available in the Empire State literally overwhelmed my taste buds. So eating the sort of everyday creations that appeared at home always seemed less than appealing.
Still, Guido’s in Chesterland was an early favorite. Yet the influx and exodus of similar restaurants in the county did nothing to help hold my attention. Only a few like the late, lamented Patrick’s, or Chardon Pizza left a lasting impression.
There were lots of good alternatives. But not many with staying power.
Some were mentioned here, literally days before they closed. It was embarrassing to have readers relate that such food depots had expired before their time.
Eventually, I simply stopped paying attention.
My brother-in-law helped combat this inclination by consistently ordering pizza from each new spot that appeared. Though frequently his tastes did not match those of the greater family.
So when Congin’s opened across from PNC Bank, just off the Chardon Square, I barely noticed.
In the back of my mind, I remembered that the spot had been Village Gas when I first moved to town in the early 80’s. It was across from BancOhio which later became a National City Bank. I remembered getting fuel for my Volkswagen there, when I worked for American Seaway Foods. Later, after the tanks were removed, that same building housed a tanning salon.
At work, a lady named Lynn talked about growing up in Collinwood. Her favorite place for pizza pies was the original Congin’s, located nearby at Nottingham and St. Clair.
The name struck me with familiarity. Was it worth trying?
Lynn knew nothing about the Geauga location. I observed seeing it closed on Mondays when I made day-off visits to town. Since pizzerias came and went so frequently, it seemed likely that the business had already gone away. However, she assured me that this was not the case. Monday was their traditional day of rest. Again, she related stories of delicious, circular crusts heaped with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, sausage, peppers and onions.
I was spellbound. My stomach was ready for a genuine, homemade pizza!
Foremost in my thoughts was Napoli’s Pizzeria, in Ithaca, New York. It had been founded by two brothers who came directly from Italy. To this day, it remained my favorite above all others. The very yardstick by which I judged the dish itself.
Lynn assured me that a trip to her own favorite place was in order. My quest began with a simple phone call, in November. But the owners were on vacation.
Since Monday was typically my day off from “real” work, I missed several opportunities to visit. Then, I made plans to buy a sheet pizza for the family as we celebrated New Year’s Eve. But the weather did not cooperate. Conditions southeast of Thompson were dicey as I made a late run home, after work. I decided not to travel any farther.
Finally, once the holidays were past, I reached a point where time off was more plentiful. With playoff football on television, this seemed a perfect chance to try Congin’s at last.
It seemed surreal when I called in my order.
Vibes from Pudgie’s Pizza, another chain located in the Finger Lakes region of New York, were palpable. And Perrywinkle’s, a pizzeria I remembered from Pennsylvania, known for their sourdough crust.
Standing at the register, I noticed a selection of business cards under their glass countertop. One in particular was for the Chardon Polka Band.
When I mentioned this to the clerk on duty, she explained that a member of the group actually worked at their sauce-and-cheese pie emporium.
It was impossible not to be impressed. She smiled when I explained that my nephew was a member of the band when they were all students at Chardon High School.
After the short drive home, my dinner commenced. The pizza pie was flavorful with a crunchy and chewy crust, made perfectly in the Italian tradition. Meat and vegetables covered a bed of fresh mozzarella cheese, melted over simmered tomato sauce.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the aroma.
The pizza carried homemade warmth not found in generic, big-chain offerings. I felt gifted while taking my first slice from the box.
The first sample was followed by another. And another. And another!
I wanted to Facebook message Lynn, my friend from work. It was a genuine culinary celebration!

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