Whenever my grandson Aubrey (from Los Angeles) visits, we make an effort to indulge our mutual interest in great pizza. We only have a few places we frequent but we are never disappointed since the places we patronize consistently make the “best of” lists in New York City. I consider it an inexpensive and worthwhile pursuit.
Thinking back to my own youth, my grandfather lived in El Paso, Texas, was about a hundred and two, spoke only in Spanish and wore a hat for so many years that it had altered the shape of his head. I only met him a handful of times and he died when I was still quite young. I can’t remember a single conversation but we always knelt to him for a blessing before leaving and driving back the 800 miles to Los Angeles.
This summer, the first night Aubrey arrived I met him at JFK. He is almost fifteen and nearly six feet tall. (I swear they’re putting something in the milk.) After dropping his bags at the apartment we decided to head downstairs stairs for a slice. I told him I had noticed that Luzzo’s of downtown fame had opened a small to-go shop on 96th street, four blocks from our apartment.
We eagerly walked the four blocks with much anticipation. It was time to see if their uptown shop would pass muster. As we approached I noticed it looked awfully dark. When we got to the door we were met by a hand-written sign. On vacation, will be back September 1. All I could think was “Bastards! How dare they!” Then upon further reflection, I realized that I was actually glad they were gone for the entire month of August. It was very Italian and could only lend credence to the authenticity of their pizza.
So, Luzzo’s was closed and now we had intense pizza yearning. Well, what the hell, I thought. Let’s jump on the crosstown bus and head over to our all-time personal favorite Sal & Carmine’s. I checked my watch. 10:30 PM already. I knew they closed at 11:00, so we jumped on the next bus and then, once on the west side, I made him walk as fast as I do (my friend Jim calls me Rocket Ass). We covered the five blocks up Broadway in record time but as we approached, once again, we were met with darkness. You can imagine our disappointment. No vacation sign, just a dark and lonely pizzeria.
We decided the pizza gods were against us and gave up on pizza altogether. We quickly settled on hamburgers and root beer floats at a nearby diner and I must admit they were really good. It is probably the only thing that can even begin to make up for no Sal & Carmine’s.
A week passed and one evening around 7:00 PM, I decided to give pizza another try. This time, I suggested Aubrey look up the opening and closing hours before venturing across town. I never expected what he said next. While searching the net, he came across a rumor that Sal had died. I jumped on my laptop and a quick search of my own confirmed that the rumor was probably true.
Sal and Carmine were two men in their 70’s from the old country. They stood next to each other behind that counter in their small shop and made pizza every day for decades.
They did not deliver, accepted only cash and sold no alcohol in their simple establishment. Most restaurants only sell food as a way to push booze. That is where a restaurant’s real profit lies. That Sal & Carmine’s sold nothing but pizza from this little shop on Broadway and 101st Street is proof that their product is stellar.
There are dissenters. Some claim that it is too old school or too salty or too this or too that but as my wife stated, that is exactly what pizza tasted like when she was growing up in New York City more than thirty years ago.
Sal was often called the crankier of the two although my wife claims he was always very nice to her in an endearing gruff sweet way. He was always business-like with me and I never minded one bit. I had enough friends, what I needed was great pizza and Sal & Carmine never let me down.
I had a special reason for liking the place above and beyond their delicious pizza. When I was growing up in East LA there was a corner store called Ornelas Market. It was owned and operated by a father son team of Angel and Richard Ornelas. It was on the corner of 8th Street and Concord in Boyle Heights.
Ornelas was a classic corner store. It sold candy and sodas and food products in small sizes. Against the wall behind the counter arose a clutter composed of all manner of handy things you might run out of or misplace like batteries and toothpaste and black plastic hair combs. Etched in my mind are the names of products you never see anymore like Vitalis and Brylcreem and Pepsodent.
In the back of the store was a meat counter complete with butcher in a white chef’s apron and white cap. Whenever my father went in to Ornelas he always called the butcher “maestro.” I never knew why but it sounded so professional and everyone seemed to cheer up when he said it. I assume it was part of the uniquely Chihuahua/El Paso dialect of Spanish spoken by so many in East LA at that time.
Richard was a large man, about the size of Jackie Gleason and not very old but his dad looked ancient. He had deep lines in his face and dark hair mixed with gray. The thing I remember most about Angel was his distinctive hands. His knuckles were larger than normal and his fingers had grown misshapen over time. I assume he couldn’t hold his fingers out straight; they bent at the knuckles and leaned over to one side.
Ornelas extended credit to the neighborhood by keeping a running tab on an index card marked with each family’s name in a little box. He knew my parents well. We were there everyday and I guess we might not have eaten sometimes if not for their simple credit system.
One day Angel asked me to fetch a small bottle for him from the ice cream freezer behind the Neapolitan sandwiches. I looked in the freezer and there it was; a small hip-flask shaped bottle of clear booze. I was only about seven years old and didn’t know if it was gin or vodka or schnapps. He poured a little into a coffee cup and then asked me to put it back. He thanked me and let me pick a candy from the small stuff. It might have been a simple task but I enjoyed it and I suppose he appreciated it. Going to Sal & Carmine’s reminded me of this, because Sal had these same misshapen hands and knuckles.
Last night my grandson and I finally made it to the pizzeria. Carmine, the less cranky of the two, was alone. I didn’t say a word to him about Sal or mention his unusual absence. We ordered our pizza and ate in silence. My grandson Aubrey and I never speak much but we enjoy each other’s company.
One night I asked him if we took all the things we said to each other in a week and put them all down on paper, would it add up to one page? In typical Aubrey fashion he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.
After pizza we decided to walk back to 86th Street for the ride across the park. We happened to pass one of the new Tim Horton’s Manhattan locations. The time seemed right so I decided to introduce him to “Timbits.” We were still full from the pizza and I knew we could never finish a dozen. I thought perhaps I would ask if they would sell just a few.
The nice young woman behind the counter asked how many? I said I’d like two glazed and asked Aubrey how many he would like. He said two as well. She said she would give us four Timbits and there would be no charge. I was a bit surprised and thanked her. She wrapped them up and I left something in her makeshift tip jar.
Aubrey and I walked down Broadway toward the bus stop eating our wonderful Timbits on the way. We didn’t say much but I guessed we were both glad we had known the incomparable and taciturn Salvatore Malanga of Sal & Carmine’s.