After a few weeks of sweltering summer weather, it’s great to get out of New York City to the small towns where things of value are actually made: breezes, products other than iPhone apps and complicated financial derivatives, waves from strangers.
It is also a swell way to remember that pizza is supposed to be an inexpensive, utilitarian food, not a fetish object. Something your parents picked up on a Friday night after a week spent slogging in a smoke-filled office and rotating through ground beef-derived dinners (meatloaf with ketchup, softball-size hamburger patties bleeding through white buns, Ortega taco mix, spaghetti with Ragu meat sauce).
In short, however many “fancy” pizzas one eats, the pies of their hometown always hold a special place in their stomach.
Growing up in Lockport, NY, a small town just north of Buffalo on the banks of the Erie Canal, we were lucky to have two great pizzerias: Lock City Pizza (it’s former moniker, Pontillo's, is still the name of choice for many locals) and Pizza Oven. Both establishments, it has been relayed to me by out-of-town friends I have tried to convert, are an acquired taste.
Pizza Oven's sauce is almost sickeningly sweet, it's thin crust oily and crisp. Before my metabolism slowed to a crawl I used to eat this stuff by the metric ton, which likely contributed to one of the worst complexions Lockport High School has ever witnessed. The Oven has recently changed hands and the next time I’m in the 'Port, I'll be stopping in for some nostalgia and a large pie.
If a scientific poll of Lockportians were conducted, Lock City/Pontillo's would likely be named "Best Pizza" or "Best pizza when you are home visiting your parents" or "pizza place most likely to show up in one of those 'You Know You're from Lockport when...' e-mail forwards." One measure of your Lockportianness was the manner in which you ordered your Pontillo’s crust: quarter-baked, half-baked, and so on. That quirk aside, I always Lock City it for its lack of small town charm: jaw-breakingly tough crust, spartan tomato sauce (made from canned Contadina’s, or so my father reports after some dumpster investigation), staff surliness, ridiculously long waits. Twenty years removed, I appreciate Lock City that much more and applaud them for doing what they do: making pies, rather than Tweeting or churning their own Artisanal cheese curds from grass-fed goats.
Lock City’s is not a “stand-up” pie. The crust requires a certain hand-eye-mouth coordination to master and the toppings tend to pool into a mush in the center and the pies are sliced seemingly at random for a variety of shapes and sizes. Processed mozzarella is the norm in these parts, but the sauce hues towards a more traditional canned tomato, salt, and olive oil blend, rather than the typical Western New York sugar and tomato paste heavy sauces.
The result? A pie that refreshingly doesn’t quite fall into a neat category and is quite spectacular in small doses. Next time you’re in Lockport, bring your appetite. I will try and convert you.
-- Brett Essler