Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Day 5 – The best pizza in Lincoln

There were a lot of compromises when Stevie and I made the decision to leave New York. We left Stevie’s family, some of our best friends and most trusted mentors, and a whole lot of amazing food.

Every spot on the globe has something all its own when it comes to food–some signature dish or cuisine that is uniquely local and difficult to replicate. I think the one thing that differentiates New York is that the flavors of the world have quite literally migrated and established themselves in restaurants and bakeries and sidewalk stands and food trucks throughout the city. You could taste the world without ever leaving the five boroughs.

One of the things Stevie and I miss the most is the variety. After we started dating, we had a habit of hopping in the car and driving to Manhattan every Friday night for dinner. We had a favorite sushi restaurant, Yoko, in the West Village where we ate so often that we didn’t even need to order. The chefs knew our tastes and favorites, and would begin sending beautiful plates you couldn’t find on the menu over to our table as soon as we sat down. Other nights, we would just pick a flavor or type of cuisine, look up the name of some random restaurant that served it, and go.

We were never disappointed.

We haven’t been able to settle into quite the same routine since we left New York. Now that the kids are getting a little older (and Henry is finally entering the reasonable phase that follows the fit-throwing insanity of the two’s and early three’s), we’re hoping to get back to being adventurous. Sure, there aren’t nearly as many options here in Lincoln, but there is some really great food in this town and a lot of places we haven’t even had a chance to try yet.

The one food we have thoroughly tried here though (and have been thoroughly disappointed with) is the pizza.

Nobody does pizza like New York.

We tried every pizza place in Lincoln since moving here in 2011. Every. Single. One.

Lazzari’s was our frontrunner there for six months or so back in 2011-2012. Crust was almost true NY-style and the sauce was decent. Then one day the sauce started tasting a little too sweet. (Hear this now people, sauce should NEVER be sweet! You add pinches of sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. That’s it. If it’s sweet AT ALL, you’re doing it wrong!) We tried again a few weeks later, sauce was still sweet and the crust was burned. One more try a few months after that and we had too-sweet sauce, overdone crust, and so much extra cheese piled on that the pizza slices were drooping in our hands even folded in half. Strike three. We’ve never gone back.

Yia Yia’s gets a pass because it’s unique, and they have some delicious flavor combinations. We dig it, but the ultra-thin cracker-like crust keeps us from classifying it as traditional pizza. It’s good, but we stick to small doses.

MoMo Pizzeria & Ristorante is the only place we will actually endorse. The pizzas you’ll find on the menu are Neopolitan style and wood-fired, and there are some really incredible flavors. Stevie has always been a fan of plain cheese pizza, but even he enjoyed sampling some of the unique toppings like Lobster & Shrimp Hollandaise and Prosciutto & Egg. One day, by chance, Stevie found that by asking the server if we could have just a plain cheese pizza for Cadence that he could get a smaller version of the closest to true NY-style pizza we’d found since leaving New York. Major props to MoMo (for both the pizza and for having hands down some of the finest food in Lincoln).

Still, because we just couldn’t seem to find any true NY-style pizza, I made it my mission to figure it out. And I did, back in 2015. You can CLICK HERE to read all about it. Since then, we haven’t bothered to order to eat a pizza anywhere but in our own kitchen, and we don’t have a desire to.

Well…unless we hope a plane and head back to New York. In that case, we might have to make an exception.

Tonight, it was homemade pizza for dinner, and I couldn’t have been any prouder than the moment I looked across the table and saw my kids’ New York come out. Henry had a slice in each hand and was eating it almost as fast as I could make it, and Cadence was folding slices in half like a pro.

What can we say? We’ve taught them well.

Nine Years and Nine Months

Nine years ago there was a massive rainstorm, a flooded apartment, a frenzied move, and an impromptu wedding in Pastor Schenkel’s office on Long Island. Stevie wore shorts and his blue flame Converse. I wore jeans and my flowered Doc Martens. We celebrated at the Candlelight Inn with hot wings and beer.

Grand Central Station

The best place I ever found to write was in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Seems strange, I know, but I spent countless hours during my college years, sitting on the cool marble floor of that beautiful building, back pressed against the wall, writing page after page as the bustling crowds passed by and never even seemed to notice me.

The thing about writing in Grand Central Station is that there is never an uninspired moment. Trains arrive and depart, crowds swell and taper, announcements echo through the speakers. An endless parade of potential characters plays out an impromptu performance that moves and changes with a life of its own.

There, in that space, I never seemed to have trouble tapping into something greater than myself. Call it God, the Universe, a muse, or even just inspiration—whatever name you want to give it, that’s where I found it, my own tiny corner of calm in the chaos. It was there that I lost myself, that I found myself. It was there that I found the courage to keep going.

New York will always be the city that saved my life.

There, on that dirty floor of the train station, my pen would fly across the empty pages on its own, filling the void with words and ideas from a place that I never even knew existed.

I’ve never found another sacred space to write quite like it. These days, I try to find space to write everywhere I can. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magic.

And now that I’m finally feeling like the dust has begun to settle in my life, I’ve been able to create that space I need, that space that has been void from my life for too long as I focused WAY too much time and energy on everything but my writing and my family and myself.

I wrote pages today–pages–filling in one of the many holes that has been gaping in my memoir for far too long.

And it felt so fucking good.

And I’m finally starting to believe that it’s true–maybe God has to slam a door shut on us every now an then, because He knows it’s one we will never shut ourselves whether we’re too afraid, or too distracted, or we feel like we’ve already gone so far and we’re too invested.

So He trips you up and kicks your legs out from beneath you and He slams the door and locks it. And He makes you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and breathe as you gaze around in confusion and wonder at all the possibilities and opportunities that were right there in front of you the whole time, things you never would have taken the time to notice because you were too busy sprinting for that door with your blinders on, ignoring all the whistles and sirens and red flag warnings as you blew right on by them.

But all is right with the world again, and I’m excited for this new chapter because I know something really amazing is going to come out of it. I’ve got a story to write and a pen in my hand and when I close my eyes I’m channeling Grand Central Station. And I’ll keep writing, keep writing, keep writing because that’s what I do, and it’s never failed me.

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Nonna & Poppa Visit Nebraska

If there is any drawback to me having a very, very large family, it’s that we don’t ever really feel like we get to spend enough time with any of them. Since leaving Arizona in December 2010, I’ve been lucky enough to take Cadence back with me for a few visits, some work trips and some just to spend a little time with Momma Dawn and Mark. But somehow the trips always seem rushed (especially when I’m working) and always end too soon. Planning visits is always challenging with work schedules and my youngest siblings’ school and activities to consider. And now that Cadence has started Kindergarten just as my two youngest brothers are finishing their senior years in high school, finding ways to visit all the grandparents in New York and Colorado and Arizona is going to get even harder.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned being so spread out from so much family, it’s to take whatever visits we get and try to make the most of them. So when Nonna and Poppa said they might be able to come for a quick visit after Christmas, we jumped at the opportunity. We hung out, watched a little football, and just enjoyed the time together. I was lucky enough to get an extra day off work with Snowmageddon threatening to bury us (which amounted to little more than a few inches and some slick roads). And the only regret I have  is that I wasn’t better about getting out the camera while Nonna and Poppa were here. Next time, I’m gonna go all paparazzi, but for now, this will have to do…

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And I have to say, for being a desert rat, born and raised in sunny Arizona, Poppa Mark sure can shovel a mean driveway!

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The New York Pizza Quest

Once you’ve lived in New York, it’s hard to ever feel totally settled anywhere else. New York is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s the kind of place that just sort of seeps in and becomes a part of you if you let it.

I moved to New York in August of 1998 as a college freshman and spent the next nine years falling in love with everything about it from the people to the culture to the food.

When Stevie and I left New York in 2007, we left behind a lot. We left family and dear friends. We left pieces of ourselves. And we left a helluva lot of really amazing food.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s good food everywhere. There’s this dish called Pollo Fundido at a little family-owned restaurant called LB Cantina in Florence, Arizona. It’s a homemade chicken chimichanga topped with jalepeno cream cheese and pepper jack cheese, and it will change your life. No joke. I may have eaten my weight in Pollo Fundido the three years we lived in Arizona, and every time I go back to visit, LB’s is one of the first places I go while I’m there. And here in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’ve got a bunch of really great restaurants serving some seriously amazing stuff. Take the Full Leaded Jacket from this little place called Leadbelly for instance. It’s a fresh hamburger patty served on a homemade cinnamon roll and topped with white cheddar, chili, sour cream, scallions, chopped tomato, red onion, fresh jalapeño, crisp tortillas, and a queso sauce so awesome they actually call it queso awesome. I know, it sounds like some stoners got together after a night of heavy smoking and just dumped together everything they saw in the fridge, but let me tell you folks, the Full Leaded Jacket is so freakin’ amazing it’s damn near a religious experience when you take your first bite of that flavor combination.

And yet, for all the great food we’ve had in Arizona and Nebraska and every other place we’ve traveled in between, there’s one craving we just haven’t been able to truly satisfy since we left and that’s good ol’ New York style pizza.

In Arizona, the first time Stevie called up the local pizzeria to order a large pie, the girl on the other end of the phone started to stutter.

“Um…sir…we sell pizza here.”

It took every last ounce of strength for my dear hubby not climb through the phone and shake her. Instead, he cleared his throat and tried again.

“Uh, yeah, I know,” he said. “I’d like a large cheese pizza, please.”

Luckily the pizza was tolerable. Not great, but not the worst we’d had in Arizona by a long shot.

When we moved to Lincoln, we embarked on what became known as The Great Pizza Quest, meticulously working our way through every pizza place in town, searching for something that could fill the void.

Sadly, it was an utter failure. Sauces were too sweet, toppings too heavy. Real pizza dough/crust was nowhere to be found and in its place, a dense bread that soaked up the oil from the overabundance of cheese and left a puddle on the plate. While places like Yia Yia’s and Momo’s had some really great flavors, the crusts were all wrong. We thought we might have gotten close the first time we ordered from Lazzari’s, but then the sauce got sweet and they started overcooking the pies, and there’s nothing worse than burned cheese and brittle crust.

Well, nothing worse except pizza cut in squares. I mean, what is that about anyway? Stevie got to the point where the first question he would ask when he walked into a new pizza place here in Lincoln is whether they cut the pizza in squares. If the answer was yes, he would do an abrupt about-face and walk right back out again.

Each visit back East only exacerbated our longing for some real, authentic NY-style pizza. And after our visit to New York last summer, where we spent 10 days gorging ourselves to get our fill before we flew back to our pizza-less lives in Lincoln, I decided enough was enough.

If I could teach myself to make Black & White Cookies that tasted every bit as good as the ones in New York, then damned if I couldn’t learn how to make NY-style pizza too.

And so, I set a little goal for myself and I put it right out there on Facebook for everyone to see, hoping that broadcasting it might help make me accountable.

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I’m thinking, after all this time, a lot of folks probably thought I’d forgotten. I mean, it has taken me almost 11 months, but here’s the thing…anyone who knows me well, knows that’s sort of how I operate, at least when it comes to big projects. Back when we were both students, it used to drive Stevie nuts. See, I’d get an assignment in class, say for a 20-page research paper. The deadline would be a month away. For a good 3 1/2 weeks, it might appear to the untrained eye that I was doing nothing. Then, a couple days before the paper was due, there would be a stack of books on my desk and a few scraps of paper with some notes scribbled here and there. Then, the night (or sometimes even a few hours) before the paper was due, I would sit down at the computer and begin to type. Then I would hand in the paper and the assignment was complete. Stevie always hated that I could do so well when it seemed I was always doing things last minute, but that wasn’t really the case. All those weeks when I was doing “nothing”, the idea was growing in my mind, the details marinating. I could “see” it coming together in my head. Every now and then I would jot down an idea or a few sentences that I could come back to later. By the time I finally sat down to hammer it out, it was all there.

So no, I hadn’t forgotten about my great pizza making resolution. And while it may have seemed like the idea was lying dormant, it has been on my mind all these months since I first challenged myself to do it. I’ve been going over the plan in my head, researching methods, reading blogs and articles and reviews, plotting just how exactly I was going to do this and do it right. (I was also waiting for the morning sickness to subside, and then for my aching pregnant body to return to semi-normal after Henry was born, so yeah, it has taken awhile).

By time time I finally purchased the ingredients and mixed up that first batch of dough in my kitchen, I’d spent 10 months making pizza in my head.

And I’ll tell you what, ladies and gentlemen, those were 10 months very well spent, because I’ve done it. Stevie is a self-professed pizza snob–he has no problem admitting it. Being a born and raised New Yorker who probably has pizza sauce coursing through his veins at this point, he is very picky when it comes to any pizza that claims to be NY-style. My first attempt last Friday was okay. The flavor was there, but I’d gotten way too overzealous stretching the dough and it ended up being so thin in the middle that it tore right through. Even so, Stevie declared that very first pizza the best in Lincoln.

But I knew I could do better.

I made another round on Saturday when we were at my parents’ apartment watching the Husker game. Again, the flavor was right, but after stretching the dough too thin the night before, I erred on the side of caution and the crust ended up being a little too thick.

Back to the drawing board.

Monday, I gave it another go, only this time I made the pizza way too big for the peel, and I had to try and cook it on the aluminum pizza pan I’d purchased for serving. The crust ended up cooking too fast on the edges, but was still underdone in the middle, so I had to cut slices and throw them back on the stone in the oven to crisp, which meant the outer crust was way too crispy.

So, I asked Stevie and Cadence if they were sick of pizza yet and when they both said no, I pulled out another piece of dough and went through the process again meticulously with Miss Cadence helping and Henry keeping a close eye on us from the living room.

And tonight…tonight Stevie folded his slice in half, took a great big bite, and gave me two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

And while I’m still planning to keep on practicing until I’ve honed my newfound skills to the point where I can make a pizza in my sleep, I’m satisfied, and pretty damn proud of myself for bringing another piece of New York here to my home in Nebraska.

Mission accomplished.

What’s next?

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