Best way to spend a frigid Sunday after a blizzard drops 8+ inches of snow on us?
Make a giant batch of Diane’s sauce to restock the freezer, and pizza for dinner.
Sunday Sauceday perfection.
After my Aunt Jean passed away last year, my Uncle Harry decided to move back to Nebraska. He’s only been in town a few months, but he’s already making it home–throwing dinner parties, making fast friends and all of the local restaurants. My Grandpa Carl was a charmer, never knew a stranger. Throughout my childhood I lost count of the number of times my family would be out somewhere and Grandpa would run into some random person he knew from sometime somewhere, and they’d start joking and laughing as if they were lifelong friends who’d never spent a day apart.
Harry inherited his father’s charisma and exuberant zest for life. He’s fun and kindhearted and delightfully witty, and he’s just got this vibrant, positive energy that has a way of filling up a room.
One of the things my Uncle Harry loves to do the most is cook. He’s taking cooking classes here and there, but I think it’s more of his passion for food that has turned him into a regular amateur chef (though Uncle Harry’s every day cooking could outmatch at least half of the restaurants currently operating in Lincoln). And somehow, in the few short months since he rolled into town, he managed to talk the local restaurant Dino’s into making one of his favorite signature dishes–a gourmet pizza made with smoked salmon, goat cheese, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese–a pizza so good some of the staff did a taste test and started talking about how they’d like to get that pizza on the menu.
But the even crazier part was that tonight, Harry reserved us a couple tables, and had the Dino’s chefs make his recipe for us to have a family dinner together.
And damn, it was divine!
And as we wrapped up, H-man was getting restless so we grabbed one of Cadence’s markers and started practicing our letter tracing.
You know I could’t resist. #SSDGM
There was a time in my life when I avoided people, relationships of just about any kind. I’m an introvert by nature, but this was different. I didn’t trust people, and I was filled with so much self-loathing and self-doubt that I believed it was easier to just keep everyone at arm’s distance than to risk getting close and getting hurt.
During my years in therapy, one of the biggest challenges was for me to trust people, to let them in, because I had trouble matching up what other people saw in me with what I saw in myself. I had to spend a lot of time building up my own self-image, learn to love myself and let other people love me. One of the results was that I started to view relationships and human connection differently.
Letting people in. Trusting them. Connecting. Building relationships. Loving other humans. These things can be hard, but they are so worth it. They’re vital. They’re the reason we’re all bumping around on this blue-green planet in the first place. And the really beautiful thing that happens when you connect with other people is that just being in their presence, hearing their voices, spending an evening together sharing a meal sparks immeasurable joy.
Family is not bound by blood. Family is the people you choose to surround yourself with, the people you love and invest your time in. Stevie and I have loved ones spread all over the country–from New York to Arizona to Colorado and Washington state–and we do what we can to connect. We don’t do as much as we would like to, or have nearly enough time with all the people who mean the world to us. But sometimes there are moments like tonight, when we get a chance to spend an evening with some really beautiful souls. My home was full of love tonight, and my heart is too.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not exactly gullible. At least, I don’t think I am. I like to imagine that I have found a perfect balance somewhere smack in the middle of overly trusting and obnoxiously cynical. I love to look for the best in people, and believe that they are inherently good, but I am wise enough to know that is not always the case, and so I rely heavily on my gut instincts and my intution to be my guide.
But, even the most discerning folks can be duped. It happens to everyone at one point or another I’m afraid. And tonight, I am feeling the shame of being outsmarted and made to look the fool.
Tonight, I got played by my dog.
Okay, so here’s how it went down…
It has been a long week here in Casa de Romano. Cadence and I have been sick since Tuesday with some sort of weird combination head cold and stomach virus. Who knows, maybe we have the flu. But no matter what you call it, it sucks, and the two of us are completely drained.
So tonight, when Steven got home from work, we opted for a lazy evening ordering in pizza and vegging in front of the TV. While Steven ran to get the pizza and pick up season 3 of Fringe for our viewing pleasure, Cadence, Electra and I hung out and waited.
In between changing a diaper, getting Cadence a snack, refilling her water, answering an email, having a couple of coughing fits and wiping Cadence’s nose about 150 times, I could have sworn that I fed Electra. I’m almost 99% sure that I do, in fact, remember herding Electra into the kitchen right around the time Cadence decided she needed a couple of graham crackers to tide her over until dinner. But then, the next thing I knew, Steven was home with the pizza and we were locking Electra in her kennel with one of her rawhide chewys.
It wasn’t until later, after Cadence had gone to bed, that I started to notice that Electra was all up in my business, hovering over me, nosing my arm like she wanted to be petted, jumping up into my lap and leaning heavily on my chest. In fact, she had been underfoot for most of the evening. As I sat in the chair holding Electra’s 50 pounds of dead weight, the thought suddenly popped into my mind…
Did I feed Electra?
I sat for a moment, thinking, trying to remember, trying to actually picture myself feeding our dog. I could distinctly remember feeding her last night. Steven had just taken Cadence downstairs to get her out of my hair for a bit while I tried to catch up on a few things and get some work done, and I figured it would be easiest to go ahead and feed Electra right away so she wouldn’t be bothering me. But tonight? I honestly couldn’t recall.
Suddenly I felt a pang of guilt. Had our poor dog been forgotten? Had I, in fact, overlooked her and neglected to feed her in the midst of the crazy sickness and the mealtime rush? Was our sweet, droopy-faced hound quietly starving while we lounged?
“Did I feed Electra?” I asked Steven. He just looked at me dumbfounded.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I asked and you said you did. Did you?”
I closed my eyes and tried to think.
“Honestly, I don’t know babe,” I admitted. “I remember feeding her last night, and I think I fed her tonight. I mean, I could have sworn I did, but I…I just don’t know. What if I didn’t?”
Steven looked at Electra, lying heavily in my lap.
“I think you did,” Steven said. “I mean, look at her. Even if you didn’t, it’s not like it would hurt her to miss a meal.”
“Aww, no, I don’t want her to be hungry!” I said. “But shit! I don’t remember!”
I leaned down and whispered in Electra’s ear. “Electra? Are you hungry? Did I feed you?”
She perked up immediately and licked her chops.
“Oh jeez! You’re gonna take her word for it!?” Steven said, rolling his eyes. “You know she’d lie to you every time to get more!”
“I know, but I feel so bad!”
“Don’t feel bad! I’m sure you fed her. And if not, seriously, this is one dog that is never going to starve to death. I wouldn’t even worry about it.”
But I looked down at Electra and…
Dammit. That is a face that can get you every time.
“Alright, let’s go eat,” I said.
Electra bolted for the kitchen and sat in front of her food bowl, bouncing up and down and tapping her front feet on the ground in anticipation. I opened up the food container, and the moment I began to scoop, it hit me. I had fed her. I was sure of it.
But now it was too late, I’d already promised. And Electra is not the kind of dog that forgets about a promise, especially not when the promise involves food. I shook half of the food out of the scoop and dropped the other half in the bowl.
I could almost hear her laughing as I walked out of the kitchen.
“Sucker!” Steven said, as I returned to my seat.
Yeah, I am. I really am.
Tonight’s 365 Project is dedicated to my dog, the food whore, who is now comfortably ensconced in a food coma at the other end of the couch. I’m onto you now, Electra. Next time, I won’t fall for your ruse.