Friday, June 26, 2009

"Rolling in Dough"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that's a mess. Or it would have been if I had tried to make my own pizza without the help of a pair of professionals who recently had me rolling in dough while creating a thin-crust pie that was, considering the lunar analogy, out of this world.

As a person of Italian heritage, I consider pizza one of the four food groups (the other three being Twinkies, Slim Jims and beer). When I lived in my hometown of Stamford, Conn., I gorged on pies from such fine establishments as Cove Pizza and the Colony. Since moving to Long Island, N.Y., I have become a frequent diner at Paradiso, a restaurant that is, true to its name, a paradise for pizza pies.

On a recent trip to pick up a takeout order (a large spinach and meatball pizza, my favorite), I asked co-owner Pietro Ribaudo if he would risk indigestion -- better known in pizza parlance as agita -- by letting me make a pie.

"Sure," he said. "And to minimize the risk to me and my customers, you are going to eat it."

A few days later, I stood behind the counter at Paradiso, in Mount Sinai, N.Y., with Ribaudo and his pizza partner, Keith Lindblad, ready to make culinary history. Or at least a large spinach and meatball pie.

The first thing I had to do was put on a white apron, which actually was the hardest part. I fumbled pathetically with the string, trying to knot it behind me, until Lindblad kindly pointed out that it's supposed to wrap around and tie in the front.

Then I had to make the dough. Ribaudo, who was born in Sicily and has been making pizza for most of his 50 years, took me in the back, where he instructed me to dump a 50-pound bag of enriched, high-gluten, bromated flour into a 60-quart bowl without rupturing a vital organ.

Next I put in three gallons of water, five pounds of semolina flour, 12 ounces of salt, 12 ounces of sugar and three ounces of yeast. Then I set the mixer for nine minutes, during which I found out that Lindblad, 43, is of Irish, German and Swedish extraction. "You don't have to be Italian to make good pizza," he said. To which Ribaudo replied, "But it helps."

When the timer went off and the mixture was dumped onto a flat surface, Lindblad told me, "Now you knead the dough."

"I could use a few extra bucks," I said.

"No," Lindblad responded. "I mean, you have to roll it."

This entailed taking a ball of dough, folding it over so there are no creases and putting it into a small tin. I thought I got the hang of it pretty quickly until I saw Ribaudo rolling a ball of dough in each hand at warp speed. "I'm ambidextrous, too," I noted. "The difference is that I'm incompetent with both hands."

The tins are refrigerated for a couple of days, so I had to make my pizza with pre-made dough, which was fine with me because if I had to wait that long, I would have starved.

Back behind the counter, on a table in front of the big stoves, Lindblad showed me how to remove dough from a tin and stretch it out while tossing it back and forth from one hand to another. "Contrary to popular belief," he said, "you don't twirl it in the air. I tried it once and the dough hit the ceiling fan, which shot it across the counter. It almost hit a customer."

Then I smoothed out the dough on the table while creating a ridge along the edge, after which I poured on the sauce, sprinkled on some cheese and oregano, and adorned the whole thing with spinach and meatballs. I put my pie in the oven and waited 10 minutes. When it was done, Ribaudo, Lindblad and Emily Werfel, who usually takes my telephone orders, all nodded approvingly.

"It looks delicious," said Lindblad, who put the pie in a box for me to take home.

"Mangia," said Ribaudo.

At dinner that evening, my wife, Sue, said, "This is very good. The crust is nice and crispy."

Our younger daughter, Lauren, who had come for a visit, added, "You didn't scrimp on the toppings, either."

But the biggest compliment came from Lauren's dog, Maggie, who wolfed down a piece that Lauren fed her and, in begging for more, gave me two paws up.

That's amore.

Copyright 2009 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, June 12, 2009


By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

No man who has a cat can ever claim to be king of his castle. (No man who has a wife and children can ever make that claim, either, but that's another story.)

I found this out in 1989, when my wife, Sue, and I moved with our young daughters, Katie and Lauren, from an apartment to a condominium in Stamford, Conn. The girls, who longed for a "real pet," had grown tired of goldfish whose life expectancy was approximately as long as the Super Bowl halftime show. They wanted something that could return their affection, that had some semblance of intelligence, that would respond to their every command. True, they already had me. But they wanted something more. Specifically, they wanted a cat.

So, on an overcast Saturday, we went to the Humane Society and saw cats of every conceivable make and model. Asking not one child but two children, ages 9 and 7, to pick out the pet of their dreams borders on cruelty, not necessarily to the children, who would gladly devote their lives to such an endeavor, or to the cat, who couldn't care less because there's a sucker born every minute, but most definitely to the parents.

Ultimately, the decision was in my hands. Or, more accurately, on my feet. That's because one little kitten, a black and white cutie of almost unimaginable softness, climbed out of her box, scampered over to me and began to rub up against my size 11 sneakers. When I picked her up, she snuggled against my cotton shirt and purred contentedly. It would be years before she showed me such affection again. Of course, I couldn't have known that. But it was late, the girls were hopelessly confused and I was hooked, so I announced, "This is the one."

Katie named her Ramona, after Ramona Quimby, the title character in a series of books by children's author Beverly Cleary. It was a monumental misnomer: Ramona, the fictional 8-year-old girl, was charming, lively and smart; Ramona, the real-life 8-week-old cat, was grumpy, boring and stupid. But the girls were happy. Sue and I were, too, because for all her mental deficiencies, Ramona quickly learned how to use the litter box. I like to think she followed my example because, of course, I was already housebroken.

Ramona became internationally famous in 1992 as a charter member of "Who's Who of Animals." Here was her entry in that prestigious publication:

"Ramona Geraldine Zezima

"Stamford, Connecticut

"Ramona is a 3-year-old domestic house cat. She is small, sleek and coal black except for her white paws and whiskers and a white hourglass patch on her throat and chest. Ramona's greatest claim to fame is that she is even dumber than our goldfish, Pumpkin, out of whose bowl she likes to drink. A recent intelligence test pitting Ramona and a loaf of Wonder Bread proved inconclusive. She also is lazy, aloof and virtually unemployable. Still, we all love her because, frankly, we are only human."

Ramona's cushy lifestyle as a pampered princess who rarely deigned to associate with commoners ended in 1995 with the arrival of the newest member of the family, a puppy named Lizzie. Sensing competition, Ramona finally began warming up to us.

Her miraculous transformation into an affectionate sweetheart continued in 1998, when we moved to Long Island, N.Y., and got another cat, Kitty, who then had her own kitties, Bernice and Henry, all of whom ignored Ramona, who was only too happy to reciprocate and focus her attention on us.

Just before her Sweet 16th birthday party, Ramona began emitting a series of loud, strange, agonizing cries that sounded a lot like me when I get out of bed in the morning. Sue didn't help matters when she shook her head sadly and said, "It's her time."

I rushed to Jefferson Animal Hospital with Ramona, who sat calmly as Dr. Jeff Rose checked her teeth and, at the other end, took her temperature. Then he listened to her heart and began feeling her stomach. "Have you watched her when she uses the litter box?" he asked.

"I don't make a habit of it," I replied. "Why?"

"Because," Dr. Rose announced, "she's constipated."

"You mean I worried myself sick over this stupid animal, thinking she was at death's door, and the only thing wrong with her is that she can't have a bowel movement?" I said incredulously.

"I'm afraid so," said Dr. Rose.

The bill: $165.10. The prescription: a stool softener.

Our first "real pet" enjoyed good health for four more years, until about three weeks ago, just a few days before the end. She was two months shy of her 20th birthday.

For two decades, Ramona had us all wrapped around her little paw. She lived on her own terms and was loved unconditionally.

I guess she was pretty smart after all.

Copyright 2009 by Jerry Zezima