When my doctor told me in 2007 that I was lactose intolerant and that I needed to remove dairy from my diet, I took his advice into consideration for all of an hour before going out and getting myself a Big Mac and strawberry milkshake.
You know when someone tells you that you can’t have something, and then all you can do is think about that one thing? I thought that was all this was; simply an act of rebellion because my doctor didn’t think I should eat dairy. But having had some time to ponder my situation, it went way beyond that.
I grew up in a family dominated by Italian-American-ness:
- A large extended family that I saw on a regular basis (for birthdays, holidays, or just because my grandmother made a shit-ton of lasagna)
- Loud conversations full of gesticulations
- And pizza. Lots of pizza.
But it wasn’t just pizza. There were the cannoli. And the manicotti. And the creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. And the cheeseburgers. And the hot fudge sundaes. And the nachos. And the glass of milk with dinner. My doctor was telling me that about 90% of my diet was making me sick. I couldn’t believe it.
Fast forward a few years and I had changed my eating habits enough to where my lactose intolerance was manageable. I had cut dairy out of my life to where it only took up about 50% of everything I ate. Still not good according to my doctor, but an improvement. I also always kept a pack of Lactaid on me so that if I wanted to indulge in some dairy eating goodness, I wouldn’t be sick immediately afterwards. With my love-hate relationship with dairy now in check, I could pursue a normal life again, which included the obsession with and pursuit of a very specific New England pizza.
Delicious pizza. Photo courtesy of Rool Paap.
The Grated Cheese Pizza
After leaving Connecticut at the age of 18, I quickly discovered that Wethersfield, CT was in possession of the greatest pizza known to man. I never would have realized how great it was until I ventured outside of the state, though. At first I just thought it was the mid-Atlantic states that had so-so pizza. Then I was disappointed that Boston couldn’t live up to my standards of a decent pizza. Seattle was even worse. Up and down and all around the U.S., I tried the chain pizzas, the local pizzas, the frozen pizzas — and sometimes even resorted to nuking up some pizza bagel bites. I even had the chance to go to Italy where I ate lots of pizza that I’d disappointingly rate as “good, but not great.” I’ve yet to meet a pizza that comes close to the Grated Cheese Pizza’s level of excellence.
Needless to say, when the suggestion of a weekend trip down to Connecticut arose in 2009, I jumped at the opportunity. I missed that pizza and I needed my fix. I also needed to prove to someone other than myself that Vito’s Pizzaria had the very best pizza this world has to offer. And so, the New England pizza road trip began.
The open road. Photo courtesy of Kristin Wall.
A Pizza-Focused Road Trip
Saturday, 9:00 a.m.: Nina, my best friend and the person I wanted to convince, and I left Boston and headed down I-95, through Rhode Island, and arrived at our first destination: Foxwoods Resort Casino. I spent a lot of time in the Connecticut casinos as a kid. Our evenings always began with a big meal at the buffet where I’d go up and juggle heaping plates of pasta, egg rolls, steak, dinner rolls and hot fudge sundaes gowned in rainbow sprinkles.
It’s funny what time does to us, distorting our memories as well as our ability to metabolize food. When Nina and I arrived at the casino, we made a beeline for the buffet, having skipped breakfast in preparation of it. I could barely get past one plate of food. I guess when you’re approaching 30, it’s no longer realistic to believe you can eat five or six dishes at a buffet anymore.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: Still full from our trip to the buffet, we took some time to settle into our hotel room in Hartford. Nina took the bed on the left and I took the one on the right. A bag of double chocolate Milano® cookies sat between us on the nightstand.
We took turns showering, and as I emerged feeling clean, awakened, and finally hungry, I suggested we head out on the town to see what our options were. Nibbling a Milano cookie, I handed the bag to Nina, asking, “What are you in the mood for?”
She laughed. When we drove into downtown Hartford it was pitch black. We assumed our GPS had directed us to the wrong place since Hartford was supposedly a city, right? Where were all the people and the loud bars and the well-lit city streets?
“Why don’t we just walk around? We’ll find something.”
We walked for all of five minutes before we decided to eat and drink at an Irish bar across from our hotel. We were nervous being in a city with barely a trace of life on the streets, so we took the first thing we could find. The food was okay; nothing to write home about. But the drinks were good.
Saturday, 11:00 p.m.: We stumbled back into our hotel room and I stopped moving when I caught a glimpse of my bed.
“Someone’s been here,” I said.
Nina was coming through the doorway as I said this. She stopped too, holding the door open. “How do you know?”
“The Milanos.” I pointed to the bag of Milano cookies that sat on the bed.
“Oh my god, you’re ridiculous,” she laughed as she closed the door behind her and went into the bathroom.
“No, I’m serious! Remember when we left we were eating the Milanos? Then we put them on the nightstand and headed out. Someone’s been in here.” I paused, thinking of all the possibilities that horror movies taught me. “It. . .it could be a ghost! There’s a ghost, Nina!”
“What? Why would a ghost want our Milanos? There’s no such thing. . .” Nina said, but I swear I heard a hesitation in her voice.
“Yep, it’s a ghost. I just know it. The Milanos were right there.”
Okay, so I was a little more than drunk at that point. All I had eaten that day was one plate of (filling) food at the casino and a mound of nachos for dinner. I entered the bathroom after Nina had finished up and jumped in the shower. Then it hit me. I was looking at US Weekly right before we left. I wanted to put it back on the nightstand, so I lifted up the Milanos, put the magazine down, and then. . .put the Milanos on the bed after I sneaked one more into my mouth before we ran out to get grub (and apparently too much to drink.)
I stumbled out into the room—definitely not embarrassed at all—and explained to Nina that there was no ghost. Then I went to bed.
Photo courtesy of Vito’s Pizzeria
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.: After checkout, we headed straight over to Wethersfield and parked outside Vito’s Pizzaria.
“Hi there, ladies. What can I get for ya?” Our server, a middle-aged woman who didn’t look Italian at all, came up to the table before we’d even had a chance to open our menus. She took our drink order and quickly departed.
“Hmmmm. . . I don’t know what I want,” Nina said as she looked through the menu.
“Nope. Close your menu.”
“Huh? I’m not r—”
“We’re getting the Grated Cheese Pizza. It’s gonna change your life.”
Nina looked down at the menu that was still open in her hands. A perplexed look washed over her face, “but it’s not on here.”
“What? Of course it is.” I opened the menu I had tossed aside and glanced at the pizza section. I read through each of the titles and descriptions numerous times, but there was nothing to indicate that the Grated Cheese Pizza existed.
“I don’t understand. . . I was just here. . .”
“Uhhh. . . I moved to Boston in. . . Oh crap.” I looked up from the menu with the sting of fear in the corner of my eyes. “2006.”
I was officially in panic mode.
“What if they don’t make it anymore? I mean, that would only be three years ago. . . That can’t be. Maybe it’s just called something else now.” I frantically scoured the menu, this time under all categories—salads, soups, pasta. Still nothing.
“It’s okay, Suzanne. We can just get something else.”
This was the only reason we came down to Connecticut. The Grated Cheese Pizza. Nina couldn’t just brush it away as if anything else on their menu could easily replace it. Plus, I had already taken extra Lactaid for this. I was ready.
“How’re we doing here? You ladies ready to order?”
“Actually, I have a question,” I interrupted. “Do you guys still have the Grated Cheese Pizza?”
“Hmmm. . . Well, we can put some grated mozzarella on there, if you’d like.” Normally, I’ve got a soft spot for waiters and waitresses. Having been one for a number of years I know how annoying it is when a customer isn’t content with the menu as it stands. But this was different.
“No. It was a pizza called “Grated Cheese Pizza.” You guys had it on your menu just a few years ago. It is the greatest pizza. Ever.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t stop talking about it,” Nina chimed in. I scowled at her as she laughed.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t think we have it anymore.”
“Okay, this is gonna sound like a weird question, but do you have anyone working in the kitchen who’s been here awhile? Do you think you could go see if any of the chefs know this pizza? Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but we drove all the way from Boston for it and I’ve been craving this pizza for years.”
“Uh, sure. . . Do you just want me to ask them for grated cheese?” She readied her pen over her notepad.
“No.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Okay, listen: The pizza was called Grated. Cheese. Pizza. Thin crust. Sauce that tastes like it’s got the most amazing mixture of herbs and flavors that I couldn’t even begin to guess. And then a grated layer of cheese that’s also mixed with herbs. If you describe that and they’ve heard of it, they’ll know how to make it.”
“Wow. You’ve sold me, hon. Let me go see what I can find out.”
Grated cheese. Photo courtesy of cookbookman17.
From Down To Up
God, I felt so terrible doing that. The part of me that waited tables felt terrible about it. The part of me that grew up on this pizza and felt betrayed by Vito’s for removing it didn’t care. After forcing Nina to suffer through five minutes of my anxious rantings about how great this pizza was, the waitress returned:
“You’re in luck! One of the chefs knew exactly what I was talking about as soon as I said ‘grated cheese.’ He’s on it!” She had a huge smile on her face that I worked to match with my own. I just couldn’t believe I was going to get this pizza even though it no longer existed on the menu. “What size would you like?”
I didn’t bother to look to Nina as I ordered. “One large Grated Cheese Pizza for here and one medium to go.” If I was going to spend my weekend in Connecticut for this pizza, I was going to have my fill (and more) of it.
The pizza arrived twenty minutes later and my eyes teared up at the sight and smell of it.
“Wait! Don’t touch it!” I screamed as Nina leaned over to grab a slice. Nina and the waitress glared at me.
The Grated Cheese Pizza is perfect in every way with the exception of one flaw: it’s not suitable for eating when it’s fresh from the oven. Even though there’s a thin layer of sauce, grated cheese and herbs brushed on top, that top layer is heavy enough to make the crust bend backwards, resulting in a landslide of sauce and cheese onto the table (or your plate).
The best way to eat Vito’s Grated Cheese Pizza is to bring it home and leave it in the cardboard box for a few hours. Pick up a slice, using one hand to hold the end of the crust and the other hand to support the underside of the slice. The pizza sauce and cheese will have solidified enough at that point to stay put. And if you have the patience to wait even longer — or you’ve still got enough to eat the next day — the cheese will take on a slight crunch. The best.
Five minutes passed and we carefully pulled two slices onto each of our plates. I savored every bite of those slices. With a crust so thin…the sharpness of the cheese hit first…then came the flavorful, herb-filled sauce. . It felt like Willy Wonka was inside my head, dictating the flow of flavor bursts to hit my palate. And I loved every second of it.
“You were right,” Nina said as she finished off her second slice.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love hearing those words—especially when it comes to food suggestions. I pride myself on having quality taste buds and so it’s always a real kick to have someone appreciate and validate my ideas of what makes for good food—or the best, in this case. At that particular moment in time though, my main focus was on eating as much of that tasty wonderfulness as I could before we had to get on the road again. I smiled back at Nina, nodded my head, and finished off four more slices.
The rest of the pizza was gone by 7 p.m. on Monday.
Contributed by freelancer Suzanne E. Scacca.
Top photo credit Cannoli. Photo courtesy of stu_spivack.