John Roach: Nothing brings humanity together like pizza

Published On: Jan 28 2014 02:03:30 PM CST   Updated On: Jan 29 2014 08:12:55 AM CST
John Roach's Column

By John Roach

When you write a column, it is best to explore the things that matter.

Love, war, justice. You know. The Big Things.

I often chide Brennan the Editor that she publishes too many stories about desserts and popular dentists. But with this issue I applaud her without reservation, for she has chosen to feature a topic that matters totally and absolutely.

It is a subject that brings all mankind together and binds us in a unique, remarkable way. With this substance come peace, satisfaction and joy regardless of our politics, gender or sexual preference. It is an offering that unites the disparate members of the human family in a way few things do. In its presence, the lamb will lie down with the lion, the Packer fan will smile upon the Bears fan, and Marty Beil will hug Scott Walker like a long-lost brother.

Yes, friends, I am talking about pizza.

Pizza, the magical food that delivers all the major food groups in just one bite. Vegetable, protein, fruit, grain and dairy all come warmly together in just one convenient and manageable slice to be held comfortably in the palm of your hand.

My earliest memories of pizza are vivid to me still. When I was child in the Madison of the '50s and '60s, our town's menu was drab. The food was Midwest, light brown, average white people stuff served at charming, erstwhile joints like Cuba Club and Rennebohm's. As warm and friendly as those places were, we still lived in a meat loaf, grilled cheese, mashed potato world.

For instance, I have absolutely no memory of a Chinese restaurant in Madison before the early '70s. Fried shrimp with Hoffman House sauce was viewed as an incredibly daring and rare dining experience akin to a trip to the Orient.

The only foreign fare we were exposed to came from the 'Bush, where Madison's loud and proud Italian community pushed our palates past Jell-O molds with suspended marshmallows. It was at Lombardino's Restaurant on the old University Avenue where I first experienced the wonder of pizza. The joint was owned and amiably run by Teddy and Jeanie Maglio and their family. My first pizza there forever shaped my world pizza view.

Teddy was a high school teammate of my dad's at Edgewood. In those hardscrabble days my parents had more kids than net worth, so going out to dinner was a very big deal. Teddy, out of respect to his former teammate and pre-birth-control-pill family, always seated us at his largest table with a wonderfully gaudy lamp as a centerpiece and treated us like royalty. And it was at Teddy's recommendation where the Irish Roaches first tried pizza.

My first slice was cheese, sausage and black olives. That is what I order still to this day.

After the first glorious mouthful at Lombardino's, I embarked on a life whose chapters could be marked by pizza. First, after assessing the rave reviews from Lombardino's, my mom created her own baked white bread dough and hamburger pizza on cookie sheets. It was surprisingly good.

My first college roomies in an apartment on Willy Street were Madison Italian boys Paul Schiro and Phil Pellitteri. They introduced me to the wonder of having Gino's State Street pizza delivered right to our door! I ate Gino's pizza every night for a year. I regret not one slice.

Upon graduation, my career took me to Chicago, the city of broad shoulders and thick pizza. It was there that I experienced the true deep-dish layered pizza of Gino's East. And the fine thin crust, fresh-topped offerings of Bacino's.

When I returned to Madison, I watched in rapture as Madison's pizza landscape expanded with Glass Nickel, Roman Candle, Ian's and the surprisingly good pie of Benvenuto's and the flatbread of Veranda.

I even began experimenting by hand-making my own pizza prior to Packer games with the aid of Gino's Italian Deli's starter kit of uncooked dough, mild sausage and sauce. I roll the dough, brown the sausage, add a thin layer of olive oil to the pan, along with coating of corn meal, three handfuls of sliced black olives and fresh mozzarella and presto: Papa Roach's Homemade Pizza.

But every mouthful of pizza I eat takes me back to my first slice Lombardino's, at the big table with Ted Maglio treating us like the Medicis.

Ted would even have his mustachioed waiter from the homeland come over and sing an Italian aria to us.

I have no doubt that he was singing about war and love and justice.

And pizza.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

Read more of Roach's column here.