In 1999 we moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, before it became a "hip" place to live. We had a great apartment two doors down from Russ Pizza. I was just learning to cook, so now and then we relied on pizza as a quick and inexpensive meal. We'd bring it back to our apartment, sit in our hallway for lack of comfortable furniture and play scrabble while we ate.
One day as I was walking to work looking snappy in my uniform (my first job out of college I was a flight attendant) dragging my luggage behind me, I heard a voice from a window say, "Dove vai?" I looked up and saw the pizza guy in his window. I had noticed him before as he was often at his perch observing the goings-on on Manhattan Avenue. "Vado a Parigi!" I spouted out, "I'm going to Paris," proud that my two years of college Italian could be put to use. "Torno sabato! Ci vediamo." (I'll be back Saturday! See you then.) When I returned from that trip a few days later, I started eating my pizza in-house and soon the man behind Russ Pizza would sit and chat with me. We treated all of our out of town visitors to Sal's pizza, the quintessential thin crust New York pizza, impossible to replicate outside the five boroughs.
Sal would look out for me when my boyfriend (now husband) was out of town and I never again paid for pizza. To show my gratitude, Sal and his crew became the recipients of my kitchen experiments. Ginger cookies, chocolate cookies, and I remember a carrot cake at one point. I'd bring them down and Sal would take a break while we chatted in Italian. Slowly, I learned the story of his past which he shared in bits and pieces.
Sal arrived in New York in the early 1970's from Palermo, Sicily. He came with no family, but soon married a girl from the old country and together they had two children. Sal started working at Russ Pizza, for a Sicilian named Rosario (who went by Russ in English) and after twenty years Sal bought the place. I always ask him why he never changed the name. He said a friend told him not to change it, so he didn't. All these years he has been making pizza with the same imported products from Italy, never scrimping on quality despite the weak US dollar and the increasing prices in Europe.
Although our time in Brooklyn was brief, we remained friends with Sal. Everytime we'd come to New York or anywhere on the East Coast, Sal's place was our first stop. On one visit in 2007, Sal ran out and got a bottle of wine and sat and drank it with us. Then he took us down the street for Italian pastries before sending us on our way with a bag full of them. He treated us like family. He always asked when we were going to have a bambino. We would sort of shrug our shoulders. We were busy traveling the world. We kept in touch with him, sending postcards from our new homes and travels.
"Ciao Sal, adesso siamo in Tunisia. Ancora non c'e bimbo..." (Hi Sal, we're in Tunisia now, still no baby...)
"Ti salutiamo da Barcellona dove siamo in vacanza. Come va Greenpoint?" (Hello from Barcelona where we are on vacation. How's Greenpoint?)
"Ciao Sal, Andiamo a vivere a Roma. C'e un bimbo in arrivo! Si chiamerà Romano!!) (Hi Sal, we're going to live in Rome. There's a baby on the way! We're going to name him Roman!!)
Earlier this summer when we found out we were moving to New York, I called Sal. It had been four years since we had seen him and I could hear tell by his voice that he had a smile on his face. Saturday, we took the train out to Greenpoint to introduce Roman to the authentic New York Pizza and to the man behind our favorite pizza place. I think they hit it off quite well.
No matter how far away we were from home these past 12 years, we thought of Sal. It was comforting to know that he would always be there in Greenpoint, watching over the place in his crisp white apron. And that the crunch of his thin crust pizza with that perfect balance of sauce and cheese would be waiting for us to welcome us back each time.