By: Andrea Caluori
The Bronx is a place I really don’t miss all that much. Growing up there, I always felt like an outsider, an accidental transplant from another place and another time. I’m not interested in telling you about the difficult moments or the fear. Those are memories I have tried to wash away with years of living in a quaint college town in New England. In fact, eleven years in New England have almost succeeded in completely neutralizing my accent and changing my manners. Regardless, there is always some slight detail that reminds me no matter where I travel, I am a part of the Bronx’s geography in some small way, like the way I pronounce the word quarter or the distinct smell of a freshly baked pizza pie.
The truth is, if I were to really be honest with you, I would have to say there are days where some small thing I encounter stirs an odd nostalgia within me for the boulevard where I lived or the neighborhood community comprised of Guy’s deli, my mom’s tailor, and the donut shop. When I think of those small shops and the people who owned them, I begin to feel a little lost. It’s a sensation I often bury deep within hoping it won’t take hold of me. I worked too hard to leave it behind.
Sometimes, leaving it behind is too much. The Bronx likes to come back and remind me of where I’m from. For some reason, it can’t let go of me, it knows that I have gone astray. It infiltrates my memory and stays for a while, almost as if I had invited it for tea. We sit and talk as time goes by without me noticing.
Just the other night, my partner and I went for a walk to the bakery down the street. The street I live on now looks nothing like the big boulevard where I grew up. It’s quaint, with pretty houses and decorative floral gardens. Here, no one describes their street as “the block.” It was one of those days where the heat was incredible, magnified by a dense humidity illuminated by the sun’s intensity. The height of summer, its peak.
Looking down at the sidewalk, seeing my shadow in the concrete and the hot sun reflecting the cement, too bright for the eyes to handle, images of the Bronx’s sidewalks crept in, ablaze with the summer sun. It seemed that if I were to touch them with my hand, my fingers would be scorched. Topography merged, I was walking both streets in both places, everything was inseparable. When we finally reached the bakery, I opened the screen door, greeted by the beautiful bounty of freshly baked loaves on the rack. Decadent artisan breads—a quintessential college town treat. As we stood there trying to decide between the eight grain or the rosemary olive (a decision one would never need to make in the Bronx) a familiar smell caught my attention. Here, I would say, Proust and I would have something to talk about.
The rich smell of dough settling into the stillness of the summer heat lifted my gaze. It was boiling in there, but the delicious whiff of that wonder mingled with the deadening heat called to me as my eyes landed on the glorious metal pizza oven in the bakery. It was all I needed to bring me back.
As a kid, pizzerias were on every block. Each neighborhood had a particular favorite that typically derived from a rivalry between two pizza joints, always outfitted with the standard plastic booths, one video arcade game, and handwritten signs. In my neck of the woods, it was actually between three: Johnny’s, Mike’s and Nicky’s.
The smell of pizza dough and cheese baking in that large metal oven brought me back to Nicky’s pizzeria in the early 90’s. Suddenly I was six years old watching the pizza maker’s hands kneading the dough, sweat pouring down his forehead, the door of the pizzeria open as a weak attempt to let out the heat. The ovens must have been at least 900F. Regardless of the hot humid days spent in the home of the Bronx Bombers, I remember those sweltering pizza ovens and kind working hands as a moment of salvation from the hardness of the Bronx. The pizzeria was a gathering place, a respite from the outside. Not from the heat, but from everything else that burned. Refuge came in the form of a $1.25 slice or a whole pie for $11.00, enough to feed all of your friends or family. The owners sat down with the customers, the door always stayed open, inviting and welcoming.
Standing in this bakery, seeing that oven, I realized I had never left the Bronx. There I was standing in Nicky’s Pizzeria on 204th street, my mother speaking to Gloria, the owner, in Italian while her husband Vincenzo, came over and placed a fresh slice in front of me. He never said a word. For 15 minutes, my mother and Gloria talked about who knows what in their native tongue while I sat there, tanned from playing tag on the block with my friends, healthy, joyful, biting into a thin crust with luscious sauce and flavorful mozzarella fresh from the oven. Sweat beading up on my forehead, the humidity from the outside mingling with the pizzeria’s intense heat, summer in full swing and jubilant with every bite. In the back of the parlor, Vincenzo and Gloria’s sister watched Italian television or listened to the radio. Other times, they went upstairs to their apartment above the enormous oven to take a nap or relax for a bit. Home.
In that lifetime of a moment, I remembered going back to the Bronx when I was 24 years old. It was a fine spring day when the trees were flowering on the Concourse and the sidewalks were not yet so intense. I made the sojourn from Bainbridge Avenue to 204th Street, and walked into Nicky’s pizzeria. By then, I had learned Italian, lived in Italy, and was determined to meet Gloria, say hello, and have a bite of the only thing that really made me feel at home in a place that often left me with tears. The door was open and a line was already forming in what is probably the size of a modest hallway. The plastic counter case showcased stuffed pizza, garlic knots, and Sicilian slices. And there she was, regal and beautiful with too much blue eye shadow, a pizza apron, and her auburn dyed hair pulled back into a bun. I walked up to her, knowing that she probably spoke Neapolitan dialect and not really standard Italian, the language I had learned. Boldly, I asked, “Signora, Lei si ricorda di me? Sono la figlia di Karen.” (Ma’am, do you remember me? I’m Karen’s daughter). She looked at me perplexed. Perhaps I made a mistake? Maybe she didn’t remember me, I had grown up and I looked different. I began to regret this decision. Then, suddenly, her eyes began to widen, a large smile crept on her face and she raced around the counter and screamed, “Oh my god, Karen’s daughter! All grown up! Vincenzo! Look! Karen’s daughter all grown up!” She hugged me, grabbed my hand, and raced me to the back to visit with Vincenzo. Their eyes filled with joy, hers had tears, he smiled and asked me to sit down. It was as if I had returned home after a long trip, as if I were their own daughter. As we sat down, Vincenzo offered a slice of pizza, Gloria brought it over. It was the last slice of pizza from Nicky’s that I would ever have.
My father told me they closed down the place and sold it to someone who worked for them. The first thing I thought? Who would knead the dough?
Back in my local bakery shop watching the oven somewhere between 1990 and 2014, the Bronx still roars and speaks to me, serving me memories of now lost loved ones and brilliant summer days. I tell the girl behind the counter, “This smell and oven, they remind me of growing up in the Bronx.” She asks, “Are you from the Bronx?” “Yeah,” I replied. “So am I.” A knowing smile passed between us. It was all we needed to know.
Andrea Rose Caluori is an educator, yoga teacher and writer living in Northampton, MA.