Square. That's what my earliest concept of what a slice of pizza was. It was square. It was small. And when you ate it, you'd wolf down a dozen 2.5 x 3-inch squares in one sitting. And so my earliest perceptions of pizza were vastly different from the general population. Most Americans understand pizza to be a big, round, fluffy pie with a thick, doughy crust topped with a mild tomato sauce and studded with wisps of pepperoni, drowning in seas of greasy, melted cheese and sliced into prominent wedges. No, no --by the gods-- NO!
What I knew as pizza came from Dayton, Ohio. It's all thanks to the late, great Cassano's Pizza King founder "Vic" Cassano, Sr. and his mother-in-law, "Mom" Donisi. Their pizza was allegedly derived from old-world Italy. When they opened their first restaurant in 1953, they introduced to the area a crispy, thin-crust pizza featuring a salted bottom, edge-to-edge toppings and a wine-spiked tomato sauce sliced into those precious little squares. Thanks to Cassano's unique style, Ohioans can enjoy copy-cat pizza companies like Donato's and Marion's Piazza, both of which I like because, you know, squares. But Cassano's came first and, to me, it will always be the best.
While Cassano's offers more than 30 locations in the Dayton area, there are scant few in greater Cincinnati, all relegated to its outer edges, like Fairfield, Monroe and Trenton. Tonight, I made a special trip to visit an old friend: the Fairfield Cassano's Pizza King, located in a strip mall off Dixie Highway, just past Jungle Jim's.
The 32-year-old neon sign is like the ones I remember as a child, with the smiling, crown-adorned chef lifting a pizza box high aloft as if to say, "Behold, this is what true pizza is! Step in, my friends, and reward your tongue with greatness!"
I'd called ahead 15 minutes prior to my arrival to pick up my 16-inch beauty: a classic Cassano's Deluxe topped with pepperoni, ground sausage, and finely diced mushrooms, onion and green pepper. The layout of the place hadn't changed in the several years since I'd last visited, with wood paneled chair rails and deep red booths and tables in a long, shot-gun style dining room. The free Wi-Fi was likely the biggest, most recent upgrade to the place. Still, not much needs to change here: for people like me, Cassano's is all about nostalgia.
Greedily snatching the box and dashing back out to my car, I lustily breathed in the distinctively salty aroma so signature to their pizza. It filled my cabin and infused itself into my clothing like a warm embrace, inviting me to succumb to its allure and sneak a few pieces before I took the agonizing 30-minute drive back to my house.
When I arrived home, it was all I could do to stop myself from devouring the whole pizza. While the tiny squares offer their own kind of special appeal, they also serve as delicious, devilish minions of deception, fooling the diner into believing that he hasn't eaten as much as he has. "I'll just have a few squares more...what's the harm?" the unsuspecting diner might say aloud, only to find himself repeating this ritual until the whole damn thing is gone.
Tonight, however, I managed a modicum of restraint. The supreme saltiness of a Cassano's pizza paradoxically makes the idea of an ice-old Coca-Cola diuretic irresistible, and I silently cursed myself for not having the foresight to purchase a can.
In the morning, I opened my refrigerator door to find more than 3/4 of the pizza still staring back at me, and so I took part in yet another Cassano's fan ritual: the leftover pizza breakfast. By now, the distinctive Cassano's pizza flavors had been granted enough time to further marry and concentrate, and what morning leftover pizza lacks in crispiness, it gains twofold in flavor.
Cassano's was likely the first Italian word I'd ever uttered in my life and, if its sodium content is any indication, it may very well be my last. And I wouldn't have it any other way.