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Boston Chefs on Their First Pizza Memories

Photo: Papa Gino's in Bedford, MA/John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons

As Pizza Week 2014 marches into its final hours, we reflect back — way back. Here, Boston chefs share their first pizza-related childhood memories.

Kosta Diamantopoulos, Co-Owner of All Star Pizza Bar and All Star Sandwich Bar: "Every first memory of mine has to do with pizza. My brother and I grew up in my dad's pizzeria. We went there before school so my dad could turn on the ovens, all our lunches came from there, we went there after school and did our homework there and then took food home for dinner. I've never had a Friday night off in my life, or a Saturday morning. I had to watch my Saturday morning cartoons as I helped my parents roll dough balls in the back of the kitchen on a 13" crappy TV that had makeshift rabbit ear antennas made from souvlaki sticks and aluminum sub wrap foil."

Frank DePasquale, Owner of DePasquale Ventures: "The first pizza memory I have was going to Da Michele for the first time when I was a boy living in Naples with my parents. I fell in love with pizza right then."

Phil Frattaroli, Owner of Ducali: "Going to Umberto's with my dad and looking at the mural of Italy painted on the wall. It looks exactly the same as it did back then."

Dante de Magistris, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Restaurant dante and il Casale: "I remember growing up spoiled eating my grandmother's pan pizza, then one day at the age of eight going over to a friend's house for dinner. They ordered delivery, and I was so hungry, but I couldn't eat the pizza because the smell made me nauseous, and I went to the bathroom to vomit. Being a good boy I only told my friend and his family that I wasn't feeling well and had to go home. This is the first time coming clean about that story. The truth is, Mrs. Jenkins, I didn't have a stomach bug that day; THAT PIZZA WAS JUST HORRIBLE."

Rodney Murillo, Culinary Director of Davio's: "Pizza Hut was my first pizza — in Costa Rica. It was the first time I had a mushroom on pizza, and I thought it was the best thing in the world. I even got to go to the opening. It was like the Oscars for my town, a red carpet event. It's still there. Costa Ricans had never heard of pizza before Pizza Hut."

Carla and Christine Pallotta, Co-Owners of Nebo: "Our mother's house in the North End on a Friday night (aka "pizza night" in the North End, when everyone would eat pizza at home, then meet up for more at Regina). She makes perfect thin-crust pizza squares. We'd have these at home, then meet up with friends at Regina, where everyone would order a small pizza (really crispy crust) for themselves (no sharing), and 80-90% would order anchovy on top."

Will Gilson, Chef/Owner of Puritan & Co.: "I was 8, driving to Key West from Boston with my folks. We stopped in Islamorada for food, and I had mushroom pizza for the first time. I had eaten pizza before, but that one stood out. If it was the Keys, I'm sure nothing was fresh, but there is something about eating pizza on a beach that solidifies a memory."

Suzi Maitland, Chef at Trina's Starlite Lounge: "My first pizza memory is making English muffin pizzas in kindergarten. I'm still a sucker for them!"

Francisco Millan, Chef de Cuisine at Row 34: "Pino's Pizza in Cleveland Circle is my first pizza memory. Of course I had pizza as a young kid at other places, but Pino's introduced me to what pizza is. I remember just not wanting to stop eating my pepperoni pizza and asking my older brother Julian if we could go back tomorrow for some more pizza. They have been open since 1976 and have been making their pizza the same since. Their crust is soft and chewy but has just enough texture, and the pies come out the same each and every time. Even now if I am not hungry and am in the area I absolutely have to stop and get a slice from there."

Josh Bhatti, Bowery Presents & The Sinclair: "Papa Gino's. Still a great chain in my opinion."

Nicki Hobson, Chef de Cuisine at Island Creek Oyster Bar: "I remember my first real experience with pizza at age six, when my family lived in Gubbio, Italy on sabbatical. The toppings of ham and pineapple were non-traditional for Italian pizza. However, the Neapolitan thin crust won me over. Moving back to live in Florence exactly 20 years later, I couldn't wait for another go at this wonderful pizza.The Italians have it down exactly as it should be. They don't mess with traditional doughs and always care more about the fresh ingredients than wowing their guests. I ate one of those delicious pies almost every day for three months."

Andrew Hebert, Executive Chef at TRADE: "Italy, when I was eight or nine years old. I don't think I've had a better pizza since."

Steve Bowman, Co-Owner of Fairsted Kitchen: "Win or lose, after Little League games my Dad would take me, my best friend, and his family to Village Fare Pizza, on Washington Street in Brookline Village. We'd split a greasy, Greek-style pie topped with sausage, peppers, and onions and wash it down with way too much orange soda. Later, after the sugar kicked in, you could find us screaming and running around the green lawns of town hall, just across the street, the memory of a hard game pushed far to the past. Lo and behold, some 25 years later, Village Fare is still there, and the pizza is just the same. Every now and again, I'll sneak out of my restaurant, Fairsted Kitchen, and trek the mile down Washington St. to reconnect with childhood and delight in some nostalgic bites."

John DeSimone, Co-Owner of MAST' (coming soon): "My memory of pizza of course starts with the greatest chef I know, my Mom. My memories are sparked by the smell of fresh baked pizza topped with whatever fresh ingredients were on hand that day — peppers, onions, salami, etc. The aroma is unforgettable. Pizza was always instrumental in bringing the whole family together."

Josh Lewin, Executive Chef of Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro: "My uncle's mother, Grandma DeWolf, matriarch of a large Italian family in Springfield, MA, used to make pizza dough at home — and sauce. I remember tasting it when I was eight or nine years old and immediately knowing we were eating something that somebody took a lot of time and care to make. It tasted like hard work. It tasted like it was made by somebody well-practiced at feeding a lot of hungry people but without sacrificing the quality of her cooking. One of my fondest memories of Grandma DeWolf revolves around that pizza. I can tell you exactly what happened that day and who was at the table when we ate it. I don't have a lot of memories like that."

James DiSabatino, Founder/CEO of Roxy's Grilled Cheese: "I may hold the record for most Papa Gino's pizzas eaten in a lifetime. It's probably been 10 years since I've had one. But I used to go after every youth hockey and Little League game from ages 7-14. I think it's still the best chain pizza. And yes, you can bet your ass I had multiple birthday parties there."

Anthony Allen, Co-Owner of OTTO: "Nice, France. Wood-fired, early 1980s. On the beach, fantastic-thin crust, fresh tomato, real EVOO and a handful of fresh parsley as it came out of the oven that fried in the EVOO. Absolutely fantastic. That pizza inspired me into the world of pizza. Still a searing memory."

Joe Cassinelli, Owner of Posto and Painted Burro: "Papa Gino's. I was in Milford, so yeah, Papa Gino's. You were either a Papa Gino's person or a Pizza Hut person, and I was decidedly a Papa Gino's person, not Pizza Hut."

Jeff Pond, Chef/Partner of A4 Pizza and Area Four: "I grew up in Connecticut; we always had pretty good pizza. I guess it's the proximity to New York on some level. Everybody always says Pepe's; I think Pepe's has changed now. It's not what it used to be. This was not my first childhood experience, but I do remember my first Pepe's experience, and it was good. It was very good. Today, walk in there, and you've gotta take a number pretty much. I called up to order something to go, and they're like, Well, I have a 3:30 available and I have a 3:45 available, and you're like, What?! Am I calling for a doctor's appointment? Down the street from me was a little brick oven shop, and they were doing wood-fired pizza; it wasn't as popular back then, but it was really good. And we had another shop that did kind of your traditional pizza, and they did a pretty good job with it — it was called Pizza Time. Pizza Time's what I grew up on. They used to make these little calzones that were really cool. So that's my first memory. It was great — a little hole in the wall, too."
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