By Hank Gilman, deputy managing editor
FORTUNE -- People are obsessed about a lot of things. President Obama's health care plan. Pro football. Fox talk show hosts. The Hangover movies.
I'm into pizza. And this is my story: the quest for the ultimate Neapolitan pie of my youth.
On business trips, I'm always searching for great, off-the-beaten-track pizza shops. I recently drove to Cole Camp, Mo., a city of one square mile, because a colleague told me there was a great pizza restaurant there. (She was right. It's called Calgaro's.) When I worked at the Boston Globe many years ago, I actually wrote an article about the "top pizza-chain pizza," meaning that for a time there, eating lousy pizza was my livelihood. That's how bad my habit was and why my Lipitor bills are huge.
It was a great thing for my pizza-eating life that I ended up in the Hartford area in the late 1970s. The state of Connecticut, New Haven in particular, is home to some of the best pizza in the country, with places like Sally's, the Modern, and Frank Pepe's.
But that wasn't where I found the greatest pizza in the universe. Corky's "Famous" Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria was a little hole-in-the-wall shop on the main drag in East Hartford, a kind of grimy industrial town -- home to companies like Pratt & Whitney. I was a reporter at a suburban newspaper. Before and after covering things like sewer commission meetings, I'd eat at Corky's. My favorite was the pizza with the spinach topping, a perfect creation of thin, slightly charred crust, made-from-scratch sauce, whole-milk cheese, and fresh, oven-roasted spinach. From time to time I would ask the owner, Dominick (Nick) DiBattista, what his secret was. Something about the spices he used in his sauce. I didn't care really. I was young, hungry, and had a sewer commission to write about. Life was good. Who cared what made the pizza great?
Over the years Nick expanded his business. He eventually ended up with an 8,000-square-foot restaurant in the same spot as the original place. The pizza never changed, but the lines did. On weekends Corky's fans would wait outside for as long as an hour to get in. I know. I was one of them. By that time, I had left the Hartford area and lived at various times in Boston and New York. Every couple of months my wife and friends would drive a couple of hours to meet at Corky's. We'd usually run into Nick and say hello. But in truth I never learned much about him other than that he had a family who helped him run the business and that apparently he was a very religious man. (The windows on the swinging kitchen doors were in the shape of a crucifix.) But that was it. The man and his pizza were basically a mystery to me.
Then it was over. One day in 1995, I made a pit stop on the way back home to New York from Boston. Corky's, named after Nick's father, was closed. There was a sign with a farewell message from Nick. He was off to Florida. Damn, I recall saying to myself on the drive home, I wish I'd gotten the recipe for that spinach pizza.
Over the past 15 years I'd think of Corky's from time to time, especially after eating another ordinary pizza. I was at Sally's in New Haven last fall, and it was still among the best I'd ever had. But I was still thinking about that spinach pizza and the little shop in East Hartford and wondering whatever became of that guy. Then, a few months back, for some reason after all these years I turned to my Mac and typed in the name "Corky's." As easy as that, I found a restaurant with that name in Arlington, Texas.
It couldn't be the same place -- could it? Nick had moved to Florida. Why would he still be making pizza? Well, there was a website. There was a picture of Nick and his second wife, Michele, standing in front of a wood-burning oven. There was a menu, and, yes, you could get the spinach topping.
Off to the Lone Star State
You know where this story is going: on a road trip to Arlington, Texas. I had a business trip to Texas planned. (Sure you did. --EDITOR) I decided to take a side trip to Fort Worth to visit Fortune writer Peter Elkind, who was amused by this little obsession of mine. I e-mailed Nick, trying not to sound like a Food Network stalker, and we set a date. He was happy to hear from me and, yes, I was one of many devoted followers who made the pilgrimage to Arlington.
Now, you know these things never end up the way you think they are going to. Never do, right? Your mind plays tricks, stuff gets better with the passage of years (like Beatles music and Truffaut movies). Pretty soon I talked myself into a funk. This was going to be a disaster. I should have stayed home and ordered takeout from Pizza Hut. Why did I do this?
I went to Arlington. The new Corky's, now nine years old, was in a shopping center that could have been anywhere. The shop was spacious and modern. The wood oven looked like an oven that was made to look like a wood-burning pizza oven. (It was real.) Nick kept us waiting for about 15 minutes. He was in the back making dough, which he does from scratch. That was encouraging. The pizzas at the other tables looked like, well, Corky's pizzas. I felt better.
Nick finally came over and described his journey. I'm not sure he recognized me, but he pretended to. The story? His dad, Corrado ("Corky"), taught him how to make pizza at his Hartford restaurant, and Nick eventually opened his own in 1976. After two decades the business had gotten too big and his kids wanted no part of the restaurant grind. Divorced, he moved to Naples, Fla. He planned to open another pizza shop. But Michele, who was from Arlington, persuaded him to open a new restaurant in Texas, where a good pizza was hard to find.
Okay, great. What about the pizza? He told me, without revealing too much. The dough? Makes it from scratch and keeps it for at least 24 hours in the walk-in refrigerator and then at room temperature, which helps make the crust "crispier and crunchier." He uses cornmeal on the bottom and cold-pressed olive oil. The wood oven is better than a coal oven because coal is so dirty. The spinach is roasted in the wood oven at around 900° F. ("I crank it.") The sauce is made with peeled plum tomatoes because the peels are too bitter. He adds 12 spices (all fresh) to the recipe. Don't ask him what they are; it's a family secret. Peppers are roasted and seasoned because there's nothing more tasteless than raw bell peppers thrown on top of a pizza. The sausage? He spent months finding the right meat company (run, as it turned out, by a family of Italian immigrants who knew Nick's family in Italy). Nick blends two kinds of sausage to get the taste just right. The discovery was "a gift from God himself," says Nick. "I'm a fanatic." Yup, that's my pizza guy.
We also talked about how business was in Texas (great and getting greater) and how he enjoyed being back in the restaurant business after all these years. ("What other business can you have all these people over for dinner ... and then they pay you for their visit? How do you beat that?")
So how does this end? To be sure, reminiscing and talking about cold-pressed olive oil and the bell peppers was nice. But I kept glancing at Michele by the counter, wondering when the pizza with the spinach topping would arrive. She finally walked over, pizza in hand. It looked like what I recalled. That was a good start. The crust was charred, the ingredients were in the proportions I remembered. And, of course, there was the roasted spinach.
I tasted it. Damn. Nick had pulled it off. It was the same pizza I ate by the truckloads back in the '70s and '80s into the '90s. I was right. It was the greatest.
And that, well, was that. After tracking him down and planning the trip, it was over in a matter of minutes. That's how eating pizza is. Corky's was pizza Shangri-la and still is. Other than 15-plus years passing by, nothing much had changed. Nick got up to leave and headed back into the kitchen to work on more dough, the way it should be. We walked out of the restaurant and to the car. Who knew when I'd be back again?
I should have gotten the recipe.
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