Today is the first full day of summer. Once upon a time that distinction meant a great deal to me. For summertime in my youth—while often incredibly hot and humid—was chock full of fun, freedom, and frivolity. It little mattered that I didn’t have air conditioning in my family’s upstairs lair and that local utility Con Edison periodically zapped neighborhoods—typically the less well-to-do ones—with brownouts. In other words, our ice cubes would half melt, refreeze, and taste pretty awful at the end of the day. A cool refreshing drink during the worst dog days of summer wasn’t always possible.
While I consumed an awful lot of pizza in the fall, winter, and spring, there was something special about summertime and a place called Sam’s Pizza—a hot dog at the ballpark sort of thing. In its Kingsbridge heyday in the 1970s, it was my preferred dining establishment as a teenager. A slice cost fifty and sixty cents then—a different era for pizza and just about everything else. On the hottest of hot days, there was nothing quite like dropping by for a couple of slices to go or, better yet, a couple of “Sicilians,” which cost a whopping ten cents more.
Forty years ago, Sam’s Pizza sole source of beating the heat was a small fan atop the front door. Suffice it to say, the contraption didn’t do much in combating the heat and humidity of the Summers of Sam’s. In fact, the fan underscored the unbearable clamminess that came with the territory of peddling pizza on a busy Bronx thoroughfare in the months of June, July, August, and September.
I can vividly recall the humming of the fan on an oppressive summer’s afternoon. While my slices of pizza warmed in the oven, I perspired in the stifling interior of Sam’s awaiting my take-out, which locals could readily detect by the grease stains on the brown paper bag. Sometimes the bags were so laden with oil, they would come apart on the street. Grease was definitely the word back then. The funny thing is that it either enhanced the fare—good grease—or took it down a peg or two. Bad grease! Bad grease and summertime weren't a good combination.
In the good old days, George—the venerable owner of Sam’s—would prepare a rack load of pizza pies in the morning before the shop opened. This modus operandi ensured that the over-the-counter slices weren’t always the freshest. And it assumed further significance when the thermometer topped ninety degrees. But even during those sultry summers, there was nothing quite like a piping-hot-out-of-the-oven Sicilian slice from Sam’s. My younger brother and I frequently hankered for one, but knew we had to apply the “petrified” test before proceeding. Typically, this could be accomplished with a glancing visual of the Sicilian pie on the countertop. If the pie was down to a precious few rectangular slices—or had been sitting around for too many hours to count—the pizza was deemed “petrified.” Regular slices were then our only recourse. For they had a knack for surviving the sands of time and could more often than not be salvaged during the reheating. Still, it amounted to casting your fate to the summer wind.
It was definitely a hot affair in those hot times. Sam’s Pizza only sold pizza, Italian ices, and soft drinks—and eventually Jamaican beef patties—in the 1970s. Regular or Sicilian slices were the be-all and end-all. The topping possibilities were limited to extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, and anchovies. There was no such thing as lasagna pizza, salad pizza, or white pizza. In fact, it always grossed me out when someone ordered a slice with mushrooms or anchovies. I’d be forced to watch George stick his hands into big cans and smother the slice with said toppings. He would then wipe them clean with a dirty rag.
Happily, I have lived to tell. And in commemoration of the Summers of Sam’s, I ordered a couple of Sicilian slices from a local pizzeria. They were pretty good as far as contemporary Sicilians go. But I can say without exaggeration that the fresh Sicilian pizza enjoyed in the Summers of Sam’s—thick, doughy, and oozing with cheese—will never be tasted it again.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)