I rolled out of bed and into the shower to erase the stench of State Night that still lived on my skin and in my hair and in my blue jeans, which I had forgotten to take off before lying down to sleep the night before.
In the shower I opened my mouth to the spigot and filled it with the warm water. I swallowed, an attempt to drown my hangover. I still can’t think in long sentences.
The thing that stirred me—the thing that pulled me out of bed and into the shower—was the same thing that pulled me back to my room, and pulled my fresh blue jeans up my legs and it was the same thing that tied my shoes.
The thing that stirred me was breakfast pizza at Teresa’s Caffe in Palmer Square.
Last Sunday Teresa’s opened her doors for fifty students for a five-dollar breakfast pizza feast-a-palooza. Teresa’s threw the event for Princeton’s chapter of Slow Food, a national group organized to support restaurants that serve local food. For Teresa’s it was cheap advertising for their new brunch menu replete with breakfast pizzas and egg creations and even “organic brown egg frittata,” whatever that is.
Before you go rolling your eyes (“What’s so special? Eggs are eggs?”), let me quote from their menu:
“Crepes, Scallions, Ricotta Salata, Smoked Salmon, Soft Scramble Egg, Béchamel… Poached Eggs, Shitake Mushroom, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan Bread, Mornay Sauce… Poached Organic Brown Egg, Spicy Pepperonata Sauce, Smoked Mozzarella, Pane Tostato”
Now, I know Howard up in Mathey makes a mean omelet, but you can’t tell me that you didn’t get a little hot and bothered when you read “Mornay Sauce.”
But I didn’t go for the eggs, and this story isn’t about the eggs. This story is about the pizza.
Remember: when I walked into Teresa’s that morning my head was throbbing. I wore sunglasses to hide my drooping eyelids from the judgmental passers-by who were coming from church, or going to church, or doing something at their church. I made my friend Walter come along, so it didn’t look like I—on top of being hungover (and therefore pathetic)—was friendless (and therefore pathetic).
I sat down and let the waiter fill my water glass and bring me bread and bring me pizza. There was no menu that morning. The chef sent us whatever he wanted.
From where I was sitting in the back half of the restaurant with my back to the window, I had a full view of the pizza station and oven in Teresa’s kitchen. I watched the chef pound a ball of dough into a thick disk that reminded me of a red blood cell. Then he tossed it three—maybe four—times, and each time it spread itself a wider and made itself a little thinner. I imagined the dough disk jumping over a garden fence to steal a peak at its neighbors, except it was stealing a peak at its final resting piece in my stomach.
When most people hear “Teresa’s,” they think of light lunch pizzas or salads, or foofy organic pastas for dinner. Most people would not think of breakfast pizzas. And I didn’t really know what to expect when my girlfriend forwarded an invitation to the event to me from the Slow Food listserv. I certainly didn’t expect a thin Italian-style curst to come loaded with a prosciutto, tomato and Fontina cheese omelet, and I definitely had no way to prepare for the organic brown fried egg that spilled its yolk over the gentle mushroom-speckled surface of a Fontina cheese pizza with a tomato sauce base (The chef had a weird affinity for Fontina).
Don’t let the fact that it was packaged as a breakfast pizza fool you—this wasn’t your typical overly-cheesy, overly-greasy Papa Johns pie served with dipping butter and a pepper. Teresa’s prides itself on fresh, organic ingredients and extremely professional preparation and service.
While we filled ourselves up on fresh olive oil and bread from their affiliated bakery—the Witherspoon Bread Company—the pizza chef shot glances at us when the server brought our pizzas over. He seemed anxious to judge by our faces our first impressions of his pies. As we sampled each pizza he kept us in the corner of his eye, always judging the pizza’s reception and thinking about his next creation.
Every pizza wan an improvisation for the chef. He set the menu as he spread the sauce, or scrambled the eggs. He worked as if there was no forethought, only instinct guiding his choice of cheeses and meats and vegetables. When the door to the oven opened and the baker reached in with his long wooden spoon to retrieve the next creation the chef looked as surprised as the customers. Every pizza was an experiment.
I doubt he was scratching his head over how to impress a hungover twenty-year-old. Anything with crispy crust and melted cheese would have done it. But I really was impressed by the way Teresa’s threw together two of my favorite things—breakfast and pizza—which I had previously assumed to be irreconcilable. And best of all, it did it in a non-pretentious way that was accessible to even me, a drunken college student who can’t tell a chantrelle mushroom from a cherry tomato.