Here’s a little article that’s less about a restaurant and more about how individuals judge the value of an item. I’ve made a couple of references in earlier entries to how much I miss the message boards at atlantacusine.com. Perhaps because those references strike an “order of business” tone rather than a playful one, they probably come across as strident and bossy, and less like a fun recurring joke. Since I’m openly taking inspiration from, and paying homage to, the great Calvin Trillin in this blog, I’d like more recurring characters and gags like his buddy Fats and his daughter’s insistence on plain bagels, and less order of business in this venture. Trillin, after all, never wasted space in his stories complaining about the editorial board of The New Yorker or whatever. Perhaps this could be a deficiency in this blog; after all, I sincerely hope that it eventually finds enough of a flow and a voice to be entertaining for readers across the country, even the ones who will never visit this region.
And yet, before I close the subject and quit bellyaching about Tom Maicon closing the forums, I think I should expand upon something I mentioned in the first chapter. Word of mouth absolutely trumps even the most enthusiastic review. This is something I have certainly noticed from all of the dozens of short book and comic reviews that I have written. Maicon may tell the world about what he’s certain is the finest restaurant he’s ever come across just as emphatically as I’d like to tell the world that Robo-Hunter is my favorite comic serial, but people above the age of, say, eleven really do filter critical praise, knowing the writer is all-too human.
After all, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has employed a food critic of remarkably good taste and a vibrant writing style, but John Kessler will always be known to me as the man who strongly recommended the worst barbecue restaurant in the city, and, within six months, also gave a dismissive shrug to the late, great Lewis Grizzard’s favorite eatery. I still remain absolutely astonished that any of us lived to see the day that Grizzard’s own paper printed something negative about Sprayberry’s Barbecue in Newnan. Dogs and cats started living together the very next afternoon.
Here’s what I mean by word of mouth trumping even an informed opinion: Varasano’s serves the best pizza that I have ever had by some considerable margin. It is flatly and frankly unbelievable. I could name you some really fantastic pizzerias in this city and defend them with vigor and a smile, and, while willing to stand corrected, swap cities with anybody in America for a Monday through Friday challenge of our respective top fives. Well, if somebody was floating my expenses anyway. If you say Manhattan or Chicago have a top five that could beat Fellini’s, LaBella’s, Everybody’s, Fritti and Varasano’s, then that sounds like it must be the greatest week of meals on the planet. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I am saying that you’d better say a prayer of thanks before bedtime this evening that you’re lucky enough to live in such a town, and do you have a guest room?
I’ve been meaning to stop by Antico to see whether the rumors are true and it’s good enough to knock Fellini’s out of my top five. Unfortunately, Varasano’s is so damn good that I just can’t seem to get over to Hemphill to try it out. And I never would have known of Varasano’s had Maicon’s old forum not featured one of the most remarkable message board threads I’ve ever seen anywhere online. You think I’ve made a fool of myself with some of the drivel I’ve babbled online? Even the drivel in 2004, he said, citing what might be a recurring gag? You should have seen these people drooling about Varasano’s and its char. Once you told me what the heck char was, I still wouldn’t have thought it was a virtue until I’d seen forty-eleven people risk their reputations telling the internet about the orgasms induced by the juuuust burnt patches of pizza crust.
Somehow, there was a heck of a lot more to this pie than any single article could get across. All this hype required investigation.
Marie and I first went to Varasano’s last summer on a day that my son spent with Neal, whom you may recall overindulging on the black bean chili at Sweet Tomatoes. Clearly I need to find a new recurring gag for Neal, because that’s not as funny as, say, having a fondness for all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.
This was during Varasano’s early, experimental phase as they worked through some issues with the center of their pizzas being a little soggy. Anybody who remembers that message board thread remembers this; new reports came in daily, bloating an already hype-filled thread to gargantuan as nobody wanted to be left out anymore. There was already a cool kids’ clique at work; Jeff Varasano had been perfecting his recipes with some invitation-only parties before opening. Everybody wanted to join the in crowd by being the one to announce they were there the night Jeff turned his pizza from damned amazing to sheer perfection by eliminating the soggy center.
Personally, I never understood the complaint. If the worst you can say about a slice of pizza is that there’s a hair more of the best sauce in the city on the tip, and that the best dough in the city had absorbed a little more of it, then it sounds to me like you’ve still got a pretty good slice of pie.
Over several visits, I’ve worked my way down the menu, skipping only the New Haven Clam, which sounds amazing but also, sadly, lethal. My son had, over all this time, been missing out, so I let him pick one of the two pies we had on Saturday night when we went with Marie. He chose a Salumi, piled high with salted imported meats, and Marie and I agreed on a Nucci, with fresh arugula and prosciutto.
He had to agree that Louisville, where he’s been staying with his mother, doesn’t have any pizza anything remotely like that. Very few places do. Although, ironically, Louisville is the home of the Papa John’s Pizza empire. You’ve probably seen Papa John on television, espousing their motto, “Better ingredients, better pizza.” I think, more than the preparation, even cooking it to give those lovely patches of char, that’s true with any pizza, and nobody uses better ingredients than Varasano’s. I mean, if the cheese is coming from water buffaloes instead of cows, it’s something quite different than what Papa John’s can offer you on a five buck carryout special. If Sweet Tomatoes would bring in some of that arugula, their salads would instantly rise above “unmemorable,” but, heck, the last two times we were there for the creamy tomato soup, they didn’t even have spinach. We’ll be asking for gold-plated forks next.
And with that, I’ll shut up about Maicon closing his site’s forums. The joke was never funny, and now it’s old, and so I’ll hush. Until Maicon comes to his senses or I next go eat at Fox Brothers, anyway.
(Benefit of hindsight update: The ongoing joke of these early chapters was on me, as the forum was already reopened and running as 285foodies.com and I had no idea. Also, it would be more than 18 months before I made that next trip to Fox Brothers, which had been similarly hyped beyond belief by the regulars of the old forum.)
Other blog posts about Varasano’s: