When I was growing up in a tiny town in Connecticut in the 1960s, there were a couple of places my family would go for pizza. Now mind you, I came from a very (and I mean very) Mediterranean home where my Dad was French (my grandparents only spoke French), and my Mom (my Mom's parents spoke Italian) was Italian and so we ate home cooking a lot. And why not? It was really good home cooking...A subject that I can't wait to write about later this month. And furthermore, our cousins were the owners of the original "Pepe's" Pizza in New Haven (pronounced Na-Haven, btw).
But on Friday nights, we'd go to the local pizza 'house' which was next to the supermarket, near the shoe store, around the corner from the butcher. In those days, the pizza parlor was just one big room, with big square tile floors, paneled walls, ceiling fan and a guy behind a counter making pie.
The booths were covered in marbled green vinyl and the formica tables were speckled grey. Like I said, it was sparse and in the 1960s they packaged up your pizza in big cardboard dishes; one on the top and one on the bottom. Then the pizza guy would slide your scalding hot dinner into a thin brown bag! I can still remember having to hold those hotties on my lap in my Dad's huge black Buick.
The Pizza always smelled delicious, but they nearly burned the skin off my bare knees. Driving back to house was torture...the smell, the pain...despite all that, I learned to love pizza early and I still do.
Later in my life I moved to New York City. Going to college in the Bronx at Fordham, you have the advantage of being close to one of the most popular Italian neighborhoods on the planet; Arthur Avenue. I ate there as often as I could. We made regular nights at Pugsley's and other great pizza places. This kind of food gets into your veins. You get spoiled for life.
As I later settled in Columbia County, an early transplant here in the early 1990s, I naturally searched for some fabulous food and of course, great pizza.
My unending search eventually turned up a funky little joint in Nassau, NY, on the edge of Malden Bridge going toward Albany. The building was tiny and it literally straddled a fork in the road between 203 and Albany Tpk. It was called "Lou's Pizza Hub."
Now no New Yorker worth her weight would even consider going into something called a "Pizza Hub" (what is that anyway?), but I went. And OMG! What I found was a cool guy named Lou with a thick Sicilian accent, slinging dough like a pro. Not only that, Lou was so fastidious about his food. Lou told me one day that he actually smuggled fresh Italian basil out of his native country each time he went there for a visit. The basil leaves were then hand ground to preserve the flavor and mixed with precious extra virgin olive oil also packed directly in Lou's baggage. The result was amazing grass-green pesto.
Lou's specialty (when he had the basil) was fresh pesto over homemade tortellini. I was home! Italian heaven. Hold that thought. It wasn't long after I discovered Lou that he was gone. I'm not sure Lou was fully appreciated in Upstate NY. I often heard the locals refer to this dish as "Paste-A with Paste-O." Go figure!
Lou's pizza was also awesome. Cripsy, crusty, thin with slow cooked tomato sauce and finely dusted with fresh mozzarella cheese. Yum. I felt no need to look further with Lou virtually at more doorstep. It wasn't long after I discovered Lou that he was gone. I'm not sure he was fully appreciated in Upstate, NY. I had often heard the locals refer to his speciality dish as "Paste-A with Paste-O". Go figure. Lou eventually packed up his basil and retired back in Italy. I was crushed like a ripe plum tomato.
Down the road was Kay's Pizza, another institution on a local lakeside. The Pizza was so so, and adding insult to injury, they had a rule that you couldn't take the pie out, and so you were forced to eat it sitting on old picnic tables in all kinds of weather.
Beyond that, I couldn't find much in the way of really good pizza. Nothing like the pizza I had grown up on. Well that was until Labella's opened in the Hannaford Shopping Plaza in Valatie a few years ago.
I have to say that I'm not the type of person who will voluntarily eat in a strip mall unless you count the time I was stuck in Farmington, New Mexico, about 200 miles into the desert away from true civilization and it was either eat in a shopping mall or dine on burritos in the convenience store. But that episode is for another day.
So I got a tip from a reliable source that the guy at Labella's can "really cook." By that I mean he's thinking about the ingredients, he uses his hands in the food, he sings, perhaps a few lines from an Italian opera while he's in the kitchen. You see where I'm going with this.
And so I venture in one night and order the recommended dish, the Marguerita Pizza. Now here's a little history (if you know me, you know I'm into history).
Pizza originated in Italy as you might have guessed. In fact it dates back to the 1st Century B.C., in Roman times.
For a wider look go back further and you'll find that Persian soldiers baked flatbread on their shields and added cheese. And before that you had the Greeks, Egyptians, Indians and naan bread and so on. But let's start with Pizza Italiano!
In Naples (referred to as "the old country" by my relatives) pizza was always made in a stone or brick oven. It was around 1760 when it became popular in Naples to bake tomatoes on top of flat bread. For this we can thank Ferdinand, King of Naples, who rather liked street food and hanging with the locals. People actually thought he was kind of vulgar in that he loved flat bread with olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and a splash of oregano. Sounds like pizza to me.
Despite the King's cravings, his Queen wasn't so hip on food from a cart. The Queen in question would be Maria Carolina of Austria, the sister of Marie Antoinette. She thought her husband's choice of food was, rather, disgusting (I'll bet you he had a man cave too).
Though she wouldn't allow pizza on her own dinner table, she gave in and let her husband install pizza ovens in the palace of Capodimonte. Voila! The first pizza party was launched.
In 1889 it was another Queen Margherita who wanted to try Neapolitan pizza so when she visited, they called on their very best pizza maker, Raffaele Esposito, to make her a pie. To make the pizza special, he added mozzarella cheese and whole basil leaves and Boom! the Margherita pizza was born.
Now the reason I mentioned this is back in Valatie, Felice Salvioli, the owner of LaBella's, is from Naples. His family moved to NY, and he transplanted he and his family to Valatie from Brooklyn. Thank God, because he's the real deal. Felice makes the best Margherita pizza around.
I love the atmosphere at LaBella's too. It's like a neighborhood bar in the front...Old School...the tv is on, guys are drinking beer in work clothes, people know each other. Around the bar and in the back are acres of tables. There's a semi open kitchen like when I was a kid where you can see the pizza's being made. Nice!
The walls are lined with wine and chianti bottles. Music on the weekend is...what else? a nice old gentleman playing and singing on an electric keyboard. I love it.
When my grandmother used to serve me some super Italian dish that I didn't like, she would say, "You don't know what's good." But thanks to Grandma Rose, I learned.
Go to Labella's. The pizza is only the start of the menu. They have every item for every taste and enough room for a small Italian wedding (say 200).
Labella's is good and they're open until 10pm. 6 Broad Street in Valatie, NY. 518-758-6611.