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It’s been a full thirty years since I received a big envelope in the mail from my future alma mater. No, not that one. It wasn’t the big packet about my life-changing. No, it was their introduction.
It was at the end of a school day, and like clockwork, I went downstairs to check our mail. There it was. It was always news whenever I got mail, at least to me. It was a packet from the University of Pittsburgh, or rather Pitt. It was more the latter because the Pitt logo was gigantic and on the back of the large white envelope.
I opened the packet immediately. I barely began to read the form letter introducing me to Pitt and all of its eclectic buildings, wonderful faculty and staff, and precocious students, when I saw the brochure. On it was writing that formed a circle, something like “Pitt, a world of possibilities” (I say “something like” because I don’t really remember what it said, but that’s what I translated it to mean).
The writing circle surrounded a large, traditional, New York-style plain cheese pizza. The background of the brochure was set in Pitt’s traditional medium light blue. With the writing all in white, that pizza pie stood out like it was in 4D. I could smell it, taste it, lick it, eat it at that moment. My sixteen-year-old bean pole ass probably would’ve eaten a slice or two, too, if I hadn’t already planned to go down the street to a pizza shop for a Sicilian slice.
Never mind the letter that mentioned that I had been identified because of my 1050 SAT score from October ’85 and because of my National Honor Society membership. Forget about the fact that I didn’t even know where Pittsburgh was or what kind of city it was. Did I even notice that Pitt was starting a new academic scholarship program to attract more students of color and women to the university?
No, I was focused squarely on this picture of culinary beauty, a pizza after my own stomach, er, heart. I wanted to be at a college where I had an opportunity to eat that pizza, to feel my teeth bite down on that rich combination of tomato sauce, olive oil, basil, oregano, bread, mozzarella, and parmesan. I needed to feel those tidbits fall from the back of my mouth and into my throat before gravitating their way into my waiting stomach, to have that enzymatic orgasm.
But then I remembered the last time I made an academic decision on an empty stomach. That was in May ’81. Right after the Humanities Program had accepted me into their fold for middle school, I had to pick a language. The only choices were between French, Italian, and Spanish. My muy estupido culo picked Italiano over the other two. Why? Because I loved, absolutely loved, spaghetti. I loved spaghetti the way some people love their dogs. That’s not a reason, that’s literally a gut decision! I imagine that I would’ve picked Mandarin Chinese if it had been on the language menu because I loved Papa Wong’s egg rolls and chicken fried rice!
I decided to do some serious background research on Pitt and Pittsburgh before I would even suggest the idea of applying their to anyone. They was only the first college to invite me to apply, after all. I hadn’t planned on going out-of-state. As desperate as I was to leave 616 and Mount Vernon, I pretty much only saw myself applying to schools within 100 miles of New York City, like Columbia or Yale or Concordia College. Obviously I hadn’t yet thought through the places I really wanted to spend four or more years of my life. I just knew I didn’t want to spend most of it under the same roof with my insane family.
Fast forward to my junior year at Pitt. At that point, I’d been in Pittsburgh for nearly three years, and had yet to find that elusive New York-style cheese pizza pie they used to lure me to this po-dunk town. Oh, they said the pizza they used in that brochure was from The ‘O’, The Original Hot Dog Shop on Forbes Avenue in Oakland near the Cathedral of Learning for those unfamiliar with Pitt and Pittsburgh. Except their pizza was wack. It was a greasy pile of limp cheapness, with mozzarella that probably came from an arthritic cow, olive oil that was strained from Wish-Bone Italian dressing, and dough made out of Wonder Bread. Since Pittsburgh’s water came from reservoirs or from the Allegheny or Monongahela River, it didn’t come close to tasting like that pizza on the brochure either.
But at the end of ’96, the same month my advisor finally said he’d sign off on my doctoral thesis, I finally found my elusive pizza in Pittsburgh. It was at Mineo’s Pizza on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. I’d probably passed the joint three dozen times in nine years, but never at night. I stopped there with my girlfriend (now wife) Angelia, and we bought a couple of slices. Not only were they good, but they had an added bonus. They specialized in Sicilian pies! After nine years, I finally found a slice of food heaven in Pittsburgh!