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Steve’s House of Pizza – Bedford, Massachusetts

Steve's House of Pizza, home of the very best tuna sub in the universe

Steve's House of Pizza, home of the very best tuna sub in the universe

Memories
Pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories
Sweetened through the ages just like wine
Quiet thoughts come floating down and settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touch them and they burst apart with sweet memories
- The Lettermen, 1969

Memory–our ability to recall information, personal experiences and processes–isn’t always reliable or necessarily as sweet as The Lettermen might have you believe.  Memory has, in fact, been shown to be very fallible.  Studies have concluded that memories are often constructed after the fact and that they’re often based as much, if not more, on our emotional state at the time as they are the actual experience being committed to memory.

While stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base, I had so many tuna grinders (what New Englanders call subs) from Steve’s House of Pizza in nearby Bedford, Massachusetts, that my great friend Paul Venne told me I’d soon grow gills.  While my friends and colleagues were bingeing on Big Macs and wolfing down Whoppers, weekly (at least) visits to Steve’s sustained me.

Leaving Massachusetts I pined for those grinders for more than twenty-years.  Could a simple grinder really have been as good as my taste buds remembered it to be?  In 1999, I had the great fortune to re-visit Steve’s and confirmed the tuna grinders were as good as my memories told me they were.  Best of all, I shared Steve’s wonderful tuna grinders with my Kim who was nearly equally captivated by the amazing things the Greek proprietors could do in transforming simple tuna to the realm of sublime.

The ovens which have been preparing perfect sandwiches for generations

The ovens which have been preparing perfect sandwiches for generations

Upon returning to Albuquerque, we called Steve’s crew and asked for the recipe for those superb subs.  My tale of woe and of love unrequited by any tuna sub other than Steve’s must have impressed them because I didn’t have to beg, plead, cajole or even bribe them for the recipe.

Alas, there is a triumvirate of things Steve’s couldn’t give us–the heavy duty, high volume, fast recovery Blodgett pizza oven in which the grinder rolls are heated; the cloud-like grinder rolls unique to the East Coast and most importantly, the tuna which tantalized my taste buds for two years.  As such, we were unable to duplicate the magic though we have made better tuna grinders than we used to.

Even though Steve’s House of Pizza has had three different owners since the restaurant opened just a few years before I landed in Massachusetts in 1977, it has also had amazing continuity.  The recipes were handed down with every change of ownership and are still in use today.  The current owner (pictured above), like the original owner, is Greek and has the same gregarious nature.  He was thrilled when I recounted my experiences at Steve’s some thirty years previous and even happier when the tuna grinder he personally prepared for me met my expectations and then some.

The best tuna sub in the universe and beyond

The best tuna sub in the universe and beyond

So what makes this the best tuna grinder in the world, at least in my estimation?  It’s not only the aforementioned Blodgett oven or the fact that it toasts each grinder roll to absolute perfection so that the outside crust is just discernibly hard and the inside is delicate and light.  It’s not only the oil packed tuna adorned only with salt and pepper and with just enough mayo to bind it all.  It’s not only the shredded lettuce and white onion embellishment that dressed every grinder I ever had.  It’s a combination of the above and more.

Tuna is a rich and meaty fish with a nice amount of fat for flavor.  It is very high in protein as well as in Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s no wonder flocks of seagulls follow the tuna boats as they came near shore in Gloucester, one of my favorite haunts for fresh seafood.

Though the name on the marquee is Steve’s House of Pizza, a high volume of the walk-in or call-in traffic is for excellent grinders.  Steve’s introduced me to pastrami, another of my life’s passions.  It introduced me to scrambled egg grinders (available with pepper, ham, and pepperoni) which are available for lunch and dinner, too.  More than any other restaurant in Massachusetts, Steve’s allayed my longing for green chile…though I often fantasize about having one of those tuna grinders with New Mexico’s favorite fruit.

A cheese pizza from Steve's House of Pizza

A cheese pizza from Steve's House of Pizza

Having grown up in the remote mountains of Northern New Mexico,  I was essentially a culinary virgin.  Until my years in Massachusetts, the only only pizza I had ever eaten outside of Pizza Hut was out of the box, a wafer thin Chef Boyardee product with a cardboard-like crust. Is it any wonder Pizza Hut was my baseline for good pizza?

Steve’s House of Pizza also introduced me to very good pizza Greek style.  Greek style means a drizzle of olive oil across the top.  Add pepperoni and its grease might make the pizza a bit, shall we say…moist.  Steve’s serves a thin crust pizza with a generous portion of cheese and a sweet-savory tomato sauce with a nice application of garlic.  The crust is crunchy around the edges and doesn’t fold over in the style of New York pizza.  Alas, I didn’t sample it during either of our two September, 2009 visits, but Kim did and she liked it, though she kept reaching over for bites of my tuna sub.

Those visits in 2009 validated that memories can indeed be sweet, accurate and absolutely delicious.

Steve’s House of Pizza
30 Shawsheen Avenue, Suite 11
Bedford, Massachusetts
(781) 275-2419
1st VISIT: 22 September 2009
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tuna Sub, Pastrami Sub, Italian Sub, Pizza

Mario’s Italian Restaurant – Lexington, Massachusetts

Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts

Mario's Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts

“People think Chef Boyardee is a great man. I think he’s nothing but a pasta hater.
What true lover of pasta could turn it into mush and shove it in a can? That’s not pasta. That’s just plain wrong.”
~ Author Unknown

Chef Boyardee and I go way back.  As mentioned (hopefully not ad-nauseam) on this blog, my arcadian upbringing in Northern New Mexico did not include a lot of Italian food–or at least the real stuff.  The first pizza my brothers and sisters ever had was way back in the dinosaur days before there was a Pizza Hut around every corner and a Tombstone pizza in every freezer.  It was courtesy of Chef Boyardee and it came in a box with pizza flour mix in a hermetically sealed bag, a can of grated cheese and a can of “true Italian sauce from chef’s own recipe.”

Chef Boyardee pizza didn’t “make our faces light up” when we saw “America’s favorite pizza–Chef Boyardee pizza“–slide out of the oven as it did the family depicted on the commercials.  It looked like a strange, oversized tortilla slathered with tomato sauce.  If possible, it actually tasted worse than it looked.  Perhaps because of the altitude (8,000 feet), the pizza didn’t exactly have the “crunchy crust outside” and wasn’t “so tender inside” as commercials depicted it.  Rather the crust was cracker-like and the sauce akin to a thick, overly-seasoned tomato sauce.

Chef Boyardee’s culinary creations next crossed my lips in 1984 while living in Swindon, England.  Often too lazy to cook for myself during my last carefree year of bachelorhood, I indulged on a diet of breakfast cereal (Jerry Seinfeld would be proud) and Chef Boyardee canned pastas.  That is until I told Kim, then my fiancee who made me promise to “give up that crap.”   Though it took considerably more effort, I began over-compensating by preparing such dishes as paella.

Italian bread and butter at Mario's

Italian bread and butter at Mario's

But, I digress.  In 1977 I moved to Bedford, Massachusetts, a town incorporated in 1729 and about fifteen miles northwest of Boston.  A world of new and different culinary delights began the education of my virginal taste buds.  Instead of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, I was dining on lobster and fried clams.  The enticing aromas and exotic flavors of Chinese food and the malodorous emanation of fermented kimchi were practically extraterrestrial to me, but like the proverbial kid in a candy store, I tried everything.  Perhaps more surprisingly, I liked everything.

Italian food–real Italian food–was my favorite and no one in the Bedford area did it better than Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Walking into Mario’s was like walking into heaven.  The olfactory arousing bouquet of pastas simmering in a perfect marriage of tomato sauce, garlic, basil and oregano greeted you before the door like a sumptuous siren’s call.  Mario’s was but five or six years old at the time, but a very popular dining destination for incomparable lasagna and a unique twist on baked ziti.  Many of the entrees were served in casserole dishes, something else this culinary virgin had never before experienced.

If love means never having to say you’re sorry, Mario’s meant not having to navigate the maddening cavalcades of traffic all the way to Boston’s North End for terrific Italian food.  Mario’s was a welcome respite from the rigors of the work day.  It was a relaxing milieu in which the service was exquisite and food was served hot and in family-sized portions.

Lasagna at Mario's

Lasagna at Mario's

During our 2009 vacation to the Boston area, we were determined to eat nothing but Italian food and seafood.  That meant a trip to Mario’s was an absolute must.  Despite a thirty year span between visits, our rental car hastened through traffic as if on auto-pilot and speed.  We would pay tourist tribute to the famous Lexington Minuteman statue later; nothing would deter us from Mario’s.

One step in the door and was as if nothing had changed in thirty years.  Mario’s familiar brick facade gave way to a narrow corridor which leads to the hostess station from which a friendly attendant will escort you to your table, complete with red and white checkerboard table cloth.  Perusing the menu was a futile exercise in familiarity because we knew what we were going to have.  It’s what just about everybody who visits Mario’s has.

But first, a basket of thinly sliced Italian bread with foil-wrapped butter was delivered to our table.  It’s always best to save a slice or three to use for sopping up the surplus tomato sauces for which Mario’s is known, but a slice or two with butter will abate your hunger.

A unique baked ziti at Mario's

A unique baked ziti at Mario's

The first “must have” entree is lasagna with sausage.  The lasagna is a thick, brick-sized slab of noodles and ricotta cheese topped with a meaty marinara sauce.  The sausage is actually served on the side and, like the lasagna, is drenched in the meaty marinara sauce.  It is a wonderful sausage with a discernible hint of fennel and other Italian seasonings.

There are several things that make this lasagna special.  First of all, it’s served steaming hot, but not at the expense of “rubberizing” the lasagna noodles.  The ricotta is rich, but not overly so.  The sauce has a rich, tomatoey flavor that accentuates the sweetness of tomatoes, not the acidity.  It is Italian comfort food at its best.

Commonly known as Greek Lasagna, Baked Ziti is a base layer of pasta seasoned ground beef with tomato sauce, topped with a creamy cheese Béchamel Sauce all cooked to a golden brown.  It is the most popular entree at Mario’s, but unlike ziti at other restaurants, it’s served slab-style similar to traditional lasagna.  Instead of traditional ziti pasta, it is made with lasagna noodles.  Top it with Mario’s magnificent meat sauce and you’ve got maybe the best ziti around.

Italian sausage at Mario's

Italian sausage at Mario's

Mario’s makes returning to the Bedford-Concord-Lexington area feel like coming home.  It won’t take me another thirty years to make that return trip home to the restaurant which introduced me to real Italian food.

Mario’s Italian Restaurant
1733 Massachusetts Ave
Lexington, Massachusetts
(781) 861-1182
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lasagna with Sausage, Baked Ziti

Woodman’s of Essex – Essex, Massachusetts

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Woodman's of Essex, inventor of the fried clam

If you can imagine what New Mexico would be like without green chile or the South without barbecue, you can understand what New England would be without fried clams.  Like our beloved green chile, fried clams are an iconic food, so much so that they are almost synonymous with states like Maine and Massachusetts in which they are harvested and sold.  It’s almost a wonder the license plate mottos in at least one of those two states isn’t “The Fried Clam State.”

As with our cherished chile, fried clams have a distinctive, unforgettable flavor that not everybody “gets.”  Similar to chile, those who love fried clams are usually ensnared at first bite by this distinctly delicious delicacy.  Like green chile, they are positively addictive and have a flavor that once enjoyed imprints itself indelibly upon your taste buds and your memories.

There is some dispute as to the progenitor of fried clams.  They were on the menu at Boston’s hallowed Parker House in 1865 though there is no indication if they were deep-fried or batter-dipped.  The Parker House is already credited with having invented Boston Cream Pie and Parker House Rolls, so posterity doesn’t seem to mind that someone else is ascribed with having “invented” fried clams.

Woodman's of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts

Woodman's of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts

That would be Woodman’s of Essex, a Yankee tradition since 1914.  History relates that July 3, 1916 was a very slow business day for the little roadside stand in Essex, Massachusetts owned by Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman.  A local fisherman enjoying homemade potato chips at the stand noticed a bucket of clams nearby and jokingly suggested that they be fried up.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Chubby and his wife Bessie shucked some clams out of the shell, experimented with different batters and had some locals taste-test their new offering.  The unanimous verdict was “delicious.”  The following day, during the Fourth of July parade, Chubby and Bessie presented the “first” fried clams to the local citizenry.  What started off as a serendipitous suggestion changed the Yankee appetite.

About ten years thereafter, the owner of an eponymous restaurant chain named Howard Johnson visited Essex to learn how to fry clams directly from Chubby.  Howard Johnson’s and its familiar orange roof was a familiar sight along the highways and byways of America throughout much of the twentieth century.  ”HoJo’s” conceptualized signature menu items such as 28 ice cream flavors, cultivating an image that it was a very special, homey place.  One of its most popular offerings was fried clams.  A centralized commissary and the processing and pre-portioning of foods gave Howard Johnson’s the advantage of consistency–an inland Howard Johnson’s served fried clams that tasted exactly the same as those served at Cape Cod.

A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries

A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries

In 1979, I moved back to New Mexico after two years in Massachusetts where I made frequent trips to Woodman’s of Essex and other shrines to sumptuous seafood.  Like chipmunk cheeks stuffed with nuts and acorns, mine were often filled with fried clams which I loved intensely.

Alas, my first visit to Howard Johnson’s on Eubank proved a very disappointing venture of unrequited love.  Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with, HoJo’s served “clam strips,” what my favorite clam shacks in New England might have discarded entirely.  According to a New York Times article in 2005, the clam strips served at Howard Johnson’s were “made from the tongues of enormous sea clams whose bodies were used as the base for the restaurant’s famous clam chowder.”  It’s no wonder I didn’t like them.

Rather than subject myself to clam strips which might tarnish my memories, I committed to eating only the real thing.  Fried clams, however, are not easy to find in the West.  In fact, only in Las Vegas, Nevada have I been able to find fried clams that approximated those from New England.  Still, it’s difficult to get excited about fried clams in a faux nautical ambience when it’s over the century mark outside.

Fried lobster claws at Woodman's of Essex

Fried lobster claws at Woodman's of Essex

Not much has changed at Woodman’s of Essex since my last visit in 1979 although the advent of the communication age has made it a world renown destination which Zagat calls “a cult classic–right up there with baseball and apple pie.”  The list of publications which have honored the restaurant would fill a book.  We were more concerned with filling our bellies and the Holy Grail for fried clams excels at this.

The “Chubby’s Original” fried clams are blondish whole-bellied beauties served with onion rings and French fries.  The clams are big, shapeless entanglements which you might have to separate.  The texture of the crust is just light enough to provide a discernible crunch that leads to a velvety interior where the real flavor of fried clams lies.  There is nothing like fried clams!  Nothing!  Woodman’s are among the very best.

The Woodman’s menu features far more than fried clams–like the hard-to-find fried lobster tails.  The light batter allows the flavor of lobster to shine.  As with conventional boiled lobster, the fried lobster tails are served with warm butter, perfect for dipping the sweet, meaty king of seafood.  Tartar sauce is served on the side, but anything other than butter is considered a desecration.

The derivation of the term “happy as a clam” might be attributed to the fact that open clams give the appearance of smiling.   Woodman’s of Essex and its fabulous fried clams have been making diners as happy as a clam for nearly a century.

Woodman’s of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, Massachusetts
978-768-6057
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Fried Clams, Fried Lobster Claws, Chocolate Frappe