Once upon a pizzeria, a little pizzeria in the big big city, there lived a woman named Maria, but everyone called her Nonna Maria. Nonna means grandmother in Italian, and everyone loved to adopt Nonna Maria as their own personal grandmother. Nonna Maria didn’t exactly live in the pizzeria, she lived upstairs from it.
People came from all over the big big city to eat Nonna Maria’s mouth-watering, delizioso square pizzas. That’s right, square pizzas. The tradition of her little Italian village was square pizzas only, and there was no way she could even think about breaking that ancient tradition.
When Nonna Maria got too old and frail to go up and down the steep stairs to the pizzeria, she retired and let her eldest son and his wife run the business. Once a week her eldest son would bring her beloved grandson, little Luigi, at her place.
While great pizzas for the customers were being made downstairs, Nonna Maria and little Luigi were making terrific pizzas upstairs. Putting together the secret ingredients gave Luigi great joy.
During one of these special evenings with little Luigi, Nonna Maria noticed a big change. Luigi wasn’t interested in making a pizza. This was very puzzling and upsetting to Nonna Maria. She put her warm wrinkled hand on Luigi’s forehead and asked, “Whatsa matter my sweeta boy, you sick?”
Nonna Maria finally got Luigi to tell what was bothering him. “Well,” said Luigi, “on television, they always show round pizzas.”
“So?” said Nonna Maria. “They show lotsa stupido things on television!”
“But it’s not just that,” said Luigi with tears in his eyes. “Kids in my class found out daddy makes square pizzas, and they call me “square head, square head, square head!” And with that, little Luigi began sobbing and sobbing.
Nonna Maria reached out for him and held him in a firm embrace. While gently rocking him she said, “Okay my little one, we do something. Don’t cry, don’t cry! We do something.”
Nonna Maria was confused. She believed something strange would happen if she made a round pizza. It could even bring the family bad luck. This belief started many years ago when a square moon mysteriously appeared in the night sky of her little Italian village.
But she also couldn’t bear to see her precious little Luigi’s big, beautiful, brown eyes fill with tears.
“Okay, okay!” she repeated. “We make one round pizza! A very special pizza, nobody gonna forget. Tomorrow you bring this special pizza to school and give a piece to everyone in your class. They no call you square head no more with a mouth full up of Nonna Maria’s delizioso, super-round pizza.”
Then, to work they went. Together, they kneaded the dough, cut up vegetables, prepared the sauce and sprinkled spices, just as if they were magicians.
When the time came to shape the dough, Nonna Maria insisted that she do it herself. She always made sure that her pizzas were designed perfectly, and her strong bony hands knew just what to do. The skill that made her famous for perfectly square pizzas helped her make this one fully round. One of her customers used to joke, “If Italian architects could have asked Nonna Maria about how to build the tower of Pisa, it never would have leaned over.”
Finally, the pizza was ready for the oven. It seemed to glow with perfection. As they were closing the oven door, Nonna Maria told Luigi that he must pay very careful attention to every instruction. And the most important instruction was that the oven door should never be opened until the pizza was perfectly ready.
“But how will we know when the pizza is ready?” asked Luigi.
“You know because every corner of the kitchen will be full-up with the delizioso smell of the spices,” replied Nonna Maria.
“Well how do you know that?” continued Luigi.
“You use your nose!” replied Nonna Maria. “But your nose is no ready yet to be so smart. We use my nose. Okay?” she asked Luigi.
“Si, si, okay” answered Luigi.
Just then, the phone rang and Nonna Maria shuffled off to the living room to answer it. She talked on and on with Aunt Rosa while Luigi sat in the kitchen, staring through the glass of the oven door. He stared and stared, as Nonna Maria talked and talked on the phone, and the kitchen filled and filled with what Luigi thought was the most delicious pizza smell in the whole world. By now, he was convinced that the kitchen was going to explode with the smell of pizza – and that Nonna Maria’s nose was too busy getting into Aunt Rosa’s business to notice that the pizza was ready.
“I’ll just open the oven door a little tiny bit to make sure the pizza’s not getting too burnt,” thought Luigi.
Well, no sooner did little Luigi pull on the oven door when it flew completely open and out jumped the pizza, laughing and singing out: “Hey! Hey! Melanzana, Oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
With that, the pizza instantly bolted forward and rolled past Luigi, into the living room. Nonna Maria caught sight of it and dropped the phone in the middle of her conversation. She almost fell backward as the pizza whizzed past her and went through the open doorway at the top of the stairs. And bumpety bump, it went down the steep stairs and out into the big, noisy city.
“Wow! What excitement!” thought the pizza as he speedily rolled along crowded sidewalks; busy with street musicians, vendors and people of every size, shape and colour. He was one proud cocky pizza – he knew he was made of the right stuff. His idea of a good time was catching the noses and eyes of hungry-looking people passing by, and taunting them with how delicious he was: “Hey! Wall-yoo!” he hollered out to a bunch of teenage boys on a street corner, as they busily reached into their pockets for money to chip in for an ordinary pizza. They couldn’t believe their good luck as they spotted Nonna Maria’s magnificent pizza.
“Hey, a run-away pizza!” shouted one of the boys, pointing at him. They lunged at him, but the pizza backed up quickly out of reach and, mockingly, sang out to them: “Hey! Hey! Melanzana, oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
Well, the race was on. The teenage boys were really huffing and puffing as they chased the pizza around corners, through parking lots and across wide busy streets – where cars and trucks angrily honked their horns. But it was no use. The boys collapsed in a heap and went back to counting their money. They had to settle for an ordinary pizza.
Nonna Maria’s pizza continued coasting, bumping down from the sidewalk to go across an intersection. What the pizza did not know (or care about) was that the intersection had a traffic light, and the traffic light was red. Now, it was also too bad for the pizza that a nearby policeman on bicycle spotted him crossing on a red light and shouted, “Pullover you! Pizza?”
And the pizza boldly responded, “Thatsa right, pizza! And pizza don’t wear ‘pullover,’ pizza wear: Melanzana, oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
And, with that, he was off again, with the bicycle cop in hot pursuit. What a sight it was to see the silver spinning wheels of the bicycle trying to catch up to the smoking, red wheeling pizza. Up and down curbs they went, ducking in and out of dark, twisting alleys. The faster the pizza went, the hotter it got, and the hotter it got, the better it smelled. The smell made the policeman want to catch up to the pizza all the more – because he was getting hungry. But it was no use. The pizza was long gone. The policeman was left with only a scent in his nostrils of the tastiest pizza he had ever chased. Actually, the only pizza he had ever chased.
By now, it was late evening, and the pizza thought he had better find a safe place to rest. He went across a field and spotted a comfortable looking tree to lean on. From there he could see a railroad track and a crackling fire near it. And there, sitting on a rock warming his hands, was an old hobo – a homeless man. He was small and thin, with whiskers like a wire brush. Because he looked like he had not eaten in a long time, the pizza was cautious.
The old hobo spotted the pizza and froze. At first, he gawked in disbelief. Then he swallowed hard, and quietly uttered, “Pizza?”
“That’s right!” shouted the pizza. “And don’t get no funny idea in you mouth!”
“Funny idea?” replied the hobo calmly. “No, no!” he insisted without moving. “I would never want to eat anyone as beautiful as you. You’re incredible. I just want to feast my eyes! Why don’t you come closer to the fire – you could warm up as we get to know each other. Besides, by the light of the fire, I can better admire your magnificence.”
The pizza was feeling a bit of a night chill and, anyway, he was interested in people with good taste, so he cautiously rolled toward the fire. “Such a worn-out looking old man,” thought the pizza. “How could anyone with my speed possibly have anything to fear?”
“I haven’t seen a work of art such as you since I was a soldier in Italy during the war. Is that where you come from, Italy?”
Well, there’s nothing the pizza loved more than an opportunity to boast and brag, so he began: “You right, I am a work of art. And many of the great things you see on my magnifico body are from Italy. But I was made right here in this big city by a brilliante pizza maker named Nonna Maria. She use fresh oregano, fresh basilico, fresh garlic, fresh everything. Oliveh come from Sicily, mushroom from Calabria, mozzarella from Parma, and prosciutto ham, straight from Bologna. Eh! I think I talka too much! It’s a time to roll around town again and make hungry people go crazy, go pazzo.”
“Melanzana, oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
“No wait!” blurted the old hobo, anxiously. He caught himself and took a deep breath, and again began to speak very calmly. “You haven’t said anything about the most important part of any pizza.”
“Eh, you pretty smart!” replied the pizza. “You mean the crust! Right?”
The hobo nodded. “Yes, of course, your delectable crust.”
Well, the pizza went on and on about flour, texture and oven temperatures, when the hobo politely interrupted and said: “Wow! That Nonna Maria sure does know how to make a fabulous looking golden crust. Of course, any pizza lover knows that to truly appreciate a crust you’ve got to be able to feel it.”
The pizza instantly jumped back and said, “Eh! Eh! You think I’m stupido or something?”
The hobo immediately apologized. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Scare me?” bellowed the pizza. “Don’t make me laugh!”
“Does that mean you’ll let me touch that sumptuous crust of yours?” asked the hobo.
“Okay,” said the pizza. “One little touch with a teenie, weenie tip of your baby finger. Don’t try nothing funny, or I make you sorry!”
The hobo very very slowly reached out with his hand, while aiming for the edge of the pizza’s crust with the tip of his baby finger. He was one hair away from touching – when, quick as a flash, both hands reached out to grab and hold the pizza firmly. He then gobbled it down – faster than you could say: “Melanzana, oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
Just as the hobo was swallowing the last bite of pizza, along came Nonna Maria, little Luigi, and the policeman with the bicycle. They were all quite hungry and with Nonna Maria’s smart nose, they followed the delicious smell of the pizza. The smell led to the fire and the old hobo by the railroad tracks – but no sign of the pizza. They asked the old hobo if he had seen the pizza. The old hobo burped, and said, “Pizza? I haven’t seen any pizza.”
And the policeman said, “It’s against the law to light a fire in this field. You’re going to have to come with me.”
Just then a train was passing by. The old hobo backed up slowly and fast as a jackrabbit jumped onto the moving train. Looking back, he shouted out: “Melanzana, oliveh, mozzarella, ham, I’m gone, vado via, catch me if you can!”
As the three of them stared at the disappearing train, Little Luigi surprised Nonna Maria by saying, “It doesn’t matter what the kids at school call me, let’s make a square pizza.” They invited the hungry policeman with the bicycle back to the house to join them. Together they made the most delizioso square pizza you could ever imagine. And they all ate happily ever after.
“Once Upon a Pizzeria” also appears in People, Places, Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Writing (Longbridge 2018).
Although he was an excellent pin boy for Hamilton bowling alleys, Charly Chiarelli has excelled beyond this noble job. He has worked as a Mental Health and Addictions Consultant and Professor of Psychology and Writing. Charly has also performed internationally as virtuoso harmonica player, jazz/blues vocalist, storyteller and stage/screen actor. He is a published and produced writer of plays, screenplays, music, lyrics, poetry and short stories for adults and children.