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There is a time in every diner’s life when a difficult decision about staying or leaving has to be made: You look around a restaurant and try to predict whether or not you’ll be kissing a toilet bowl in 6 to 8 hours, cursing the place.
But our trio of weary travellers was hungry and options were few and far between. We’d been winding our way back to Eastern Ontario from Vermont on a rainy, Thanksgiving Monday. Most of the eateries on the desolate stretch of highway near Ellenburg New York were either boarded-up or closed. The American Dream had, apparently, taken an indefinite hiatus from this part of the good ol’ U.S. of A.
The word “OPEN” blinking in blue neon at The Pizza Barn was a welcome sight.
Once we’d exchanged pleasantries with Kenny, we took a seat. My husband and son were immediately drawn to the pool table in the back which glowed Martian green under the Michelob tiffany lamp. For my part I sat quietly, taking it all in, nervously twirling a red fly-swatter—there was one at every table—wondering whether or not to run back to the car.
I thought about pizza and the bacteria-annihilating temperature at which it’s cooked. How dangerous could this really be? Certainly not more life-threatening than being trapped in an SUV with a whining 7 year-old who’d fiddle-farted through breakfast and now had a raging fire in his belly.
Besides, the menu promised “A taste experience!” Maybe this would be that rare case of a hole-in-the-wall turned culinary gem. There was a foil Happy Birthday banner slung from one of the old beams. I took it as a positive sign, evidence of the restaurant having had customers in the not-too-distant past.
In the harsh daylight, though, the ugly truth of the Pizza Barn’s hasty retrofit had nowhere to hide: the barn-to-restaurant makeover was still, ironically enough, screaming for a makeover. Gordon Ramsay would have come unhinged. The ceiling consisted of old siding material shoved between barn beams. My chair was tilting from the wavy, undulating floor that had about a 10 per cent slope. I felt like I was riding a motorcycle that was hugging a curve. Should I lean in, or away?
Rumbling stomachs brought Mark and Joe back to the table and Kenny swooped in to take our order. While The Pizza Barn was painfully lacking in sophistication, the process of ordering was refreshingly simple. A lot simpler than it had been in Vermont.
There, the locavore movement—where natives self-identify as belonging to either, “tofu and turmeric” or “venison stew” tribes—had servers reciting more poetry of provenance than I ever believed was possible. At first the mind-boggling intricacies of the careful cultivation of each ingredient were fascinating. But after 3 days I’d grown numb to the delirium. I no longer cared about being introduced to Gertrude, the big black-eyed Jersey in the pasture outside, or having a chance to personally shake her udder and thank her for the sublime double-cream brie.
I marveled at the way Kenny wrote down our order, on a little pad, asking no questions and telling no lies. I felt less like screaming and running away, and more like applauding him as a great American hero: a rebel food fighter in an increasingly fussy and ostentatious culinary environment.
We waited for our pizza and I drifted, almost hallucinatory, into the cottage curio surroundings: quilted horse heads on calico, ringed with lace, hanging on the wall, a fake ficus wound with mini-lights in the corner, a family of ceramic bears sitting on the deep stone ledge of the small cell-like window next to our table.
The endless array of tchotchkes was probably meant to distract patrons like us from thinking too long or too hard about the fact that we were eating in a former pig sty.
When the pizza finally arrived it was an old-school, frat-house Pizza positively overflowing with molten Mozzarella cheese. There was no delicate sampling of artisanal fromage here. There was also no porcelain at The Pizza Barn—Kenny gave us Styrofoam plates.
As for an official ruling about whether or not the lack of pretension produced a superior pizza, I decided our family’s connoisseur should have the last word on the matter:
“What do you think, Joe?” I asked as my son chewed and chomped, playing with a thick umbilical cord of cheese that refused to let go, “This is the best pizza, ever!” he said between gulps.
I guess it’s true, after all, even when it’s made in a barn: There’s no such thing as bad pizza.