Eating Here In Allentown
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY E-ROCK
The Port Authority Bus Terminal gives birth to few good omens. Anyone who spends time there on occasion has a "let's get it over with" attitude because of the lines, the smell, and the facility's confusing layout.
E-Rock was faced with one of those occasions on a recent weekend and tried to make the best of it. I went there after work on Friday to catch a bus to eastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. While waiting for She-Rock to join me for the trip, I headed to the Silver Bullet Saloon, a bar next to the Eighth Avenue entrance, and ordered the $3 Heineken pints on special. After throwing back a few and admiring the chaos of drunken commuters, E-Rock noticed somethingthe place serves free pizza for happy hour. Granted, the stuff isn't superb, but it can keep you from getting the woozy on the bus ride. It certainly tasted better anything E-Rock thought the Port Authority would spawn, and it beat what many dive bars try to pass off as trail mix.
Would this omen be sign of good fortune for the rest of E-Rock's journey?
We were going to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to visit my grandfather, whose legal name is Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop is kind of a Pennsylvania version of Yogi Berra. Out of nowhere he says things like, "That water is wet" and "The problem with this town is that there's too many old people around." (He's 85.)
Bethlehem was once a major industrial town. Home to Bethlehem Steel (where Pop-Pop was a machinist for something like forty years). The company was the point of origin for many American landmarks, including the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges. The factory, which once employed most of the entire region, started laying off workers in the 1980s and finally closed in the mid '90s. You may recall Billy Joel's '80s ballad Allentown, an ode to the largest city in the area, just a few miles from Bethlehem. The place, economically depressed for years, has recently improved due to flocks of new residents dodging the high housing prices in the New York and Philly metro areas.
Aside from all that, though, it's E-Rock's Hamptons, where he goes to relax and kick back a few Yeungling black and tans in the summer heat on Pop-Pop's front porch.
E-Rock had never bothered to seek out good pizza in the Lehigh Valley, as the area is known mainly for its variations on German food and cheesesteaks, but on his last visit he was determined to find a good slice. E-Rock's research (Chowhound) pointed him to a joint in Allentown called Salvatore Ruffino's Brick Oven Pizza, just east of the city's downtown. E-Rock thought, The place isn't really that far from New York. It's gotta have some good pizza.
When we pulled into the parking lot, I was instantly disappointed. The restaurant has been around for a while, but it obviously has been through a Nunzio's-esque remodeling, making it look suspiciously snappy. Pop-Pop, who normally eats at the area's many great diners, was a little intimidated: "Geez. I thought we were goin' to an everyday pizza joint. I didn't know you were takin' me to a fancy Italian restaurant." Neither did E-Rock.
When we walked in at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, the place was dead. Not a very promising sign, but it's not like we were dining in SoHo. We were in Allentown.
The air conditioning was blasting so fiercely that She-Rock was close to hypothermia. After we ordered our drinks, she immediately went outside to "check the car" and have a cigarette.
E-Rock figured the best way to test the waters would be by ordering a large pizza marguerita ($16; marinara, fresh mozzarella, basil). She-Rock may have been hitting the bong in the parking lot because she insisted on ordering a large "stuffed" piecrust on both sides, a more structured form of Travolta's slice on slice actionwith mushrooms and onions.
The thin pizza (above) came out quickly. E-Rock didn't have his stopwatch handy, but the timing was comparable to a good brick-oven bake in NYC.
When one has been to the better pizza establishments in New York, analyzing the pies in other cities is tough work. E-Rock's going to call it "The Wilco Problem." Wilco is arguably the best mainstream, country-rock band right now. You can pretty much line them up against any band on commercial radio that practices the genre, if there are even any others. Hands down. But if you've ever listened to Gram Parsons, you'll always long for something more than Wilco.
The crust at Ruffino's was thick, about three Di Fara crusts mashed together, without the proper amount of light scorching you should get from a good brick oven. The sauce popped a little too hard. The mozzarella was nice and creamy, but too chewy.
"Tastes bland," She-Rock hissed.
On a lighter note, the stuffed pie was a disaster, as one would expect. E-Rock despises the practice of eating pizza with a fork, but his many attempts of Pilates-like arm movements to steady the slice from an avalanche of tragedy weren't sufficient. Sigh. Pop-Pop's pronouncement: "It's like spaghetti."
We left, and drove through Allentown's once-vibrant downtown, still burnt out from its years of economic neglect, sporting pawn shops and empty storefronts. But the beautiful, cloudless, summer day cut through the gloom. We went back to Pop-Pop's 'hood, settled into our food comas, and sat on his front porch, enjoying the day, watching senior citizens walk their dogs and unruly teenagers on their way to no good in the sad, imitation punk-rock costumes they bought at a mall. Glorious.
We asked Pop-Pop how he liked the meal. He paused, looking like he was about to say something profound, as if he had just discovered a way to cure the ebola virus.
"I think it was the best pizza I've ever had."
That was enough for E-Rock to happily settle with Wilco.
SALVATORE RUFFINO'S BRICK OVEN PIZZA
Hours: M through Th., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; F through Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.