Taste trip back in time

Taste trip back in time

They say that the olfactory sense carries the most sentimental significance; that one smell, more than a touch, a taste, or even a sight, can trigger memories of time seemingly immemorial. Nostalgia, in this sense, is a nostril product, and smells often determine mood: A smell can remind someone, wistfully, of home, or a specific person, or a place, or even an isolated time. In my case, smell is episodic: I remember stories when I breathe in foods or places or people, and I unconsciously catalogue each smell, awaiting the next opportunity in space-time to revisit a particular scent.

So it is with great sadness that I learned of Plaza Pizza’s closing. Growing up in Teaneck wasn’t thrilling, and its quiet, suburban character chronically fell short of the city that was 45 minutes away. The only thing we had was a ridiculously enticing and homegrown pizza franchise. Jerusalem Pizza was a landmark on Teaneck’s main stretch of civilization until it closed a few years ago amid much fanfare and gloom. Its sister store across town, Plaza Pizza, remained open even after the elder sibling fell.

Plaza Pizza stands empty after ‘8 years.

When Jerusalem Pizza closed down a couple of years ago, it took with it a host of familiar fragrances. The sauerkraut and pickles occupied the small counter adjacent to the juice machine; the hot pizza on the store’s right side complemented the arctic scent of the ice cream to the left. Jerusalem even smelled different on Saturday nights, when Teaneck’s Jewish youth filled Jerusalem’s light wooden benches. Daters and skaters alike made Jerusalem a social home away from home, and when Plaza opened its doors across town, Teaneck suddenly had a second pizza option.

I spent almost every high school lunch period in Plaza’s overcrowded foyer, chomping mindlessly at pesto-tomato specials while the air filled with ruminations about teachers, tests, homework, suspensions, et al. It was a place to go to feel human, where students, for 45 minutes at a clip, could be regular people with regular money eating regular food. No pencils, no books, no curriculum, shirts untucked (a definite Torah Academy of Bergen County no-no), and off-the-record respite from a 7:30 to 5:30 school day.

And that is what closed down last month — a hallowed ground for an underrepresented faction. So, when Plaza fell like autumn leaves smothered in extra cheese and olives, Teaneck didn’t just lose a restaurant; instead, it lost a sounding board that, for $’.50, was a cheap midday therapy alternative.

But what I’ll miss most are the smells: the tinny, curiously less-than-pizza waft that greeted you at the front door, the canned mushrooms in the calzones, and the unmistakable scent of fountain soda in a paper cup. I’ll even miss, masochistically, the gym-soaked essence-of-freshman, which so frequently rivaled the pizza for odiferous domination.

There was a definite split in Torah Academy between those students who frequented Plaza Pizza and those who didn’t. Petracio — the nickname we assigned the man behind the counter — knew us all by name, even if he opted for "Chico" most of the time. Everyone knew what everybody else was going to order, and so did Petracio. After a while, he knew to make two pesto-tomato slices a half hour before I’d come in.

My friend Zach’s mother bought and froze two slices of pizza on Plaza’s last night, one for each of her sons. Both live in Israel, and now both have a piece of their youth waiting for them upon their next visit. Gabe, another friend, sent me a morose e-mail outlining the profundity of his grief over Plaza’s closing. There is a club on The Facebook, a networking site mostly for college kids, decrying Plaza’s being shut down, as well as a general consensus among Teaneck’s kosher connoisseurs that the town’s culinary landscape will never be the same.

As for me, I will not eat pizza in Teaneck. And that’s not a protest against the two remaining stores or the one that stands to open where Plaza once stood. It’s simply a gesture to the smells I will always remember: to pesto and tomato, sauerkraut and pickles, ice cream and canned mushrooms.

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