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Away Games: Brian, Boston, and Connor Bedard

In addition to writing about the Chicago Blackhawks here at SCH, a few weeks ago I started a newsletter on Substack about pizza called Chicago Pizza News. Every once in a while the two worlds will collide and I’ll do a crosspost about my pizza eating, hockey watching adventures. I recently went to the East Coast to see the Hawks’ game in Boston with my friend Brian (and eat a bunch of pizza along the way). Dave has been kind enough to let me share the post here, and only partially to add to our rep as the best food-themed hockey site on the internet. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read it and check out my newsletter. Warning: the post is maybe like ten percent hockey (at best!).

Sunday, October 8th

I flew out of Chicago in the late afternoon and landed in New York (Queens) at LaGuardia in the evening. I’ve been to New York enough times now, and become so familiar with the subway system, that I pride myself on never taking a taxi or ride share anymore (and sometimes I even look confident enough that people ask me for directions!). Getting to Manhattan from LaGuardia is a bit tricky since it involves catching a shuttle bus, but I stick the landing and get to the Upper West Side about an hour after I land. There are many things to be jealous of New York City for, and the efficiency of their transit system is definitely one.

I drop my bags at my friend Gretchen’s and we sit down long enough for me to Google places by her apartment where I can get a cheesesteak at 9 p.m. on a Sunday (there were many options, yet another thing to be jealous of NY for) because I saw someone eating a cheesesteak at the airport and my brain was like, “yup!”.

I eat an incredibly disappointing sandwich that’s more reminiscent of gyro meat on a slightly stale hoagie roll, catch up with my friend, then fall asleep on her couch.

Monday, October 9th

I wake up early because I have a big day ahead of me. There’s two pizza places I’ve had on my New York list for a verylong time (like, years), but haven’t been able to eat at yet because of the relative level of difficulty involved. I built an extra half-day into my trip just to make sure I could get to both this time.

The first is L&B Spumoni Gardens, which has been serving Sicilian-style square slices since 1939, and is so far south in Brooklyn that it’s the second to last stop on the N train before you get to Coney Island.

I first heard about L&B in a video from Alex Delany at Bon Appetit where he hops all over New York, eating 23 different slices of pizza in a 36-hour span (Delany is exactly my type of food guy; someone with a vast amount of knowledge that happily shares his expertise without talking down or acting like every single one of his opinions is infallible). The video is still the first thing I send someone anytime they ask me which pizzas they should eat while they’re in New York.

I stop by my favorite bagel shop on the way down – which is such a well-oiled machine that it’s almost worth going to just to watch them churn through a truly ridiculous amount of orders at breakneck speed – figuring I should eat something to get my stomach prepped for the tsunami of carbs that’s waiting for me later in the day.

I successfully find my way to the N train (and someone asks me for directions!) and I’m off.

45 minutes later I’m sitting on a picnic table outside in the sun on L&B’s patio and enjoying a slice of pizza I’ve been thinking about since the first time I saw that video in 2018.

It’s a simple but fantastic slice; cheesy and doughy and airy in all the ways I hoped it would be, and I instantly debate going back up to order three or four more at the walk-up window. But I know I have to save room since the next place I’m going only sells whole pies, plus it was recently Gretchen’s birthday and I’ve decided to hit up a bakery near Prospect Park to get her an authentic Brooklyn Blackout cupcake and there’s no way I’m not getting one too. 

After the cupcake I take a quick detour to a coffee shop I’m definitely not cool enough to be in, then walk around Dumbo for a bit – where I notice that there’s another L&B location right down the street from the Manhattan Bridge that’s about to open any second now (I still would have to gone to the original regardless. A sage pizza principle I’ve gleaned over the years is that you always go to the original, no matter what). At 2:30 I walk back to the train, and head to my next stop.

There’s quite a legend built around the Carroll Gardens pizza shop Lucali.

The story goes that owner/pizzamaker Mark Iacono took over the space (which was an old candy shop when he was growing up in the neighborhood) so that developers couldn’t get their hands on it, but he did so without any idea or intention of what he was going to do with it. Eventually he decided to turn it into a pizza restaurant, then taught himself to make pizza inspired by all his favorite shops he grew up eating at, most of which had long since closed.

He decided he would only be open a few hours a day (from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.) and initially didn’t offer any carryout, since he ran the entire (very small) kitchen all by himself and baked every single pizza by hand. The shop was instantly popular in the neighborhood, but after Jay Z name-dropped it as his and Beyonce’s favorite pizza, it took off to a completely different stratosphere.

Lucali still operates on a first come, first served basis, and they start taking names for their waitlist at 4:00 p.m. When I turned the corner onto Henry Street at 3:15, there were already 37 people waiting in line.

Slightly after 4:00 the hostess appeared and I dropped my name. She said I should have a table around 6:15 and reminded me they were BYOB and cash only. 

Luckily I had some things to do during my two hours to kill. It was a beautiful day out and I walked over to Carroll Park to set up on a bench and call in for an NHL Central Division preview podcast so a bunch of Brooklyn teenagers could stare at me weirdly while I talked loudly about Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (who immediately signed a new contract just a few hours later, thus negating every single thing I just said about him).

I walked back to Lucali a little before 6:00, they had a table ready and I was in.

The restaurant itself is one solitary room and it’s incredibly tiny inside, with space for maybe 30 diners max. It’s dimly lit and the pizza counter/baking area/cash register/pizza oven take up the entire back third of the room, so it’s practically impossible not to watch them stretch the dough out and launch the pizzas while you’re waiting for your own to cook (which I think adds a little something extra to the Lucali “mystique”).

Mark wasn’t there, but there was an efficient crew of multiple pizza men working behind the counter. At one point I saw them bring up a towering tray of small, flattened dough rounds (slightly bigger than your average tortilla) before they began to stretch them all out – first by hand, and then finished with Mark’s signature wine bottle roll out. The speed and rhythm in which a professional pizza maker can stretch a dough will never cease to amaze me, and I easily could have sat there and watched them work for the rest of the night.

My pizza came to the table a few minutes later and just like that, it was time to try the second pizza I had been waiting years for. The expectations for this were a bit higher than L&B. This was the mythical Lucali. One of the hardest pizzas in New York to get. A pizza I’ve had described to me as both “life-changing” and “the best pizza in the entire world.”

A few bites in and it was…solid. Definitely its own thing. The sauce was fresh and subtle. The cheese was both salty and creamy (they use a three cheese blend of low moisture mozzarella, which is pretty standard, a fresh Buffalo mozzarella, which is not, then finish the pizza off with Parmigiano Reggiano). The crust was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and they only spread the sauce to about three inches from the edge, so you end up with a really wide crust rim.

I liked the pizza well enough, but I don’t know that I would put it up there with my favorite pizzas I’ve had in New York (which we’ll talk about another time). 

I had a pretty strong notion going in that there was no way it would live up to the ridiculous amount of hype that proceeded it from years of build up, but there’s always a small part of me that hopes I’m wrong in those scenarios.

As I left the restaurant and saw the throng of people waiting to take my spot a different thought occurred to me; I’ll never actually eat the Lucali pizza I’d heard about all those years ago, because the pizza they make now is only a version of the original. Lots of times the things that make a restaurant special begin to fall away the busier they get. And I’m not bemoaning that whatsoever, I honestly hope that everyone making pizza gets to whatever level of success they’re aiming for. So unless Mark Iacono invites me by to personally make me a pizza one day (speaking it into existence), this iteration of Lucali will have to suffice.

I would absolutely recommend the pizza and the experience to anyone who wants to try it. It’s fun! And unique! And there’s not really anything else like it. While I don’t know that I’ll ever go back on my own, I would gladly tag along with any of my friends who wanted to go.

(Darnell Mayberry, who writes about the Chicago Bulls for The Athletic, wrote about his experience checking out Lucali before a Bulls game in Brooklyn a few years back. It’s a great column if you want to read even more).

Tuesday, October 10th

The next morning I said goodbye to Gretchen, hit my bagel spot one more time, then booked it over to Grand Central Station to meet up with my friend Brian. Once I knew I was going to the Blackhawks game in Boston, and eating pizza along the way, I hoped I would be able to talk him into going with me.

Brian is one of my oldest friends, and my first roommate, and his friendship is one of those ones that looking back on years later you realize just how much it changed the trajectory of your life (and he introduced me to my wife!). Brian is a full-time New Yorker now, and it’s been at least a decade since we’ve been able to spend more than a few consecutive hours together.

I meet him in the main concourse at Grand Central, another place I could just sit and watch for hours, and we hop on our train to New Haven, Connecticut.

Whether or not you realize it, you’ve probably eaten New Haven-style pizza, or apizza (pronounced “ah beetz”) as they call it, before. In Chicago you can find it at places like Piece Pizza, or any of the suburban Billy Bricks locations (and I actually prefer Billy’s version). 

Way back in the day a lot of the original Italian families that immigrated to America ended up in diaspora in New York, New Jersey and New Haven. In bringing over their own traditions and cuisines, each area evolved its own version of the thin, Southern Italian Neapolitan-style pizzas from their homeland. New York obviously has their bigger, cheesier NY-style pies. New Jersey has the tomato pie, where the cheese and other toppings are added first before the sauce is placed on top (sound familiar). And then New Haven has apizza (there’s a great guide if you want to read more about it right here), which is thinner and crispier, tends to be baked specifically in coal-fired ovens, and is cut into incredibly strange triangular shapes for some reason that I’ve never been able to properly discern.

In New Haven there are three legendary pizza restaurants; Frank Pepe Pizzeria NapoletanaSally’s (which was opened down the street from Pepe by Frank’s nephew Sal, sparking one of the fiercest pizza rivalries in the country), and Modern Apizza – the new kid on the block in that its only been around since 1944.

New Haven is about two hours from New York by train, so Brian and I had plenty of time to catch up on the way. Him and his wife Erica are expecting their first baby next spring, and as a nine-year veteran of the parenting wars myself (my oldest son literally just turned nine a few days ago) I had plenty of advice to share. It was a surreal moment for me, trying to find the words to explain what it’s like to care for a tiny, brand new human to one of my oldest and dearest friends (who I also used to hurl both expletives and video game controllers at during many of our vicious PlayStation hockey battles).

Union Station in New Haven is a few blocks from Wooster Street, which is where their Little Italy begins, and is also the street that both Sally’s and Pepe are located on. So as soon as we hopped off the train, we made our way over.

Sally’s was closer, so we stopped there first.

Go to enough pizza places and it’s incredible how much the aesthetic can inform you about what you’re going to eat. Sally’s is no different than Vito & Nick’s or any of the plethora of classic pizza places I love in that it’s decor seems to state “here’s some stuff we’ve acquired over the years, we really only care about making pizza.” And that’s exactly what we got.

My first bites didn’t really taste all that different from any New Haven-style I’d had before, even though you always carry that expectation whenever you’re eating anything in the place that it’s actually from. But it was still really, really good pizza. I’m not a big char on the bottom guy, which you typically get from pizzas cooked in older coal-fired ovens, so that would probably be my biggest gripe. But I could definitely eat Sally’s all the time and be happy about it.

Frank Pepe is halfway up the next block, so it took us all of three minutes to walk there.

There’s a significant difference in appearance between Pepe and Sally’s. Pepe is bigger, brighter, and cleaner inside (and I mean that in more of a less cluttered way as opposed to a sanitary sense).

Pepe goes a lot heavier with their cheese (as you can see by the delightful pools of expelled oil and fat on the surface in the pictures) and their crust has more oil/moisture in it as well, so it winds up being crispier than Sally’s. It’s going to feel like a cop out, but I enjoyed both pizzas at about the same level.

After consuming (almost) two entire pizzas in an hour, we needed a break. So we took a nice, long walk around New Haven. New Haven is where Yale is located, and while we didn’t go inside any of the buildings or libraries, the campus is obviously about as tree-lined and picturesque New England as you can get.

Eventually we made out way to our hotel to drop our bags and watch Connor Bedard’s first period of professional hockey. Between the first and second period we hopped in a car and made our way over to our last official stop in New Haven, Modern Apizza.

Of the three pizzas we ate in Connecticut, Modern was my favorite (even though there’s way too much char creeping up at the edges on the pepperoni half). Modern was balanced in a way the other two were not. Sally’s didn’t have enough cheese, and their crust was dry as opposed to crispy. Pepe was a heavier, oilier pizza, and even though I loved the sliced meatballs on theirs, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Modern. So Modern not only wins my coveted New Haven award (which has absolutely no value and I just made up), but it was also my favorite pizza of the entire trip.

After following the second period of the hockey game on my phone while we were eating, we ducked into a bar next door to watch the rest as a band of 60-something-year-old hippies who looked like Ben & Jerry’s cosplayers serenaded us with cover songs.

Young master Bedard and the Blackhawks beat Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 for their first win of the season and I ate three delicious pizzas. Thanks for the good times, New Haven.

Wednesday, October 11th

Brian and I have to catch another train, so it’s back to Union Station we go. Our driver asks us why we’re in New Haven, which I feel like we’ve been asked an abnormal amount of times during the less than 24 hours that we spent there, and when we tell him it was for pizza he goes off on the same every other pizza from every other place is garbage tirade that I’ve heard a million times and never need to hear again for the rest of my entire life. And not to discount the man completely, but I know we’re operating on different wavelengths as soon as he starts talking about the fact he likes his pizza so charred that his hands are black by the time he’s finished eating.

We hop on our train to Boston and this time Brian has work stuff to do, so I close my eyes and enjoy an extra special “napping during a time my schedule never, ever allows me to” nap.

Two hours later we’re arrive at Boston’s North Station and hit the ground running. Earlier this summer Dave Melton (who is the fantastic writer/editor/site manager that captains us at Second City Hockey) and I talked to fellow Hawks’ writer Mark Lazerus for an episode of our podcast and eventually the conversation led to us asking Mark about some of his favorite things to eat when he’s covering games on the road. He brought up Boston and name-dropped a sandwich shop called Sam Lagrassa’s, mentioning specifically that they’re so busy they’re only open for three hours a day. By the time Brian and I get off our train, we only have 45 minutes until they close.

We make it to Sam’s with 10 minutes to spare, and I’m rewarded with one of the best corned beef sandwiches I’ve ever eaten in my life (and I eat a lot of corned beef).

We drop our bags, hop on the train – which Bostonians refer to as the ‘T’ – so that Brian can immediately complain about how slow it is (New Yorkers, man), and we can make our way toward TD Garden where both the Bruins and Celtics play.

TD Garden is located right next to Boston’s North End neighborhood, which is a fantastic mix of windy, narrow streets, some of the city’s oldest buildings (including the Old North Church, which is famously where Paul Revere’s lanterns were hung to notify of the impending wave of British soldiers) and a slew of classic Italian bakeries and restaurants. We walk around the North End for a bit, which I cannot recommend enough if you’re ever in Boston, split a cannoli and a piece of Boston creme pie then head for the game.

TD Garden itself is kind of strange. It’s a relatively new-ish arena (built in 1995), and the neighborhood around it doesn’t feel all that different from a lot of the other older NHL team’s barns that I’ve visited recently in that it’s a contradictory mix between the old and the new; classic, sweaty sports bars that diehards have been visiting for generations versus fast casual, family friendly chain establishments that have had their edges sanded down completely. The smelly, divey past butting up against the bland and homogenized present.

TD is the 15th NHL area that I’ve been to (I hope to eventually get to them all) and it only seems to have one entrance, which everyone has to funnel up through a solitary staircase/set of escalators to get to. The inside of most NHL/NBA facilities is pretty boilerplate, so with nothing much to see Brian and I head upstairs.

Tonight is not only Connor Bedard’s second game (my main concern), but also the Bruins’ opening night, and before the game they’re holding a ceremony to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the team, which includes a slew of legendary alumni they’ve invited to join the festivities (each one of which is painstakingly introduced). Eventually the game begins, and just over five minutes into the first period the magic happens.

I never expected to see Bedard’s first goal in person, but a few weeks before the trip it dawned on me that it was a possibility. I’ve seen some pretty memorable goals in person through the years, but this particular goal is one that I’ll obviously never forget (and just 10 days later I was watching from the press box at the United Center when he scored his first home goal as well).

My second favorite moment of the night actually happens completely off the ice as I’m waiting in an insanely long line to use the restroom between the second and third periods. I can hear a group of dads and sons talking as they stand somewhere behind me. I would peg the boys as somewhere in the 11 to 13 range, and you can tell how excited they are by the rapid, rat-a-tat rhythm of their sentences. All they’re talking about is Bedard. His shots. His skating. How many more goals he might score tonight. I make it a point to try and clock them as I come out, so I can see how many of them are wearing his jersey. When I leave the bathroom a few minutes they’re still in line talking about him. And all the boys, and all the dads, are wearing Boston jerseys.

Bedard’s goal is the high point for the Hawks. The Bruins score the next three and win by a final score of 3-1. Brian and I walk out into the night and get lost in a sea of delirious Boston fans. At this point he informs me he will not be taking the train back under any circumstances, so we grab a taxi and head back to our hotel.

Thursday, October 12th

Brian has to head home a day sooner than me, so I wake up early to say goodbye before he leaves to catch his Amtrak back to New York. It’s incredible just how fast 48 hours can go by sometimes.

I have one more day ahead of me. And one more pizza to eat.

I take the T to Back Bay and eat a delightfully huge diner breakfast at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe. I walk around Fenway Park, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been there and everything around it has changed in the exact same way as Wrigley and that bums me out.

I meet up with my friend Joe, who I haven’t seen in practically ten years – which was when we both still lived in Los Angeles. He grew up in Boston so he gives me a mini-history lesson as we walk down Newbury street and catch up and talk about our kids. We end up passing right by both of the marathon bombing sites, and seeing just how packed the streets are now on a regular, normal weekday makes me comprehend the level of devastation in an entirely different way. Joe takes me inside the Boston Public Library, and I’m impressed by how he seems to know every single square foot of it.

Eventually he has to get back to work, and I have yet another train to catch. Before we say goodbye he asks me why on Earth I’m eating pizza in Boston, as he thinks most of their pizza is pretty terrible except for place called Regina in the North End that I walked by last night and I remember having a huge line out front. And I tell him that I’m not eating pizza in Boston, as I’m headed down to a town called Randolph.

Born in the taverns and dive bars of Massachusetts’ South Shore, bar pizza is a style in and of itself; a crisp-bottom pan pizza with laced edges that’s typically topped with cheddar cheese (or a blend of cheddar and mozzarella) from edge to edge so that there’s very little (if any) crust. Because the pizza is baked in a pan coated with some type of fat, typically oil or butter, the crust takes on an almost biscuit-like texture.

I first heard about bar pizza from Andris Langsdin, a Massachusetts native who’s the creator of the Baking Steel. The Baking Steel is a seasoned piece of super thin steel that’s cut to fit inside your home oven to bake pizzas on. I use one and I love it. And Andris is always posting pizza making videos and leading online classes (one of which, was about bar pizza).

As soon as I knew I was going to Boston I immediately started researching South Shore bar pizza shops and one jumped out at me immediately; Lynwood Cafe.

Randolph is about 20 miles south of Boston proper, and Lynwood is a 10 minute walk from the train station.

It looked like everything I hoped it would, both outside and inside, and felt like it probably hadn’t changed all that much since it opened 70 years ago. It also smelled incredible. I ordered my pizza at the bar, took a seat, and bided my time.

15 minutes later my pizza came out and while I was taking pictures of it I got heckled by the most Massachusetts man that has ever existed. He started off by asking me if I was ever going to eat it (fair), then followed up by wanting to know where I was from, and when I told him I was in from Chicago he asked me if my jaw was always tired from chewing all the deep dish (solid burn). We talked about bar pizza in general, and he told me Lynwood was the best. 

I took a bite and it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was definitely more biscuit-like than typical pan pizza crusts. You couldn’t really taste much sauce and the cheese was pretty subtle. Overall it reminded of an elevated version of the frozen Home Run Inn pizzas you can buy at any grocery store in Chicago, which is absolutely fine if that’s what you’re craving, but I prefer a lot more flavor and a little bit of intrigue from a crust. I ate a couple slices, and felt obliged to exaggerate when Massachusetts Man asked me just how much I loved it, paid the least amount of money that I’ve paid for an entire pizzas in years, then walked back to catch the train back up to Boston.

Since it was my last night I decided to go back to the North End for a bit to wander around and revisit the cannoli case at the 24-hour Italian bakery Brian and I had hit up the night before. And yes, that’s correct. An Italian bakery that never closes is both something I desperately want but should never, ever have in my life.

Friday, October 13th

In the morning I take the shuttle from the hotel to Logan Airport. The driver talks about Boston drivers the entire time (“they cut each other off at will, constantly moving without ever using their flashers”) and I watch the city disappear through the window. 

There’s not much to eat at the airport so I finally succumb to the constant barrage of Dunkin and get a disappointing, microwaved breakfast sandwich. A movie on the plane later and I’m back in Chicago, debating whether or not I should stop at Gene & Jude’s on the way back from O’Hare (I didn’t but I totally should have).

On this trip I had five pizzas I had been thinking about for years (L&B, Lucali, Sally’s, Pepe, and Modern) as well as one pizza style that I’d had highly recommended to me by a man who does nothing but make pizzas and think about pizzas every single day of his life. Of those six pizzas that I ate, a few of which some people might argue are the very best of the best, Modern Apizza is the only one I would go out of my way to have again. And even then by “out of my way” I mean like by a few miles, not that I would take another two hour train ride to go get it.

There’s a metaphor is all of this somewhere. A lesson to be learned about the way that expectations alter how we enjoy things, whether that’s watching an incredibly talented 18 year-old score his first professional goal or eating a bunch of really good pizza you’ve been thinking about for years, but right now I’m too tired to figure it out. This post became a much bigger boat than I’d ever intended to build, and it’s time for me to launch it.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it if you’ve made it with me this far. I’ll have another post or two like this up my sleeve during the season.