"If you'll be my bodyguard/I can be your long lost pal/I can call you Betty/And Betty when you call me/You can call me Al." -Paul Simon
My dad, Alan, only knows one subway route: the 1 train from 28th street to 72nd, which lands him across the street from the original Gray's Papaya (not to be confused with Papaya King, Papaya Dog, Grey Dog, or Café Gray). He likes his hotdogs hot, with a toothy crunch, and he averages two per day, per visit. Sometimes I wonder if he comes to New York to visit me, or to eat dogs.
Over the years we've gone gaga over Nobu's omakase (before the city became overrun with the "koi polloi," as New York Magazine once called the new swarm of gargantuan Japanese culinary playrooms), celebrated Thanksgiving at The Red Cat, and enjoyed family dinners at Aquagrill, The Harrison, and Otto, but really my dad prefers paper napkins to cloth and chowing down to fine dining. He also enjoys consistency and good value: if he likes a specific dish or a restaurant's atmosphere, he'll want to go back. Thus, we've developed a restaurant repertoire that I like to call Al and Jennifer's Greatest Hits. We don't hit every spot each visit, and we add onto the list from time to time, but our most hallowed grounds have become sacred to me, and are never as tasty without him.
Because I believe it to my core, I will now make a very bold statement: John's Pizzeria has the best pizza on the isle. (Alan concurs.) The crust is thin and a little gummy. The light smattering of tomato sauce and mozzarella join together to form a symphony of tart and smooth, and the spices are subtle and soothing. I prefer it toppingless. Why mess with perfection? Why? John's is also a little ramshackle, cheap, and quick -- not qualities to love in a man, for sure, but definitely qualities to seek in a pizzeria.
I'm a little disgusted to admit that when we eat at John's, my dad and I order the large, and split it. I'm usually only a two slice girl, but when it comes to John's, I double the slice count and still manage to cram in a scoop from Cones on the walk home from the West Village.
Just a few streets over is a more gourmet favorite that serves slices of heaven in the form of a lobster roll. Mary's Fish Camp's lobster roll consists of divine chunka-chunkas of lobster, mayo, a generous squeeze of lemon, and a minute dice of celery on a buttered and toasted Pepperidge Farm top-loading bun with a sprinkle of chives. A more perfect balance of flavor, texture, and comfort I have not met.
When Mary's opened, the lobster roll raves were inescapable, and I had no choice but to add it to my bursting at the girth list of foodie must-tries. I finally went, alone, on a day when I played hooky from work after finding out my dad was sick. It was right before their 3 p.m. lunch close and the sun was catnap-in-the-window perfect. I attempted to chase my fears away with a green salad, a half dozen raw oysters, the lobster roll with string fries, and a glass of Sancerre. Months later, when he was in town for his first appointment at Sloan-Kettering, my dad and I devoured Mary's rolls on a similarly scary, sunny, late afternoon.
Five years and many miracles later, we're still ordering those rolls. After closing my eyes to finish the last bite, I always tell him I could eat another. He always asks if I want to order one. I never do, but I read the world into his asking. Love is funny that way.
Next week: Another slice with Al and Jennifer
Photo taken at a beach house near Charleston, S.C., summer of 1978