I am not spiritual, but the closest I’ve come to believing in the existence of an omniscient, benevolent being is when Rico T opened his little pizza joint a mere five-minute drive from my house. I know. You’re probably thinking I’m exaggerating. But should I have to convince you, dear reader, about the divine element in this pizzaiolo’s life story, let me tell you now that his last name rhymes with tortellini. It’s safe to say that whether he knows it or not, the man is on a mission from God.
I don’t know how he ended up here, and I don’t care. Maybe it was love; the classic tale of guy meets girl on holiday, in a painfully sunny place like Santorini, where everything is so disgustingly romantic you can’t help but fall head over heels with whoever is taking pictures of the Technicolor sunset next to you, like a Mediterranean Taylor Swift wet dream. (Disclaimer: I’ve never wanted to fall in love, so I’ve never been to Santorini. This is just a personal approximation of travel guide pictures.) Maybe some lucky compatriot looked up from her beach read and saw him: big, dark and tall, a perfect specimen of what a certain uber-tanned 2009 reality TV personality would call a cute juice head gorilla, ringlets of really good hair dripping with saltwater, gleaming in the sun. Maybe he asked for a light, or her name, or her number in broken English; maybe she gave him all three. That’s the story I like to concoct in my brain for how he found himself making pizza pies in a sleepy coastal suburb in the south of Athens. There’s other explanations, too -shrinking job market, government protection program, a wanderlust for places with similar climate to Italy but worse infrastructure- but they’re inconvenient at best, and I want the people I love to be happy.
The vast majority of Greek pizzerias crank out notoriously thick and chewy dough, greasy, dense, round slabs of bread that almost swallow the assortment of toppings the good customer has selected. It is as barbaric as it is unceremonious, and I have never been a fan. The main pizza staple in my area had always been a place called Castello’s, with plastic chairs and wall-to-wall mirrors, an ancient mounted TV, forever stuck in Football Channel limbo, and the heady smell of deep-fried something saturating every corner of the restaurant. It was no exception to the aforementioned rule: their dough was about two inches high, covered in a healthy dose of the secret tomato sauce – tear-inducingly spicy yet inexplicably both bland and Stockholm syndrome-addictive. They also served a chef’s salad that tricked me, a picky eater in childhood, too many a time with its diabolical assembly; an impenetrable layer of nuclear yellow shredded string cheese on top and a rogue blob of mayonnaise hidden under mountains of carrot and lettuce, a true study in cholesterol stratigraphy. Castello’s was an insult to all Italian chefs everywhere, but back in the 1990s, it was the place to be; weddings, baptisms, birthdays, even hilariously so, funerals somehow always ended up there, with aunties and grandparents in their best Sunday clothes, collectively annihilating the roofs of their mouths with that soggy abomination. The older I grew, the less I had to be subjected to that culinary torture, and I never returned past the age of twenty.
Rico T’s establishment is small and intimate, akin to a regular house kitchen: only two tables and eight chairs. No unnecessary frills, just a glorified room with an open oven station and a tiny bathroom that smells like old-school, cotton candy rose soap, the kind you’ll find at your grandmother’s home. Once, he grabbed a chair and sat right next to me, proudly watching me as I inhaled his creation. In between deranged chomps, he asked me about a hundred times “is-a good, ah?” and his smile grew wider with each enthusiastic nod. We made heartfelt and genuine small talk, resourcefully enlisting a combination of hand gestures, my poor Italian and his three words of English.
His menu is Spartan like his restaurant: no salads (what is the point of salad if you’re stuffing your face with carbs?), no appetizers. Just pizza and pasta. The margherita is his magnum opus: soft, pillowy mozzarella forming a beautiful peplum of comforting, gooey goodness on paper thin crust that magically always stays airy and crispy. Grab a slice and witness art in motion – golden cheese stretches out into the air, buttery and rich. The pupils of your eyes widen, in awe, ecstatic. Your heart beats faster. Your stomach gurgles to the tune of La Primavera, Allegro; for one perfect moment in this bleak world, you are happy, and it’s all thanks to Rico T.
Lydia Xythali is a writer and EFL teacher from Athens. Her work has appeared in Nasty! Vol. 2 , Bleak Friday (King Shot Press) and Excuse Me Mag. Find her online at lydiaxythali.com and @commonlydia on Twitter.