One morning in June 1974 I reported for work at Melio’s Heights Inn, a pizzeria and lounge in Madison Heights, Michigan. Dino, the manager, led me to the big stainless-steel sink with a spray nozzle and garbage disposal.
Next thing I knew, a stocky woman appeared across from me and said: “Scare me! What’s goin’ on? Louie s’posed to be trainin’ you, but Louie out somewhere fartin’ around.” Thus I met Exa Mae Davis, line cook at Melio’s and the spiritus rector of the Italian restaurant that would be my home for three months.
Exa Mae told me my first job was to strain several gallons of spaghetti sauce made the night before. I recall the fragrant, thick, cold paste disappearing through colander holes, leaving ham skins, onion chunks, and whole celery stalks as I stirred it all down with a giant steel spoon. Next, Exa Mae introduced me to the prep table with its gleaming slicer.
My main lunchtime job, though, was to make pizzas. Since then I’ve often said that being a pizza cook was my favorite job ever, except for being a college professor, and sometimes it even beat that.
You pick up a large, medium, or bar-size wad of dough and run it through a power roller twice to start flattening it out, and then you work the dough so that it thins in the middle while staying thicker at the edge, spreading it until it matches the desired size marked by a concentric circle on a broad wooden paddle strewn with corn meal.
I did not toss the dough in the air. I didn’t want to waste all the dough required to get the 10,000 hours of experience I’ve heard is necessary for perfecting this maneuver (or playing the violin).
Once you have your blank canvas stretched, you ladle on tomato sauce, sprinkle on grated mozzarella, and then choose from the small steel tubs of toppings — pepperoni, green peppers, onions, black and green olives, ham, mushrooms, and an ancient can of anchovies.
You open the short, wide oven door, pick up the wooden paddle, and let the pizza glide over the corn meal onto the brick floor of the oven while you scoot the paddle back out. Meanwhile you have burnt off some hair if not some skin on your forearm as it touches the 500-degree oven door.
Exa Mae admired my pizza skills, saying that whenever she tried it, she always made “footballs.” Sometimes she’d sing her theme song, “Exa Me Mucho.” One day she asked me through the utensil rack that divided the cooks’ area from the pizza-assembly station: “Geoff, we all outa crabs. You got any?”
That was the summer that Nixon resigned. We heard his farewell address live on the kitchen radio. It was my first summer home after a freshman year at Michigan State. It was the summer of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Eres tú.”
Dino the manager did not micromanage. He trusted me to get the prep work done, to keep up with the lunch rush, and to drive his car to pick up extra chickens. He paid me in cash (above-board; withholding was hand-written on the pay envelope). He tended bar, too, and once a month he would disappear into his little office in back, which doubled as the liquor locker, and go on a day-long binge. Otherwise he didn’t touch the stuff.
The night crew came in around five. Zenobia, known to her friends as Noble, asked me in a husky voice: “Geoff, you got a girlfriend?” “Yeah.” “You should have six. One for every night of the week, and Sunday is the day of rest.” German John, the tall blond pizza cook who made the next day’s dough, didn’t say much.
Once Exa Mae gave me a history lesson. Dino was the son-in-law of Melio, the founder of the Heights Inn. “I remember the day Melio died. Had a heart attack right over there by the pop machine.” Exa Mae looked forward to getting off work: “Got a six pack o’ Miller’s in the trunk.”
One day after lunch rush I was eating some spaghetti instead of the bar-size pizza I’d usually make for myself. I was sitting in the dining room (usually off limits) with an attractive waitress whose name I don’t remember, who at over twenty years old was from another planet. I twirled my spaghetti onto my fork. She said: “Are you Italian? You eat like one.”
This waitress was the same one who took me to the hospital. I was working a few months later over Christmas break, cutting up chicken after chicken for a catering job, when the knife slipped and cut deep into the index finger of my left hand.
Dino asked the waitress to take me to a hospital. The closest one was Providence in Madison Heights. I heard my mother’s voice: “Don’t ever go to Providence Hospital.” My mother had few but definite opinions. The waitress’s mother had told her the same thing. We went to Beaumont in Royal Oak.
I had sliced into but not through a tendon. Fourteen stitches, two in the tendon and the rest in two layers of skin. Bad news for a mandolin player. I probably started using the finger again too soon.
My witty eighteen-year-old self said “I had a knife fight with a chicken, and the chicken won.”
And thus ended my career at Melio’s. Scare me!