Mysterious Mr. Mack & Manco

Every summer, there is one meal we just can’t wait to tear into: Mack & Manco pizza on the Ocean City boardwalk. From the moment we finish the last slice of Labor Day pie, the clock starts ticking down the months till the following Memorial Day. This storied pizza parlor—there are three on the b’walk—is open year-round, but out of its summer context, it’s just not the same. So it was with great vigor Memorial Day Sunday 2009, we drove from the summer digs in Ventnor to the OC, braving the myopic Jag-driving Margate bubbes and feral state troopers on the Longport Bridge along the way.

The place was buzzing. Swarms of sunburn WASPs filled the tables. Green vinyl stools and tweeners in OCBP hoodies lined the long counter, behind which the pizzaiolas in fashion pies from floured discs of dough, bus-pans full of shredded cheese and tomato sauce pumped from a hose. They doughboys wear threadbare Mack & Manco’s logo tees and all manners of bandana and sweatband. With the double-decker rotating pizza ovens right behind them, shit gets hot.

We slid into one of the sloping faux-wood booths covered in shamrock-green vinyl, ordered large Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beers from the fountain and two pies: a large plain and a large white with spinach and broccoli, approximately 20 slices of pizza for three people. Mack & Manco’s signature thin-crust—the crust we’ve been eating since we were shoobee bambinos—it’s so beautifully thin, putting away four slices isn’t a challenge, it’s a given.

The pies came one after the other, crowing the tabletop, forcing us to Tetris the soda cups, cell phones, paper plates and oregano shakers. This was it, the moment for which we’d been waiting eight months. One bite, another…. Then another… Something was wrong. Something was different. The cheese didn’t taste the same. Nor did the gravy. Instead of the signature opposing swirls of red and yellow, the cheese bled into the sauce, clinging to it like an infection.

Devastated. The right word to describe the mood at the table. Keep in mind, as long as we’ve been eating solid foods is as long as we’ve been eating Mack & Manco’s, and it’s always tasted deliciously the same. Devastated. We looked around, searching for the waiter to tell us we’d been punked. Things began coming into horrible focus. The pizza-makers, we didn’t recognize them. Nor the waiters. Dudes whose faces we’d seen summer after summer—Chipmunk Guy, Guy Who Looks Like A Male Version Of Our Friend Cara, Bug Eyes, Older Guy Who Sweats, Jayson Werth Twin… None of them weren’t here. And where was the Coppertoned matriarch, her head hiding under a bottle-blonde bouffant? It was like the cocktail party scene in Mulholland Drive, when Naomi Watts is looking around and slowly realizes something is very, very wrong.

Ok, ok. We had accidentally come to the Eighth Street location. Without fail, we hit the Ninth Street parlor, AKA The One With The Bathroom. That was explanation, we told ourselves. It had to be. Never mind all three locations serve exactly the same pizza. It was the only thing that slightly made sense, and we seized onto it like a life preserver.

A return visit was scheduled. This past Tuesday night. Again, we drove from the summer digs in Ventnor to the OC. The myopic Jag-driving Margate bubbes and feral state troopers seemed more foreboding than usual. It had just rained, and there was a fierce blood-orange sun sinking below the misty gray marshes of Great Egg Bay. Halloween horror movie stuff.

This time, we went to the Ninth Street outpost, settled into a booth, ordered Birch Beer and a large plain pie, extra-crispy for good measure. It came. We sweated. It looked all right. The opposing sauce and cheese spirals, there. The very light sheen of oil, present. Big bubbles around the rim, check. What would we do if this pie sucked too? Never eat at Mack & Manco’s again? The possibility, well, it seemed downright apocalyptic. There’s no doubt better pizza to be found at Osteria, Tony’s Place and elsewhere—but none of those pizzerias are as tied to our formative eating experiences and food memory bank as this bare-bones joint facing the dark surf and salt-laden breezes.

One bite. Another… The crunch, the slippery onslaught of sauce and cheese. The burns on the roof of our mouths. There it was! That mysterious trinity of smoky, charred bread; bright, lightly sweet tomatoes and cheese, hot, stringy, gooey and comforting. Folks tend to speculate on Mack & Manco’s secrets: olive juice in the gravy, extra-sharp white cheddar mixed with the mozz. We don’t know—or care to expose—their magic tricks. We’re only thankful for their pizza, for another summer at least.

Photo: blogalicious

1 comment:

Jen A. Miller said...

Great post about Mac & Mancos. My tip? Try to eat there any other time than peak season. The crush of customers tends to rush pizzas through (as you'd expect). I never had a better slice than when stuck on the island in a late season Nor'Easter. I was the only person in the store.