“Off the record,” he said when I climbed into his taxi on 18th St. and 8th Ave., wondering if I could ask him a few questions while we made our way to 28th and Lex.
His salt and pepper ponytail hung just past his shoulders. His brown eyes were tired.
“Okay,” I said, “How long have you been driving a cab?”
“On and off since 1977.”
I wasn’t surprised when he told me he was a New Yorker “born and bred.” He had that no-nonsense, don’t-waste-my-time New Yorker way about him.
Fresh off of three months in Berlin, where the locals are infamous for Berliner Schnauze rudeness, I wasn’t at all put off by the cabbie’s resistance to me and my questions. I suspected, as in Berlin, that it was designed to protect a soft interior.
I asked him what he did when he wasn’t driving a taxi.
“I’m a musician,” he said, “I play the piano.”
“Jazz or classical?” I said.
“Classical. I write classical music. Obviously, there’s no money in that, so that’s why I’m driving a cab.”
“I understand,” I said, “I’m a writer, and I drive a cab, too.”
By the time we were heading east on 28th Street, I learned that he was building a recording studio five minutes from the Staten Island Ferry, that he’s been playing music for 40 years, and that he’s written two unfinished symphonies. His great wish? To hear his work performed by real musicians on real instruments. (This got my wheels turning. Surely this can happen somehow?*)
As a lifelong New Yorker from an Italian family, the composer/musician/cabbie also has a deep appreciation for food. His favorite thing to eat? Seafood. Especially New Brunswick oysters from Aqua Grill on 6th Avenue and Spring.
“They have about 50 types of oysters,” he said, “But the New Brunswick are my favorite. I also like sea scallops. I used to order the swordfish but I got scared away because of the mercury thing. And king crab legs – but they’re too expensive.”
“For me, too,” I said, “What about cheaper places. Like pizza?”
We crossed Fifth Avenue. We were getting close to 28th and Lex. I wasn’t ready for the ride to be over. I was still thinking about his symphonies. And I was dying to know where the native New Yorker liked his pizza.
“I like a typical New York pie,” he said, “I don’t care about all those fancy pizzas. My pizza joint of choice is Mike’s Pizza and Mike’s Due. Their sauce is exactly right. I mostly go to Mike’s Due because it’s easier to park. You know as a cabbie you need places that are cheap, fast, and you can park. Used to be that you needed a pay phone right outside, but not anymore.”
John – he said I could use his name after all – has been a regular customer at Mike’s since 1997. He was more than happy to deposit me there, but not before sharing specific instructions that only a food-obsessed person would give:
“Order the spinach cartwheel. Make sure you ask for it well done. You want the inside to be fully cooked so the cheese melts into the spinach. Then put parmesan on top. It’s great and it’s only $2.50.”
I took his advice. And ordered a square-cut ‘Grandma slice’, which he also recommended.
He was right. Mike’s sauce was special – loaded with garlic and oregano and Italian tomatoes – but the layer of cheese on top was underwhelming and undercooked and unnecessary. (Don’t get me wrong – I love cheese. The good stuff can make my spine tingle.)
What impressed me most, though, was the dough. How was it so crispy on the bottom and so light – but not soggy – on top? That slice had the duality of texture that I’m always trying for – and never achieving – when I make pizza dough.
John’s spinach ‘cartwheel’ (they actually call it a pinwheel at Mike’s, but I think cartwheel sounds more fun) was even better. The olive oiled dough was great in a different way – richer, chewier, a glorious frame for the spinach and mozzarella inside. With a little sprinkle of parmesan, it was $2.50 of delicious that I knew I’d be back to taste from my taxi.
Mike’s Due Pizza – Map it
338 Third Ave. (at 25th St.) – Gramercy
New York, NY 10010
Recommended dish: Spinach pinwheel/cartwheel ($2.50)
*John: If you’re reading this, could you please send me an email at email@example.com? I’ve already heard from some musicians who want to perform your symphony. Musicians: if you’re reading this and are interested in bringing John’s unfinished symphony to life, send me an email, too. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make it happen?