Sunday, July 28, 2013

Organ Stop Pizza: Come for the Organ, Stay for

Many readers of this blog are likely aware of the fact that I am a pizza snob. It’s a hat I wear proudly, hailing as I do from Brooklyn, the pizza capital of the world. Fortunately, in my 18 years living in the desert I’ve managed to locate a few pizzerias that pass the Brooklyn sniff test, but they are clearly the exception. The average slice of pizza in Arizona is…well…average at best.

There are times, however, when I will get pizza at a place whose quality I know going in will not be up to snuff. Generally I end up at a place like this for a reason other than the pizza. Peter Piper Pizza is the perfect example. No person with functioning taste buds would ever go to PPP for the high quality eats. No sane person, at least. Indeed the only reason to go is because you have children between the ages of two and twelve, who want to play games, win prizes and generally wreak havoc in a place that happens to sell pizza. 

All of this is preamble to the rather unique pizza place I found myself in on Saturday night—Organ Stop Pizza in sunny Mesa, Arizona. I went with my four-year-old son after I took him bowling. Earlier that day I asked him if he wanted to go to La Famiglia (our Brooklyn-approved pizzeria of choice) or a pizza place we had never been to before that plays music. To his credit he went with the new option, which was a step forward since he is very much a creature of habit when it comes to food.

What makes Organ Stop Pizza unique is not the pizza—indeed, the pizza’s taste is subpar even for the frozen section of your local supermarket—but rather, the fact that it is home to the world’s largest Wurlitzer pipe organ. This gargantuan instrument is played nightly by one of the restaurant’s three resident organists. On Saturday, Charlie Balogh (no clue how you would pronounce that) was at the helm. According to Mr. Balogh’s online bio he was named “Organist of the Year” by the American Theatre Organ Society in 2000. (Yet another society to which I will never belong.)

When we first arrived at Organ Stop I noticed a man dressed as Santa sitting in the lobby. I then quickly noticed signage indicating they were having a “Christmas in July” celebration/fundraiser. I became alarmed that my son would notice and either start battering me with questions about why Santa would be this far south this time of year or, even worse, become deluded into thinking that he would be showered with gifts sometime in the next few weeks. Fortunately, he never seemed to notice Old Saint Nick, so I managed to dodge that bullet.

What my son did notice, however, was that the music was loud—too loud apparently for his taste. The restaurant has a unique set up in which you order at a counter when you first come in and then seat yourself in the auditorium, which has cafeteria style seating. When we entered, right around 6PM, the place was jam-packed and the only seats I saw open were two rows away from the pipe organ. As we came in, Mr. Balogh was playing a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” and as soon as we sat I saw that my son had his hands over his ears. I asked him what was wrong and he said that the music was too loud. I reminded him that he had said that he wanted to go to the place with the music and he said, “But I didn’t know it was going to be so noisy.”

While we waited for our food to be ready, we heard the theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Sleigh Ride” (remember, it was Christmas in July.) As we sat there I noticed that there was a second floor balcony looking down on the stage. I asked my son if he wanted to move up there once we got our food, to see if it was less noisy. He did. So, while listening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” we picked up our food from the counter and went upstairs.

Once on the second floor we sat down in a spot that my son agreed was slightly less noisy, but was instead too dark. So we got up and moved again, this time to a spot that was better lit, but still noisy, although not quite as noisy as it was downstairs. Less than a minute later Mr. Balogh signed off for intermission and the house lights were turned on. This was by far my son’s favorite part of the show.

During intermission we ate our pizza, which I noticed was strangely cut into ten slices. In an effort to make the pizza vaguely edible I looked around the table for parmesan cheese or garlic powder, but only saw salt and pepper. If I ever go back again I’ll make sure to wear a jacket with lots of pockets so I can bring my own seasonings.

My son was halfway through his second slice when the lights went down and the music started back up. This prompted my son to immediately put down his pizza and announce, “I’m done!” And with that, we abruptly left. As we walked back to the car my son said, “I knew I should have picked La Famiglia.” It was as though he was reading my mind.

And yet, I can’t say I regret having gone there. The whole thing was pleasantly surreal—akin to driving 70 miles out of your way to see the world’s largest ball of twine, or watching an early John Waters movie. Indeed, under the right circumstances I could even see myself going there again…the right circumstances would be that I wasn’t with my kids and I had already eaten a full meal.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meet the Creatures...At Your Own Risk

A guinea pig urinated on my hand yesterday. Well, not directly on my hand. I was holding it inside a cloth sack to avoid the possibility of getting scratched or bitten and it urinated inside the sack. Since the sack was about the thickness of a pillow case, this was tantamount to getting urinated on directly.

No, we did not purchase a guinea pig as a pet. (We have a large, marginally unhinged cat in our house, which would probably try to swallow a guinea pig whole and end up hacking up the world’s largest hairball.) I took my six-year-old and four-year-old sons to a “Meet the Creatures” class offered by the City of Chandler at their Environmental Education Center at Veteran’s Oasis Park. And by “meet” I mean hold and possibly get urinated upon.

The class, offered weekly throughout the summer, is run by a couple who are animal rescue experts. During the first five to ten minutes of the class participants learn about the various animals in the room and how to handle them. The “how to handle them” portion of the lecture is of particular importance, so that one might learn which pets are okay with being picked up (like the urinating guinea pig) and which ones can be petted but not picked up (like the bunny the size of a warthog, which we were told would kick you in the chest with the force of an MMA contestant if you tried to lift if off the ground.)

The animals featured at the class ran the gamut from common things such as the aforementioned guinea pig and rabbit, to more exotic animals like a wallaby and a paca. I got to hold the wallaby (also in a sack, but thankfully non-urinating) which was kind of cool. I mean, short of hopping a quick 20-hour flight to Australia and bushwhacking my way into the outback, when else will I get a chance to get up close and personal with a wallaby?

While I had the pleasure of holding the urinating guinea pig and the dry wallaby, my sons were a bit more skittish about handling the animals. They seemed much more content letting me hold the animals while they gingerly pet or brushed them. My six-year-old did, however, hold a small turtle about the size of a drink coaster. When the turtle tucked its head into the shell my son commented that it looked like a sandwich, but he passed on my suggestion that he take a bite out of it.

One animal that both I, and my sons, kept at a healthy distance was the flying gecko. I don’t know if “flying gecko” is what it’s actually called—it probably has a slightly fancier name that I didn’t quite catch—but the point is that it was a gecko much larger and more exotic than your garden variety gecko, and more importantly, we were told during the orientation that it sometimes jumps on people’s faces. Yup, we were told by the woman running the class that we could hold the gecko, but it may—without any provocation—jump on your face. She said—and I quote—“if you’re not comfortable with it jumping on your face, you may not want to hold it.” I would have thought that the majority of people (at least sane people) would not have been comfortable with an eight-inch lizard launching itself toward their eyes/nose/mouth, but apparently I was mistaken on that count. Most of the people in the class—both children and adults—seemed perfectly fine handling the kamikaze reptile (and interestingly, it didn’t face-plant anyone the entire time) but the Schwartzberg men kept a safe distance at all times.

At the end of the class we thanked the instructors, lathered ourselves in several quarts worth of hand sanitizer, and went on our merry way. The memories of this class may last a lifetime, but, thankfully, the scent of guinea pig piss goes away in a couple of hours.