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Great pizza as hard to find as a shy politician


This is said to be the year of the woman in politics, but based on what I saw in the Cow Palace in Timonium yesterday afternoon, it is also the year of the woman in pizza. The women of Poppy's Place, which is in Harford County, took first place in the March of Dimes Best-Tasting-Pizza-In-Town Contest Cook-Off. About which more in a moment.

First, a question: Of the three presidential candidates, which do you think packs the pizza away?

President Bush? No way. Too skinny. No zits.

Ross Perot? Ditto skinny. Ditto zits. The suggestion that Perot packs away pizza is Press Myth No. 1,336.

Bill Clinton? No zits but a little spare tire in the midsection. He's a packer.

Those jogging photographs were not flattering to the Democratic front-runner, especially when Al "Separated At Birth From Christopher Reeve" Gore was in the frame. But, I figure it this way: Bill Clinton -- young man in a hurry, Baby Boomer in his mid-40s -- has your basic Type A personality, which means, prior to running for president, he worked a lot of late nights down in Little Rock and probably ordered out for pizza three times a week. I can just see the governor, shirtsleeves rolled up, leaning over the coffee table in his office, sucking in huge gobs of the stuff. Then, during the campaign, there were all those bus trips -- and, undoubtedly, more pizza. That accounts for the love handles.

I don't see this as a bad thing. As a matter of fact, perhaps it's time for another larger-than-life president. If Clinton is elected, I look for him to burn the midnight oil at the White House and order pizza a lot. He'll balloon to William Howard Taft dimensions, grow a mustache and start wearing morning suits and top hats. They'll have to get a bigger bath tub.

But enough of political relevancy!

Let's talk pizza talk.

Pizza is near and dear to the carotid arteries of millions of Americans. As a public service, every now and then, someone sponsors a contest in an attempt to establish the best pizza. This is a terribly exacting enterprise. I know. I've been there.

I served as a judge in a pizza contest and almost took ill when, late in the evening, somebody slid a nacho burrito pizza under my nose.

So I went out to the Cow Palace yesterday because it was a Charity Thing -- more than $10,000 was raised for the March of Dimes through contributions at 150 pizza shops in the metropolitan area -- not because I am addicted to pizza.

Let's be honest. Most American-style pizza is mediocre. It is made with processed American mozzarella, parmesan substitutes, prefab dough discs, and Uncle Guido's canned pizza sauce. Most of the pepperoni tastes like it was made in Pennsylvania Dutch country. If you get a pizza actually made with olive oil, it's more miraculous than the Lady of Fatima.

Pardon my snobbery. I am a spoiled pizza brat. My mother, the former Rose Popolo, makes authentic Italian -- not "Italian-style" -- pizza. I have it written in private papers that, should my mother survive me, the priest who delivers the last rites must also deliver Rose's cheese-garlic-and-anchovy pizza.

I moved to Baltimore and discovered the pizza was lousy -- with two exceptions: Mrs. Mannetta's pizza in Little Italy (Sorry, folks; you gotta know someone in the family) and Squire's in Dundalk.

Since then, there has been a national revolution in pizza, and the result is one National Taste that everyone over the age of 17 is already sick of. I suspect that, somewhere in Jersey, there is a gigantic vat of sauce that travels through thousands of miles of underground pipes to pizza shops across the country. This accounts for the National Taste in pizza. Anything that varies from this is outstanding.

That's what makes a winner.

The two runners-up in yesterday's cook-off were: Hilltop Carryout (Green peppers, pepperoni and sausage -- a flavor volcano!) and Maria's of Timonium (Crunchy-puffy crust like mama used to make).

The winner was Poppy's Pizza, which is owned by women (sisters Cecelia Sleeman and Shirley Persuhn) and managed by a woman (Connie Garrity). Most of the employees are young women, and they make a great pizza. Poppy's is located way up in Harford County, at U.S. 1 and Route 136. They don't deliver to Baltimore. I asked.

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