As a youngster, I was suspicious of cheese. Was I really wrong to be? Is cheese not a little underhanded in its methods and obscure in its motives? Are you sure it wants the best for you?
In any case, I only bring this up to suggest that pizza had an additional hurdle of tactile or textural aversion to clear with me. Which it did, with Olympian ease.
I learned to love it at Mama Brava, one of the first pizzerias in New Paltz, a town that has known dozens since.
Mama Brava was situated in the strangely cave-like store front at the north end of the strip anchored by the New Paltz post office. I did not know until this very afternoon whether Mama Brava was a national chain or a local franchise with a few locations.
It was the latter. The New Paltz restaurant was the original. Branches followed in Montgomery (destroyed by fire in 1980) and Beacon, as well as in my first mall, Orange Plaza in Middletown.
I did not know that Mama Brava owner Cosimo DiBrizzi also founded the more upscale Cosimo’s local chain of brick-oven Italian restaurants, Cosimo’s of the herbed dipping oils for bread and the big family salads. I dig that place, too. DiBrizzi owned or co-owned dozens and dozens of restaurants, some of which are credited in the commercial revitalization of Newburgh.
And thus I also did not know until today that Cosimo DiBrizzi was murdered in his home in May 2004. It was all over the news, of course. DiBrizzi was a fairly big deal nationally. In 2002, his pizza empire had been ranked number 72 among the nation’s top 100 pizza chains by Pizza Today. I am mildly surprised I have no memory of the story, but the early aughts were some fairly bleak and inattentive years for me.
In any case, the man who’s first pizza I first loved is 16 years gone. His son Nicolas, 26 at the time, was shot and severely injured in the assault as well, and the man convicted of the shootings, Dennis Sweeney, died in prison eight years later. It’s all pretty awful.
And here I find myself numbly re-reporting old news with the capacity to injure people closely connected to the tragedy. This is not where I intended to be today. I sat down with the intention of ranking New Paltz pizza.
The takeaway was going to be nostalgia be damned: while Capri was my go-to for decades, and Chez Joey’s was the great pizza mill of New Paltz’s legendary and warped nightlife, and Conca D’Ora deserves some kind of special medal for crazy, I consider Rino’s in Cherry Hill Plaza to be consistently the best pizza in New Paltz history.
That was to be the payoff. Instead I find myself, here on the eve of my 58th birthday, sitting again with my family in the cave at Mama Brava, drinking a pitcher of root beer and eating the pepperoni pie that defined pizza for me and began what can only be called a lifelong dependence.
I am happy to report that Mr. DiBrizzi seemed to be a beloved and admired figure, that the outpouring of grief and shock and tribute upon his murder was significant. I have no need to dig deeper. That’s good enough for me today.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.