Victor’s was a pizzeria across from the front gates of Princeton University. It’s a place I miss on a regular basis and I know I’m not alone on that score. Victor’s had delicious pizza, by the slice or by the pie. It also served classic Italian heroes, submarine sandwiches (or “subs,” also known in these parts as “hoagies”), and, owing to our proximity to the City of Brotherly Love, Philly cheesesteaks.
But Victor’s did more than just feed an army of Princetonians every day, it provided a comfortable lounge in the center of town where many people traveling on often wildly disparate orbits could relax for a while over a bite to eat—students decked out in Walkmans, backpacks, and flip-flops; bank tellers in high-heels or buffed wingtips; the patrolman on his beat; carpenters from a local contracting company, sawdust still clinging to their forearms; the jewelry store proprietress with her bouffant hairdo and enough bangles and pearls for a night at the Oscars; the utility lineman with his tool belt and heavy work boots; professors and fawning acolytes; elderly loners, mumblers, sad cases, and the overly and insufficiently medicated.
It was a second home for a lot of us; for some unfortunates, it came as close to a first one as they’d have all day. It might’ve been called Victor’s, but there were losers as well as winners; all were welcome as long as they behaved.
The funny thing is, there was no “Victor.” Until they called it quits in October 2004, Gerry and Flavio Buono, brothers who grew up on the island of Capri in Italy’s Bay of Naples, owned and ran the place for 28 years. Both of them stood fairly tall, probably an inch or two over six feet, and had exceptionally long arms with virtually no difference muscularity-wise between what hung below the shoulder and what continued below the elbow.
Both had long, large heads, but Gerry, the elder, had a full complement of slightly wavy hair more salt than pepper while Flavio retained a jet black crop. When it came to their faces and the usual expression each one wore, they always reminded me of those stylized drama masks personifying the Muses of comedy and tragedy. Gerry had a perpetual smile, a kindly, beneficent grin that immediately made you feel welcome. He was affable and talkative. Flavio always seemed to look slightly annoyed, like he’d taken a bite of something and cracked a tooth. He rarely said more to most people than was absolutely necessary; his forbidding mien ensured that it worked the same way in the opposite direction. As it turned out, both brothers were the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, only Flavio took a reticent approach to running things.
I once asked Gerry why it was called Victor’s and he broke into his big smile, shrugging his shoulders and gesticulating as only a native Italian can. It was almost as if I’d asked an uncomfortable question and he was embarrassed that he had to come clean: “Ha, you know, that’s funny you should ask. So I guess there was a ‘Victor’ a long time ago who owned the place but we just kept the name when we were starting out. It’s funny, right?”
Walking along Nassau Street, one could easily pass by Victor’s and miss it. The frontage was narrow, no marquee hung over the door. Inside, the pizzeria went back in a long rectangle with two-top booths on the right and bigger booths which could seat four or even six in a pinch down the left-hand side. Two more spacious snugs on the right lay hidden until you made your way almost the length of the store to the counter. These were prized tables, out of sight from the front window, though the one closest to the counter often had a few dozen cardboard pizza boxes on it neatly staged for takeout orders.
When you reached the counter, you saw an American vista as familiar as a baseball diamond or the Statue of Liberty: the pizzeria workspace. Off in a far corner sat a mighty commercial floor mixer used to make dough, its bowl big enough for a few pre-schoolers to take a bubble bath; by the wall, a column of stacked aluminum containers, each one holding a measured dose of dough sufficient for one pie; a long, flour-dusted counter on which the dough got kneaded, rolled, and shaped; a stainless tureen of rich red tomato sauce with a ladle sunk in it and another container filled with shredded mozzarella cheese; a row of smaller metal containers with toppings: pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, sliced peppers and onions; and at the heart of the operation, a two-tiered gas-fired pizza oven, probably a Blodgett or a Bakers Pride, the classic workhorse of a thousand pizzerias in the Metropolitan area and plenty more across America. At the
ready atop the massive steel hearth sat two well-handled pizza peels, the giant wooden spatulas used to move the pies in and out of the oven.
A Victor’s pie right out of the oven was a sight to make you salivate . . . and smile. As it cooled, it achieved a telltale orange color, the melding of cheese and tomato sauce, which, to the calibrated eye, meant pizza perfection. Most patrons ordered two, maybe three slices which, unless a pie had just come out of the oven, would be placed on a pizza peel and re-heated for a few minutes.
All day long, to anticipate demand, Gerry, Flavio, or their assistants made pies of all kinds—plain most of all, but also sausage, pepperoni, and mushroom. Very quickly I became a savvy connoisseur, learning to visually assess the pies or slices on display. If the pizza looked tired, like it had been sitting out too long, I’d either wait for a new pie or order one of my alternative favorites: a hot meatball hero, a chicken parmigiana sandwich drizzled with hot tomato sauce, or a decadent cheesesteak with everything: lettuce, tomato, hot peppers, oil, vinegar, and generous lashings of ketchup.
Once you had your food ordered or in front of you, Victor’s could be a great place to read. Sitting in that pizza parlor I put a lot of serious dents in some of the great works of Western literature. I can remember reading Moby Dick on—truly—a damp, drizzly November afternoon, just the kind of grim-gray day which Ishmael says prompt him to methodically knock people’s hats off. While Oblonsky and Levin washed down several dozen oysters with champagne, I polished off homemade meatballs swaddled in a toasted sub-roll oozing with sweet red tomato sauce. Over a few Victor’s slices and a Coke, I had to suppress my laughter (these were pre-LOL days, keep in mind) on first reading Flann O’Brien’s hilarious romp, At Swim-Two-Birds, and his uncanny masterpiece, The Third Policeman. Continuing on an Irish bender which would eventually send me to Dublin to study the stuff in more
formal confines, I pored over long unpunctuated paragraphs of Ulysses, pondering the ineluctable modality of being between mouthfuls of savory cheesesteak. Stern scribe that he was, Beckett put “sucking stones” in poor Molloy’s mouth; meanwhile, Gerry, with a chuckle every time, served me up “chicken parm, hold the parm.”
If you forgot to bring reading material, Victor’s could usually help you out. In a kind of lending-library of laziness, patrons often left behind newspapers on the booth benches. You could usually find one of the two locals—Town Topics, published on Wednesdays, or The Princeton Packet, which at that time came out on Tuesdays and Fridays—or one of the bigger Jersey-wide papers, such as The Star-Ledger or The Trenton Times. If you were lucky you might score a section of The New York Times; if you were really lucky it would be the sports section. Some of my most satisfying, deeply American reads were perusing baseball box scores in Victor’s.
For many years I lived and worked in town, first as a bartender and then later in a high-end wine shop. Back in 1995, when I tended bar full-time, I had an apartment on Witherspoon Street, less than a minute’s walk from Victor’s. With all my visits, either solo or with my pals (all of whom were Victor’s devotees), I got to be friends with Gerry and Flavio.
A little later, during my years at the wine shop, a cherished tradition arose. On Fridays I’d work a full shift from 10 AM to 9 PM. After an eleven-hour day, me and my colleagues had some savage appetites. So we’d head to Victor’s with a few bottles of, naturally, Italian red wine. Whether Gerry or Flavio was working that night, we’d always share a generous cup of vino rosso with him. The Italian wine warmed their hearts. I think it made them miss the Old Country a bit.
As the routine became established, my friends and I would walk in around a quarter after nine and Gerry or Flavio would see us packing our bottles and say: “Hey, look, it must be Friday night!” In a scene that worked interchangeably with either brother, Gerry or Flavio would come over to our booth, pick up a bottle, regard it with a warm smile, and ask: “So what am I drinkin’ here?” They enjoyed finding out the wine hailed from Umbria or Tuscany or maybe far-flung Piemonte, which, to their Neapolitan perspective, might as well have been from Wyoming or Alaska. As much as anything, though, it was the gesture, the genuine offering of wine in friendship, that touched them, especially Flavio, who smiled so much he seemed like another person.
There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts now where Victor’s used to be. A classic example of franchise-mad America, right? The thing is, it’s really difficult to mass-produce a particular style of delicious food and you just can’t franchise character. Like all pure places, Victor’s transcended its bill of fare. Victor’s was Gerry and Flavio and those dated Formica tables of red and yellow and it was plain pies and sausage pies that no antiseptic conveyor-belt outfit could ever hope to make. And it was looking up from your paper as you sat there in the late afternoon, the place nearly empty, and spotting Gerry hand one of the down-and-outs a free cup of coffee or a slice. It was Friday nights crammed into a booth with your friends and a bottle of a juicy Montepulciano or Barbera which you happily quaffed from paper cups. And, so clear to me now, it was an era, a scene, a place in time.
I’ve been saying goodbye to Victor’s for many years, but I guess it’s time to say good night. So good night, Victor, whoever you were.