A food critic eats at Papa Gino’s for the first time
I have never eaten at a Papa Gino’s before, and when better to start than the night its parent company announces a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, closes 47 shops (along with 45 D’Angelos), and lays off 1,100 people? But I’m trying to figure something out: How is the food? Is this a loss? It feels a little like piling on, but these are actually two different questions.
It is a rainy night and I drive pell-mell to Papa Gino’s. The place from the outside is like that Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks,” only with fewer people and lonelier, more depressing. There’s no bar, for one thing. Having never eaten at a Papa Gino’s before, I expect it to be unfamiliar, but when I walk in, it is utterly familiar. It smells like the inside of every pizza chain in the country, particularly that of Pagliai’s Pizza in Grinnell, Iowa, a place I haven’t been in decades. I’m lost in the susurrus of nostalgia, but Dave wants to help me.
Dave works at this Papa Gino’s (and his name isn’t really Dave, because I want to protect the innocent). He is there with one co-worker, whose name I don’t learn. She is sitting down in the back, resting her cheek on her palm. “You forgot to clean the grill, Dave,” she says. Dave has probably heard this before. Dave seems like an incredibly nice guy. I wonder if Dave and the woman whose name I don’t learn have friends who lost their jobs today. I wonder if they are feeling survivors’ guilt, survivors’ guilt very well cloaked behind benevolence and apathy, respectively.
I spoke with Dave on the phone, when I placed an order for quite a lot of food. He had helpful suggestions for me regarding sauce accompaniments and pizza toppings, which I appreciated. Now he hands me an armload of food, and it smells like barbecue sauce milling with cinnamon and warm cardboard, an unholy yet somehow comforting sweet-savoriness. This is a lot of food, and it cost $58.79 in total, which seems like a little bit of a bargain, even if it all turns out to be bad, just for the cost of materials alone. I decide to take it home rather than eat it here, as apparently people don’t actually eat Papa Gino’s at Papa Gino’s anymore. As a Globe story earlier this week said: “ ‘It became a grab-and-go or a delivery spot,’ said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. ‘You could walk into a Papa Gino’s restaurant, didn’t matter when, [and] you could roll a bowling ball through the middle of it and you were not going to hurt anybody.’ ”
The food in its boxes warms my arms and chest as I walk back to the car in the rain.
Now I’m home alone in my kitchen with all that food. I start with a small appetizer sampler, which is meant to feed 4-6. It is filled with fried tidbits, and I think to myself, “Honestly, this could be worse.” I crack a beer. It’s like I’m at a frat party-of-one.
I bite into a mozzarella stick. It tastes like every mozzarella stick I’ve ever eaten. I both wish someone would create a superlative mozzarella stick — with, like, panko and artisanal hand-stretched mozzarella di bufala — and also never want a mozzarella stick to taste like anything other than this fried tube with the air pocket separating the semi-melted cheese from the exterior bark.
There are also toasted ravioli, which seem like a worse version of the same good idea: square instead of tubular, the outsides very tough, the insides pleasurably creamy. The fried tidbits in the appetizer sampler grow more like cardboard by the moment; this food relies upon being eaten quickly.
There are chicken tenders, which are OK, and Buffalo wings, which are not. They are exceedingly terrible, in fact — soft, mushy, the skin of a chicken long passed — but also I can’t resist Frank’s hot sauce and blue cheese, so I eat a few bites anyway.
It is hard for me to get past this party platter I have all to myself, but there is work to be done. I’ve got a small steak and cheese, on a squishy bun that shines as though it’s been glazed in pure high fructose corn syrup. The sandwich does not smell good; it smells like it’s beef stew night in the hospital cafeteria. The meat is tiny brown shards. There’s something in there that looks a lot like a rubber band but (I think) isn’t, and I don’t want to think about what it might actually be. I remove it and take a bite. It’s vile, what can I say?
Spaghetti and meatballs is better. The sauce is pretty sweet and the pasta is pretty soft, but if you served this to me on an airplane, I would definitely eat it. The meatballs are soft and mild, with the texture and general Salisbury steakiness you might expect. The accompanying breadstick appears to be made of foam coated in a layer of fatty cheese. I cannot approve this breadstick. I contemplate giving my son the leftovers for dinner the next day, but the last time I tried something like this he became obsessed with Bertucci’s and now asks to go there, oh, about 18 times a week. This is food writer karma, but I do not need to saddle him with a desperate longing for something that may very soon no longer exist. He’s only 5¾. There’s plenty of time for that.
Now it’s time for the main attraction. I’ve gotten a large pie, half cheese, half Super Veggie. It has a cornmeal-dusted crust, tough and bland; the tomato sauce has an iron back note. It tastes like generic pizza that has somehow managed to escape being inflected by any culture — Italian, Greek — beyond the American culture of food delivered in a car to be eaten in front of a TV.
The Super Veggie side features black olive rings, broccoli, tomato slices. It smells like old onions, a smell that fills my kitchen. Dave told me this is very popular, and I try to imagine why, and the answer I think goes something like this: People are trying to do the right thing. They’ve ordered pizza because they don’t have time or energy to cook, because they can’t say no to their kids again, because they want it, they just do. The vegetables are the compromise, halfway between doing what we think we should and giving in. The vegetables are what happens when exhaustion meets that small bright light inside of us that just won’t quit fighting for our worth even when we are so tired and honestly? Kind of done.
And then I have this oblong box of cinnamon sticks. It looks like a little treasure chest, like there is definitely going to be something good in there. There are six sticks inside, still stuck together in two squares. I rip off a rectangle and bite. It’s cinnamon and sugar, a pillow of sweetness. I imagine what it must taste like to a kid (manna). I imagine the kid dunking it in the sticky white sauce that comes in the little plastic tub. It is so sticky it pulls off the cinnamon sugar rather than adhering to the dough. My teeth ache when I eat it, in an almost pleasurable way. A kid would probably want to eat the whole box.
My kitchen smells wrong. My kitchen smells like no food I would ever cook. Papa Gino’s is not that good. I’m a restaurant critic: What did you expect me to say? But it’s also not that bad, and it is a lot of food for a little money, and for that reason I can respect it. We should still be able, some places in the world, to get a lot of food for a little money.
Employment is precarious today in this country. Health care is precarious. The survival of small business is precarious. We are all one or two steps away from disaster. We are all Dave and what’s-her-name, and their now-out-of-work Papa Gino’s co-workers. We could all walk in to work tomorrow and find that we, or our beloved co-workers, have been fired.
I put the leftover food in the refrigerator. I’m glad Dave still has a job tonight. I’m sorry for those who lost theirs. Fight valiantly on, America: to be able to afford to live in this country, and eat food, and take care of your kids. I wish I could cook you all dinner.