On A Lifelong Love of Pizza, And Losing My Dad

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
One of my very first sentences was spoken from deep within a snowsuit while strapped into the second row of my parents' van. Mom and Dad were cruising around town on a wintry weekend, discussing what to have for dinner, when I piped up from my carseat, "How 'bout some peet-zah, dad?" The rest is family history: We stopped off at our favorite Italian spot in town to pick up what became a go-to pie order — sausage, black olives, mushrooms, and onions — and headed on home, where my father fed me toddler-size bites of our favorite takeout treat. And from that day onward, everything about digging into a pizza pie would forever remind me of dad.

There were many such pizzas from this special place: Lino's of Rockford. These guys don't do Chicago deep-dish, nor is their pizza cut from the thin, flappy triangular style of New York City. It's a little doughy and a lot of cheesy, sliced into a grid of off-kilter rectangles, squares, and covetable corner pieces. The crust is perfectly crisped and, needless to say, delicious. Lino's doesn't deliver; you have to be willing to actually go there and wait in a line, manned mostly by snippy teenage girls from the private high school. But, it's well worth it. And pretty much from the moment I started speaking, I proclaimed Lino's pizza my favorite food.

My enduring love for pizza is something I always had in common with my dad. We were taste-bud soul mates. And it's no wonder: He's the one who took me on all my first culinary adventures. While mom gets major credit for keeping me nutritionally balanced (and dutifully packing healthy lunches), dad fed me sardines on crackers with roasted red pepper tapenade as a Saturday-morning snack.

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Living without him is an everyday emptiness — a hunger that can't be fed or filled.


As a result of Dad's tutelage, neither my sister nor I have ever been picky eaters. It was standard operating procedure for our dad to sweep us off to sushi — a rarity in the Midwest during the '90s — for a father-daughter weeknight date. He delighted in our childhood willingness to eat slimy, unpronounceable, off-the-menu items. We became culinary adventurers. And, of course, we learned Dad's cardinal rule: Always try at least one bite.

He also molded me into a little sous chef, teaching me to chop and dice, tasking my tiny fingers with de-thyming herb twigs. We hit some rough patches here and there (I recall a particular marmalade-chicken situation that went south; pizza saved that day, too). But over the years, Dad got pretty good at cooking. Even now, I'd much prefer to eat something my dad concocted from fridge ingredients than anything on any pro menu, anywhere. And his grill skills? Simply divine.

As I got older, my father schooled me on how to wield a chef's knife and how to make a fish stock. He imparted a love of stinky, expensive trips to Chicago's best cheese shops. Together, we ventured into hidden French pop-up restaurants and tried out rising celebrity chefs' new spots.

But we also did normal food things — like hitting up the grocery store. "Meet my lovely daughter," Dad would say to whomever happened to be standing behind the counter. He'd hold my hand like I was three, when I was 25. When I moved away from home, we often "ate dinner together" over FaceTime. And when I came back, we'd almost always make a pit stop from the airport at Lino's to pick up our favorite pizza — popping the corner pieces into our mouths, giggling the whole ride back to the house.
Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Kiefer.
I lost my father this summer to cancer. Living without him is an everyday emptiness — a hunger that can't be fed or filled. Sometimes, I miss him so badly that I get an actual stomachache. But it helps to hold his kitchen knives, and to listen to the music he used to turn on during a Sunday evening spent cooking. It helps to page through recipes we pored over together, and to wipe up spills with prep towels that once hung over his shoulder. It helps to eat good food, and to serve, and to be fed, and to explore the myriad meanings of those actions.

And — when all else fails — it helps to remember that it's only a matter of time before I will return home and wait in line at our favorite pizza spot. Around Christmastime, I fully expect to be standing in a toasty, sweet-smelling room, listening to hear my last name called out so I can pick up a pizza order for our family.

Almost 30 years ago, I asked my dad if we could have pizza for dinner. I can hear his voice now, echoing through my memory. "Of course, my little flower," he said back to me that day. "Pizza it is."