Before 1990, if you had asked me who Giuseppe Garibaldi was, I probably would have guessed that he had something to do with Garibaldi’s Pizza, the best local pizza joint in Memphis, TN. It was not until the sixth grade that I learned that this (slightly) more famous Garibaldi was known for unifying Italy, not for unifying the ingredients that make up the perfect pizza. Nevertheless, it is pizza and not patriots that I think of when I hear the name Garibaldi, even though I haven’t lived in Memphis for 16 years. Part of the reason for this is that I make it a point to have Garibaldi’s pizza, at least once, every time I come back this way. Another, and perhaps even stronger association was formed by the many hours I spent at the restaurant itself as a child, gorging on delicious pizza, playing video games and drinking Dr. Pepper with the best ice I have ever had. Oh yes, I’m going to talk about it all!
Let’s start with this pizza, shall we? It is without a doubt the Platonic archetype of pizza, as far as I am concerned. It is my go-to image of what should happen when dough is laden with sauce and cheese and placed in an oven, and as far back as I can remember it has been the benchmark against which I measure any pizza-eating experience. Anyone who has had pizza with me knows that pepperoni, extra cheese and black olives is my standard pizza order, no matter where I am, and it was at Garibaldi’s Pizza on Walker Avenue in Memphis that this originally coalesced. There is something about the way the generous helping of olives sink into that pepperoni-laden cheese that makes every bite a mouth-watering moment of Zen, and Garibaldi’s does it better than anyone else can. The tangy sauce and the hand-tossed dough provide a strong foundation for the whole experience, and all of it has kept me coming back for more ever since I left for the wide world beyond the borders of the Mid-South.
But more than just the pizza itself, Garibaldi’s is a place with which I have strong childhood associations. I grew up within walking distance of Memphis State (now University of Memphis, but it will always be Memphis State for me), and was therefore very close to the original Garibaldi’s Pizza location. Now I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy Chuck E. Cheese/Showbiz/Chuck E. Cheese (Memphians will get that one), or even the occasional trip to other chain pizza places, but Garibaldi’s was still my favourite. Plus, the older I got, the more I focused on the taste of the pizza, and the difference was clear. It was also just a cool place to hang out. It’s not the largest pizzeria, but it’s big enough to accommodate lots of kids, and yet it retains a homey, comfortable atmosphere that I enjoyed more and more as the years progressed. What impressed me the most about the place as a kid, however, was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game set up there. That thing alone could have motivated a visit, and the pizza just made a trip there inevitable.
For one reason or another my best memory of playing that video game is from an evening just after a Christmas choir concert. We had done our night of carols in a Christmas service (I believe at Saint Mary’s Cathedral), and we all went to Garibaldi’s for dinner. Our choir director then gave each of us $10 as a bonus (we didn’t usually get this much for concerts, although we got paid $1 for practices, so I don’t really know why $10 for a performance was a lot of money), which we all promptly converted into quarters. Yeah, when you’re 12 there is nothing more enticing than an awesome video game, and although the full amount didn’t get spent on playing TMNT that night, a goodly portion of it certainly did. I would have told you then that it was totally worth it. That game was so much fun, and playing it with friends in a pizzeria whose tasty fare itself resembled the cheese-dripping, cartoon pizza slice in Donatello’s hand on the side of the game machine (I think it was actually Raphael holding the pizza, but Donatello was my favourite ninja turtle, so Raph can just deal) just made it that much cooler.
No description of Garibaldi’s would be complete without at least mentioning something about the amazing ice that they have in their drink machine. I’m almost certain that I’ve had similar ice somewhere else at least once, but I can’t remember where it was. No matter-I always know where to find it. This ice is just wonderful. It pours out of the machine in little Cap’n Crunch-like chunks to fill your cup, and as someone who generally prefers his drinks ice-free, the fact that I fill mine halfway says something in itself. The increased surface area you get from the hundreds of small pieces may or may not do anything to cool your drink better, but even the ice alone is a marvel. Biting down on it, you will discover the crunchiest ice you are ever likely to encounter, and eating it as you guzzle your bevy of choice is a pleasure in its own right. It’s like making your own Dr. Pepper Slurpee right in your mouth, and if that doesn’t sound amazing then you just get yourself on down to Garibaldi’s and try it out. I think you’ll find that it’s a most incredible and satisfying experience.
Only making it back to Memphis once or twice a year these days, I often find myself returning to Garibaldi’s simply to pick up my carry-out order. The luxury of taking the time to collect friends and/or family together to sit in this hallowed pizza den and enjoy a scrumptious feast of savoury food and sweet ice is often one I cannot afford, and yet I do take the time to come to the restaurant myself to pick up my meal. Just walking inside to smell the pizzas and see the old walls and tables is enough to set my mind reeling and conjure memories of good times, hearty laughter and great food. In all of my travels, I’ve never found a place like it, and although this is a fact that I often lament, in the end it’s not so bad. It’s worth the wait to see the old place again when I come into town, and the pizza tastes just as good today as I always remembered it. Keep up the good work, Garibaldi’s, and I’ll keep coming back.