Sunday, June 1, 2008

Memoir of a Rascal House Pizza Junkie

I started on the easy stuff - a slice of pepperoni pizza to go, please. Within days I was ordering the goods - two slices of pepperoni, a heaping cup of fries, and a lemonade. This is the story of a man and his 22-year love affair with Rascal House Pizza. This is my story.

It all began in the fall of 1986. The aroma of pizza sauce wafted through the foyer and smacked me in the face as I entered the establishment on Euclid and East 21st, across the street from "The Cage" at Cleveland State. I had a good feeling about this place.

In those days there were only 4 places to grab a bite on the campus of CSU: The Shire, Fat Glenn's, the cafeteria, and the Rascal House. The Shire was located in the basement of The Cage and seemed like a nice place. Fat Glenn's was near Mather Mansion but looked like a speakeasy, at least from the outside. The cafeteria was on the third floor of The Cage overlooking a deep vertical drop down to the wide open floor below. Not a good situation for someone who possessed a fear of heights and a craving for hearty meals like bacon & eggs. The Rascal House seemed innocent enough. I'll just grab a quick slice and be on my way.

I had heard good things about the Rascal House long before my first visit. "Pizzavores" migrated there from the suburbs for food, drink, and festivities during Cleveland State's magical NCAA Sweet 16 run just months before. It was a place where you could hang out in front with friends eating pizza, or head out back to drink and dance to INXS and Echo & The Bunnymen.

The Rascal House opened its doors for business in 1980. Downtown would be its flagship store. The recipe, student atmosphere, and reasonable price caught on quickly. The Plain Dealer dubbed Rascal House Pizza "Cleveland's Best Pizza" by the mid-eighties.

But for many years if you wanted Rascal House pizza you had two choices. Go downtown or go hungry. By popular demand in 1994, Rascal House opened a second store, in Euclid, then added another one near John Carroll University. Soon, Rascal House Pizzas were popping up like dough in 600-degree ovens. Franchise owners brought the great taste once reserved for CSU to friendly neighborhoods near you. There are now restaurants in University Circle, Seven Hills, and Maple Heights.

Even though Rascal House Pizza grew and grew, making the world a better place, I still eat Rascal House Pizza the way it was meant to be enjoyed - downtown at CSU. And even though I am now grown up and married, I bring my wife and kids to the Rascal House every time we visit campus for basketball, soccer, and volleyball games. We ask for the Belly Buster loaded with pepperoni and three cups of fries. I order small fountain drinks but end up with cups the size of 10-gallon hats. Not wanting to offend, I indulge in the unlimited refills like a child who's just swallowed an entire bag of giant pretzels. More pizza means more pop and more pop means more pizza. It's an endless cycle.

I pass the time waiting for our number to be called by sharing with my family an appetizing collection of personal Rascal House stories. Like the time I bumped into Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka (literally) as I exited the men's room on the morning of the 1987 Cleveland Revco 10K. I told him I was sorry. He said no problem and gave me a stiff pat on the back that nearly sent me through the wall and into the kitchen.

The Rascal House was my destination for lunch practically every day of college. It felt good being a regular ordering my usual. Then off to a booth I went to read the lastest issue of The Cauldron and gulp down my food before heading back to class. Later that evening there was a good chance I'd be back in that booth with teammates from the cross country team, or to re-write my notes from history class. I once had a stockpile of yellow legal pads coated with pizza stains and greasy fingerprints, courtesy of the Rascal House and my compulsive need to brush up on the teachings of Professor Campbell, Cary, and Drimmer while eating a late meal.

Soon graduation came, and with my departure from downtown Cleveland came a brief hiatus from Rascal House Pizza. Every now and then I would come back and see some of the changes taking place at my favorite hangout. Like sand volleyball in the alley next door. And pick-up basketball on a make-shift court in the bar. I think I even saw a Rolling Stones concert, previously taped, at the Rascal House. But that was it for a while. From what I heard changes took place often at the Rascal House over the years, not so much at the restaurant, but inside the bar.

Then I started watching college basketball a couple of years ago with my brother who was bed-ridden for a time. I started wondering how Cleveland State was doing. I woke up one weekend and told my wife I wanted to go downtown to CSU to see what's new. We could take the kids and grab lunch at the Rascal House.

When we got downtown the Euclid Corridor project was transforming Euclid Avenue right before our eyes. Cleveland State was in the early stages of its campus expansion. Lucky for me the Rascal House was right where I left it. What would it be like after all these years? Would they even remember me? And would I still like their food?

They had me back at "can I help the next person in line." We immediately placed our order and found a familiar booth nearby. A song by A Flock of Seagulls was playing in the background, making it all the more easy for stories from the 1980s to gush out for my family's amusement while we waited for our pizza.

Thus began my new era of enjoying Rascal House Pizza, this time with my hungry family right there with me. A major difference this time around is that I am surrounded by so many young customers. I'm betting these young people will be back in 22 years with their families. I wonder where I'll be eating pizza 22 years from now?

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