One of my favorite pizza spots growing up was Pizza Town USA in Elmwood Park, N.J., near an early location of my family’s Northern New Jersey retail appliance empire. It was a regular lunch spot back when I was delivering refrigerators and stoves during sweltering summers in high school and my first couple years of college. In those days, I actually had a metabolism—lugging fridges probably helped—and could easily put away four slices in addition to at least half of my side dish: Pizza Town’s legendary pepper and egg sandwich. Luckily, someone always wanted to share it with me.
When I talked to my dad recently about the sandwich, he reminded me of the best part of the Pizza Town pepper-and-egg: “Oooooh, it was so great with all that cheese.” Yes, it was technically a pepper, egg, and cheese—the cheese being mozzarella—I don’t know why you’re still reading and not eating one right now. Essentially, it was a pepper-and-mozzarella omelet folded onto a sub roll. All the goodness of breakfast, but handheld. What more could I want out of life?
Cheese or no cheese, I always thought the pepper-and-egg was a quirky New Jersey creation, like the Texas weiner. But no, my home state doesn’t get to claim this one. If there’s any place that does, it’s probably Chicago. My understanding is that it’s kind of like the Shamrock Shake in that people are generally psyched about when it makes its annual appearance but more or less forget about the remaining 11 months of the year (can’t wait to read comments from devout Shamrock Shakeophiles telling me how wrong I am).
There’s actually a bit of an overlap between green-tinted dairy time and Chicagoland’s pepper-and-egg season. Where the former is tied to St. Patrick’s Day, the latter typically arrives on the scene during Lent. As is the case when I’m dealing with anything Windy City-related, I consulted my friend M.K. She’s my typical go-to for this sort of information, as she’s a lifelong Chicago resident. “I think it’s more of an Italian-Catholic thing on Fridays during Lent,” she tells me.
This Italian (lapsed) Catholic definitely agrees. And I can appreciate it as the sort of tide-over to help you make it to Saturday when you can once again enjoy Johnnie’s or Portillo’s Italian beef. Many of the most iconic purveyors of the soggy, meaty classic offer their own version of the Friday substitute because who wants to lose all of the Catholic business for six weeks in March and April?
Both sandwiches have sweet peppers, so if you close your eyes, you can pretend that the beaten and fried eggs are really bits of juicy bovine flesh. And if that notion doesn’t sell it, many places will even dress it with giardiniera. Still, I have a hard time accepting the pepper-and-egg as a seasonal thing, as I’ve always known it as a year-round attraction, especially in the summer months because of my aforementioned teenage employment. I return to New Jersey quite often and I’m going to make a point of hitting Pizza Town next time I’m in that neck of the woods.
I called the pizzeria to make sure the pepper-and-egg is still available there, and the woman on the line snapped back, “We’ve been making everything the exact same way we’ve been making it since 1958,” and then quickly hung up on me. She seemed insulted that I even had to ask, which is fair. I just needed to know that I hadn’t imagined a sandwich that I had too often taken for granted as a youth and spent most of my adult years romanticizing. I am eager to reconnect.