The Old World Pizza and the New World Pizza
Who remembers the Bethel Temple? What remains of this church is a white, neoclassical terra-cotta facade on Second and Lenora. What replaced the church, which opened its doors to the lovers of Jesus in 1944, is one of those condo towers that were all the rage during the dot-com bubble of the '90s and also the real-estate bubble of the '00s. The bust of the first bubble was resolved by the second boom; the bust of the second bubble has yet to be (and may never be) resolved.
Before there was the Bethel Temple, there was the Crystal Pool, a natatorium whose salt water was apparently pumped in raw from Elliott Bay (people had thicker skin back then). As for what was there before the saltwater swimming pool, who the hell knows? To go that far back is to end up in the wildest West—a place and time (horses, whorehouses, spittoons) that's unimaginably distant from the types who now enjoy the spectacular views (city, ferries, mountains, clouds) of Belltown's condo towers.
In 1993, the God-fearing fathers of Bethel Temple rented one of the street-level retail spaces the church owned to two young and handsome men, Aaron and Adam Cone. The brothers transformed the space, which was across the street from the white church, into World Pizza. Though small and short-lived (1993 to 1996), the business proved to be an important cultural institution. People from the art, literary, and music communities were its regulars. There was even a table that seemed to be solely occupied by the masterminds behind Up Records. It was this close link between Up Records and World Pizza that resulted in one of my most cherished discoveries of the '90s: Land of the Loops.
While eating a cheap slice of pizza and drinking a cheap glass of wine one fine Saturday evening (this is how a poor writer lived large back then), this new sound stirred on the speakers above the metal oven. It was sort of hiphop; it had some serious scratching and cutting going on; it was groovy, loopy, and low-tech; it had a late-rock sounding bass; it was "Multi-Family Garage Sale." I inquired about this new music and was told that a mastermind (I'm not going to pretend that I remember his name) from Up Records had given it to the Cone brothers. I found that mastermind—he happened to be in World Pizza at the time—and he told me that it was some cat from Brooklyn who called himself Land of the Loops. The mastermind loved the new music so much, he immediately signed the unknown Brooklynite. Bundle of Joy, Land of the Loops' first and biggest record, was not yet released. A beer corporation had yet to use "Multi-Family Garage Sale" in a commercial. I was listening to the future in its rawest form: a cassette tape. World Pizza was that kind of place.
It was also a place that threw unforgettable parties. During one of these parties, the young owners, Aaron and Adam, danced on the counter to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" ("having the time of her life..."). Who was not sad when the church forced them to close their business in 1996? Who remembers the church was transformed into condos in 1999? Who would be surprised to learn that the space once occupied by World Pizza in Belltown is now a Starbucks?
Today, Aaron and Adam run World Pizza in the International District. They reopened the business last summer. The brothers are now in their early 40s. One, Aaron, has extended his surname—it's now Crosleycone—and become a loving father. How time flies.
Of course, there are some differences between the new and the old World Pizza. To begin with, the current incarnation sells only veggie pizzas, which was not the case with the former one. (Aaron claims there was no particular reason for this change; it just happened that way.) Also, the ID is completely different from Belltown—though, in some ways, the present-day ID feels a little like what Belltown used to, before it was touched and transformed by the magic wand of real-estate capital. But what has continued from the old to the new is cheap pizza and wine (the things a salaried writer still needs to live large). A slice of plain cheese is $2.50, a veggie pepperoni (Field Roast) is $3, and fancy (roasted red potatoes with garlic, rosemary, and Gorgonzola) is $3. A plain 16-inch pizza is $15, and each topping is $2.50.
The pizzas are rich, thickish, heavy, saucy, and wholly respectable. Nothing on the menu is a mistake, the absence of meat is hardly felt (even by a dedicated carnivore), and the roasted-red-potato pizza has not been dethroned by the relocation in time and place. And this brings me to the most important continuity between the old and new incarnations of this business: The pizza is cheap but does not taste cheap. The same goes for the wine: A glass of either Gabbiano Chianti or Gabbiano pinot grigio is a reasonable $5.
World Pizza is about using the imagination (rather than money) to eat and live well. This is why the business is also a work of art. For example, the top of each pizza box has a pretty little doodle done with a Sharpie—mine had swirly flowers, the Space Needle, a solar system, and butterflies. Simple drawings cover the photocopied menus, and the space itself is decorated with found objects that have decayed in a way that shows the beauty of time. The World is a place in time.