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The Dunkin’ Donuts empire. The assumption of white clam chowder. The word “Hamburg.” As a former New York Stater now living in Massachusetts, there are some things I have just had to accept. Chief among them? Massachusetts pizza.

Growing up, I took good pizza, in all its thin crust and bubbly cheese glory, for granted. Bad pizza came from Pizza Hut, convenience stores, and mall cafeterias. Everywhere else the pizza was, reliably, pretty solid. Case in point: one of my favorite pizza joints was in a strip mall next to (my mother’s) weight watchers class.

In Massachusetts, you can make no such assumption. Most New Englanders, it seems, are content to create a doughy, pizza-inspired product, skipping that mysterious element that converts modest ingredients into capital-P Pizza.

Characteristics of the dreaded Massachusetts Bread and Cheese Pizza (MBCP) include a thick and slightly soggy crust, a generous helping of lumpy marinara sauce, and a topping of melted (not bubbly/burned) cheese. Adding insult to injury, many pizza joints serving MBCP don’t even offer slices. A pizza joint without slices? What’s up with that?

After MBCP, the most common type of pizza to encounter is the novelty slice. Think: endless varieties of unlikely toppings and “themed” slices. Taco Pizza. Cheeseburger Pizza. Turkey Club Pizza. As you may have guessed, novelty pizza establishments are typically found adjacent to bars in college towns. And they’re not all bad — Antonio’s in Amherst, MA, makes a pretty nifty Salad Pizza, which trades both sauce and cheese for a deft combination of fresh spinach, tomato, artichokes, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, and a balsamic vinegar and oil infusion. It’s pretty tasty, but a far cry from the slices of my youth.

Traditionalists on a quest for an old school slice will find the task hard but not impossible.

Some general advice:
1) Under no circumstances rely on Yelp reviews. They are written by people who have no problem marrying the phrase “New York Style” with “3 inch crust.”
2) Be suspicious if the pizza joint in question serves coffee or has an extensive sandwich menu. Delis are not pizza joints.
3) Ask yourself: do I want traditional greasy slices or a something fancier? Many trendy restaurants can provide a high-end, if not traditional, interpretation of pizza. Baba Louie’s is at the top of the list for quality wood-fired Massachusetts pizza with fancy ingredients. If you do go the chichi route, watch out for “fake gourmet pizza,” which is usually just flatbread with a handful of arugula on top.

Real deal gourmet pie from Baba Louie’s. Famazing.

4) Look around. Are there old, possibly broken, arcade games? Fluorescent lighting? Vinyl booths from the 70s? These are all good signs, as the best, most classic, slices come from what I would term “Dirty Pizza Caves.” Get past the ambiance (or lack thereof) and you’re usually rewarded with thin and crisp slices (with no need for novelty toppings).

An example of a “dirty pizza cave.” Note the faded sign made with a stencil. There’s probably an old cigarette machine inside.

Follow this advice and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect Bay State slice. And, god willing, there might even be a table-top Pacman game in your future.

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Oh. Oh my.

We got sucked into this movie on a Sunday afternoon, the traditional time for doing laundry and watching 5-hour Lifetime Movies. But! It’s not technically a Lifetime Movie. At least, not originally.

Chloe has real stars in it and appeared in actual movie theaters. It’s got arty camerawork and tense dialogue, but instead of retiring to IFC it ended up on Lifetime. This happened because 1) it is terrible and also 2) it was filmed in Canada.

It stars Julianne Moore…

?????

I know. Everyone has at least one person (real or famous) who makes them feel inadequate and dumpy and Julianne Moore is definitely on my list. The woman has cheekbones that just WON’T QUIT.

They make my face look like a cheese danish.

It’s more than just her looks, though. Julianne Moore is a really good actress who’s made a career of playing intelligent and complicated characters. She’s classy and smart so WTH is she doing in this trashy “erotic” thriller? It’s like if Meryl Streep was suddenly in some stupid, lame, dorky…

….oh.

Ahem, back to Chloe. The main plot follows Julianne Moore, a bored housewife living with her husband and teenage son in a big, sparsely decorated house straight out of Unhappy Hipsters.

The interior designer’s monochromatic color scheme had relegated the children’s toys to the exterior. The architect would not be pleased.

Julianne’s got a pretty sweet life, at least in terms of hegemonic middle class values: she’s a doctor, she’s married to a professor, their kid is a talented, they’re pretty wealthy, the house has a lot of windows, she’s got great cheekbones…

But there’s trouble in paradise. Julianne finds a cell phone picture of the husband hugging a college student and becomes convinced that he’s having an affair. She has a great idea: hire a random call girl to flirt with him and report back to her. This scheme reminds me of those rom-coms where a girl vows to find her platonic male friend (who she’s secretly in love with) a date. WHY, WHAT A PERFECT PLAN THAT CAN IN NO WAY BACKFIRE HORRIBLY.

The call girl is the eponymous Chloe (played by Amanda Seyfried). Kudos to the casting agent for picking an actress that, appearance-wise, seems like she could actually be a young prostitute.


I think it’s the dead eyes.

Chloe starts flirting with the husband and eventually they kiss. She reports this back to Julianne Moore, who gets pissed off because Chloe was just supposed to see if he was interested — not actually do anything.

Too late.

Eventually Julianne gets over it and asks Chloe to continue her fake relationship with the husband. (Which is always shown in flashbacks told from Chloe’s point of view — hint, hint.) At this point the movie veers into bad fake French film territory as Julianne gets all hot and bothered about Chloe seducing the husband.

Julianne! What are you doing? You’re a serious actress! Your cheekbones are better than this!

(At this point, Mr. Max reminded me that Julianne Moore was also in that silly it-was-aliens movie, The Forgotten. But this is a whole ‘nother level.)

So, because this is one of those “arty” movies where characters start randomly having sex with each other, Julianne and Chloe begin an affair of their own.

The age difference is a little distracting, I think.

It’s all very moody and dark. Eventually, in a dramatic plot twist that anyone with half a brain saw coming a mile away, Julianne realizes that the husband has never met Chloe — she was lying about everything. She breaks all ties with Chloe and confesses the affair to the husband and who’s all like whatever, sounds pretty hot. All is well until…

Chloe, bent on revenge, shows up at the house to seduce the teenage son. Julianne gets back just in time to CB, but not before Chloe grabs a hairpin and starts threatening her. (Um, a hairpin? Those are dangerous?)

The thing looks pretty blunt to me.

Chloe demands one last kiss, and Julianne complies, thus scarring her teenage son (who’s still hiding out of sight) for life. Teenage son reveals his presence, startling them both, and causes Chloe to accidentally fall through the big glass window to her death.

Seriously, how is this not a Lifetime Movie?

The movie ends with Julianne embracing the husband at their son’s graduation party. She smiles and turns to her guests and the camera zooms in on Chloe’s hairpin in her hair. (GET IT?! IT MEANS SOMETHING. WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT, BUT DEFINITELY SOMETHING. SOMETHING SMART. BECAUSE THIS IS AN ART FILM. WE THINK.)

Boringness Rating: 0 Hotels. Get out the popcorn because this is the best: an awesome trashy Lifetime Movie + pretty actors + self-importance + a huge budget. You might even consider renting it for the non-cable experience (i.e., sex scenes). Also, be on the lookout for Degrassi alum Nina Dobrev. Go Canada!


Vacations are all about shaking up the day-to-day routine, and pizza is no exception. This year’s family vacation brought us (once again) to the hills and valleys of rural New York, and the many gritty pizza joints along the Susquehanna River. If you avoid the gas station pizza (see image above) and college student pizza (large, usually cut into square pieces, thick, doughy, etc.), it’s easy to find a classic dirty slice. As for box designs, it was a mixed bag of old and new. Let’s begin.

America’s Favorite Design: Creepy Genre Scene with Threatening Chef

In documenting pizza box graphic design between MA and NY, this box is a clear standout. I’ve found it everywhere — from family restaurants to gritty pizza joints next to bars. Why is it so popular? It’s got all the elements — an Italian Stereotype, a brick pattern, a generic product claim, and the classic pizza box red — but that doesn’t really account for its ubiquity. Are restaurateurs drawn in by the center chef and his menacing eyes? Maybe the graphic is in the public domain? Internet research yielded no explanation, but it did turn up a Flickr Group dedicated to Pizza Chef Caricatures: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1420109@N22. Maybe those peeps will have a theory.

Chubby Chefs Do It Better

Oh, yes. This delightful slice came from a counter-only pizza joint right off the highway. We braved a detour for several miles to get there, and it was definitely worth it. As a bonus, I snagged a nice new box design, too:

Overall Design Assessment: The opaque red is bold and eye-catching, especially against the large expanse of white. However, the uppercase (shouting?) fonts make me feel like I’m being cat-called (“HOT”).

Generic Product Claims: A threefer: “Oven Fresh,” “Hot,” and “Delicious.” Four if you count “Pizza.”

Italian Stereotype: Definitely a favorite. Key details include the bulbous belly, snappy apron, and twirly mustache. Usually pizza box chefs are throwing dough in the air, but this classy example is revealing the pie on a silver platter. Don’t I feel special!

Mwah!

Lastly, we have a non-box entry for the anthology. I’m a sucker for phonetically spelled Italian-American accents (“Da Best Meal-A Deal-A in Town”) and classic finger-and-thumb pizza chef gesturing. Therefore, I did my best imitation of a bossy tourist and cleared the sidewalk to get this shot. It worked.

According to the wordpress stats panel, a whole bunch of people come to The Lower Crust by searching for “The Client List.” I posted a review of the movie way back in 2011, and (much to my amazement/glee) Lifetime has turned it into a regular series. Believe it or not, Jennifer Love Hewitt is even back as the lead — a sassy, single prostitute (SSP) doing it for her family.

The fancy video trailer. Favorite line: “90% of what we do here is legit.”

The Client List is on at the same time as Mad Men — a date I just can’t break — but thanks to OnDemand, I’ve been able to keep up with new episodes.

Oh, right. Mad Men. Now that we’re on the subject, I have to say it. I’ve really been enjoying season 5 (yes, even Megan), but this?

Is the low point of the series.

While it’s possible to enjoy both Lifetime Movies and Mad Men, mixing them is like chasing dinner at a five-star restaurant with county fair fried dough. And bringing Betty back as a binge-eating housewife is like, pretty Lifetime-y.

I find it especially surprising that a show that’s normally very critical of the establishment would parrot such a hegemonic, unexamined idea. A housewife stuffing her face because she has no self-control is something my racist old uncle would come up with after seeing a fat lady in the supermarket. I expect better. Rant over. Ahem. Back to reviewing an actual Lifetime show.

The Client List (the series) isn’t a continuation of the movie, which ended with JLH reuniting with her husband at a Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, the story starts at the beginning with a concept reboot: In the first few scenes, JLH’s husband suddenly abandons her and the kids.

Leading her here.

In the movie the husband was unemployed, and the resultant financial struggle led to JLH’s new “career.” They must have decided that a wife/mother brothel-ing out behind her husband’s back was too gross of an exposition for a regular series. Cybill Shepherd, fairly fresh from her campy turn as Martha Stewart, is also back as JLH’s nosy mother. She’s basically Lifetime’s answer to the Dowager Countess.

Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Southern Accent: A Brief Aside

One of the trashiest/most delicious aspects of the show is Jennifer Love Hewitt’s weird folksy dialogue and entertainingly bad southern accent. Take, for example, this exchange from a recent episode:

JLH’s friend: I can keep a secret.

JLH: Uh, in circulation! (half speed, pronounced as “serrcyoohLEYYYshuhn”)

While definitely amusing, I maintain that Hewitt’s droopy drawl is actually a mid-level bad accent. While it’s definitely worse than, say, Cate Blanchett in Benjamin Button….

which is, okay, pretty bad…

It doesn’t even come close to my personal favorite bad southern accent:

Miranda Otto in The Way We Live Now. This is a great miniseries but two words describe what this poor girl is doing: Foghorn Leghorn.

So JLH is in good company. But there’s more to the series than just the draw of the drawl — the whole double-life thing provides plenty of juicy plot. One minute JLH is at a parent-teacher conference, and the next she’s rubbing down some random dude at the “spa.” No one, of course, knows the truth — not even her husband’s brother… …who is clearly the love interest, based on looking like John Stamos. Lifetime ladies love their John Stamos.

It’s weird — for a series about a house of prostitution, it’s oddly chaste. There’s a lot of massaging and talking and wearing of outfits. And there’s definitely a lot of shirtless male model type dudes. This is a realistic depiction of brothel clientele. Yup. (Also, this guy is totally Joan’s lame husband from Mad Men.)

But they somehow manage to keep the whole thing feeling kind of PG. Even though it’s clear that JLH is offering “special services” that merit the giant wads of cash she uses to pay her mortgage, the plots don’t linger on anything gross or creepy for very long.

In a recent episode, a seemingly normal client (a power business dude) freaks out because JLH forgets an appointment. Power business dude starts yelling at JLH and for a moment, it gets kind of scary. Is it about to get  “real”? Oh, nope. A quick gee-shucks-turn-that-frown-upside-down from JLH and he turns back into a needy, nonthreatening milquetoast. All he really wants is to cuddle, right?

Still, it’s a pretty decent good-bad show. You heard me Mad Men — there’s something else I can watch at 10PM on Sundays. So maybe lay off the Betty storylines, eh?

Finally, after weeks of nothing but modern, Luigi-less pizza boxes, we have a return to oven fresh classicism:

Thank goodness. This really kicks the pants of that boring Kashi box, right?

Since he’s the clear focal point, I’ll start my analysis with the cowboy-booted Italian stereotype. What’s not to love? He’s jaunty AND well-dressed: flashy oversized bow tie/scarf, giant chef’s hat, striped apron, and a well-groomed mustache. Sartorial elegance.

Question: I’ve noticed these bow tie/neckerchief things on several other pizza box chefs, but I’m too ignorant of fashion in general to understand what they’re referencing. Is this an article of clothing an actual chef or Italian person would wear? Seriously, peanut gallery, chime in if you know the answer. It’s important for TAOPBGD (which is real).

Other Design Notes: The fonts? LOVE. I’m going to make a design confession: I know that minimalist sans-serif fonts are all the rage these days, but I have a soft spot for old-school crazy typefaces. While the vintage fonts on this box are kind of aggressively tacky, they’re also making a bold design statement — and I can get behind that. Double love to the “Pizza” font for the roller coaster inspired swirls and loops. It’s like an amusement park ride for your pupils!

Generic Product Claims: Oven Fresh, an old favorite. We also see the return of the mysterious ellipsis (…) between “Thank you” and “for your business.”

Overall Rating: Truly a vintage box. Makes me want to order a whole pie and play Sega Genesis games all night like it’s 1995.

How much pizza can I eat? Apparently, a lot. Rather than slice up the last few months of pizza eating into a whole bunch of individual posts, I’m stringing a bunch of them together into the blog equivalent of a whole pie. Bon appetit!

First, some entries for The Anthology of Pizza Box Graphic Design:

Kashi Frozen Pizza


A perfect example of bland big box health food marketing, with prominently displayed nutrition/diet information and a big, boring photo of the food you’re about to buy. But then, Kashi’s marketing has always annoyed me. Is there anything more smug than, “7 whole grains on a mission”? It’s convenience food, people. Not a commitment to world peace.

Box gets a failing grade. The pizza itself was just eh.

Enrico’s Brick Oven Pizza


We picked this one up in Sturbridge after a day of gawking at antiques.

Overall Design Assessment: The box is definitely more casual restaurant than vintage pizza joint. Disappointingly, it doesn’t feature a cartoon Italian stereotype OR a generic product claim. It does, however, possess several traditional pizza box design elements — namely, the wacky title font, green and red color scheme, and repeating brick pattern.

My favorite element, though, is the insecure use of Italian:

“Excellent Italian Insalatas (salads)”

Parentheses to the rescue!

Pizza Amore


Food with heart. And a pizza box design with a wall o’ text.

Overall Design Assessment: There’s not much to comment on here given the (almost) complete lack of graphics. The little heart is cute, though.

Generic Product Claims: Instead of a generic product claim, there’s an awesomely redundant one: “daily homemade fresh pita.”

And now, an announcement of sorts…

Along with the help of a hand-me-down pizza stone and an elderly electric oven, I have begun to experiment with homemade pizza. Behold: Baby’s first three pies.

Attempt #1: Frozen Dough


I avoided the mistake everyone makes (too much sauce) and embraced the one that involves scraping your pizza stone for 20 minutes (too much cheese). Edible, but not yet sublime.

Attempt #2: Homemade Dough


Black olives and onions were my favorite toppings as a kid, so it seemed like a good choice for this, my first truly homemade pie.

I got the recipe for the dough from Jaime Oliver, omitting the optional cornmeal flour (I didn’t have any). The dough wasn’t rising at first, but a few minutes of googling revealed the problem: a chilly kitchen. I ran the oven for a bit and it popped right up.

The crust came out surprisingly good, especially given the elderly oven’s random hot flashes.

Plus I was able to restrain myself with the cheese. Inch by inch…progress.

Attempt #3: Highbrow Pie


My best attempt by far. This pie has a blend of mild cheddar and mozzarella and a topping of heirloom cherry tomatoes. The homemade dough seems to fare well in the freezer, which is good news since I didn’t notice until after I dumped all the dry ingredients into a bowl that the dough recipe makes 8 DOUGH BALLS. Oops. Guess we’ll be eating pizza for a while.

This pizza/box combo came from a little place called Dial-A-Pizza. You heard me right: Dial-A Pizza. I totally love it when a business chooses a novelty name (say, to capitalize on the new and exciting concept of pizza delivery) without realizing they’ll be stuck with it FOREVER. We did in fact dial the order in, so I guess at least it’s still accurate.

The meal itself was enjoyed among rum and friends, making it one of my favorite pizza experiences. But this is a serious design blog (cough) so we should get to the box analysis.


Overall Design: I’ll come right out and say it: this is somewhat of an ugly pizza box. The colors, the generic font, the sloppy linework — it just doesn’t do anything for me. Another issue of concern is the pizza toppings. I’m seeing line drawn mushrooms and…abstract blobs. Having gone to art school, I know artist’s fatigue when I see it: You’re drawing some boring still life (like pizza toppings) and getting kind of tired. So you stop rendering and start slopping on geometric shapes, telling yourself it will look good once you step a few feet back. It doesn’t but you’re so sick of it you just hand it in anyway.

Yes. That’s what has happened here.

Italian Stereotype: I looked long and hard at this one. My conclusion is that, even though there’s a puffy chef’s hat in play, this is NOT an Italian Stereotype. The chiseled jaw…the mostly straight hair…this is a white dude. Maybe when the graphic designer went for the folder of rotund chef clip art he accidentally grabbed the one of 50’s milk delivery men.

Generic Product Claim: One of my favorites: Oven Fresh. Not only is it incredibly generic, but it’s also essentially meaningless. All pizza is not only made, but also reheated, in an oven. By the logic of modus ponens: If the pizza is hot it must be oven fresh. The pizza is hot. Therefore, the pizza is oven fresh.