Grant Central Pizza and Pasta

Eating My Words: Eating through the grief at Grant Central

My last three weeks have totally sucked. First, a 120-year-old oak tree fell on the wrap-around porch of the house where I’ve lived for over 20 years. The next day, my closest friend of 35 years, Bette Harrison, died.

Freud famously said that all life is tragic because it ends in death. People often say it’s the reminder of our own mortality that makes a loved one’s death so painful. Not really. It’s the vacuum, the black hole, that replaces the shining soul into which we poured love and from which we received it.

Meanwhile, grief, like stomach flu, becomes very slimming. Most people lose their appetite. That’s why friends and neighbors used to bring by pots of food to the family of the deceased. I remember as a very young kid going into the house of a friend and seeing his dead grandmother laid out on a ping pong table with a red velvet cake by her head, along with other dishes from head to toe.

I couldn’t see doing that with Bette, who was a retired feature writer at the AJC, but I knew I had to eat. When I need dinner and comfort, I go to Grant Central Pizza and Pasta (451 Cherokee Ave., 404-523-8900, I’ve written about it before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever expressed my gratitude for its presence a few blocks from my home.

What most people come to crave in dark times is simple nurturance – cooking that may be imperfect, but is soulful, that doesn’t cost a fortune, that isn’t aesthetically contrived, that grounds you and reminds you that you don’t have to do anything at the present moment except eat and breathe.

Grant Central is a typical New York-style pizzeria. That means usually super-thick pies – not my favorite. But I do like their calzones. I never get anything but the plain cheese one with some marinara on the side. Whoever’s in the kitchen will prepare it differently. I like the bottom nearly charred with a top that’s glistening with swipes of olive oil. Bread, cheese and tomatoes are a sacrament.

My favorite dish by far here is still Wednesday’s special, chicken piccata. That’s two breast cutlets slightly caramelized and topped with a sauce of capers, lemon and butter. The chicken is flopped over a mountain of creamy mashed red potatoes next to a pile of broccoli, an omnipresent vegetable at the restaurant. Other daily specials include a 10,000-calorie chicken parmigiana, linguine with shrimp and chicken manicotti. A recurring summer side special is a watermelon salad, sweet with some pungent feta and tingly mint.

You can, of course, build your own pizza or pasta dishes. My fave remains Ms. Jean’s Special – penne with creamy marinara, basil, Kalamata olives and Italian sausage. I also dig the linguine with meatballs. Desserts, from Southern Sweets, just don’t cut it.

But the point I really wanted to cite here is the comfort provided by the front staff. Most nights, the person in charge behind the bar is the voluptuous Jessy, whose hair changes color as often as her neurotic preoccupations. She is hilarious and amazingly efficient. She can take a phone order, pour someone a beer and show you a cat video all at once. These days the only male server is Hieronymus. He’s lots of fun, because he’s easy to manipulate, despite the odd name. Everyone who works here is a good-hearted character.

It is seriously a great comfort to me to have this refuge available. The day Bette died, this is the place I headed. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I knew I could give myself an hour’s relief from the searing grief with food that I enjoy and a staff whose heart is a great magnet in the neighborhood. If I had to put Bette on a ping pong table, it would be here.