The best pizza in the universe can be found at Pete & Elda’s in Neptune, New Jersey. Of course, there are people who would vehemently debate this point – and, I am talking about people who live in New Jersey, Monmouth County, Neptune, and the Jersey Shore in general, of course. Pete and Elda’s “allegedly” wonderful pizza itself comes with an extra crispy thin, cracker-like crust, and it’s made with high quality cheese and olive oil. Still, whether or not it actually is the best in the universe is not really the point here. Each time I had entered Pete & Elda’s, I had been tempted to try something else on the menu. Then, the idea seemed like sheer blasphemy; how dare I want to eat something other than the universe’s most excellent pizza? One day, I finally relented and ordered a cheeseburger. Disappointment saturated my brain, afterwards. It was a good cheeseburger, but I could find better at one of Monmouth County’s many, many diners. My deviation from “the usual” cost me a chance to eat some damn awesome pizza.
I had a recent experience in China, but with different results. In Wujin, The Monkey King offers what many consider the best pizza and Italian food to be had in Changzhou. An Italian expat owns the establishment and operates locations both in Wujin and in Xinbei. While the pizza is not as excellent as Pete & Elda’s back in The Garden State, it is still quite excellent. Actually, it tastes like a happy medium between the pies you will find in Europe and the ones in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. I had some time to kill on a Thursday, and I decided to go to the Monkey King for lunch. Special afternoon business English classes awaited me at my college, and I really didn’t want to chopstick my way through another cafeteria lunch. I also didn’t want to do Chinese at some of the dives and Sichuan and Hunan joints near my school on Mingxin. My fridge was empty, so there was no homemade lunch in my future. For me, the Wujin Monkey King was super convenient and close. So, I hopped on my eBike and raced off.
The place sits on Lanling Road along the lower end of the BRT 1 and 16 bus routes. Yangcheng and the flooded city sit nearby, as do the entrance to other touristy destinations. The Monkey King sits in a small row of foreign-orientated business that includes Chocolate’s Bar and places to drink. To get there, you either have to cut through Yangcheng’s commercial area on foot, or you have to go under three slender bronze-like dragons that curve and arch over street. Since I rode my eBike, I went under the three dragons. Once those were behind me, I locked up my eBike’s front tire and strolled in. The pizzeria looked open, but the tables remained empty. Still, a waitress showed me to a seat.
Only, when I was looking at the menu, I was reminded of my Pete & Elda’s conundrum back in Jersey. With very good pizza staring you in the face, why order anything else? Well, there are a few reasons. First, I have never ordered and ate a whole pizza while out, about, and dining alone. That will just make you feel like a fat slob and an utter loser. Back in Jersey, eating a whole pizza is a more communal experience. You do it with friends, relatives, loved ones, and people you might be doing business with. If you were by yourself for lunch, you just ordered two already-made, individual slices, ate them, and went on about your life. In short, a whole pizza pie is meant to be shared. When you did, in fact, indulge in a whole pie by yourself, it was as take out or delivery, and you put the leftovers in the fridge for another day’s cold breakfast or lunch. Also, last I checked, the Monkey King did not serve pizza by slice. I was also in no mood to schlep leftovers home.
I perused the menu for other options. The pasta dishes looked inviting, but that seemed more like a dinner option and I wanted lunch. Some of the Panini sandwiches seemed enticing, but I wasn’t sold at a first glance. So, I slowly turned the large pages and stared at the pictures, Chinese text, and English plate descriptions. That’s when something intriguing caught my attention. The Monkey King offers a hamburger, but it looked nothing like the standard American burger or the sometimes poor Chinese attempts to mimic what they see as “American food.” Since the owner is Italian, the burger was likely going to be more European if it would be compared to anything. I glanced at my Chinese waitress and quietly tapped my finger against the picture.
When the burger came, it looked more like a calzone than a sandwich. When I took a bite, my initial judgment seemed to be confirmed. If anything could become a credible hybrid between a calzone and a burger, this was it. A calzone is essentially a baked “turnover.” The crudest description would be, “Think of a pizza that has been folded in half before going into the oven.” For what I was eating, a simple “turnover” would not be an accurate description. I don’t think the concoction was assembled and then baked, per se. The “bun” bread, however, had the consistency you find in good Italian turnovers – thin, firm, and not bready at all. The sandwich’s interior boasted sheer simplicity: a little bit of lettuce, a few tomato slices, a moderate-but-sensible-amount of mayo, and a large, juicy hamburger patty. There are also two things that can sink a hamburger’s quality: badly made bread and dried out or flavorless ground beef. The portion were so large, I didn’t want to eat dinner later that night – having been still full from lunch.
This hamburger made me reevaluate my “Pete & Elda’s Conundrum.” It’s only a problem when a restaurant has only one stellar set of menu items. Sure, Pete & Elda’s serves great pizza and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is run-of-the-mill Italian in an American state where the expectations are unreasonably high, and “very good” is sometimes not good enough. The Monkey King has an excellently diverse menu, and this in China and Changzhou, where the expectations for Italian food are understandably low. Still, the mark of a good restaurant –whether in China, Europe, or America – is how good the food remains once you’ve ventured into the more obscure corners of its menu. And, the Monkey King and its hamburger are that good.