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The Harvard Pizza Wars?

By Dan S. Aibel

Pizza is a serious thing. And good pizza is a very serious thing. At least to me, It's one of the reasons I applied to Amherst College, home of the worldrenowned Antonio's. It's the dominant incentive I have to join high school friends for their Manhattan shopping sprees; if they'll agree to eat at John's Pizzeria in the Village, I'm more than willing to watch them sort through all the used-CD's, black lights and lava lamps they can get their hands on.

At Harvard, no one has been able to dominate the pizza trade, but the battle lines have been drawn--Pinocchio's and Tommy's are the field's clear superpowers. They've each found a niche within the pizza world to call their own, and it's not hard to figure out why. I've spent entire pockets of procrastination in fruitless attempts to declare an outright preference: one has tomato-basil Sicilian slices, the other, calzones and the sesame-seed edge. One has the atmosphere of an authentic Italian pizzeria, the other, the feel of the quaint college town I've never known. The duality is uncanny.

Still, when I consult my journalistic instincts I detect something vaguely irking about their peaceful coexistence--or maybe I'm just hungry--so I set out for Pinocchio's, ready to start a controversy. Soon I'm in the restaurant's cozy confines, and when I ask if any of the owners are around, Rico Dicensio, one of the pizza men I recognize from my many late-night visits, steps out from behind the counter to introduce himself. We get to talking and it comes out that the soft-spoken Dicensio was born in Italy and immigrated to America 37 years ago at the age of 15.

I probe him for stories of burglaries, fights and the like, but the most exciting thing he can remember is the time a couple of Fox Club punchees, as part of their initiation, asked him to take a picture of them, a customer and a plastic phallus. And, he recalls, Drew Bledsoe, Jay Leno and Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans have all been in to Noke's at some point. When Bledsoe stopped by, "a lot of the customers were dumbfounded," he says with modesty in his voice, "they just couldn't believe he'd come in here, to Pinocchio's."

Finally, I slither my way into a question about his competition, but he shoots it down before I get the word "Tommy's" out of my mouth. "If you're running a marathon," he analogizes, "and you start looking all around, it's self-defeating." The only thing he concerns himself with is "using the best products" and "setting prices that are fair to everybody."

Dicensio seems candid enough when he tells me he's never eaten at Tommy's and doesn't take it into account when setting prices, but it's hard to know for sure that he isn't just being political. So I push him once more, asking about Pizzeria Uno's, California Pizza Kitchen and Bertucci's, hoping to stir up some anti-franchise zeal. But he has no unkind words about corporate pizza either, or at least resists the temptation to lash out against it. Frustrated as I am, I start to get consumed by the smell so I thank him and leave.

At Tommy's House of Pizza, a noseringed employee introduces me to Mike McHale, the famed Celtic's fourth cousin and a clean-cut young Boston University graduate from New York who has been the store's majority owner since it changed hands almost three years ago. We get to chatting above the alternative music and it comes out that he, like Dicensio, has no stories of destruction or mayhem to share. In fact, "we've never had a fight," McHale reports. "We've had plenty of drunks, plenty of times the place has been packed, but the cool thing about Harvard is that you never hear about people getting beat up."

When I slip him a vague query about "business in Harvard Square," he's on to my intent immediately, and offers answers remarkably similar to the ones I heard at Noke's. Except he layers his discussion with economic jargon.

"In the macro's my job to make people decide how to spend their disposable income," he tells me. But he's always found that the best way to do that is to concentrate on "what goes on inside these four walls." He acknowledges, almost whispering, that "People tell me, 'they do Sicilian at, at, what's-it-called, at Pinocchio's, you should do Sicilian too.' But I'd rather worry about what happens in here."

Still, when he grasps for the name of his arch-rival competitor as if it were the furthest thing from his mind, I can't help but wonder whether the introverted business philosophy both he and Dicensio are spouting is just a cover. No matter how forthright these guys sound, it's hard to believe that as businessmen each is indifferent to the other. Where's the competitive drive? Where is the ill will? Where's the killor-be-killed mentality?

I leave Tommy's without the kinds of provocative answers I might have hoped for, but still, there's something reassuring about thinking that these guys are so concerned about their product and the satisfaction of their customers that they don't have time to think about economic warfare. There's something reassuring about believing that, just maybe, they take pizza seriously enough to focus on quality and taste, letting the market take care of itself. Just maybe, they take pizza even more seriously than I do.

Dan S. Aibel's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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