Tastes of the Region #11: Mary's Pizzeria

I come from Dunkirk. It is a little steel town, or used-to-be steel town, about 40 miles southwest of Buffalo, on Lake Erie. When I was born, the city had around 18,000 people. It's down now to 12,000 or 13,000. That does not sound so dramatic, maybe, but when you go there you understand what losing 30 or 40 percent of your population does to a city.

My parents are buried in a cemetery there. Of my siblings, two passed too young, one moved to North Carolina, one moved to Ohio, and one is still in Dunkirk. It will be a hard day if and when that brother leaves, and my teen-age boy and I went back to visit him (and his family) last summer. We parked the car at Point Gratiot, a park on Lake Erie where you often saw red-headed woodpeckers, at least if you hadn't knocked back too much Koch's Black Horse Ale (lamentably, that Dunkirk bewery shut down just before the burst of interest in exotic local brands) and then we went for a run through Dunkirk, where every step was an explosion of childhood memories, before we got downtown and got my brother at the office where he works ...

And got ourselves a Mary's pizza for lunch.

Mary's Pizzeria is in a little storefront near what once was downtown Dunkirk, before they leveled much of the area in the 1970s to get ready for the mall that would save the city, a mall that somehow never got built, leaving a vast open area in what used to be downtown. Mary's survived. It was a little grocery store when I was a kid, not far from "Progress Park" - an industrial area given that name after Alco shut its doors and Dunkirk convinced several smaller companies (including Roblin Steel and Kraft) to open up in the yards of the old railroad works. I spent a summer working for Kraft, helping to make jelly in a hot, sweaty Hades-like room where big-bellied men on forklifts threw around great barrels of sugar while the kids there for the summer did the dumping and the lifting, although, to be fair, Kraft did pay well...

Now it's gone. Just like Roblin. Just like Marsh Valve. Just like Allegheny Ludlum.

Mary's survives. The proprietor, herself, in her 80s, still lives in the building, a young clerk told me as she boxed up our pizza. At some point they switched from corner store to pizzeria, and the pizza is come-back-to-Dunkirk wonderful, with a hot, sweet sauce not quite any other I've tasted. I took my kids once to see the Goo Goo Dolls in concert on a homecoming trip to Buffalo, and Johnny Rzeznik said his favorite part of coming home was that he ate like a pig, because he really believed the Buffalo area had the best pizza in the country ...

High praise, and when he said that, I thought of Mary's.

- Sean Kirst, January 2006

Editor's Note: We loved Sean's evocative portrait of his home city and his favorite pizza when he sent it to us in January, but we felt it was too soon after posting contributer Joe's remembrance of Brozetti's Pizza in Johnson City to return to the pizza topic. We vowed to hold on to it and post it later, and of course time got away from us and we forgot about it (sorry, Sean!) until he reminded us in his comment on this post. We hope you've enjoyed this (belated) addition to our Taste of the Region series- Natalie

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