Ghost of PIZZA Past

At Al’s Pizza in Atlantic Beach, my husband Alex and I had our first date. Shared a medium pepperoni pizza one July night. The evening was low-key; easy. I believe it set the tone for our relationship.

With our Al’s moving south down Third Street to rebrand as Al’s Craft Pizza Co., I feel like my memories have been uprooted. They’ve been put in a new ZIP code.

Al’s will no longer offer small, medium and large options, but a single 12-inch wood-fired size pie. The entrées will be fancier. The bar will focus on craft beer, and the atmosphere, no doubt, will be more hip. Why do the words “Craft Pizza Co.” make me think of exposed brick mixed with subway tile, Edison bulbs dangling from electrical cords, hand-lettering on dusty chalkboards, tables made of pallet boards? Nothing wrong with that style of interior design, except for the predictability. These days, every new restaurant seems to come prepackaged with a “polished industrial” aesthetic.

Upon hearing the announcement back in January, Alex frowned harder than I’ve ever seen him frown. “You can’t just move into an old Taco Bell and call yourself fancy.”

Sure, they’re making changes to only the one location. Ours. The other six Al’s Pizzas, including the original spot at Beach and San Pablo in the Intracoastal West area, will maintain the same New York-style recipes. If we want the standard pizza, we can get it.

At least for now, my skeptical conscience tells me. Everything that once felt permanent is starting to feel temporary.

Still, I don’t doubt that Al Mansur, the man behind my pizza of choice, is a good guy. Once, from the Al’s Pizza patio, I watched him dive to save a stroller rolling onto East Coast Drive. The mother cried and thanked him. He shrugged. “No biggie.”

A couple Super Bowl Sundays ago, Al came in just to fix himself a quick pizza. Could’ve asked the cook to do it for him, but he didn’t. He tossed the dough with finesse, added his toppings and sauce, and slid it into the oven. Sprinkled parmesan on top before hustling out the door.

Countless times, I’ve spotted him dining at his own restaurants, Australian Shepherd by his side. Mansur seems proud of his empire, which has extended into Latin American-inspired cuisine (Flying Iguana Taqueria & Tequila Bar) and will now include Southern fare (Coop 303 Southern Bistro & Spirits) when Al’s Pizza moves down Third Street.

He also celebrates the Beaches’ rich memories. When the Flying Iguana began renovations on the former Sun Dog Diner in 2013, contractors uncovered a deeper layer of history along the building’s exterior—a painted sign for SWAP SHOP. I’d never heard of it. Turns out it was one of those places my dad and father-in-law recall from the time of Silver’s Drugstore and the original Ellen’s Kitchen. Al kept the sign on display all throughout summer construction so passersby could reminisce. He even took the buried memory as a cue for the name of Flying Iguana’s house margarita, The Swap Shop.

Al seems like a decent-enough dude. So why am I so mad at him for ditching my preferred pizza and moving across the street? Personally, I blame the platitudes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Leave well enough alone.

My stubbornness isn’t charming to the locals. I ask my Neptune Beach neighbors how they feel about the change. “Isn’t it so sad? Life won’t be the same.”

They blink at me. “They’re just moving across the street.”

Sentimentality is hardly a pragmatic approach. Sure, Al’s will still be around. But how am I to transfer my fond memories onto this pricey hipster pizza Taco Bell?

In the dairy section of Lucky’s Market last week, I realized I was in the part of the store where I had my first apartment key made in the former ACE Hardware. Shopping for shoes in Marshall’s, it hit me—am I standing in the theater where I saw The Lion King at Pablo 9? Or was that screen closer to the linen section? Hopping on the elliptical at L.A. Fitness, I can’t remember how young I was when I last grocery-shopped with my mom at the Publix that used to stand there. I’m forever referring to One Ocean as “the Sea Turtle,” the South Jax Beach Home Depot as “the old K-Mart.” The new Al’s Pizza as “the old Taco Bell.”

I cringe when I hear myself talk like this. How did I become a 24-year-old curmudgeon? It’s funny how this capitalistic competition—out with the old, in with the new—floods me with sentimentality.

I’m comforted that a Jacksonville journalist long before me experienced this sentiment, too. In her memoir Chaos Clear as Glass, the late Florida Times-Union columnist Ann Hyman referred to this phenomenon as “ghosting.” 

“When you’re ghosting,” Hyman wrote, “you’re not looking at the present, at how things have changed. You’re looking for the past, at things that have remained the same.”

Hyman treated ghosting like necessary reflection. Looking at the way things have changed exacerbates stubbornness. Identifying the past promotes fondness.

A place has memories attached to it. There’s no way around nostalgia. When Coop 303 opens in the old Al’s, I will go ghosting there. I will remember my first date with Alex in bits and pieces, the countless take-out orders we called in. I have fond memories of our Al’s. I will keep them fond.

Ghosting gives me something to hang on to once Al’s Craft Pizza Co. sets up shop. Without doubt, I will recall sticking to a Taco Bell booth after a long day at summer theater camp, guzzling Mountain Dew. And I’ll imagine myself at 80, wondering how I moved so far forward, yet stayed right here, at Al’s.

Winkler is a writer in Neptune Beach. @hurleywink