Monday, August 22, 2005

Ode to Dirty Hair

It is with great regret that I report the demise of Skinny Vinnie’s.

The dilapidated, two-story brick structure that held New Brunswick's finest pizzeria still occupies the same site, situated on the corner of Sicard and Senior streets. Skinny’s even remains in business, maintaining the menu and traditions that vaulted it to esteemed status in my college days at Rutgers.

Alas, it is not the same pizzeria. It has fallen victim to what Wall Street analyst Peter Lynch calls “diworseification,” the process in which large corporations stray from successful bases and diversify into irrelevant ventures.

Unfortunately, Skinny Vinnie's is apparently not immune to this Fortune 500 syndrome. On a recent visit, I observed that Skinny's, also referred to as SV, has added sushi to its menu. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement.

Not only do they sell sushi, they now boldly advertise themselves as a “pizzeria/sushi parlor” on the awning in front of the store.

This is revolting, for several reasons.

In a practical sense, this is not the sort of trendy establishment you trust to prepare seafood. Floors are covered in grime. Light fixtures yellowed long ago. Torn vinyl adorns their booths. And the purple mesh curtain that, I presume, was hung to separate the sushi dining area from the riff-raff at the pizzeria counter, does little to hide these shortcomings from the delicate class of customers SV is apparently trying to attract these days.

Yet all of the reasons the restaurant fails so obviously as a sushi den are the very ones that made it a great pizzeria in its heyday.

The green vinyl seat covers, the 1970s-era Zenith television always tuned to some foreign soccer game, the workers’ sauce-stained aprons – these were all exceptional accoutrements to their main specialty, the pizza.

You also must admire the way the help always appeared agitated when you phoned in an order, probably because you interrupted their soccer game. Without fail, they answer the phone muttering, “Ski Vi’s.”

(In fact, this is still customary. You can hear it. Call them at 732-545-6671).

The best part about a trip to Skinny Vinnie’s, however, was a Dirty Hair sighting. Dirty Hair was a gentleman who worked behind the counter. In the five years that I lived in New Brunswick, I express grave doubts that this man ever washed his hair.

Strangely, I hope that never changed.

He always emerged from a back room with beads of grease caking his long, black, stringy hair together. They had hardened together over time, almost giving his mane a braided appearance. His apron displayed the appropriate stains and smudges, and his personable smile showed plenty of missing teeth.

Some people might have been aghast at his appearance, but it always fascinated me.

His appearance indicated he was a thoroughly interesting individual, a true Hub City character. Perhaps part of my curiosity stemmed from the fact his weathered appearance offered the only clues into his life.

I could only speculate that Dirty Hair, who appeared in his mid-30s at the time of my enrollment, had a hard life growing up in some Arab land, and by some accident of fortune, wound up working at a pizza joint in New Jersey.

Perhaps he lived on the floor above the restaurant in a mangy apartment. Perhaps he toiled elsewhere in the bowels of the Hub City.

You could never ask Dirty Hair about his background because, although friendly enough, he rarely offered more than a grunt in my direction, despite my status as an SV regular. In fact, in more than a thousand visits, I cannot recall ever moving past “hello” in a conversation.

His lack of charisma was reassuring. You pay for your two greasy slices on a flimsy paper plate and leave. I much preferred this simple exchange to the hucksterism displayed by his competition, Abdul from the R.U. Hungry grease truck.

Abdul greets every passer-by with a loud, “Hey Bud-eeee! How you doing! Fat Cat for you, my friend?” He had a loyal following among the frat guy-and-slut crowd.

Me? I resented his transparent attempts to be my fake friend.

Dirty Hair was the opposite. All substance, no shtick. He was the food industry's Charlie Rose to Abdul’s Larry King.

On my recent visit, Dirty Hair was not manning the huge metal ovens or serving delicious, if overcooked, chicken parmesan sandwiches. This was disappointing, as I had recently re-named my fantasy football team in his honor.

(Team Dirty Hair replaces the now-defunct Chester Copperpots).

Perhaps if he was working that night, I would not have been served the second-rate slop that assaulted my taste buds. Instead of finding the zesty sauce or piping-hot, doughy crust I longed for, SV delivered mediocre marinara and crust with a rubber-like consistency.

Like Lynch would have predicted, the signature product paid a high price for the inexplicable foray into the sushi market.

What is most disappointing is not that Skinny Vinnie’s now serves average fare, however, but that it is wasting its potential to deliver a much better meal. We can only hope the sushi experiment will be a momentary anomaly, and those that run SV will eventually return their culinary gifts - and Dirty Hair - to the Rutgers community.

For now, the true Skinny’s experience will be sorely missed.

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At 4:10 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

man, i could go for a Fat Cat!!! haven't had one for like 10 years!

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Pete said...

They do sound tempting.

Then again, after I left Rutgers I came to the realization that I exited school 40 pounds heavier than I entered.

Blame can be assigned in equal parts to beer, Skinny Vinnie's and Fat Cats.

I also got breakfast often from the Hungry Eye truck, which consisted of a bacon-egg-cheese with SPK on a plain bagel.

At 6:30 AM, Blogger Dan said...

I haven't had a Fat Cat in ages either. Whenever I visit New Brunswick, I'm presented with a culinary conundrum: Which of these two equally unhealthy options should I choose--Cluck-U or the Grease Trucks? I always dine at Cluck-U, but next time I will have no choice but to visit the Grease Trucks.

I enjoyed your Charlie Rose/Larry King analogy, but I'm not such a big fan of Charlie Rose. I find that his interviewing style grows tiresome; he takes far too long to get to the point.

Please allow me to rework your analogy: He was the food industry's Terry Gross to Abdul’s Larry King.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger Jay said...

I had a Fat Darrell yesterday. I know it's not the original, but it's delicious. No more getting breakfast from the Hungry Eye. The only truck open for most of the day is the huge RU Hungry "truck". I don't eat there enough to know if the lack of competition has hurt the quality.
And are they gonna have to get rid of their coca-cola supply and serve Pepsi or do they not count?

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Pete said...


now, when you say "hurt the quality, I'm not sure if could possibly get much worse than when the Grease Trucks lost their health certificates when the terlets started overflowing.

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