The Master Abides – Nerima’s Montmart Pizza

The Master Abides – Nerima’s Montmart Pizza

The Master leans onto his bar, his weight on his elbows.  It has been the same view since 1959: three tables and barstools.  All of them now empty.  He comes down from his apartment upstairs every day except Wednesday.  He cleans every surface by hand.  Dusts the hanging bottles of straw covered Chianti.  What else should he do? Sit upstairs in bed, watching Samurai dramas until he fades into a pile of dust ready to be swept away?  No, never that. Even if it is only for his benefit, the Master works. It is all he has ever known. The phone rings, the sound reminiscent of the mewling of a baby deer for his mother.  The Master thinks about just letting it ring and ring.  He sighs, shuffles over, and answers.  Eight people at seven thirty? It should not be a problem he tells the woman, scrawling the information on a clipped-together sheaf of paper.  He writes things down out of habit.  There are no other reservations.  Most nights he is alone from his six pm opening until he locks the door at one thirty in the morning. He used to stay open until four am, American MPs from Grant Heights, late night gamblers, girls from the piano bars, their makeup a bit wrecked but fragrant with perfume, crowding the few seats.  His pizza was exotic back then — a taste of the West; a liberating flavor, casting off centuries of tradition and the more recent stink of Tokyo burning, hungry, defeated. For the Americans, it had the taste of home. He had one competitor back then, Nick Zapetti. Small time NY hood turned GI black marketer. Zapetti opened Nicola’s Pizza House in Roppongi and had the celebrities, the politicians, the athletes, the big name gangsters, the Ginza girls — and all the newspaper stories and scandals that carried in their wake.  The Master had his little bit of Nerima, far from the glitter of downtown. He was never envious of Nicola’s fame.  Let him have it.  After all,  it is 2019 and he is still here.  Where are Nick Zapetti and his restaurant?  Long gone, like Grant Heights and its thousands of American servicemen, like the bar girls, like so much else.

From his window, the Master sees the pizza delivery scooters traversing in both directions: Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Pizaranerimaten.  The big chain coffee shops (Jonathan’s, Coco’s, Big Boy’s) —  with their automated menus, their drink bars, their pre-prepared meals — all serve pizza now.  Large pies renamed Pizza Margherita with fluffy crusts, mozzarella from Hokkaido and basil leaves.  The Master has read about the wood ovens, the Neopolatin certificates of authenticity, the charred crusts that proliferate in Yutenji, Shibuya, Naka-Meguro, Daikanyama, even just down the road by the Tobu-Nerima station. He is 86. His fingers have pressed dough, spread his marinara sauce and sprinkled a blend of cheeses across hundreds of thousands of pies.  He first tasted pizza in 1946 — just a boy working the elevators at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama.  It was pepperoni and it felt like victory, like money, like strong bones, like a full belly — like America.  The Master was a bartender at The Elbo Room, an NCO club in Grant Heights in the early 1950s.  He lived in the worker’s dormitory there. Heaven. It smelled of fresh paint and deodorizer. He had room to spread out.  He loved sitting on his bed, his feet touching the floor. He mixed bone dry martinis for guys from Milwaukee named Dave, Mike, Chet.  He joked with them in the English he had painfully pieced together; listened to their sad stories when they felt down; he became a character in their lives, the easy-going, always smiling guy.  They mangled his name, calling him “Josh,” or “Yassy.”   In the mess hall, he met the chefs who made pizza, spaghetti and meatballs; opened giant cans of minestrone and heated it in massive kettles.  He figured out what he liked, how to put it together, how to make it all more delicious.  When he opened his shop in 1959, those Franks, Oscars and Marks all said the Master’s food was better than what they got on the base.

The air outside is crisp, and a blast from the opening door rescues the Master from reverie. He stands rigid, welcoming the eight people who had called.  “Irasshaimase” he intones, his voice gravelly and low. He has never seen these people before.  Newcomers. They are a mix of Japanese and Americans, possibly from New York — the master has a precise ear for accents.  They are here because he is old.  A ghost of a Tokyo long since paved over, knocked down, transformed into high-rise buildings.  The group spreads out over the master’s space, taking all tables, sitting at a barstool — jackets piles up on chairs.  They begin to order, pizza, salad, beers.  The American comes to the bar and in his mutilated Japanese orders a cheese pizza, a salami pizza, a salad, another beer.  The Master struggles, is this a different order?  Same order?  Are they together? Does it really matter?  At one time, the master had a waitress and various assistants eager to learn how to make pizza.  Now it is only him.  He does the best he can, and begins rolling out dough in the 8cm tins he had custom-made from a metal-working shop, long since transformed into a 100 Yen shop.  Slowly, he slices tomatoes, onions and celery for the salad. Ahh…celery…The Master had never seen celery, never tasted it until the little farm on the American base had started growing it.  He thought it stringy, medicinal but learned to savor its crunch.   The Master can sense when his pizzas are ready, but he always sets a timer.

The Master watches as the group demolishes his pizzas.  Gone in under a minute.  “Umai!” “Oisho-so!” He can hear the American say “It’s delicious, but more like a cracker than an actual pizza.”  Definitely a New Yorker, the master thinks.  They were only ones — those Carlo’s, Mario’s, Irving’s — who ever criticized or made suggestions: “You need more garlic!” “More onions!” More, more, more.  The Master knows his pizza is what it is.  His relevance is being old.  His relevance is that he has survived.  The group orders more: Mix Pizza A with corn and cream; Mix Pizza B with shrimp and anchovy; Jalapeno pizza; Bacon Pizza; more plain pizza.  People eat so much now.  A single pizza used to be, by far, enough for his customers.  The Master wonders how long these people will stay here, eating pizza after pizza to fill their never-ending hunger.  They order the Minestrone rice — a dish the Master created trying to fill the gaps for his Japanese customers who always felt a little sad if they didn’t have some rice with a dish.  To the Americans he called it risotto — why not?  One of the Japanese in the group asks about wine, what vintage does he have?  The master shrugs and points above him to the hanging bottles of Chianti.  It is what he has always served; it was the only wine his salesman used to have.  The Master has maybe 200 bottles in his storeroom. He can not remember the last time he had to order it; he wonders if they even sell it anymore.

The Master watches as the group finishes their glasses of wine, the last slices, the remaining bits of lettuce and rice.  They begin to ask him questions.  When did he first taste pizza?  Was he ever in New York? (Of course, the New Yorker would ask this.) When did he open?  The Master is on stage now.  It is a performance he has given many times now.  He is no longer Yasuhisa Komei, he is The Old Man Who Runs The Oldest Pizza Place In Tokyo.  He is the bridge for this group between the Tokyo of now with its money, its endless choices, its abundance and the Tokyo he grew up in when a simple 8cm pizza could seem like a promise of new future.

The Master accepts their money thankfully and watches them leave — gathering their jackets, their bags.  He slowly picks up their dishes, washing them by hand.  He wipes down every surface, erasing all signs that a customer even came in tonight.  The Master settles back behind the bar.  Weight on his elbows.  Three more hours until he will, once again, bring his sign inside, slide down the shutters and lock his door for another night.  Three more hours, mere seconds to the Master.  If he closes his eyes, the ghosts come back — those beautiful bar girls, those loud MPs, those tough, young Japanese in their Aloha shirts, pin perms and dark sunglasses.  Time never stops, thinks the Master, and it all seems like yesterday.  A never-ceasing highway, crisscrossing sixty years, paved with some dough, some tomato sauce, and some cheese — a simple formula that has defined his life and woven it, inexorably, into the very seams of the Tokyo history itself.  The phone rings once again.  The Master hesitates, thinks about ignoring its incessant mewling, but slowly moves to answer the call. Precisely as he always has — after all,  he is still the Pizza Master of Nerima.

MontMart Pizza

Address: 8-27-7 Kitamachi, Nerima-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3933-5069
Open: 6 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Closed: Wednesday


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