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Go For the Food: Thanks for the memories - and great pizza - in Nashua, New Hampshire

11/25/2014 09:10 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
NASHUA, N.H. - It's one of those haunting food memories I've tried — foolishly — to escape for nearly 25 years. And it's ruined me for any facsimile since.

I'm speaking of the pizza joint — for in the days before artisanal, gluten-free crusts and free-range mozzarella, they all were joints — that formed the backbone of my high school years. Sort of dingy with a smattering of so-not ironic arcade games, Espresso Pizza was the only correct answer to teenage boy pizza cravings in this rather run-of-the-mill former mill town on the Massachusetts border.

It was for after school. It was for during school (hooky!). But especially, it was for after weekend debate tournaments. (As if that's a shock... You don't become a food editor for your athletic prowess.) The pizzas were massive, thin-crust New York-style marriages of tangy-sweet sauce and just the right ratio of cheese. There was something addictive about their pizza, and I packed the extra pounds to prove it.

Most wonderfully, Espresso Pizza had a dangerously good pricing scheme — three large cheese pizzas for $12. And my family's routine was always the same. Wrap up the debate tournament, then swing by for a triple play. One for Mom, one for Dad, one for me. Did I mention the extra pounds? Back in the day, it didn't matter.

That was almost a quarter century ago and I haven't been back since. Yet I've never eaten another slice since without comparing it.

Nashua has changed since those days. The then-somewhat desolate Main Street has been transformed with funky shops, decent diners and upscale eateries. The saggy, grey feel of a tired town has been replaced by an I-want-to-stroll-there vibe. And Espresso Pizza persists. Not that I knew this. Work brought me through town recently and that's when I noticed.

Still there. Same place. Same vibe? Same pizza? I needed to know.

The vibe is definitely different. Gone is the gritty feel. Bright lights and sleek seating give it a clean, modern look. Sadly, also gone are the arcade games. Things can't stay the same forever, after all. Including prices. The current deal: three large cheese pizzas for $30. Still a deal.

But the smell was the same, that wonderful warm blend of yeasty rising dough (if you look behind the counter you'll see the cloth-wrapped pillows of crust expanding into deliciousness) and warm tomatoes.

I resisted the urge to order as if I was still in high school; just one large cheese would have to suffice. I barely waited until I got it back to the car to dig in (I'd promised to bring my prize home to the family). Standing with the pizza box propped open on the back seat, I grabbed a slice. Tender, yet crisp crust. Tangy sweet sauce. Just right cheese. A quarter-century melted away.

Thusly sated, I next headed across the street to investigate something we'd lacked — but wanted desperately — all those years ago: a kick-butt coffee shop. If you go for the pizza, also head to Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar. This large, yet intimate coffee shop and bar offers sink-into-the-couch comfort, organic coffee roasted onsite, and a viciously tempting array of baked goods.

Next time I'm in town I'll budget my time better so I can linger. They regularly feature a broad swath of live music — local jazz, bluegrass, classical, etc. — and a fine selection of craft brews to wash it all down.

So maybe you can go home again.

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If You Go...

ESPRESSO PIZZA: 85 Main St., Nashua, N.H., 603-889-9826, http://espressopizzaonline.com

RIVERWALK CAFE AND MUSIC BAR: 35 Railroad Square, Nashua, N.H., 603-578-0200, http://riverwalknashua.com

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J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at jhirsch@ap.org

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