It was late last Friday evening and I was on the phone with my girlfriend's sister after having recently arrived in Ithaca, New York, for a weekend visit. "Drive up to campus, and ask any student. Everybody knows where it is," Sis said. "We'll meet you there in 15 minutes."
Armed with that tip and a simple map drawn by the motel desk clerk, we set out on the snowy streets hoping the pavement had been sufficiently cleared of last week's slippery precip. Our destination: The Hot Truck.
Claire and I had first heard about the Hot Truck from her sister, a first-year architecture student at Cornell University, the last time Sis was in New York City, where we live. "You have to visit me me and try it," she said, noting that its French-bread pizza subs would be something I'd be especially interested in as editor of Slice. They work out of a big truck parked on campus, Sis said, and it's wildly popular despiteor perhaps, more accurately, because ofthe fact that it's only open for a few hours from 9 or 10 p.m. on.
Also: "It's cheap late-night food for drunk kids."
Finding the campus was a snap, but the Hot Truck's exact coordinates were a little more elusive. After navigating Cornell's steep, snaking streets till well past the appointed meeting time ("I can find it," I insisted), we finally pulled up alongside a couple of party-bound sorority girls schlepping through the snow ("Let's just ASK someone!" Claire said).
"You want the Hot Truck?" they asked. "Oh my God! It's just down the street! It's FREEZING! Give us a ride down the hill and we'll show you where it is!" The girls piled in the car, clearly unconcerned with personal safetyClaire and I probably registered as harmless, decked out as we were in matching crazy person hats. That, and our unexpected passengers reeked of alcohol, which no doubt impaired their judgment.
As we rounded a bend on Stewart Avenue, the Hot Truck came into view, a fluorescent glow reflecting off the snow it was mired in. It was open. What a reliefwe were both hungry from the trip upstate but were perhaps more eager to try the pioneering pizza subs that have been served from this vehicle since 1960.
Pioneering? Yes. If you've ever eaten a Stouffer's French bread pizza, you owe it to the Hot Truck. It's said that Stouffer's copied the idea after a Cornell alumnus asked the company to make a frozen version of what Hot Truck founder Bob Petrillose called the Poor Man's Pizza (aka a "PMP").
Petrillose invented the PMP in 1960, when he noticed cash-strapped college kids more often ordered slices of pizza than whole pies from his family's pizzeria. If all he had to do was reheat the product, why not take the show on the road and park where the market was? (Petrillose retired and sold the truck to longtime friend and Shortstop Deli owner Albert Smith in 2000.) The PMP and its several variationswhich make for an alphabet soup of a menu (right; click to enlarge)are simple in concept: A third of a loaf of light, airy Ithaca Bakery French bread is halved horizontally, spread with a generous amount of pizza sauce and mozzarella, baked open-face until the bread is satisfyingly crisp, and then folded over to make the whole thing easily portable. Permutations include the WGC (Wet Garlic Cheese), the MBC (MeatBall Cheese), the TMBC (Triple MeatBall Cheese), and an extravaganza known as a "Sui" (short for Suicidegarlic French bread loaded with sauce, mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni, and mozzarella).
We scrambled up the snow-covered hill to nearby Alice Cook House, where an unwitting Cornell student buzzed us in, allowing us to eat our fare in the warmth of the dorm's lounge area, replete with roaring fireplace. Leaving a pile of crumbs from the crisp baked bread of our subs, we exited the building 20 minutes later, completely full and warm inside and out.
The sandwiches were fantastic, no doubt. But, like generations of Cornell students, I'm sure the Hot Truck's deliciousness had as much to do with context as it did with flavor. How could you not love a quirky truck on a cold night after a long evening of travel (or studyingor partying)? As Claire and I drove back down the hill to our lodging, I was already dreaming of my next Hot Truck meal, envious of the Big Red students and their fine little four-wheeled institution.
Is it crazy to consider attending grad school based on access to a rolling restaurant?
The Hot Truck
Parks at 635 Stewart Avenue, Ithaca NY 14850, on Cornell University's West Campus (map) 607-273-1111
References and Bonus Material
Hot Truck info and menu [everything2.com; via Dan Dickinson]
Shortstop Deli [Roadfood.com]
Keep on Truckin' [foodmanagement.com]
Shortstop Deli [current Hot Truck operator]
CU Alums Hope to Make the Hot Truck's Subs a National Obsession [The Cornell Chronicle]