It was early December, 2018, and I was returning to Cologne after a weekend in Vienna celebrating an old friend’s birthday. As usual, Vienna delivered a delightful dialect, good wine, and humans who understand and laugh at irony. I’ve made a number of trips back and forth to Vienna (where I spent some formative years learning German) and Cologne (where I now live) over the past three years. In that time I’ve developed somewhat of a routine: I board the plane on Sunday evening and scorn my Austrian friends, who seem to always be waiting with one more charming, sarcastic Austrian German aside and a glass of wine. Then I take my seat, hear German passengers conversing amongst each other in Hochdeutsch (Standard German German) and immediately want another.
But there’s a comfort in coming back to Germany. It’s owed to the Italians. Around the corner from my apartment is a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, run by a sixtysomething Italian couple from outside Napoli. They, like a number of their countrymen, came to Cologne in the 1960s to make a better life on the continent.
Pizzeria Innamorato (Italian for “in love”) has been in Nippes, one of Cologne’s Northern districts, for decades. The district has changed in the past century—from an agricultural suburb to a bombed-out warscape to a diverse, beloved neighborhood for newlyweds with young children. Owning neither a dog nor a stroller, I stand out. But no matter age or background, Innamorato is the neighborhood’s unifying secret.
It was tough leaving Vienna on that weekend in early December. But I did have something to look forward to: Pizza Peperoni, a pie thirty centimeters in diameter, adorned erratically with spicy peppers, ham, pepperoni, and mushrooms, thin-crust and sprinkled heavily with oregano and extra flour. I wouldn’t even have to articulate my order. Over the past three years I had grown into such a regular that I could usually just walk in the place, endure a scowl from the Italian man lurched over the oven and nod at his wife—the bubbly face (and personality) of the restaurant—when she asks “Pizza Peperoni?”
Fifteen minutes later, I’d be walking home with Cologne’s best pizza in tow.
I’ve tried documenting the Innamorato experience with pictures and Instagram stories, but the oven is fatefully situated in one of my neighborhood’s sundry 4G black holes. It seems by design. Innamorato operates on its own timeline, hardly accountable to anything but the desire of its owner to make good pies. Except for the pizza, nothing comes out of that oven on-demand.
I didn’t even drop my suitcase off at home that night. I was hungry and impatient and determined to find a way to roll a suitcase and carry a pizza back to my apartment at the same time. There are about 700 steps between the train station and Innamorato, a six-minute walk. Back when they were picking up the phone, I could place an order three stops before mine and pick up a fresh pizza on the walk home. They’ve since stopped, perhaps because of the frequency of my calls.
Midway into the walk to Innamorato, I realize that the light is out. Normally the shop casts a fluorescent glow onto the sidewalk. Not tonight. The shop is dark and there’s a sign taped to the glass door.
Closed due to illness. Deliver all packages next door.
It’s been nine weeks and counting since Innamorato was last open. That sign is still taped to the door. I’ve asked neighbors and local shop owners if they know what’s wrong. No one does. Two weeks ago I walked by. It was dusk and the front light wasn’t on, but the owner was sitting at a table next to the bar. Her husband was walking around in the kitchen. I stopped in front of the door and waved. They looked healthy. She smiled and waved back. I stayed there, hoping she might want to talk. She didn’t.
Maybe Innamorato will never open again. The owners are older. Maybe it’s time for them to move on. But I don’t think Cologne is ready for it to go. I know I’m not. Maybe the shop will sit there, closed and unlit, driving toward an unannounced fate as neighboring buildings are developed and commuters walk by on their way home from work, thinking about things they used to love.