I recently struggled for nearly a week trying to explain to a coworker the reason for Tower Pizza's local status as a house of something akin to worship. I was still struggling as he and I stood near the counter, sipping beers and waiting for a table. We inched closer to articulation when we bumped into two longtime Tower disciples who described their half-hour wait for takeout as a welcome and familiar ritual. But as Derek, forehead wrinkled, continued to study the crowded interior—and the food—I finally turned to the most devout Tower Pizza congregant I know: my uncle, a man who, despite living in Pennsylvania, manages to take communion in the form of a Tower Special once a year.
His response to my text was elegantly simple. Asked what makes Tower Pizza so special, he replied with one word: "Pizza."
News of Tower Pizza's imminent closure (sometime in the next few months, according to the restaurant's Facebook post) rocked a good portion of Missoula last month. And I'm willing to bet that for a lot of those mourners, like my uncle, Tower's menu of memories comprises much more than a thin crust laden with generous helpings of red sauce, veggies, meat and cheese. For them, this was the pizza of childhood, of college, of countless family dinners. Their progeny took up the mantle, never bothering to question why because their mouths were too full of a good thing. For 45 years, Tower has been slinging the same old pies in a world increasingly populated by chain restaurant gimmickry and gourmandized toppings. It did so without stuffed crust, without goat cheese, without wearing its Missoula-ness on its sleeve. It didn't have to. Tower made pizza. Memory made Tower.
With a large Tower Special filling the void between us, Derek and I discussed the nostalgic power of food, but we kept stopping short of a true metaphysicality, constantly circling back to the here-and-now of it all. His first slice fell apart under the weight of black olives, onions, pepperoni and sausage, and he confessed to being underwhelmed by everything save the Canadian bacon. The pizza, the decor—none of it, he said, really made a strong impression.
I countered with a pitch for the frankness of the pie, the lack of pretension and frills. There's beauty in straightforwardness, I said, in a place that serves a time-tested product with confidence and pride. I reminded him that Oscar-winning actor and UM alumnus J.K. Simmons is an outspoken apostle. I missed the mark.
Perhaps if I'd done a better job framing Tower as the pizza of my people, or of Missoula's people, or of Missoula before the coming of Bridge Pizza, Biga and scores of others, he might have walked away a convert. At least he might have grasped the magnitude of Tower's closing. But apparently it takes more than one Tower Special to turn a skeptic into a believer. If only our Tower Specials weren't numbered.
The original print version of this article was headlined "What's Good Here"