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California Pizza Dreaming for President Obama

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On the geopolitical front, it has been a rough couple of weeks for President Obama, what with Russia's annexation of Crimea; the prospect that Putin's republic may no longer be even remotely helpful in negotiating with Iran on its nuclear weapons program; and missiles being fired from Gaza and Syria into Israel, jeopardizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Closer to home, we all learned in recent weeks that the president is a fan of the films of Harold Ramis, who passed away last month. The president and his wife even saluted Ramis by paraphrasing one of the many hilarious lines from Caddyshack: "On your deathbed, you will achieve total consciousness." That is a line uttered by Bill Murray's goofy greenskeeper as, pitchfork in hand, he tells a young kid about how he once caddied for the Dalai Lama.

As it turned out, around the time that Ramis passed away, Obama met with the Dalai Lama ("the grace, the flowing robes, striking," as per Ramis and Murray), whose own republic was invaded decades ago by China and who ventured to Los Angeles shortly after his recent visit to the White House.

Which got me thinking about what the president did here in L.A., when he was a student at Occidental, besides presumably going to see Caddyshack. Ramis' classic came out in 1980, at the very time that Obama was a student here.

Not much has been written about the president's time in the Southland, other than the fact that he apparently gave his first political speech on campus, one that, according to the president in his memoir, did not showcase his future oratorical skills. We have heard rumors that he may have played J.V. basketball at Occidental.

But where did he hang out?

For more than a decade now, my wife and I have been going to Casa Bianca, a pizzeria on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock, not far from the Oxy campus. Casa Bianca, like much of Eagle Rock, is a throwback to the 1950s, when the Martorana family first opened the joint. It has red-checked table cloths, sprinkled with somewhat kitschy maps of Italy; it has a jukebox playing songs like "Amore"; it serves chocolate malts, which you can use to wash down your pizza; and it operates on a cash-only basis.

Casa Bianca has a special place in my heart because it serves the closest thing L.A. has to New Haven pizza, that is, pizza of the thin-crusted, brick-oven variety.

Pepe's on Wooster Square in New Haven, my hometown, is, according to legend, the oldest, continuously operating pizzeria in the country.

When I first moved out to L.A. in 1994, I worked at Variety, where on the night (Tuesday, as I recall) that the weekly and daily versions of the paper went to press, the managing editor ordered in pizza for the starving copy editors and other staff members.

What I will never forget about those nights was the preponderance of barbeque chicken as well as Hawaiian pizza, the latter topped with pineapple and ham.

Home-sick, I longed not only for white clam pizza, a delicacy invented at Pepe's, but also of course for its thin-crusted, charcoal, cheese pie.

It was not until I started dating my wife in 1997 that I first discovered Casa Bianca. In all the years I have been coming to this restaurant, I had never asked the one basic question:

Did President Obama ever come here as a student?

On a recent night, while supping on a medium, plain, cheese pizza, I asked Brie, who, like all of the servers here, has been working at Casa Bianca for a long, long time.

She smiled and said that he had indeed come here.

What kind of pizza did he have?

"Hawaiian," she said.

At first, I was stunned, not that he had come here. I always figured that he had. After all, it is a hangout for Oxy students as well as locals like me.

No, what stunned me was that he would eat such a non-traditional, non-Italian, non-hip pie. And then I remembered that, for President Obama, Hawaii means home.

Evidently, some publication previously reported that President Obama had eaten Hawaiian pizza at Casa Bianca, but I had never heard this story, nor could I find it on the Internet.

So, here's to a little home cooking for President Obama, who needs it after a tough couple of weeks. Maybe, he can devour a few slices while he watches the NCAA tournament.

For me, I will take the medium cheese. The crust is not as thin as that at Pepe's in New Haven, and the ovens are evidently metal, not brick. But whenever I visit, Casa Bianca reminds me a little bit of home. And I suspect the same was once true for President Obama.

As Harold Ramis and Bill Murray would say, "so I've got that going for me, which is nice."