When I was a kid, my family frequently went to the Shakey’s Pizza. We spent the half hour waiting for our pizzas to cook playing pinball. For us, pizza and pinball constituted a rich night of entertainment.
A more sophisticated version of the two awaited me in Roanoke, Virginia. I arrived on June 19 – a day after the Roanoke Pinball Museum celebrated its first birthday – and stopped by to play some games. It’s one of several museums in downtown Roanoke’s Center in the Square building.
The museum is much better than an ordinary museum because you don’t just read about the subject. You get to play pinball! All the machines are operational, and for twelve bucks you can spend the entire day playing.
Is there some special tie-in between pinball and Roanoke? Not really, Pinball Museum co-executive director Aimee Simmons told me. Steve Bowery, who’s on Center in the Square’s board of directors, was hoarding twelve pinball machines in his attic. “His wife told him if he didn’t get rid of the machines she was going to divorce him,” Simmons said.
It turned out Bowery wasn’t the only one with a pinball machine stashed in the house. Calls came in and the museum quickly picked up another 15 or 20, Simmons said, including the museum’s oldest machine. The primitive Skill Score machine dates back to 1932, and actually has pins around the holes, which is how the game got its name. As far as Simmons knows, it’s the only existing Skill Score. The government burned pinball machines from the 1930s into the 1970s because the game was considered gambling, she said.
Citizens who donate machines are rewarded with a free lifetime membership. The museum currently has about 50 machines on the floor, with another 25 in storage.
I liked the looks of the oldest machines with their vintage artwork. But they didn’t have any real snap to them. The newer machines have much more oomph. The museum’s fastest machine is the only one they got brand new. Magic City Ford won the Mustang-themed game at a trade show in Vegas. It had been sitting in its box since, so they donated it to the museum.
The old machines require lots of TLC from a seven-man volunteer repair crew. “We didn’t realize how hard it was to keep up with these,” said Simmons. “One wire can throw off the whole thing.” When you consider that more than 200 people visit on an average Saturday and that 24,000 people played in the museum’s first year, it’s no wonder the senior machines get a little temperamental.
After an hour of pinball, it was time for pizza. My group of players walked over to nearby Fortunato, where we tried pretty much the entire menu. Well, I stuck to the vegan offerings, of which there were surprisingly many. Fortunato bills itself as the region’s only traditional Italian kitchen and Neapolitan style pizzeria.
The pizzas were thin and sparsely topped, especially compared to the greasy pizza of my youth. I tried the two vegan pizzas. One is a marinara with garlic, oregano, olive oil, tomato sauce and sea salt. The similar Vegano adds dabs of cashew ricotta and a heap of arugula. I liked this one better, but could have eaten way more cashew ricotta. Again, I’m tainted by my childhood love for excess.
My favorite dishes were sides. The fava beans with lemon and Cipollini onions were very good. The roasted castelvetrano olives with orange and rosemary were fabulous, and served in a hot little skillet. The chef even made me a vegan cannoli for dessert. It was flaky with a delicate citrus flavor. If you’re visiting and want a vegan dessert, it’s probably wise to call ahead, as this is definitely an off-menu item.
Pinball and pizza is almost as fun as an adult. If I lived in Roanoke, we might shell out the $140 for a household membership and make pinball a regular part of our lives again.