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Thursday, July 17, 2008

[Special Report] New York Pizza Tour

I spent five days in New York over the weekend and had lots of time to check out the country's second best pizza town. I went to eleven pizzerias spread out across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. I missed a couple of places in Staten Island that I would have liked to try, but public transportation there is not good. As it was, I had plenty of places to try.

Here's my NYC pizza diary:

Rose & Joe's Italian Bakery (Friday, July 11, 4:20 PM)
Address: 22-40 31st Street, Astoria, Queens, NY
Phone: 718-721-9422

I stopped off at Rose & Joe's on my way into Manhattan from LaGuardia - it's close to being on the way. Rose & Joe's is a neighborhood bakery that happens to sell some pizza. There are not many choices in terms of toppings, but Rose & Joe's does offer two different styles - regular and Sicilian, and I tried one of each.

The crust on the Sicilian was excellent - much lighter than most Sicilian crusts. It was also about a quarter as thin as is typical of a Sicilian pizza (so skinny that I'd call it Roman and not Sicilian, but those categories seem to be a little fluid). The bottom line is that this bakery knows how to make good bread, which is important if you want to stay in business as a bakery. What neither Rose nor Joe know how to do is pick spinach to put on their pizza. I opted for a spinach Sicilian slice, and the spinach looked like they opened a can of frozen spinach, let it thaw, and tossed a few scoops on the pizza before putting it in the oven. And unfortunately, the spinach tasted that way as well.

The regular slice of plain pizza was good. Again, the crust was solid and the cheese was fine. The small pieces of basil (not from a can) provided a nice touch.

Rose & Joe's is small. There is one small ledge by the front window where one person can stand and eat pizza. I went to that spot and still had to get out of the way as people went in and out of the place.

The pizza was good, not great. If for some reason, you happen to be in Astoria, Queens, it's worth checking out. But other than that, it's probably not worth the trip unless you really, really like crust.


Cookies looked good, but they would have taken up stomach room reserved for pizza.


Fresh mozzarella is good mozzarella


Spinach not even Popeye would love.


Where it went down.


Una Pizza Napoletana (Friday, July 11, 6:30 PM)
Address: 22-40 31st Street, East Village, Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-477-9950

Una Pizza Napoletana is, according to many New York pizza aficionados, the best pizza on the planet. They are dead wrong. The crust, as virtually everyone who has tried it says, is fantastic. Anthony Mangieri puts some sea salt in the crust and cooks it perfectly in a wood-burning oven. It's a perfect base to what could be an outstanding pie. The ingredients he uses - San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella cheese, fantastic olive oil, and fresh basil, are top-notch.

So what's wrong with the pizza? There is almost nothing but crust. Each pizza, which are twelve inches across, are little more than awesome toast. And at $21 a pop, I'd like a little more toppings on my pie. I understand that the cost of flour is going up, but this was a bit ridiculous. It's no wonder that the owner can afford to run a restaurant that's only open 4 days a week. Una Pizza Napoletana is open from 5:00 on Thursday through Sunday until they run out of dough. And just for kicks, he'll be taking a month off starting August 11.

Neapolitan pizza is, for those unfamiliar, really thin, especially towards the center. As a result, it can be a challenge to put a decent amount of toppings on it. At Una Pizza Napoletana, that problem is "solved" by not offering any toppings at all. The restaurant offers four pizzas: Marinera (no cheese), Margherita, Bianco (with garlic, no tomato), and Filetti (fresh cherry tomatoes, no sauce). What's more shocking than the lack of variety is that all four pies are the same price, including the Filetti which has neither San Marzano tomatoes nor buffalo mozzarella.

One positive note about the pizzaiolo's pride in his work is that he does not offer any red pepper, grated parmesan or any other seasoning containers that most pizzerias leave out on the table. I firmly believe that a good pizza, like any good meal, should be eaten as the chef intended.

I ate the Margherita, which features a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, sea salt and olive oil. It was a very good, albeit grossly overpriced pie. If he had been more generous with the cheese and not obscenely frugal with the sauce, this could have been an outstanding pie.


Big reputation, small restaurant.


Blurry but still pretty.


Where it went down.


Artichoke (Friday, July 11, 7:00 PM)
Address: 328 East 14th Street, East Village, Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-228-2004

Artichoke is the latest pizza craze in New York. Since it opened in March of this year, the line out the door has been constant. Now, there is only room in the restaurant for about three people to stand and eat and there is nowhere to sit, but the popularity has been impressive. When I arrived on Friday evening, there were about 20 people in line in front of me. They got people in and out fairly quickly, so the wait was not bad at all. I only had it in me to try one slice, so I had to go with the house specialty, the artichoke and spinach slice.

The crust was surprisingly thick for a New York pizza, but that was probably necessary due to the amount of toppings. But it seems that the thick crust is a beast they have not yet mastered. I blame their upbringing - with the exception of some Sicilian and Grandma slices, New Yorkers have little experience with thicker crusts. So even though the owners have food in their blood (one of them grew up in his mother's Staten Island restaurant, Basille's), the crust of their flagship slice was a little doughy.

That would have been a forgivable sin if the toppings were worth it. But the toppings tasted like a pretty good version of the artichoke and spinach dip that is served at mediocre restaurants across the country. They do use fresh artichokes and the chunks were impressive, but they were few and far between and were overwhelmed by the cheese. I have no problem with a lot of cheese, in fact I like it, but there needs to be more artichoke flavor on an artichoke pizza from a pizzeria called Artichoke.


Who spilled artichoke dip on my pizza?


Toppings should not slide off.


The Sicilian slice was allegedly tasty.


Where it went down.


Grimaldi's Pizzeria (Friday, July 11, 9:30 PM)
Address: 19 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
Phone: 718-858-4300

Grimaldi's lived up to the hype. I was full from pizza when I arrived to stand in a long line outside the restaurant. They do a pretty good job of getting people in and out, so I was still full when I sat down, and when I got my pizza. But that did not stop me from inhaling half of a large pizza - this was one good coal-over pie.

The friend I went with is a vegetarian who loves olives, so we had olives on the whole pie. I usually don't think a pizza is complete without meat, so I had sausage on my half. We also got fresh garlic on the pizza because, well, garlic is good. And there was fresh basil because that is an automatic addition whether you ask for it or not. About 10 minutes after we ordered, we had our pizza.

The crust was excellent, as I have come to suspect any crust cooked in a coal fired oven may be. There was a decent amount of fresh mozzarella, an excellent, well-balanced sauce, and, finally, a good amount of toppings. The olives were really good, but they were very salty. They were so salty, that I actually ended up taking them off and eating them separately. The sausage was really good, which is incredibly rare in New York. It lost a few points in my eyes because it was a sweet Italian sausage, but for that variety, it was outstanding.

The walls inside are covered with pictures of people who have eaten there, some artists' renditions of the restaurant, and the obligatory images of Frank Sinatra. The tables are packed together so that in some places (like where we sat), you are sitting family style. In fact, I almost asked the women next to me for a slice of their pizza.

The location, right by the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, is an added bonus, and also, along with the reputation, ensures that tourists do frequent the place. But that's pretty irrelevant as long as this place keeps making outstanding pizzas.


There is always a line here.


Wall of Fame


Sausage and Olive Pizza


Balance is a wonderful thing.


Where it went down


Sam's Restaurant (Saturday, July 12, 12:40 PM)
Address: 238 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY
Phone: 718-596-3458

When you walk into Sam's, you will feel like you've seen it before. That could be because you probably have. The place looks as if it hasn't been updated in 40 years and, as a result, has been used as a film and TV location, most recently for The Sopranos. From the dark wood walls to the red pleather booths, the restaurant has a great feel to it.

When we arrived, we were the only patrons and we got the owner's attention. He's a charmingly grumpy old man (our guess was at least 80) who says that moving to America from Italy was the biggest mistake of his life. He was a police officer there and started out as a dishwasher when he got to the U.S. I asked him if the oven had been there the whole time and he made the excellent point that there is no good reason to replace a good pizza oven. He did leave out the fact that he converted the oven from a coal one to a gas oven, a change many New York pizza fans surely shudder at. But I wouldn't want to worry about shoveling coal into a hot oven if I was 80. I wouldn't want to do it now and I'm less than half that age.

There were three of us and because one is a vegetarian, we ordered a half pepperoni, half plain pie. The crust had a nice bubbly char and was a bit chewy. The mozzarella was fresh and was very good. The sauce, which was thin, was a bit too sweet for my liking, but the salt on the pepperoni helped balance that problem. The pepperoni itself was fine - I am not a huge pepperoni fan and with rare exceptions, generally find one thinly sliced pepperoni indistinguishable from another.

After we were done eating, he proved to not be very grumpy at all, and he invited us back into the kitchen to watch the pizza chef work his magic. I was full, but watching him pile chunks of fresh mozzarella onto the dough had me hungry again.

Sam's was good, but not worth a special trip to Brooklyn. But if you're in Cobble Hill and you're hungry, it's definitely worth a visit.


Working the dough


Spreading the sauce


In the oven it goes...


Half pepperoni, and thanks to the vegetarian, half cheese.


A slice of pepperoni goodness


The author and the owner where it went down


Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano (Sunday, July 13, 3:30 PM)
Address: 1544 Second Avenue, Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-327-2800

Totonno's, which has been around since 1924, is a New York institution. The original is on Coney Island, which is far away. While distances did not really stop me on this trip, the combination of distance and the fact that they only sell whole pies meant that I would have to go to one in Manhattan. So after a trip to the Met to see this special exhibit, a friend and I headed across town to the location on the Upper East Side.

Each Totonno's features a coal oven that produces Neapolitan pizzas. We ordered a sausage pizza, and had it in a few minutes. The crust was a little bit thicker than a traditional Neapolitan pie, that proved to be a good thing for two reasons. First, the crust was very good, and I like more of a good thing. Second, the slightly thicker crust helped hold up the decent amount of sausage that sat on the pie. Unfortunately, that plentiful and well-supported sausage was not very good. The chef took an actual encased sausage and sliced it up and spread it on the pizza. While that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, the fairly bland flavor of the sausage was.

Fortunately, the sausage was the only shortcoming on the pizza. There was a very nice amount of fresh mozzarella and the sauce, which was essentially crushed tomatoes, was full of flavor, although not very abundant. The crust was cooked perfectly, leaving an outstanding combination of crisp coal-smoked spots and a crisp, yet chewy texture.

There are many who claim that the Totonno's at Coney Island is substantially better than the other three locations. I cannot support or refute that sentiment as I've never been to the original, though I have generally found that such distinctions are often inspired by people's nostalgia since they typically ate at the original first. Either way, any respectable sampling of New York pizza must include a trip to Totonno's, and if you go to the Upper East Side location, you will get to enjoy a superior Neapolitan pizza.


An empty Totonno's - an unusual sight


Hot coals


Sausage and fresh gooey mozzarella


So good, a second shot was warranted


Where it went down - typical New York modesty on the sign


Sullivan Street Bakery (Monday, July 14, 9:30 AM)
Address: 533 West 47th Street, Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-265-5580

Pizza for breakfast is a wonderful thing, but for some reason pizzerias are rarely open early. In New York, I was prevented from going to a number of places because they aren't even open for lunch (Gonzo, Adrienne's and

Sullivan Street Bakery is not a pizzeria. As you can probably discern from the name, it's a bakery. It is not, however, anywhere close to Sullivan Street. It used to be in the area of Sullivan Street, but a split in ownership led to the old location being renamed and the new location with the old name moving to Hell's Kitchen. The man responsible for the recipes stayed with the name so that's where I went.

Sullivan Street Bakery makes its big bucks supplying many of New York's finest restaurants and fanciest stores with truly excellent bread. But they do keep a store open for people who want to walk in for loaves of bread, sandwiches, and, most importantly, pizza.

I could not decide which slices to get, but when I told the woman working the counter that I was on a pizza tour of New York and about the CPC, she offered to give me half slices so that I could try them all. I could not possibly refuse the offer, so I went to town on a variety of room temperature pizza treats.

Before getting to what I call pizza, I ate some Pizza Bianca, which is flatbread with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary. It is absolutely incredible bread, full of air bubbles, but still perfectly chewy. I then moved onto the bianca con pecorino which is the bianca filled with delicious aged sheep's milk pecorino cheese. Personally, I liked this even better than the Bianca, but I've yet to encounter bread that is not improved by adding quality cheese.

Up next was the pomodoro,which is more outstanding crust, but covered in tomato sauce. I was not a fan of this one because I do not like sweet sauce, and this was really sweet sauce. Fortunately for me, this was the only pizza with sauce on it.

Up next was the mushroom pizza. Of course, no bakery that supplies Dean & Deluca would never use such vulgar terminology. The pizza funghi features an entire layer of thin-sliced cremini mushrooms, as well as onions and thyme. If you like mushrooms you'll love the fungus pizza.

I say potato, Sullivan Street says patate. My next piece was the pizza patate, which featured unbelievably tender thin slices of potato with onion, pepper and rosemary. I have no idea what they do to the potato to get that texture, but it works. And the the subtle seasoning works perfectly with the soft potato and chewy bread.

My last slice was the zucchini pizza. Served on their usual crisp, chewy bread and covered with shredded zucchini and gruyere cheese, this was also an outstanding slice. It did make me wonder why they don't use cheese on more of their pizzas, but it's hard to argue with the final results. Sullivan Street Bakery serves some outstanding pizza.

A couple of other notes. I got to speak with Jim Lahey, the owner/chef for a while. He's a nice guy, but the man does not like Chicago style pizza. Of course, like most New Yorkers, his experience with our town's pies is incredibly limited. He mentioned one time he'd eaten it at a place whose name he could not remember. But New Yorkers have never needed anything like facts to justify their dismissal of other cities, so I let it go.

Finally, while it is not pizza-related, I am obligated to report that nobody should ever set foot in Sullivan Street Bakery without eating at least one bomboloni. It's an absolutely perfect soft pastry filled with vanilla cream that was just stunningly good.

Most people think of pizza as having crust, cheese, sauce and toppings. Of all the pizzas (or, as they're called there, pizzes) at Sullivan Street Bakery, only the zucchini even had three out of the four parts. It doesn't matter - this place serves outstanding pizza, and it's available for breakfast. Definitely worth a stop on anyone's visit to New York.


The bakery


The perfect piece of bread


You can't see it, but that bread is filled with outstanding cheese


Pizza from the bottom


The pomodoro


Mushrooms, lots and lots of mushrooms


Potato, or is it patate?


Zucchini with gruyere cheese.


The perfect donut.


Where it went down.


Louie and Ernie's (Monday, July 14, 12:30 PM)
Address: 1300 Crosby Avenue, Bronx, NY
Phone: 718-829-6230

Louie & Ernie's is far away from where tourists roam. Hell, it's far away from where most New Yorkers roam. I took the 6 train almost all the way to the northern end, way up in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. And then I had to walk a solid half mile to get to a small pizzeria that sits on the ground floor of a white split level house.

Since I was only getting slices, I was limited to what was available, which wasn't much. A lot of people swear by their white slice, but it could be the best of its kind in the world and I'm not going to enjoy a slice of pizza slathered with ricotta cheese. So I ended up with a plain slice, and a tomato slice.

There was absolutely no difference between the two other than one had slices of very pedestrian tomatoes on it. I'm not sure at what point in the cooking process the tomatoes were added, but judging by their texture, it was pretty late. Other than the tomatoes, I was happy to discover that Louie & Ernie's makes a fine pizza. The crust had the crispy/chewy thing going that most New York slices strive for, and there was a decent amount of very fresh mozzarella. All in all, this was a high quality slice that I would recommend be included on a pizza tour or any visit to Pelham Bay, but it was not so mind-blowing that it's worth the long ride when there are plenty of better pizzas in Manhattan.


Tomato slice with bad tomatoes.


Where it went down in Pelham Bay


Patsy's Pizzeria (Monday, July 14, 3:15 PM)
Address: 2287 First Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-534-9783

Patsy's Pizzeria has been serving up coal oven baked pies since 1932. Founded by Patsy Lancieri, the company was sold in recent years to a company that has added a number of other locations in New York which, according to what I've read, are worse than the original.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was underwhelmed by the pizza. The crust was excellent, but that's pretty much a given when you've got a decent bread recipe and you cook it in a coal-burning oven. There was not enough cheese or sauce, and the sausage was a fairly sliced bland Italian sausage. This is not to say it was a bad pizza, just that it was not remotely special.

The people over at Slice have had some debates over whether Patsy's has lost a step in recent years, but they all seem to agree that it is inconsistent. Perhaps I got it on a down day. Because of its reputation, I'd give it another try, but based on this visit, this was about as boring as a coal oven pizza could be.


Sausage Pizza


Where it went down


Tomato N Basil Pizza (Monday, July 14, 9:30 PM)
Address: 226 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Phone: 718-596-8855

I ended the day at a friend's place in Park Slope, Brooklyn where I hoped to give Lucalli a try. But he had a sleeping kid, which precluded a trip to the restaurant and he was firm in his belief that Lucalli doesn't travel all that well via delivery. I deferred to the local (who is actually from Chicago) and we instead ordered from Tomato N Basil, which is well known for its Grandma slices.

I had never heard of a Grandma pizza before planning this pizza tour. It's basically a Sicilian slice, but with crust that's about half as thick. That means the crust isn't so different, in terms of thickness, from Chicago deep dish pizza. The consistency is far different - not nearly as dense as a Chicago slice.

We ordered a half cheese/half pepperoni pizza, but we got a half cheese/half black olive pizza. We called to complain, but the person running the shop insisted that we'd ordered the olives. That seems unlikely since my friend doesn't like olives, but we were not about to wait another hour to get the pizza.

The interpersonal skills of management aside, Tomato N Basil is definitely worth checking out. The olives were nothing special - black olives out of a can, but that's common for an olive pizza topping. The crust was outstanding - like a crisp, chewy piece of toast that surprisingly held its consistency perfectly even though it had been delivered. There was a decent amount of well-toasted mozzarella. The chunky, well-seasoned sauce was very good, if a little sparse.

Tomato N Basil was a quality pie that made me perfectly content that I missed trying Lucalli.


Funny, that doesn't look like pepperoni.


The box.


Maffei (Tuesday, July 15, 12:15 PM)
Address: 688 Ave of the Americas (6th Avenue), Manhattan, NY
Phone: 212-929-0949

I was not planning on going to Maffei. Well, I was originally to get a Grandma's slice for which they are well-known, but since I had Tomato N Basil the night before, I decided to head to Gonzo for a grilled pizza! Unfortunately, the geniuses who run Gonzo have decided opening for lunch isn't worth it, so it was off to Maffei. While I was disappointed to miss out on a grilled pie, Maffei proved to be a more than adequate substitute.

I ordered two sliced. First was what looked to be a regular Grandma slice, but was referred to as "crema." This was an excellent piece of pizza. The crust was crisp, chewy and buttery, and it was covered by a creamy (crema?) mozzarella and chunks of tomato sauce. The slice was every bit as good as the Tomato N Basil pie from the night before, and with a location at 6th Avenue and 22nd Street, much easier to get to for most residents and tourists in New York.

The second slice was an incredibly pleasant surpise - bacon cheeseburger pizza! The crust on that slice was okay, a bit more chewy than crispy, but with the amount of toppings on it, that is to be expected since the pizza was made well before I got there (an inherent problem that comes with ordering pizza by the slice). Even with a less than ideal texture, the crust was okay. I'm not sure if it was because grease from the meat on top was absorbed or if they use butter, but something gave the crust a nice flavor.

Far more important were the toppings: a solid layer of cheese, ground beef that had been cooked in Italian seasoning (I could see the fennel), some American cheese and bacon. I had no idea that a pizza like this existed in New York. Now as excited as I was, it was more for the novelty than the taste. The meat was actually quite good, and the final product was tasty, but this was more a good food product than a good piece of pizza. I think toppings are integral to a successful pizza, but balance is important and the bacon cheeseburger pizza had none.


Pizzas sitting in glass cases struggle to look good.


Sweet Jesus, that really is a bacon cheeseburger pizza.


A Grandma slice.


Where it went down.


Di Fara (Monday, July 14, 2:00 PM)
Address: 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY
Phone: 718-258-1367

My pizza tour ended deep in the heart of Brooklyn at Di Fara. It was a good place to end as this was unquestionably the best pizza I have ever had in New York.

There is little I can say about Dom Di Fara's pies that hasn't already been said repeatedly, including here, here, and here.

But I will try.

I hopped on the train to good into Brooklyn - the Midwood neighborhood to be precise - where Dom Di Fara has been making his pizzas for more than four decades. I walked into the small corner shop at about 2:00. This was on a Tuesday, so I expected an empty pizzeria where I would get a slice that had been made a while earlier. I was wrong on both counts. There are only about 8 tables, but they were all full. And there was a line of about 10 people in front of me.

Since Dom Di Fara is the only person who makes the pizzas, the line does not move all that quickly. I really did not mind because I was not that hungry, and watching the man work was a treat. He paid no attention to the customers, leaving that mundane task to the woman (who I assume is his daughter) working the counter. He just worked the pies in the oven, stretched out dough, and spread sauce and chunks of fresh cheese. When he deemed a pizza to be done, he took it out of the oven, drizzled a generous portion of olive oil out of a copper pitcher, spread out some fresh parmesan that he had just shredded himself, and then took a bunch of fresh basil and a pair of scissors and cut the basil, letting it fall all over the pizza.

Most people were there to get whole pies, but there were a couple of us waiting for slices. Of that group, I was the only person who requested a topping - sausage of course. While our shared pie was in the oven, someone brought Dom a bowl of sausage and he took it out and spread it over a part of the pie cooking in the oven.

When I got my slice in my hands, I immediately regretted only getting one - it looked perfect. Actually, there was a flaw - the sausage was slices of an Italian sausage rather than chunks of loose sausage. After one bite, that sin was quickly forgiven. For the most part, sausage in New York is not good. But Di Fara serves a very well-seasoned sausage that complements the pizza perfectly.

The crust on my slice was perfect - crisp and chewy - the best crust I had in New York. The cheese was fresh and the generous helping of parmesan that melted right into the slice was outstanding. The sauce, which is made from a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes, was slightly sweet and tangy. And the fresh basil really brought it all together.

I went to 11 pizzerias on this trip to New York and went to countless other New York pizzerias during the three years I lived in New York, and there is not a doubt in my mind that Di Fara makes the best pizza that I have had in that town. It was so good that if it were in Chicago, it would be one of the 10 best pizzas in the city. Or at least top 20.


Dom Di Fara shaves some fresh parmesan


The oven, powered by natural gas


The menu


The best slice in all of New York City.


Where it went down

5 comments:

  1. You know, after looking at this again all I can really think about is how fucking expensive it must be. NYC is beaucoup expensive, pardon my French.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great. Next time you'll have to try Otto and Lombardi's. I agree about the pizza bianca at Sullivan. No better bread anywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  3. difara would be in the top 10 of chicago???

    crazy talk man, i doubt 9 pizzerias could be better

    ReplyDelete
  4. What you called "pizza bianca" is actually a traditional Northern Italian (Liguria)focaccia. It is a thick flat bread with olive oil kneaded into the dough and also drizzled into the dimpled top (dimpled with your fingers after it rises to about 1 1/2-2 inches). You also add rosemary and sea salt to the top.

    ReplyDelete