RE: New York Pizza??
Tue, 02/28/06 10:55 AM
Here's the article for those who can't get to it. If it's too long, or violates any rules of the Roadfood, let me know and I'll remove it. pb
Introduction: Where Has All The Good Pizza Gone?
DO YOU remember what great pizza tastes like? When all the elements of pizza excellence come together, the resulting pie is so irresistible, you abandon all self-restraint -- you can't even forbear until it cools down -- and so, having been reduced to your dumb animal essence, you scald your mouth on the bubbling sauce and cheese. But that doesn't slow you down: Slices disappear into your gullet one after another without a second thought -- no matter how well you ate that day, a great pizza compels you to tear into it as though you'd just been rescued from a desert island. The crust alone is an independent food product and the notion of leaving the edges behind on the plate is simply ludicrous, while the saltiness and lusciousness of the toppings trigger addictive behavior such that you can't stop eating until every slice is gone -- and after that you sniff and scratch, junkie-like, in eager anticipation of more, more, more, as though you're certain you'll never be fed again. Have you had any pizza like that lately?
Good pizza has become so rare in New York City, most of us are no longer able immediately to identify bad pizza as such. Without a frame of reference, New Yorkers -- including some in the professional food press -- have slowly embraced mediocrity, not just with resignation but with enthusiasm for the now-embarrassing pizza specimens being peddled by, among others, John's, Totonno, Grimaldi's and the Patsy's franchises. And those places are among the top pizzerias in New York (in the entire United States, no less) on today's undemanding relative scale, the situation at the by-the-slice shops being even more depressing.
The conventional wisdom -- that you can walk into any New York pizza shop, grab a slice, and confidently assume that it will be pretty good -- is manifestly no longer true (if it ever was), and it should come as no surprise to any long-time New Yorker not living in denial (though it might be news to tourists and newcomers) to hear that pizza in New York today is, overall, terrible. In 1998, there were hints of a pizza renaissance, when many new brick-oven pizzerias opened and some of the old guard began to franchise, but few of the newcomers maintained their flash-in-the-pan high levels of quality (they quickly learned that the consumer would settle for less) and the franchise efforts ultimately destroyed some of our best pizzerias. I'm now of the sad opinion, after years of struggling to find consistently reliable counterexamples, that New York isn't even America's top pizza city or state anymore. That honor has to go to nearby New Haven, Connecticut. And some of our other neighbors, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, possess examples of pizza greatness that should make proud New Yorkers wince.
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Pizza as we know it today, without getting into too much history and etymology, is basically dough, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, assembled by the pizza maker and baked in an oven. Additions (sausage and other toppings; additional varieties of cheese; herbs and seasonings) and subtractions (as in the sauce-free white pizzas and sauce-and-cheese-free clam pies popular in Connecticut) are possible, but these three ingredients define the species. That there can be so much variation within such seemingly simple parameters should come as no surprise. After all, wine is just fermented grape juice; cheese is just curds; and bread is just flour, leavening and water. It is indeed in these most basic of foods that the slightest variation becomes most important and apparent.
Great pizza comes in many forms, and anybody claiming that a particular type of oven or flour or cheese makes the best probably hasn't taken the time to sample a variety of pizza specimens. Scores of pizzeria visits over the course of a lifetime -- and especially during the past few years when I've paid more careful critical attention -- have convinced me that the skill of the pizza maker and the quality (as opposed to exact nature) of the ingredients mean much more than adherence to any particular set of strictures.
For example, many claim with seeming authority that superheated coal- or wood-fired brick and stone ovens are prerequisites for good pizza. Yet real-world examples belie such effortless attempts at categorization: On the one hand, some of the best pizza is not only baked in electric and gas ovens (Nick's, in Forest Hills) made of stainless steel (Di Fara, in Brooklyn), but also isn't even baked at particularly high temperatures (Polistina's). On the other hand, plenty of pizzerias with seemingly wonderful old-style ovens make astonishingly disappointing pies (Totonno, John's). Perhaps at the extremes -- where all other elements of the pizza are as good as can be -- a natural wood or coal oven properly tended achieves just a slight quality edge over a gas oven well-designed to reproduce the same thermodynamic properties (the New Haven pizzerias seem to derive their edge in part on account of their ovens). But this situation arises so rarely that it seems the oven is the wrong place on which to focus so much attention. After all, advances in the construction of ovens have made it possible to simulate most conditions with a variety of fuels (gas, electric, wood, coal) and materials (brick, stone, steel), as my discussions with professional bread bakers and examination of baking texts have confirmed. (That being said, it is nonetheless outrageous that New York City's picayune environmental codes make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired oven today.)
Likewise, many (including some official-sounding associations dedicated to the preservation of what they allege constitutes traditional pizza baking) will make doctrinaire claims about the superiority of fresh mozzarella as a pizza cheese. But side-by-side comparisons of pizza made with fresh and low-moisture mozzarella (a firmer version of the cheese which, in its least flattering incarnation, appears as Polly-O and Sorrento in the supermarket, but can rise to exceptional levels in the hands of a good cheesemaker such as Arthur Avenue's Calandra cheese shop) amply demonstrate that in many cases the low-moisture can be better for this specific application because it exudes less fluid and has a more concentrated flavor, while an even more striking contrast reveals itself with authentic mozzarella di bufala (water-buffalo milk mozzarella), which, though most flavorful, has in the few instances when I've encountered it been far too watery for use as a pizza cheese. (The most important thing is not that the cheese be fresh or low-moisture, cow or water-buffalo, but that it be of high quality.) Similarly persistent myths, with respect to fresh versus canned tomatoes and American versus Italian flour, can be just as easily dispelled by real-world tasting. Sure, fresh San Marzano tomatoes in season are hard to beat -- but so are tomatoes from New Jersey. And at most other times of year canned tomatoes are more reliable. Italian flour enjoys a mystical reputation, but much of the wheat milled in Italy is grown right here in North America.
In the final analysis, there is only one question I think should be asked when evaluating a pizza: Does it taste good? And the answer can be yes across a spectrum of styles: Thin, crispy, high-temperature-baked pizzas with fresh mozzarella and just a touch of sauce; thick, doughy, sauce-and-grated-low-moisture-cheese-drenched pizzas baked at low temperatures; and all pizzas in between. So long as the pizza maker is skilled and the ingredients are of high quality, great pizza remains within reach.
Still, the phrases "skill of the pizza maker" and "quality of the ingredients" probably imply that there is more mystery to making pizza than the reality would support. Though a truly gifted pizza maker can stretch dough just so, and though it is a wondrous thing to watch any true artisan at work, it is also the case that the average moron can learn how to make outstanding pizza in a very short time -- a little more training being required if the oven is coal- or wood-fired, because there are additional intricacies involved in dealing with the fuel and in positioning the pizza in the oven to avoid hot spots. Acquiring good ingredients is no great trick either -- there are only a handful of pizzerias in America today that use better ingredients than you could pick up at Fairway, and no less than some of the best pizzerias have grown lazy over the years and switched to prepackaged, pre-cooked, pre-grated and pre-sliced ingredients. (The standard excuse is that people won't pay enough for pizza to support the use of good ingredients, but with even bad pizza creeping towards $ 20 for a large pie with a couple of toppings, this claim lacks credibility.) Even a standard home oven, properly outfitted with a pizza stone or quarry tiles and allowed to preheat for a good long time, can adequately reproduce the action of a pretty good commercial pizza oven. But because of the perceived labor involved -- especially with regard to making dough and letting it rise -- it's unlikely that people will begin baking pizza at home en masse (if they did, they'd develop a much higher set of expectations).
I have to conclude that the dearth of good pizza today is not on account of any inherent difficulty in the creation of the product, but is rather due to consumer ignorance and a concurrent collective loss among our pizza makers of the will to excel, to buy the best, to use only the freshest, and to adhere to higher standards than the average clueless customer would blissfully tolerate.
At this juncture in history, moreover, we cannot afford to exclude any excellent example of pizza from consideration just because of a particular ingredient or procedure. For there is so little good pizza in New York today that all arguably delicious specimens must band together to hold back the flood of mediocrity.
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Who Serves The Best?
All this carping aside, however, New York has managed to hang on to a number of respectable pizzerias, even producing a few good new ones in recent years. Herein, you'll find my observations on what I consider to be the best pizzerias in the New York area, plus a few that I think are so overrated as to demand comment. After the pizzeria listings, you'll find three additional entries: A note on the pizza chains, such as Domino's; a note on some non-pizzeria restaurants that happen to serve excellent pizza; and a note on some pizzerias that have declined since the last major revision of this guide and are therefore no longer deserving of their own entries.
In order to be recommended here, a pizzeria must be a worthwhile destination, rather than simply a good neighborhood joint. That is to say, I won't advocate a pizzeria unless I think it's sensible for a discriminating, food-loving individual to uproot and schlep to that location via public transportation. I'm assuming you've already found the pizzeria in your neighborhood that makes the best utility slice, useful for lazy nourishment but hardly much else. Here I'm talking about the places that take pizza to a higher level. (I welcome your suggestions of new pizzerias to try, but please bear in mind the standard I'm trying to uphold.) Of course, there are people for whom a subway ride is never justified as a means of acquiring pizza. They can stop reading now.
My top pizza pick in New York City is unquestionably the original Patsy's, in East Harlem. Based on evidence collected in the past several years, including repeated and recent visits to all the other alleged bests, I don't think anybody in town can currently touch Patsy's -- not Lombardi's and not Totonno (both of which have deteriorated substantially); not Grimaldi's and not John's (which aren't even particularly impressive anymore). Following close behind Patsy's, I'm partial to Candido, on the Upper East Side; Nick's, in Forest Hills, Queens; and Denino's, in (on?) Staten Island. Next I'd give a special mention to Di Fara, in Midwood, Brooklyn, to which I was recently introduced -- through the mechanism of his book -- by the indefatigable Jim Leff. My respect for Polistina's has increased several-fold since its lackluster opening, such that I now hold it in high regard as the best pizzeria on the Upper West Side; Angelo's and Naples 45, both in Midtown, make a good product; Lento's, the original in Bay Ridge, is more than worthwhile; and Zito's East, in the East Village, deserves a nod. Falling off rapidly from there are most of the places that cling to undeserved top rankings in the guidebooks, like the aforementioned Lombardi's. Number one in New York City, however, becomes (at best) number three overall in the region if you start counting farther afield spots like Sally's and Pepe's in New Haven, Connecticut. They're well worth the trip. When finishing up the most recent set of revisions to this guide, at the conclusion of a multi-day pizza marathon, I visited New Haven for some pies and was shocked -- shocked! -- at the sheer extent of the gulf between New Haven and New York pizza.
Note: Special thanks to Eric Asimov of The New York Times for providing me with a high percentage of my information on the interconnectedness of New York's major pizza families. His 1998 article, "New York Pizza, the Real Thing, Makes a Comeback," may not have turned out to be an accurate prediction, but Asimov's investigation into the history of New York pizza remains definitive. Sadly, his article is not available online, but you can read it in the window of most any pizzeria that was mentioned therein. Also, thanks to long-time e-mail correspondent Steve Wong, for tirelessly investigating most every aspect of pizza history, for spurring me to think along new lines, for authoritatively dispelling dozens of pieces of conventional wisdom and pizza mythology, and for time and again pushing me to visit just one more place in the service of making this guide as comprehensive and reliable as possible. And finally thanks to my chauffeur, confidant and Brooklyn expert, Neil Marantz, who was the only person not only to claim he could last through one of my multiple-pizzerias-in-an-evening expeditions, but actually to persevere good-naturedly through several.
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117 West 57th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)
ANGELO, WE are told, came to America from Greece via Naples in the 1930s, eventually opening a Brooklyn pizzeria called Pizza Chef on Fulton Street. Angelo's son, Nick Angelis, now owns Nick's pizzeria in Forest Hills, Queens, which opened in 1994. Nick Angelis's sister, Mirene, married another Nick, Nick Tsoulos, who is the force behind the Manhattan Patsy's franchises (I call them the Manhattan franchises as convenient shorthand to distinguish them from the original Patsy's in East Harlem, which, though also in Manhattan of course, has now essentially disavowed the franchises), which he began opening in 1995. Angelo's, named for Nick and Mirene's father, is a joint venture of the Angelis and Tsoulos families, and is run by Angelis's cousins, Nick and John Pastalis. And this is one of the more straightforward stories in New York's pizza history.
Given Angelo's 57th Street location, smack dab in the middle of theme-restaurant row, it's amazing how non-glitzy and non-themey this pizzeria manages to be. Even more surprising, when shopping for a space for their new pizzeria, the Angelis-Tsoulos team lucked into this building, which miraculously already had the proper chimneys installed for handling the exhaust from a coal oven (almost unheard of in Manhattan, this was truly fate). Luckily, the pizza leans more towards Nick's than towards the lackluster Patsy's branches, and Angelo's party line is that it uses the exact same recipe as Nick's. Though I prefer Nick's, Angelo's is a reasonable substitute and is probably the best of Manhattan's centrally located pizzerias. The crust is thin, crisp and blistered, and, though a little too biscuity, it definitely picks up a discernible smoke flavor from the oven. The cheese is fresh mozzarella that, thankfully, isn't too wet or too bland. And the tomatoes in the sauce are of good enough quality to put most pizzerias to shame. I might go a little lighter on the sauce, but I'm hardly complaining.
Service, too, is unusually good. The instant you're seated, a busboy descends upon your table with ice water (why can't every restaurant do this?). The polite, efficient servers function as -- can you believe this? -- a team. Sitting in the ground floor dining room, you can watch the pizza bakers, and they appear both serious and committed to the craft. All this -- premium location, admirable service, excellent pizza -- and still prices are no higher than at the average brick-oven pizzeria.
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106 West Houston Street (between Thompson Street and West Broadway)
ARTURO'S, WHICH I include here primarily because it has been so highly recommended by so many people that I feel compelled to respond, is a good illustration of the principle that a coal oven does not a great pizza make. By failing to maintain high standards of ingredients, and by not paying close attention to correct dough-making and pizza-baking technique, Arturo's long ago took itself out of the top tier of New York pizzerias. That Arturo's is one of New York City's most charming restaurants, I can't deny: The great music, divey old-Village ambience and close-knit, tightly packed clientele are all but irresistible. But the only hint of greatness in the pizza is the appearance of the crust, which evidences the appetizing blisters you'd expect from a high-temperature coal-fired oven. Yet the crust turns out to be doughy, the cheese is only average (though not at all bad), and the sauce is the weakest link of all with a resoundingly commercial taste. Add to that frequent undercooking and the inevitable sogginess, and it's hard to endorse Arturo's as anything more than a good neighborhood hangout.
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1606 First Avenue (between 83rd and 84th Streets)
SERVICE AT Candido has always been impressively bad and slow, and it keeps getting worse and slower. Delivery, too, has always been a nightmare, taking about an hour and resulting in reliably cold pizza. But at least in the past that could be remedied by having a preheated oven ready to receive and resuscitate the pie (even defective Candido's puts most everything else in Manhattan below 96th Street to shame). Now that they've slapped us with a $ 25 minimum delivery charge, though, Candido's is no longer even a useful site for everyday Upper East Side delivery. Still, as much as I'd love to be able to say Candido's serves bad pizza, the truth is that it's among the best pizzerias in America today. Joe Candido (the owner) is a disciple of Jerry Pero of Totonno fame, and I'm of the opinion that Candido is the only place in New York right now where you can get a pizza that is the legitimate heir to the Totonno legend -- and that includes at Totonno, which no longer serves pizza worthy of the name. Candido's crusts are as thin as they come, with evident blistering and a crisp skin, yet they maintain a good degree of pliability. The sauce possesses as deep a tomato flavor as I've encountered, and the excellent mozzarella is enhanced by a welcome, salty shot of parmesan. I get more than a few raised eyebrows when I say some of the best pizza available is on the Upper East Side (a neighborhood stereotyped for nothing so much as WASPy conformity and blandness), but prejudices aside Candido is a winner.
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Denino's (Staten Island)
524 Port Richmond Avenue (at Hooker Place)
GET A group of serious pizza eaters together, then get them debating who serves the best, and one joker is guaranteed to drop this wrench into the works: "Well, you know, the best pizza in the City is in Staten Island."
Denino's, established in 1937, is justly beloved by Staten Islanders (and other sympathizers) and serves a great pie (for just $ 8, I should add). It has a thicker (though not thick) and softer (though not soft) crust than most of the brick-oven places in the other boroughs, with a nice exterior crunch and well-developed interior. The sauce is a paragon of balance: Both sweet and piquant. Only the lackluster cheese fails to contribute much to the overall pie, though it is harmless. The free-form sausage, though a bit loose-grained for my tastes, has good flavor and crisps nicely on top of the pie (it's not nearly as exciting when ordered, mushy, in one of the restaurant's regular dishes).
Two special pies stand out: The "MOR," which is an acronym for meatball, onion and ricotta; and the "Garbage Pie," which includes sausage, mushrooms, meatballs, onion and pepperoni (pizza makers typically use the term garbage pie as a derogatory description of a customer's order when it includes too many toppings, but here it's been elevated to a compliment). But I prefer plain, where the crust and sauce really sing. Denino's is too crowded for comfort on weekends, but you can wander in there most weeknights and get seated without a wait. Dessert across the street at Ralph's Famous Italian Ices (501 Port Richmond Avenue, 718-448-0853) is de rigueur.
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Di Fara (Midwood, Brooklyn)
1424 Avenue J (at 15th Street)
NOT TO take anything away from Di Fara -- which I learned about in Jim Leff's excellent book, The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City -- but I do feel kind of silly singing the praises of a pizzeria that, twenty years ago, I'd have taken for granted. There was a time when serious, artisanal, Italian pizza makers like Domenico De Marco (Di Fara's owner) dotted the cityscape, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Now, this level of commitment to excellence is such a novelty that a place like Di Fara must be viewed as a destination restaurant worthy of the D-train commute (luckily, it's right near the Avenue J station).
Those who had the pleasure of seeing pianist Vladimir Horowitz perform, either live or on television, no doubt noticed that his fingers appeared to move in slow motion. The nonchalance with which Horowitz's odd-looking fingers played even the most virtuoso piece was, in a certain sense, disappointing. It's likewise a bit disconcerting to see De Marco make a pizza: His apparent expenditure of effort is so minor, you can't believe you're actually in the presence of greatness until you witness the end result. First he casually paws some dough into the approximate shape of a pizza, smaller and thinner than the typical monster now being cranked out at most slice shops. Next he spreads an uneven veneer of precious house-made herb-and-pepper-infused tomato sauce -- made from fresh tomatoes year-round. Then he picks up a brick of firm mozzarella and an old metal grater/slicer and shaves a pile of cheese right onto the pie. After shoving the mozzarella around so that there's at least a bit of it near every zone of the pie's surface, he drizzles olive oil unevenly over the pie and lobs the whole thing into a regular old stainless steel pizza oven. What emerges, upon receiving a quick dusting of freshly grated parmesan, is Brooklyn pizza the way it ought to be.
Toppings are as good as the pizza, with the sautéed artichokes being the most unique and worthwhile. Be patient, though. As De Marco will explain, "I gotta cook the artichoke."
Di Fara is primarily a by-the-slice shop, which means it serves primarily reheated slices. With the preponderance of New York's best pizzerias adhering to a whole-pies-only philosophy, the by-the-slice formula doesn't get much respect. But reheated pizza -- provided it hasn't been sitting around for long enough to become soggy and degraded -- is totally legitimate when handled well (some reasonable people even prefer it, though different types of pizza behave differently when reheated). I have nothing against reheated slices, which are a time-honored tradition and a necessity both in terms of inventory turnover and slice portability. But what I really hate is lukewarm pizza. I always ask for my reheated slice well done, and it seems nobody ever really listens.
Enter De Marco, who is as serious about reheating pizza as he is about baking it in the first place. When he reheats your little slice, it emerges hissing, bubbling, steaming and smoking, on a sheet of aluminum foil, with a crunchy crust that has just enough structure to contain the other ingredients -- plus a resoundingly delicious edge. That the sauce and cheese will be great is a fait accompli, the main surprise being just how fine the whole package is, and the secondary shock being how far New York pizza (and Brooklyn pizza in particular) has fallen since the days when this level of flavor was commonplace.
What happened to Brooklyn's slice shops, which used to be the benchmark? Recent tours of old favorites revealed that many of the traditionally beloved places, including Connie's and Roma, had gone inexcusably downhill, while only Del Mar (1668 Sheepshead Bay Road, 718-769-7766) was good enough to recommend even as a neighborhood place (not that it could touch Di Fara). That the pizza in Manhattan is now better than the pizza in Brooklyn is a shameful reversal of history, and the evaporation of Italian-Americans from the pizza-making scene surely has something to do with it. That's not to say you have to be Italian to make good pizza, or French to be a great French chef, or Japanese to make sushi -- anybody with the will to learn can become a skilled cook of any cuisine. But the Italians gave us a frame of reference and for the most part maintained a certain standard. Many of today's non-Italian pizza makers don't even know, or care, what good pizza tastes like.
Like many neighborhood pizzerias, Di Fara also functions as a basic Italian-American restaurant, and yet another astonishing thing is how good Di Fara's non-pizza foods are. Each exhibits the same elegant simplicity, rusticity and attention to detail that is evident in the pizza. Certainly, there's no pizzeria in New York that serves a comparable mesclun salad, full of ripe tomatoes, chunks of fresh mozzarella (this is not the same as the pizza cheese), olives and cucumbers, and without a hint of iceberg or romaine in sight. Heroes and pastas are textbook, and there are usually several off-menu items that you can obtain by inquiring. The robust vegetable soup, when available, is particularly noteworthy.
Note: Di Fara is a disaster on weekends and at peak weekday hours: The crowd grows but De Marco's careful pace never increases. I recommend weekday afternoons for the best experience.
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Garden of Eden
7 East 14th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Union Square West)
THIS BRANCH of the excellent mini-chain of gourmet markets has, nestled in its southwest corner, a massive ceramic pizza oven with a phony-looking brick façade (indeed it is just that, manufactured by the WoodStone Company in Washington state). The head pizza baker trained at, among other places, Naples 45, and the pies look promising as they're being made: The dough is expertly stretched, then covered with a raw tomato sauce (pureed but not cooked before baking, as at the New Haven pizzerias) and hunks of attractive fresh mozzarella, and placed directly on the hearth to bake. If you situate yourself at the extreme left end of the counter and lean in a little, you can see your pie developing in the oven.
But the pizza in the end is merely good. The "00" flour in the mixture makes for a nice, soft, pliable crust, and the mozzarella from New Jersey is pretty good, but the pies are a soggy mess and the flavors are dull.
In addition, because this is primarily a grocery store, there's no place to eat the pizza at Garden of Eden. This species of thin-crust pizza doesn't travel well, so, unless you live close by, your only choice is to eat it in Union Square Park (which only helps on a nice day) or to eat it cold.
Still, given the thoughtful staff, I remain hopeful of improvement.
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Grimaldi's (Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn)
19 Old Fulton St. (between Water and Front Streets, by the Brooklyn Bridge)
GRIMALDI'S, a/k/a Patsy Grimaldi's and formerly called Patsy's, was opened in 1990 by the nephew of the original Patsy (as in Patsy's in East Harlem), who had died long before. The original Patsy's widow had managed the East Harlem Patsy's since her husband's death in the 1970s, and when she retired in 1991 she sold the shop not to her nephew but to some of her faithful employees. The subsequent upscale Manhattan franchising of the Patsy's name only made matters worse, and whether on account of legal action or personal pride (it depends who spins the tale), Patsy Grimaldi eventually took down his Patsy's sign and changed his establishment's name to Grimaldi's.
This Brooklyn Heights pizzeria is cited by many as New York's best, and I recall some excellent pizza I had there in the early- and mid-1990s, but it's hard to accept that the current inconsistent and bland product could attract such a loyal and widespread following. On a good day, Grimaldi's turns out pretty good, crispy, nearly exciting brick-oven pizzas. More often, unfortunately, the pies are lifeless and dull, often sagging on account of being undercooked. Though the cheese is always excellent and the crust is most often good, the sauce is a real letdown, both in terms of inconsistent flavor and application.
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278 Bleecker Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)
498 East 64th Street (between First and York Avenues)
48 West 65th Street (between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue)
260 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)
THE OBVIOUS prediction would be that the original branch of a pizzeria would be the best, the second branch would represent a slight drop in quality, and expansion beyond that would result in generic and unremarkable additional franchises. There's no reason this needs to be the case, but with respect to John's it's all absolutely true, plus one other thing: Through some sort of unfortunate wicking action, the original and second John's branches have now been infected with the mediocrity of the chain. (By the original John's I mean the oldest of the current group; the original original, which no longer exists, opened on Sullivan Street in the 1920s, and moved to the now-Bleecker-Street location in 1934.)
There was a time when John's was, if not the best, at least one of the best brick oven pizzerias in New York. The East 64th Street location may never have been a hundred percent on par with the original, but it was nonetheless excellent. But now John's has built Barnes & Noble-sized pizza superstores in the major uptown neighborhoods, and the pizza is overpriced, tastes mass-produced, and is often so underbaked as to be inedible. The Bleecker Street original is still marginally better than the others, but it no longer produces an eye-popping pie. John's used to have a thin but dense and chewy crust -- leathery, almost -- that became a signature. Now the Bleecker Street crust is often simply tough, without any compensating properties, whereas the crust at the other John's branches has gone in the other direction, towards the spongy and limp. The cheese used throughout the chain is quite good, but the current sauce recipe and ingredients are an insult to the great John's tradition.
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La Pizza Fresca
31 East 20th Street (between Park Avenue South and Broadway)
THIS IS the only New York pizzeria serving "vera pizza Napoletana," as certified by the Italian Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The dough is hand-made of Italian "00" flour (a highly refined flour with less than seven percent protein), the sauce comes from San Marzano tomatoes, the mozzarella comes from the milk of Neapolitan or Roman water buffalo (though the Associazione permits fresh cow milk mozzarella -- technically fior di latte -- as well, contrary to the claim of Pizza Fresca's literature), and the baking occurs in a brick oven for just a couple of minutes at 450 to 485 degrees Celsius (842 to 905 degrees Fahrenheit). This may sound like just so much propaganda, and it pretty much is. Pizza Fresca's pies are limp and cottony (even by Neapolitan standards, where the pizza is more pliable than the crisp American archetype), and the buffalo mozzarella exudes so much moisture that pools of whey and water gather in the pizza's indentations, aided by the secretions of the watery sauce. Add to that a decline in standards since the restaurant's more promising opening (I'd be very surprised if the oven really was cranking in the 800-plus-degree range during any of my last few visits), plus outrageous prices for miniscule pies.
Moreover, though pizza as we know it was certainly invented in Italy in the late 19th Century, the American pizza tradition has developed on its own for nearly as long and, at its highest levels, is a worthy rival. All these European rules and regulations seem antithetical to the American way (they may not even be sensible in Europe; witness the excellence of uncertified "Super Tuscan" wines like Sassicaia), and there's no good reason, when our country is possessed of its own excellent local sources of produce, to import all this stuff from Italy. It bears repeating that tomatoes, for example, are indigenous to the Americas, not to Europe, and that Italy imports much of its wheat from the United States and Canada before shipping it back here as flour in fancy Italian packaging. Perhaps if all this rigmarole made for better pizza, I'd think twice -- but it doesn't.
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L&B Spumoni Gardens (Bensonhurst, Brooklyn)
2725 86th Street
L & B SPUMONI Gardens simply couldn't exist in Manhattan, where the real-estate equation would never support a sprawling pizza-and-spumoni complex of such breadth. This block-long development, with three separate shops peddling different categories of Italian-American cuisine, plus ample parking and outdoor seating, is so instantly loveable it would be worth the trip simply for purposes of beholding its glory -- and that's not to mention the amazing Bensonhurst/Bay Ridge crowd, straight from central casting. Pizza-wise, L&B Spumoni Gardens serves an unremarkable Neapolitan-style pie, standard-issue Italian-American red-sauce cuisine, and very good spumoni.
But the main attraction is the rectangular, thick Sicilian-style pizza. Sicilian-style pizza, which is almost never good, is a mere afterthought at most pizzerias -- the preferred slice of those who want to fill up without much concern for quality. But at L&B Spumoni Gardens the Sicilian slice has been elevated to its own phylum, making this place a mandatory stop on any serious New York pizza itinerary. The relatively light, pastry-like crust (as opposed to the dense, bready crust typical of Sicilian-style pizza), the copious sweet tomato sauce, and the fact that the pies are always fresh (right out of the oven, owing to a year-round, perpetual line snaking through the outdoor dining garden), are all noteworthy elements. But the most unusual aspect of L&B's slice is that the thick layer of sauce is placed on top of and completely conceals the cheese.
As you let that sink in for a second, let me say by way of background that, when I first heard about L&B Spumoni Gardens and its sauce-on-cheese Sicilian-style pizza, in an effusive e-mail from a reader, I had my doubts. I pretty much just went out there because I was tickled by the name of the place. But I was amazed at how delicious this idiosyncratic slice was. The cheese rather than crisping and browning stays soft and melds to the crust, as in a grilled cheese sandwich. The thick layer of sweet, tangy, deeply concentrated, chunky tomato sauce sits on top of that, crowned by a dusting of parmesan. And it works, meriting a special mention in a unique category. I'm not quite sure I believe the guy behind the counter when he says, "This is how all real Italian pizza is made," but everyone's entitled to an opinion. Though I've run across pizzerias here and there, such as Zito's East, that reverse the standard order of things -- sauce atop cheese; and even in some cases cheese atop toppings -- I have yet to see compelling evidence of a widespread sauce atop cheese movement. Unless, that is, you allow that L&B Spumoni Gardens has been a Brooklyn institution, deservedly so, since the 1950s.
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Lento's (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn)
7003 Third Avenue (at Ovington Avenue)
Park Slope outpost:
833 Union Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)
LENTO'S, ESTABLISHED in 1933, is one of New York's most venerable pizzerias, but it doesn't get a whole lot of attention. It deserves more. Aside from matching Denino's low $ 8 price for the basic pie, Lento's makes a uniquely thin and crispy -- almost matzoh-like -- pie that is guaranteed to disappear quickly (in part because it's thin and in part because it's good). The sauce and cheese aren't on par with the crust, but they're harmless, and the robust sausage is excellent. The servers are proud and sociable, and the whole place has a great Bay Ridge neighborhood feel (Bay Ridge being, in my opinion, the sine qua non of Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the location of among other things Saturday Night Fever). If you're in Bay Ridge with a car before 7:30, be sure to drive over to Hinsch (8518 Fifth Avenue near 86th Street, Bay Ridge's main drag, 718-748-3412), which is one of the only soda fountains I know of in New York City that still makes Coca Cola and variations thereof by hand with syrup -- vanilla, chocolate and pistachio Cokes are my favorites.
Unfortunately, I can't recommend the Park Slope Lento's.
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32 Spring Street (between Mulberry and Mott Streets)
BY MOST accounts, Lombardi's was America's first full-fledged pizzeria, established in 1905 (the consensus of food historians seems to be that the prototype of the mozzarella-tomato-basil pizza was created by Raffaele Esposito in 1889 in Naples, and named for the queen, Margherita -- though earlier versions of pizza were common in Italy long before, and flatbreads in various forms date back to prehistory) at 53 1/2 Spring Street, and most of the top New York pizzerias of the 20th Century owe their existence to Gennaro Lombardi: John Sasso of John's, Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's and Anthony Pero of Totonno's all learned the craft under Gennaro Lombardi's tutelage, and the current incarnation of Lombardi's pizzeria (opened in 1994 and vigorously exploiting its connection to the original) is overseen by Gennaro Lombardi's grandson of the same name.
How disappointing it is, then, to take a bite of Lombardi's pizza today. Though good, and better than most, the pizza -- with the exception of the clam pie -- lacks any hint of greatness. The crust derives little benefit from the coal oven, baking is inconsistent and often careless, and the weak sauce is unworthy of the institution. On the standard pie, only the cheese is excellent. That Lombardi's persistently gets ranked as Manhattan's top pizzeria in popular surveys says more about such surveys than it does about Lombardi's. And exaggerating Lombardi's quality is a disservice to the newcomers, such as Nick's and Candido, that have surpassed it in quality, as well as to the old-time institutions, such as Patsy's in Harlem, that have exhibited far greater devotion to quality.
The one saving grace at Lombardi's, and the only reason I recommend you go there, is the clam pie. Frank Pepe of New Haven is widely credited with creating this pie (I don't believe it was an original Lombardi's offering), which in the case of Lombardi's is made with freshly shucked top-necks from Connecticut (these differ from the littlenecks used at Pepe's only in size). The lack of any sauce or mozzarella cheese makes for a super-crisp crust, and the clams, garlic, herbs, olive oil and sprinkling of pecorino Romano are, taken together, reminiscent of very good linguini with white clam sauce -- but with a foundation of pizza crust instead of pasta. The olive oil probably also helps crisp the crust, a cheap pizzeria trick that can certainly be forgiven here. The sheer quantity of clams is impressive -- the pie is totally covered in roughly chopped chunks. Still, though the clams are good, they can get a bit rubbery. The phrase "freshly shucked" probably has shades of meaning: Based only on taste and texture and not on first-hand knowledge, I doubt these clams are shucked to order (for one thing, the pizza comes too quickly for that to be going on in the kitchen), but they seem as though they're shucked and chopped on premises the same day.
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200 Park Avenue (at 45th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, in the MetLife building)
THOUGH SHAMELESSLY corporate and slick, operated by mega-conglomerate Restaurant Associates and situated in the MetLife building adjacent to Grand Central, Naples 45 serves terrific pizza. It's a telling illustration of the power of research: Restaurant Associates devoted its considerable resources to learning how to make good pizza, and then engineered a system that could be taught to a variety of cooks and maintained over the years through rigorous quality control. The individual-sized pies, especially, come out with a thin, crispy, charred crust supporting a vibrant, sweet, well-herbed tomato sauce and first-rate mozzarella. I suggest requesting your pie well done. The salame picante pie, topped with wonderfully spicy salami slices, is particularly noteworthy. Skip the dining room and have your pizza at the little café tables up front, where you'll pay the takeout price (considerably less than the eat-in price). The pizza world will experience a good shakeup if Restaurant Associates ever decides to franchise this formula.
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Nick's (Forest Hills, Queens)
108-26 Ascan Avenue (between Austin and Burns Streets)
NICK'S, ONE of New York's best pizzerias, is proof positive that you can make first-rate pizza without being Italian, without having a coal- or wood-fired oven, and without being a hundred years old. Nick Angelis is Greek, and he says his father learned to make pizza in Naples. He opened this place in 1994, and it's more faithful to New York's great pizza tradition than every franchise of John's and Patsy's combined (right down to the Sinatra-heavy soundtrack, blue Formica tables and tin ceiling). The gas-powered oven not only provides sufficient heat to replicate the traditional Totonno-like conditions, but it even somehow manages to impart a certain smokiness to the pies that would seem impossible without coal or wood as a fuel source. Amazing technology.
Everything about Nick's pizza is commendable, from the well-crafted, slightly crunchy crust, to the rich tomato sauce, to the non-rubbery and fresh-tasting cheese, to the fresh herbs adorning every slice. Mr. Angelis also provided the know-how for Angelo's pizzeria in Manhattan (named for his father) but, despite a gas oven here and a coal oven there, Nick's has the edge.
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2287-2291 First Avenue (between 117th and 118th Streets)
1312 Second Avenue (at 69th Street)
61 West 74th Street (between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue)
509 Third Avenue (between 34th and 35th Streets)
318 West 23rd Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues)
67 University Place (between10th and 11th Streets)
I OFTEN wonder why the great brick-oven pizza shops of old, which tend to be in currently lousy neighborhoods, have been unable to muster sufficient genetic material to reproduce themselves. The original Patsy's in Harlem is far superior to any of the five Patsy's franchises farther downtown. Totonno's on the Upper East Side was substantially worse than the Brooklyn original until the Brooklyn original sunk to its level. And John's recent mega-expansion has both produced inferior clones and managed to corrupt its forebear.
The newer locations of all these pizzerias would seem to have everything going for them: They're invariably cleaner, more attractive and more comfortable than the originals. They offer salads, expanded menus and perhaps even wine lists. Service is friendly. Yet the pizza is always disappointing, and it certainly doesn't have to be this way. As I've said before, I don't buy into the notion that quality pizza making depends on a specific oven or requires tremendous skill. Cooking pizza is a scientific process just like any other type of iterated recipe execution. It's simply a matter of ingredients, preparation and oven conditions. Both Nick Angelis (of Nick's in Forest Hills) and Rory Wade (the man behind the formerly excellent, but now hopeless, Pintaile's) have demonstrated amply that it's possible to produce great pizza in brand-new, non-coal- or wood-fired ovens. No, the explanation lies elsewhere, and I blame a combination of consumer ignorance (resulting in failure to demand the best and reject anything but) and commercial abdication of responsibility (the short-sighted refusal to strive for the kind of excellence that creates lifelong customers), both of which are of course closely connected.
In the case of Patsy's, there's also an issue of management: The original Patsy's is still run by those who trained under Patsy and his widow. The new Patsy's franchises are the creation of Nick Tsoulos, the brother-in-law of Nick Angelis (of Nick's in Forest Hills), who licensed the name from the East Harlem Patsy's in 1995. The Tsoulos Patsy's never made pizza as good as the real Patsy's, and expansion has only made matters worse. At this point, if you go into the original Patsy's and get the staff talking, you'll be treated to vigorous condemnation of the Tsoulos franchises. (Tsoulos, to his credit, did a better job with Angelo's on 57th Street when he was backed up by Angelis.)
Walk up to the original Patsy's on a typical afternoon and you'll find several consecutive Patsy's storefronts (a take-out shop, a bar, a dining room), on an abandoned-looking street. There will likely be a couple of bums hanging around the entrance to the takeout operation, and the door to the main restaurant will probably be locked (this part of East Harlem used to be a relatively safe Italian working-class neighborhood, and you can still find a couple of vestiges -- a deli and a bakery -- of the former resident Italian culture; but today poverty and crime are unfortunately prevalent in the area and so an extra degree of caution should be exercised). Walk into the takeout shop and ask for admittance to the dining room; if you're lucky, you'll be lead behind the pizza oven, through an alleyway, and into the back of the dining room. Then wait for a while among the pictures of Frank Sinatra and various New York mayors, and someone may take your order. What you'll receive just a few minutes later is the most exquisite pizza available in New York, properly charred on the bottom with a sweet/spicy sauce and a delicate coating of good mozzarella. Toppings, too, are excellent, such as Portobello mushroom slices and fennel-rich sausage. Patsy's also has the best condiment tray in town: Freshly-grated parmesan, chopped fresh garlic in olive oil, crushed red pepper, salt and dried oregano, served in beat-up demitasse cups on a metal tray (though all the pizza ever really needs is a tiny bit of extra salt).
Perform this experiment next time you're at Patsy's with a few people: Order one pie with the standard firm (low-moisture) mozzarella, and one with the optional fresh. I think you'll be surprised at the contrast. I prefer the non-fresh, as do the erudite members of Patsy's staff.
Patsy's definitely took a bit of a dip in quality in the mid- to late-1990s, at the same time that the franchises were expanding and Grimaldi's was cementing its reputation. Thus, you'll find a number of reliable-seeming sources claiming that Grimaldi's (owned by Patsy's nephew) is the rightful heir to the Patsy's tradition. This may have been the case for a short while a few years ago, but Patsy's has emphatically reversed its decline and is now back on top, while Grimaldi's has degenerated of late. In the 21st Century, Patsy's rules.
The Manhattan Patsy's branches, unfortunately, are not worthy of the name, and don't even serve a recognizably similar pie.
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2275 Broadway (between 81st and 82nd Streets)
POLISTINA'S WAS the last restaurant creation of the late Artie Cutler, the brains (and bucks) behind Ollie's, Dock's, Virgil's, Gabriela's and Carmine's, and for whom Artie's deli was posthumously named. Polistina's follows the typical Cutler formula: Locate some industrious partners with a desire to excel, figure out what defines the pleasure in a particular type of cuisine, pick and choose the most compelling features of the best examples of the genre, consult with the experts (in this case Nick Angelis of Nick's in Forest Hills), and put it all together in a commercially viable, professionally managed arena. Then, continue improving in response to criticism and intelligent suggestions.
When Polistina's first opened, I wrote that it had promise but that the crust could be a little crunchier, the sauce could be a little thicker and the toppings could harmonize better with the cheese (as it was, it seemed almost as though all the ingredients were cooked separately and combined just before serving). Over the past couple of years, Polistina's has cured each of these defects (not in response to my criticism, I'm sure, but rather as a result of widespread feedback and rethinking), such that it now ranks very high in New York's pizza hierarchy. The restaurant may be short on authenticity, but the pies, baked in a gas-powered, brick-lined Baker's Pride oven, now sport a crust as tasty and crunchy as it is beautiful to behold, the mozzarella cheese is robust and salty, and the sauce is plum-like and dense.
In addition, Polistina's toppings tower above the generally mediocre ingredients used at most pizzerias. Fresh mushrooms -- several varieties, none of them the generic white-button kind -- are the main attraction, though everything I've tried has been compelling. To its credit, Polistina's recommends no more than two toppings, but in reality the pizza can support three or four if you're a toppings freak. Polistina's also has the benefit of being one of the most pleasant pizza shops in New York (along with Serafina). The dining room is clean, unpretentious and comfortable, with well-spaced tables, a painted tin ceiling and colorful posters. Service is friendly and well organized. The menu contains a fair number of non-pizza items (including very nice sandwiches and cannolis), the beer and wine selections are more than adequate, and the whole ambience is festive but not out-of-control. Be advised, though, that there are almost always lots of children in evidence at Polistina's.
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Sal & Carmine's
2671 Broadway (between 101st and 102nsd Streets)
ONE OF the only Manhattan neighborhood slice joints worthy of inclusion in the pizza big leagues is Sal & Carmine's, which is the Upper West Side's equivalent of Di Fara (if not quite so good). In the neighborhood, we used to just call this "The place with the big slice," and Sal & Carmine's slice is indeed about 50% larger than the average New York slice, though this doesn't seem to impact quality either way.
As at the great slice shops of old, Sal & Carmine's has carefully chosen and considered its ingredients, ratios and techniques, and produces a slice with a nicely browned medium-weight crispy crust, vibrant sauce and high-quality cheese not-too-liberally applied. Plus, the guys behind the counter (they are Sal & Carmine, it's true) are a real hoot. For some unknown reason, the small seating area in the back is decorated with Walasse Ting posters and French fashion advertisements. Go figure.
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Sally's and Pepe's (New Haven, Connecticut)
237 Wooster Street
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
The Spot (Pepe's)
163 Wooster Street
MY CREDENTIALS as a patriotic New Yorker are second to none: I was born in Mount Sinai Hospital, lived for the first eighteen years of my life in what was then a lousy neighborhood (with great pizza) known as the Upper West Side, and attended Stuyvesant High School (the real one, on East 16th Street) and Fordham Law School. I would characterize myself as more than patriotic: I'm an unrepentant New York snob, and my first instinct is always to believe that the rest of the country is an underdeveloped backwater.
It's against this backdrop that I had my first-ever argument with my future bride (back before we were even dating; it would be seven years until we were married). The argument was over pizza. She hails from New Haven, Connecticut, and she one day made the seemingly outrageous claim that the pizza in New Haven is better than the pizza in New York. I unleashed a torrent of jingoistic fury. She smirked. (This remains our typical pattern of argument.)
Later, as we were getting romantically involved, she brought me home to meet her folks, who casually suggested we drop by a place called Sally's Apizza (little did I know this outing had been carefully scripted). I was nervous enough meeting my future in-laws, so I didn't at first notice the coal-fired oven, the gorgeous pizzas being delivered to other tables, or even our own pizzas as they were placed in front of us. I took my first bite of Sally's pizza without much thought, but as my tastebuds awakened to what may be the best pizza in America today, I was first pleasantly surprised and then -- upon realizing I was in Connecticut -- devastated. Nothing I had tasted in a lifetime of eating New York pizza could compete with what was being produced at Sally's Apizza (pronounced "uh-beets" in the local Italian-American dialect). I tried to make mental notes of what flaws I could detect (too much sauce; the crust overcooked on one side; not enough onions) but I was fighting a losing battle against destiny. Sally's pizza was and is simply better than anything New York has to offer.
If I may be indulged a moment of coal-oven nostalgia -- putting aside the knowledge that you can now reproduce most of these effects with a combination of gas, steel and technology -- the Sally's pizza oven is surely one of the wonders of the pizza world: Ancient, brutally dry and hot, spewing forth sparks, flames and smoke with reckless abandon. The bakers, or stick men, who are the sons of current owner Flo Consiglio (widow of the departed founder, Sal Consiglio), use seven-foot long peels (though you'll hear people claim they're eight, even ten feet long, I've actually measured one at seven) to slide the pizza onto the tiny hearth (for nobody who wishes to live gets very close to this evil monster) and to manipulate the baking pies so as to avoid uneven cooking (such an oven having inevitable hot and cold spots). The Sally's bakers, at the end of the day, look as though they've been working the boiler room of the Titanic.
Sally's pies (whole pies only) are cooked at relatively high temperatures (in excess of 700 degrees Fahrenheit), and they emerge from the oven scalding hot, irregularly shaped squarish ovals served on wax-paper-lined rectangular metal trays, with a just-charred cornmeal-studded and blistered crust, fragrant tomato sauce and bubbling mozzarella cheese. The crust is certainly the primary salient feature that I think makes New Haven pizza the best in the country. It's thicker than the cracker-style crust at many of the top New York places, with a pliability that would allow for easy folding without tearing. Yet it also has a crispy exterior and the interior, while soft, is not at all wet or doughy -- there is a firm line of demarcation between the top stratum of crust and the beginning of the sauce layer, they do not overly merge. The sauce, though there's more of it than I prefer, has a bright, acidic fresh tomato taste balanced by a healthy degree of sweetness and seasoning. And atop that sits firm, salty mozzarella cheese of superior quality.
Though I typically evaluate pizza in its pure sauce-and-cheese form, or with sausage (as I consider this the critical topping), it's also worth pointing out that several unique toppings and specialty pies are New Haven pizza signatures: White pizzas (cheese but no sauce) with special vegetables (broccoli rape, summer squash, fresh local tomatoes) are available in season, and they're fantastic, while clam pies (no sauce or mozzarella -- just clams, olive oil, garlic, herbs and a little grated cheese) are probably Connecticut's greatest contribution to the world of gastronomy.
Sally's is often so crowded that people wait on line an hour or more to get in, and another hour for their pizza. For better or worse, Sally's is more of an old-world private club than a commercial restaurant. The staff most certainly does not subscribe to the customer-is-always-right school of enterprise capitalism. Rather, they believe that the restaurant is their home and that, despite the exchange of money going on, they're your hosts. They treat you as a guest only to the extent you behave like one, and they won't hesitate to refer you to the McDonald's down the road if you get surly and impatient. Preferential treatment for regulars is off the charts -- on the order of a Prohibition-era speakeasy -- and makes Le Cirque 2000 look like a socialist utopia. Luckily, my wife's family gets on very well with the owners. Still, the staff treated me as a suspicious newcomer for years because I was slated to wed one of their own (about a hundred years ago, my wife's older brothers waited tables there -- they never forget). After several years of marriage, though, I'm now sometimes allowed to place an order myself or put a quarter in the jukebox. Not always, but sometimes.
Sally's has for decades been engaged in amicable competition with another pizzeria on Wooster Street (the nexus of what remains of New Haven's Little Italy): Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. Pepe's, as it is called, has more than its fair share of partisans. Frank Pepe, who came from Catania, Sicily (probably the origin of the "uh-beets" pronunciation), was the father of New Haven pizza. Frank Pepe's bakery opened its doors in 1925, though at that time it sold not exactly pizza but rather pizza-like tomato pies (some reports indicate that he was selling these tomato pies from a horse-drawn cart much earlier). You will hear folks in New Haven claiming that Pepe's was America's first pizzeria -- you will even hear them say that pizza in general was invented in New Haven -- but of course pizza comes from Italy and, in America, Gennaro Lombardi opened Lombardi's in Manhattan in 1905, where he sold bona fide pizza.
What is now the Spot (the usually less crowded pizzeria behind Pepe's, which serves the same menu) was the original Pepe's bakery. The current Pepe's is the now-Spot's larger offspring, which opened in 1934 -- at which time Frank Pepe started selling his pizzas much as we know them today. Shortly thereafter the old bakery was repurposed as a pizzeria and took on its Spot identity. Despite some quasi-religious claims I've heard to the contrary, it is hardly possible to distinguish between pizzas from the Spot and Pepe's. Frank Pepe's nephew, Sal Consiglio, opened Sally's in 1938.
Jane and Michael Stern, columnists for Gourmet magazine, have reported that Frank Pepe was allergic to both tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, which in part explains the origin of the New Haven signature no-sauce-no-cheese white clam pie consisting only of dough, clams, olive oil, garlic, oregano and grated parmesan.
Having married into a Sally's family it was long a difficult issue for me whether I should set foot in Pepe's. Nonetheless, on your behalf -- and under pain of death, torture, divorce and excommunication -- I have of late made covert expeditions to Pepe's, including one instance in which I ate the same pizzas (sauce, cheese, sausage) at each place within an hour of one another, and one instance in which I did a direct comparison of takeout pies (these pizzas don't travel well, so the takeout comparison is less reliable but nonetheless informative). Over the years, I had heard many authoritative sounding comparisons, including that Pepe's has better crust while Sally's has better sauce, as well as vice versa, and that the two are so similar you should go to whichever has the shorter line.
Pepe's is, to its credit, the more user friendly of the two establishments. There is a relatively spacious vestibule in which to wait for tables (at Sally's, you're in the street), seating is fairly egalitarian (I've not seen many regulars cut the line), the place is larger and therefore the line moves quicker (though I don't think you actually get a pizza on your table any sooner), service is more in the restaurant-style school of thought (with less the feel of an idiosyncratic family business), wine is served, hours of operation are longer, and the main dining room is open, relatively modern and offers a good view of the pizza ovens and the attendant activity (the better to strain your neck watching and wishing that each pizza to emerge -- slowly -- from the oven will be yours). It's easy to see why Pepe's would be preferred by anybody whose judgment of food is influenced by the externalities of the dining experience.
And Pepe's serves outstanding pizza. I'm not sure I've ever had a better pizza than Pepe's outside of Sally's. But the pizza at Sally's is better by a clear margin and in most every way, exhibiting a superior degree of craftsmanship and a greater depth of flavor. Pepe's crust is breadier, with too much of that biscuit taste, which I consider a defect. The sauce is nearly flavorless, and there is almost none of it. The cheese is quite good, as are the toppings (some of which are better than at Sally's, where not every topping is fabulous), but the overall pie does not compare. I have to assume, based on the appearance of the pies and the time they spend in the ovens, that Pepe's is baking at a lower temperature than Sally's, and this certainly makes a difference. There is also the matter of the Sally's family (the Consiglios) maintaining what appears to be tighter control over the pizza baking (there is most often an actual Consiglio doing the baking). But I also think the Pepe's sauce is such a major defect that it would be hard to redeem the pizza even were all other things equal. That's why there is only one pie that I think is superior at Pepe's: The clam pie, which has no sauce. It's simply better than the Sally's clam pie, by a tremendous margin, because it is made with incomparable freshly shucked littlenecks while Sally's lamely uses generic canned clams. So if you want a clam pie, go to Pepe's. Otherwise, I can't see choosing it over Sally's unless Sally's is closed.
Other excellent New Haven pizzerias (though not on the Sally's and Pepe's level and therefore not worthwhile as destinations for New Yorkers) are Modern (circa 1934, 874 State Street), Naples (circa 1968, 90 Wall Street) and Yorkside (circa 1977, 228 York Street).
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Serafina (formerly Sofia -- renamed due to trademark dispute)
Serafina Fabulous Pizza
1022 Madison Avenue (between 78th and 79th Streets)
Serafina Fabulous Grill
29 East 61st Street (between Madison and Park Avenues)
399 Lafayette Street (at West 4th Street)
THIS MUST be the happiest trio of pizzerias (restaurants, really, with pizza as the main attraction) on the planet. My familiarity is mainly with the 1022 Madison Avenue branch, but I've tasted the pizza at the other two and found it to be the same, with the ambience on Lafayette street being even more fabulous and the ambience at the East 61st Street branch being the most lackluster. On Madison Avenue, the second you step through the doors and begin to ascend the stairs (Serafina Fabulous Pizza is on the second floor, overlooking Madison Avenue), your spirits -- no matter how low -- can't help being lifted. Bright colors and cheerful music escort you into the dining room, where an always stupefyingly pretty, smiling hostess seats you among an abnormally good-looking clientele. An even prettier waitress provides prompt, friendly service.
I'm always wary of gimmicks, and this place uses them all: "We schlepped the bricks for the oven all the way from the old country, from Mount Vesuvius no less!" (Big deal, America has good bricks too.) "We use a special water filtration system for the dough, to simulate the water in the old country!" (So what, for all I know it's one of those Brita things -- and who wants to imitate the water in Italy anyhow?) Nothing about the pizza at Serafina has convinced me that these efforts make any difference. Ingredients are far more important than hydrogeology, and it is in the arena of ingredients that Serafina excels: The pies are just short of fabulous. They're are not quite crispy enough and not quite charred enough (though you can improve things by requesting a very well done pie), and they're outrageously overpriced and pathetically small, but they occupy whatever rung on the pizza ladder lies directly below fabulous and above very good. The cheese, especially, is of great quality, one of the best examples in town.
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Totonno (Coney Island, Brooklyn)
1524 Neptune Avenue (between 15th and 16th Streets)
1544 Second Avenue (between 80th and 81st Streets)
IT'S NOT unusual to hear pizza lovers debate whether Totonno is as good as it used to be, but such debates are ludicrous: Not only has Totonno declined, it simply isn't even all that good anymore -- both compared to how it once was, and on an absolute scale. When Totonno's current owners appear on television and make the outrageous claim that nothing has changed, they're lying plain and simple. They should be hauled into the public square, pilloried and mercilessly pelted with the same overripe, metallic-tasting tomatoes that form the basis of their present-day sauce.
On a recent visit with my friend Neil, who grew up essentially across the street from Totonno, as we slowly accomplished the chore of eating Totonno's soggy, flavorless pie, I asked him how he'd characterize the difference between Totonno's past and present. "It's pretty simple," he said, "the only things that have changed are the crust, the sauce and the cheese."
The crust: Despite nice blistering from the coal-fired hearth, the end result is spongy and flaccid -- far too puffy when compared to the thinner, crispy-but-pliable crust of old, and devoid of any noticeable flavor (crust, like bread, despite its simplicity, needn't be flavorless). The sauce: It tastes as though it's made from nearly spoiled tomatoes -- like bad unripe supermarket tomatoes left on the windowsill for too long in the naïve hope that they'll magically find within themselves the energy to become good tomatoes. The cheese: It's pretty good, fresh, and certainly the best part of the pie. But it's not superlative and it can't pull the dead weight of the lame sauce and crust. The sausage, once great, is utterly ordinary. Pretty much the best thing at Totonno today is the Coca-Cola in glass bottles.
As Neil opines: "Jerry Pero, Totonno's old owner, the son of the original owner and the actual pizza maker -- he's the only guy I ever saw at the oven, ever, in my many visits there -- was a surly misanthrope. (As opposed to the sunny, cheerful type of misanthrope.) With him at the helm, there was a tense atmosphere -- analogous to the Soup Nazi's place, except that Pero didn't even deal with the customers; he had his back to us as he made pizza, and if he did turn around you'd want to avoid eye contact. It was clear that he set the tone, and that the workers were afraid of him. His pizza really was the best, better even than Sally's and Pepe's in New Haven. But with the king gone, the workers relaxed. The kids took over and, typically, liberalized the atmosphere, spent money and ****ed everything up. They took some of the presumably abundant cash (or found an investor) and opened a friendly, chic Upper East Side place (the polar opposite of the Coney Island locale and atmosphere). They made the original branch more user friendly, actually painting the name on the windows to let people know it was there, opening their doors almost all week long, and decorating the walls with all kinds of cute and superfluous self-serving stuff (framed Zagat comments, etc.) that Jerry would have torn down and incinerated, not that anybody would have dared to post them in the first place during the Jerry era. The bottom line, of course, is that the new generation didn't learn to make pizza the way Jerry did. Now, it sucks."
Regarding the Upper East Side branch of Totonno's, many have said it's not as good as the Brooklyn original. They're wrong. A recent same-day comparison confirmed that the pizza at both is similar, but that it's good at neither.
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1024 Amsterdam Avenue (between 110th and 111th Streets)
ERIC ASIMOV once said: "First rule of food writing: Never mention Proust." (And Shaw's corollary is: "Any food writer who cites Proust hasn't read much Proust.") So I'll spare you the flood of childhood recollections triggered every time I visit V & T. Suffice it to say, the red-and-white checked tablecloths (and I'm not talking about self-conscious retro-nostalgic designer tablecloths -- these are the genuine crummy vinyl ones) and generally run-down facade and interior, are as authentic as it gets. That is, if you can grant that brown plastic water pitchers meant to look like wood are authentic in a certain sense (this is one of those puzzling examples of an artificial substance imitating something rarely seen in the real world -- to wit, wooden water pitchers).
The V&T staff too has a certain authenticity: On some days, the one waiter exhibits perfect comprehension of English but seems to be able to enunciate only two phrases: "Ten minutes," and "I come back." On one occasion, the woman at the next table -- an ex-New Yorker home for a visit -- tried, before ordering, to explain to the waiter that she and her daughter needed to catch a tour bus and therefore had limited time. She got only a few words out of her mouth before the waiter cut her off. "Ten minutes." She expressed some doubt. "Ten minutes," he repeated. I quietly activated my stopwatch. As he walked by my table, he handed me a menu and said, "I come back." Soon, he took my order. Just to be difficult, I asked how long it would take. "Ten minutes," he deadpanned. The woman's pie took more like 15 minutes to arrive, but it was still pretty quick, and she thanked the waiter for his promptness. "Ten minutes," he reiterated, triumphantly. My pizza arrived shortly thereafter. I think you can guess at the ensuing conversation. Later, I asked for the check. "I come back."
All that being said, and as much as I love everything about the place, I don't think the pizza at V&T is particularly great -- certainly it does not and never has in my lifetime lived up to the accolades bestowed upon it in a variety of sources. The pies tend to be soggy and flimsy and they taste quite suburban. I expect pizza like this at a family Italian restaurant in a northern New Jersey shopping center -- not on 111th and Amsterdam. The pizza is acceptable, even satisfying, but I can't buy into the hype.
V&T is not exclusively a pizzeria -- it's also a full-fledged red-sauce Italian restaurant. Of the five tables (out of 16 altogether) that were occupied at 1:30 one Saturday afternoon, only two were eating pizza. V&T serves an impressive quantity of Mateus and Rolling Rock, although you can also get Ruffino Chianti and Peroni beer. I'm not convinced that Ruffino is, as the menu argues, the "finest of all Chianti", but it's good enough for a pizza joint.
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211 First Avenue (between 12th and 13th Streets)
ZITO'S EAST, which is partly owned by Anthony Zito (son of the owner of the famous Zito bakery on Bleecker Street), is only a few years old (founded in 1997), but it has about it an air of history. The side-by-side coal-fired ovens in the back give the room an ancient feel, the fresh mozzarella is fabricated on the premises, and the pies are constructed -- as the pizza baker describes it -- "old style," with the cheese placed directly on the dough in rectangular slices and the sauce spread sparingly and splotchily atop and between the cheese.
The resulting pie has an unexpected appearance, with bits of white cheese poking up through the gaps in the broken veneer of sauce, instead of vice-versa. The crust is smooth, thin and crisp, and the cheese is gooier (in part because it's protected by the sauce from direct, dry heat) and much tastier than the typically bland fresh mozzarella many pizzerias use. The insipid sauce is, unfortunately, a very weak link -- with a better tomato element, Zito's could be come a formidable pizzeria. And as it is, it's better than most.
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Note: The Chains
THE NATIONAL, regional and local pizza chains (Domino's, Pizzeria Uno, Sbarro, Famous Famiglia, Ray Bari, et al.) have perplexed many: They don't serve good pizza, yet they outsell the good local places. Small independent pizza businesses, as the independents often do in other industries, have claimed that they simply can't compete with the chains. But this culture of victimhood only explains so much. Advertising surely plays a role, as does purchasing leverage (and dubious popular taste), but there's another facet of the problem: Service, or at least the pizzeria equivalent thereof (a/k/a delivery). That Domino's has succeeded in New York despite serving a pie that doesn't compare favorably even to the average bad New York pizza is no surprise. People resort to Domino's -- a take-out-only operation -- out of desperation and frustration with the terrible state of pizza delivery in New York, as well as out of the desire for consistency and predictability that drives the success of many chains.
I've ordered pizza from dozens of local establishments in many different New York neighborhoods, and it's always a crapshoot. Pizza in New York can take an hour to arrive and may be cold to boot. People often comment about their favorite pizzerias that, "you have to eat it there." To its credit, Domino's delivers your pizza in about 25 minutes and it's always hot and intact, aided by an electrically warmed delivery pouch. A computer keeps track of your address so you just give your phone number and your order (why everyplace doesn't do this is beyond my comprehension in an age when a computer capable of running the space shuttle costs about as much as a cash register). In addition, Domino's engages in smart coupon-marketing campaigns -- with most deliveries, you get a coupon for a discount on the next. Would it be so hard for every pizzeria to do this?
Folks who move into New York from out of town, and I've spoken to several with the same story to tell, often begin by experimenting with local delivery but revert to Domino's -- a not entirely crazy decision given the sorry state of New York pizza delivery. The other pizza chains offer similar uniformity and predictability, whether they deliver or not. Visit the average lousy Pizza Hut Express in Midtown and you'll notice one thing: You can get a pizza in about two seconds. On the local front, Ray Bari no longer serves a valid slice, but its establishments are clean, well lit, efficient and centrally located. There's no reason why small businesspeople can't replicate these efficiencies. After all, most of today's big chains started out as sole proprietorships.
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Note: Non-Pizzeria Pizza
JUST AS great steak can be had outside of steakhouses, it's not necessary to visit a pizzeria to experience a good example of pizza. Though upscale restaurants (most notably those of Wolfgang Puck) have taken more than a few knocks (some deserved, some not) for making pizza, the reality is that a versatile chef of any background can create pizza that totally outclasses the overwhelming majority of pies being served in New York today -- and this feat can be accomplished without so much as an oven, as the outstanding grilled pizzas (among the best I've had) at the now-defunct Spartina amply demonstrated. Trattoria Dell'Arte, another unlikely candidate, makes a nice pie -- especially the version topped with lobster. At Peasant, pizzas second to none emerge from a wood-burning oven (all the major cooking equipment at Peasant uses either wood or charcoal as fuel). Gigino too deserves inclusion in the impressive-non-pizzeria-pizza club. And the thin-crust pizzas served at Todd English's Figs, in La Guardia Airport, are superior to those served at all but the best Manhattan pizzerias (clam is the best; avoid the one with figs).
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Note: Pizzerias in Decline
Some revised opinions: For those of you familiar with the pizza guide that was previously on this site, you'll notice a few places missing here, and that's mostly because they've deteriorated to the point where I can no longer recommend them (plus, in a few cases, I became convinced that I had failed to apply uniform standards). Pintaile's entered the marketplace with tremendous promise, earning my highest praise, but has now degenerated to the point where it doesn't even serve an edible product most days. The pizza now usually tastes like a limp, chalky cracker with stingy, underseasoned toppings. Vinnie's, though I still love the countermen, no longer serves a worthwhile slice. The cheese in particular, which forms the bulk of a Vinnie's slice and is therefore the center of attention, no longer possesses enough flavor to justify a visit. Stromboli's has steadily declined, bit by bit, to the point where it is now nothing more than a slightly better-than-average neighborhood spot. Two Boots used to be somewhat impressive, but it has grown careless -- and the Grand Central branch is downright bad (not to mention criminally overpriced). Quite a few others, which aren't even worthy of comment, have been dropped from the list for similar reasons.