Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sunday Night

It's so nice when food brings families together. And I always think of Sunday nights as being family night. Whether I came kicking and screaming to the dinner table (because I was about to beat Mega Man 3) or I was cooking for my parents, Sunday dinner was always family time.

I still get that feeling whenever I go out to eat in New York on a Sunday night. It's a little quieter at restaurants because many families are at home. And it seems like wait staff and customers are still relaxed from the weekend and trying to get ready for the long work week ahead. It's a comfortable night to relax and enjoy.

And so it was on a Sunday night that I went to Angelo's. The two-story 57th Street location had a steady business of tourists and local families, but there was still that mellow calmness in the air (a little too mellow with some of the service I received). And since I was alone and it was Sunday night and I was about to have some pizza, I had to call my mom.

Mom was more interested in how I was doing than the ratio of sauce to cheese. But since I'm rating the pizza in New York on this blog and I imagine nobody (except Mom, of course) cares about my razor burn, I'll get to the important stuff.

The crust was really crunchy and maybe even slightly overdone. No slouching, droopy pizza here. It was strong and firm, if a bit dry. The crust was nicely charred and a little too ashy. The sauce was slightly sweet and looked plentiful but somehow it got lost in all the cheese. The sauce basically melted away with each bite like cotton candy. Very thick, tomato-y cotton candy.

There were three full leaves of basil garnished on the entire 12 inches. That means more than half my slices were basil-less. Just make the choice: to basil or not to basil?

The cheese was definitely the focus of the pie here, but there were burnt specks throughout. The traditional cooking time for Neapolitan pizza is two minutes in a wood oven and since coal (which Angelo's uses) is hotter than wood, I think they need to re-examine how long they keep the pies in their oven. There's no excuse for dry overdone pizzas. Definitely not in this city.

The pizza here is average at best. The environment is definitely comfortable and inviting, so even if the food and service are not the best, I can imagine a family coming together and enjoying their Sunday night together. Even if the conversation leans more toward how to clear up a rash and less on how to cook a proper pizza.

Is Angelo's the best pizza in NY? If you like overdone, slightly dry, crunchy pizza this is your place. As for me, it gets a meager 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We're not in Naples anymore

If you're going to announce your authenticity to the world then you better have the authentic product to back it up. And I want what I pay for. If I go to a Journey concert, I want to see Steve Perry, not some second-rate stand-in. And if I go to a place that calls itself Naples 45 - it better be on 45th Street and it better be reminiscent of Naples.

Naples 45 is inside the MetLife building and the exterior is inviting but screams suburban shopping mall. Unless you're catching a train out of town or snapping photos of all the big buildings, why else would you be in this part of town? And as I discovered the other night, Naples 45 is not a destination place.

The establishment is much bigger than it needs to be and gives off a strange combination of faux high class luxuriousness and local friendly sports bar. It looked like the bar could have been a hot happy hour spot, but I think the restaurant is past its prime because there were only a few people enjoying drinks.

The service was reminiscent of a corporate mid-level chain (it is part of the Patina Restaurant Group). The server robotically recited his lines and suggested what he had to suggest to complete the 16th step of service or whatever. And no, if we wanted a salad to start with, we would have ordered one.

The pizza itself is just alright. The margherita pizza had too much cheese and not a whole lot of flavor. I found the mozzarella to be rather salty and very overwhelming. The sauce was hidden underneath the cheese but damned if I could taste it. I had no problems with the crust. It was well-cooked and crispy, but also was missing an important element: flavor.

We also had the prosciutto pizza with mozzarella, arugula, and parmesan cheese. The ingredients all seemed fresh, but again the problem was the lack of any real interesting or lively tastes. The pizza is about as inspired as the nutritional label of a can of tomato sauce.

As for it being authentically from Naples, I guess I can't make a fair assessment, having never been to Naples. But in my recent adventures, I've learned a lot of what constitutes a Neapolitan pizza. And this is not it. They may use all the right ingredients and even cook in a wood oven, but something is missing here. There is too much cheese, not enough olive oil, and the tomato sauce is spotty and flavorless. But the good news is, the restaurant is indeed on 45th Street.

Is Naples 45 the best pizza in New York? It's mediocre at best and if you think this is the best NY has to offer, you really have to get out more often. I give it a 4 out of 10.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Di Fara is far-a but good-a

I did it. I finally made the journey. I trekked out to the mecca of all pizzerias! Di Fara, out in Midwood, Brooklyn is required traveling for anybody who is even attempting to call themselves a NY pizza connoisseur. There is a level of mystery and intrigue to Di Fara, partly because it is so far removed from all the other contenders.

Midwood is a small neighborhood deep in the heart of Brooklyn between Prospect Park and Coney Island. The subway ride is a good hour or more from midtown. And when you arrive, most of the signs are in Hebrew. As we walked from the Q train, we passed a few places that attempted to advertise their own pizza, but why even bother when they're just a few doors away from the legendary Di Fara. But as it turns out, Di Fara is the only non-kosher pizza joint on the street.

Di Fara is also legendary because of its owner and pizzaiolo, Domenico DeMarco. DeMarco is well past 70 years old, yet he makes every single pizza by hand. He ladles the tomato sauce, grates the cheese, drizzles on the oil, bakes the dough, and then finally, shears fresh basil (grown in his windowsill garden) over each pie. He does this very methodically (and slowly) as if he has been doing it for over 40 years. Wait a pizza-loving minute...

Di Fara has been catering to the public for decades. And it's often considered the best pizza in New York for almost as long. As with any good NY pizzeria, the lines start early and run long. We got there shortly after 6 (when they open for dinner) and there were quite a few people already outside. They were opening a bit late because according to a hand written sign on the door, they had a shortage of dough.

When the doors finally opened, the hungry customers rushed inside and started giving their names and orders. It seemed that they were only taking orders for full pies first and those of us who wanted a slice had to step to the side and wait. And wait. And wait. We must have been standing around waiting for our pizza slices for a good 35 minutes. But we filled all that lost time being completely mesmerized by DeMarco's mastery. Just watching the man move (at his own pace, of course) and create these gorgeous pizzas was fascinating. I was amazed at how quiet the crowd had become.

And if the wait wasn't bad enough, each slice cost 5 dollars. 5 buck-a-roos! That is by far the most expensive slice in the city. But they can charge this much because they have become such an institution and the truth is, people pay that much (and would probably pay more) for an authentic New York pizza adventure.

When we were finally called over, we took our slices and huddled to one of the few run-down tables. We had just watched the pizza bubbling from the heat of the gas oven so I knew I should wait for it to cool down. The last thing I wanted was one of those agonizing pizza burns on the roof of my mouth. You know, the ones that remind you of the stupid mistake you made for days after. The resistance was hard (almost futile). I smelled and looked at that seductive cheesy slice. The more I tried to resist, the more I thought of this. But if I waited this long, I figured I could wait a few moments more.

My first slice was the original round slice. It was a bit orange-y but there was plenty of fresh basil to balance the colors. And I loved the charred crust. The bite met my high expectations a bit more than halfway. The cheese was fresh and plentiful. The tomato sauce was a bit messy and wet but had lots of great seasoned flavor.

Slice number two was the square slice. This was cooked in a pan, Sicilian style and received a bit more oil than round one. I watched Dom pour the oil on top and underneath the dough. I imagine that's a big reason why this slice was incredibly charred and crunchy. The pizza was a bit too oily, but I have to admit that it tasted great. However, this slice was certainly heavier and crunchier.
It was right about this time that the place started filling up with smoke. Nobody paid much attention and the in and out of the customers aired the store out a bit. I really wanted to finish my last slice, but I had been on a pizza excursion today and the heaviness of the square was just too much for my little body to take. And I could feel the smoke and grease seeping into my clothing.

Di Fara is pure New York pizza. The gas oven, the crispy thin crust, and the slightly dirty environment bring to mind the old days rather than the old country. The technique is still Italian (Dom is from near Napoli) but the methods here are all Brooklyn. It's definitely worth a trip to see what the fuss is all about. And as good as the pizza is (and it is mighty tasty), the legendary Domenico steals the show.

Is Di Fara the best pizza in NY? It's a good possibility. It gets a 9 out of 10 from me. The flavors and textures are what you expect from the best pizza in NY and the trip out to Midwood and the wait is an adventure in itself.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

BUBB (Bouncer Under the Brooklyn Bridge)

If I was on Family Feud and the question was "Name A Place with A Bouncer," I imagine "pizza place" would not be among the top 5 answers on the board. I'd like to think I'd do well with "strip club" or "dive bar".

But if any of those 100 people surveyed had ever waited in that roped off line at Grimaldi's, then "pizza place" wouldn't be such a crazy guess. I don't know if I would call Crazy Chris (as he introduced himself to us later) a bouncer per se because I don't think he necessarily ID's anybody or stops people from coming in if they're wearing sneakers. But he had that gruff attitude that made you wonder if he'd eventually pick you to sit at a table and enjoy their famous pizza.

We had anticipated the line at this popular destination in DUMBO literally under the Brooklyn Bridge and so weren't too fussy to wait about 35 minutes for a table. But it was intimidating every time Crazy Chris would throw open that door, point at a few unsuspecting lunchers and pull them inside. I knew he wasn't all brute because once in a while he would send a wink to one of the pretty girls in the queue. Very charming.

Once we were chosen and beckoned inside, the vibe changed. It was warm and welcoming and people seemed happy. A very different atmosphere from what you'd expect at a club or bar. We were shown a table that was practically a communal table. The girls sitting next to us, already deep into their pepperoni pie, barely noticed that we even sat down. I guess we weren't as charming (or intimidating) as Crazy Chris.

Our waiter arrived rather quickly and we placed a simple order for a small pie with sausage and mushrooms. This was the first of two pizza excursions for me today, so I had to be careful and eat light. Plus, the small 16-inch pie was actually big enough for three, in my opinion. At $12 for all that pizza, it seemed to be the best deal I've discovered so far.

My first observation was that it was a bit soggy. All the sauce fell to the middle, as it tends to do with coal oven pies. And the pizza was far from a piece of artwork. This is old school pizza, established before we cared about pretty food. If there is any food pornography going on here, it's dirty, smutty, disorganized. But that's how some people like it - their food and their porn.

Putting the visuals aside, I went in for my first bite. It was definitely flavorful. I wasn't crazy about the sausage (I even found a piece of cartilage or something), but the cheese and the tomato sauce were well proportioned and delicious. The basil was not overwhelming, but you could taste the herb. The dough was soft and fluffy, if lacking the intense char that I anticipate from coal oven pizza.

The pizza was definitely worthwhile. It's not exactly what I've come to expect on my journey - with all my authentic Neapolitan tastings. But I realized this is what many people want from traditional New York pizza, especially visitors from elsewhere in the states. They want fresh, cheesy inexpensive pizza that tastes good. And that's what this is. I feel like my parents would much prefer this to the tomato-y gourmet pies at Lombardi's.

Grimaldi's is constantly regarded as one of the best. It's old-fashioned and does the job. I think most visitors to New York looking for flavorful, well-made pizza would be more than happy to wait in line and experience the pizza under the Brooklyn Bridge. Just make sure you don't cross Crazy Chris - otherwise you might be turned away hungry.

Is Grimaldi's the best pizza in New York? Survey says... possibly. It's definitely a local favorite and tourist destination. This is what people come to expect from NY pizza and I have to admit it's pretty delicious. I give it an8 out of 10.

Take A Load Off, Franny's

A new day is upon us. Who would have thought a few years ago that you could walk into a pizza place and find out where every single ingredient came from and on what farm it was grown? And I'm not even talking about the required San Marzano tomatoes (which are grown at the foot of Mount Vesuvius) for a Neapolitan pizza.

No, I'm talking about where the pork for the pepperoni is from and the farm that grew the peppers. And let's take it to the next level and learn how the kitchen grease is made. Franny's in Brooklyn has a whole list of these resources on the back of their menu. I'm surprised we don't get the name of the cow who produced the butter.

This is definitely the latest craze, especially in New York and other major urban areas. They call them locavores, people who only eat local, sustainable food. And I'm all for it - it's good for the environment, helps the economy, and makes for healthier, fresher meals. But the listing on the back of Franny's menu almost feels as if they're showing off. It comes across as slightly pretentious and ridiculous - do we seriously need to know where their cleaning solution comes from? But I guess it is good to know that it's environmentally friendly.

The good thing is that this is only a back page announcement and the reason I came here on a crowded Tuesday night (although I gather most of their nights are busy) was for what's on the front page. Franny's is more than a pizza place. The menu is comprised of pizza, salumis (cured meats), rustic Italian appetizers, and usually pastas (we were informed their pasta machine was sick tonight).
We started with a great wood-roasted octopus appetizer. I could immediately tell that there was a chef back there who knew what he was doing. The flavors were nicely balanced and all the textures were lively and eclectic. Of course, the local fresh ingredients only helped matters. And I gathered that the octopus was cooked in the same wood-oven our pizzas would soon be entering. I was getting more excited to try their much publicized pies.

There were some interesting and playful options on the menu. All the pizza choices were literally named and the list of ingredients served as the way to order. We settled on three pies: (1) the tomato, buffalo mozzarella, sausage, and hot peppers; (2) buffalo mozzarella, garlic, oregano; and (3) clams, chilies, parsley.

Each pie was individually portioned between 10 and 12 inches. I was surprised and a little frustrated that the pies were not cut. Did they want us to eat it with a knife and fork (as is the traditional Italian way), fold it up and eat it with our hands, or were they just being lazy (or once again, pretentious)? Since we were sharing, we had to cut our own pieces and it was not easy and more than a little messy.

When we finally got the pizza sliced, or mutilated, as it were, I finally had my first bite. And I really enjoyed it (and all the subsequent bites) Across the board, the flavors were lively and balanced. You could tell the ingredients were fresh (even if I hadn't seen the back of the menu). The clam pie could have used some more clams, but the ones that made it were plump and tasty. It rivals Lombardi's version, but they're different enough that I don't want to crown a winner in that race.

The first pie was closest to a traditional pie. And I think it was the favorite around the table.

The second pie which had no tomato sauce had lots of flavor from all the garlic and herbs, but I would have liked a bit more cheese. I felt the cheese on all the pies sort of got lost in the fluffiness of the dough.

So, now the dough. It was light, airy, and delicious, but not what I expect from pizza crust. It was much closer to Indian nan bread. That's my big criticism with their pizza. It felt like a variation on the classic dish rather than what most people expect when they order pizza. But I enjoyed every bite.

I can't recommend Franny's enough, but more as a restaurant and less as a pizzeria. We had a great experience and will totally come back. But in my search for the city's best "pizza", this can't quite compete. It's sort of its own delicious beast. And if you want to know what farm that beast comes from, just flip over the menu.

Is Franny's the best pizza in New York? I almost feel like it's in a league of its own. The food is fantastic, but I almost can't consider it pizza. Taking all that into account, I give it a 7 out of 10.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mangia a Luzzo's

When I get pizza, I want it to be made by people who know what they’re doing. I guess that’s obvious, but how many times have you gone into a generic NY pizza joint and the pizza is being cooked by Mexican line cooks or Bengali entrepreneurs? Nothing against those guys, but do you think they’ve really been to Italy (or even Arthur Avenue in the Bronx) to study the art of pizza making? I doubt it.

And pizza is from Naples and in case you haven’t heard, Naples is in Italy. So it’s refreshing and calming when I walk into a pizzeria and the employees sound more like Roberto Benigni than Gael Garcia Bernal. And that’s what happened when I walked into Luzzo’s in the East Village.

I was pleased to see and hear that everybody from the servers to the hostess all spoke Italiano. Between the thick accents and the rustic, old world atmosphere, I had that rare experience where I felt transported to the country of gelato, chianti, and, well, you know, pizza.

So expectations were high to taste authentic and fresh Neapolitan pizza. The menu was a bit more extensive than I had expected. In addition to the large selections of la pizza, there were le insalate, le paste, le panini, and le red wine.

I ordered the Napoletana, which was basically a margherita with the addition of anchovies. The service was a little cold, but attentive. And it really didn’t take too long until my 12 inch arrived. But while I waited, I had plenty to look out with all the interesting Italian memorabilia on the wall.

The pie arrived and it was quite beautiful. The tomato sauce was bright red and almost glowed. The orbs of mozzarella di bufala looked like gorgeous fluffy marshmallows. And the garnish of fresh basil in the middle seemed to put everything in balance. This was the most good-looking of all the pies I’ve tried so far.

But how did it taste? I’m pleased to say that it tasted pretty good. For me, those beautiful cheese bulbs were the highlight. They were so fresh and flavorful. They alone were worth the rather steep price tag of $18 (for a 12-inch pie). I chose anchovies, so I blame nobody myself, but the saltiness from those little fishies was a bit overwhelming.

The sauce was as bright and lively in my mouth as it was on the plate, with a slight sweet tanginess. The crust didn’t have a whole lot of flavor but it was soft and tender and perfectly cooked. As visually pleasing as it was, I wish the basil had been spread out a bit more evenly. But all the ingredients were fresh and delicious. And I was pleased that this was the lightest of all the pizzas I’ve tried thus far.

I was amazed that I couldn’t stop eating it – even with all that anchovy saltiness. But I had to restrain myself (and walk home to burn some calories) since I had sampled another pizza earlier in the day. Good thing for doggie bags or pizza boxes or whatever.

The pizzaioli here is Michele Iuliano who I believe was walking around and re-filling water (is that possible?). He is the only pizzaioli who uses a combo wood-and-coal oven. True Neapolitan pizzas are only cooked in wood oven pizzas, but regardless of what the rules are, Michele makes a really good pizza. And he’s truly Italian. You have to at least give him that!

Is Luzzo’s the best pizza in New York? Well, it’s definitely a well-made light Neapolitan style pizza in a rustic comfortable setting and that’s why it gets an 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Sometimes maybe I’m just wrong and the rest of the world is right. For instance, I never liked The Sixth Sense. I just didn’t think it was a good movie and I saw through all its smoke and mirrors. My eclectic tastes and smug opinions have often been controversial among my friends. So this is your warning to not trust anything I write in this blog.

The reason I doubt myself now is because of Artichoke Basille's Pizza. Artichoke, as it is commonly known, has been highly acclaimed in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Time Out, the list goes on. And all the other food blogs are acting as if the Pizza Messiah has just arrived. Also, the presence of an interminable line down 14th Street proves that the pizza is incredibly popular around the city.

Two cousins from Staten Island opened Artichoke a little over a year ago in a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront close to Stuyvesant Town. They only sell four pizza options with two beers on tap. There’s no place to sit inside, but if you’re lucky enough to score a seat on the benches outside, you won’t have to stand at the cramped bar area. But let’s be honest, a good slice is eaten on the go anyway.

I had my first (and I thought my last) Artichoke experience a few months ago when I came in to try their namesake slice. It was a pretty large slice for the price and it featured a homemade artichoke dip on a thin crust. It definitely had some flavor, but it reminded me of an artichoke dip you’d get at a T.G.I. Friday’s type restaurant. I finished the slice, but felt like I was about to have a heart attack. It was so greasy and rich that I don’t think I was able to eat for days (or, at least, a few hours). It really turned me off to the possibility of trying Artichoke again.

Well, now that I have officially begun my search for the best pizza, I felt like I should give Artichoke a second chance. And this time I would try their popular Sicilian slice.

I went at an off hour, but was still amazed that there was no line. I had forgotten about the blaring Bon Jovi music. Could they really play Bon Jovi on a loop at all times? I thought Jersey was on the other side of the river.

I realized I was definitely still in New York, when I looked at the prices. My Sicilian slice cost me $3.50 and was smaller than I had remembered. It was cut to order and I was sent on my way with my pizza and my paper plate.

If that plate had not been there to soak up some of the grease, I may not have had an artery left unclogged. The pizza was just as greasy and heavy as I had remembered. In addition to the mozzarella, there was a surprising amount of grated Parmesan (I’m guessing from one of those green Kraft containers) and the soggiest fresh basil I have ever encountered.

This pizza is messy, cheap (not in price) and over the top. The grease is truly overwhelming and the excess of cheese pulls off with each bite leaving very little by the heart stopping finish. The basil is either not terribly fresh or just overcooked. But it too gets lost because it slides right off the pizza as you start in. Everything gets lost in the first few bites that you’re left with nothing except the tomato sauce and a bit of parmesan cheese. And for this I paid $3.50!?!

I did enjoy their crust. It was very crunchy and almost burnt. But it felt as if it had been fried because I could tell that if the cheese and oil didn’t kill me, then the crust would do the trick. The whole experience reminded me of the cheap, probably microwaved pizza I would get at the bowling alley or roller rink when I was a teenager.

I think Artichoke is perfect for an inebriated (you'd have to be drunk to do this to your body) late night snack (they're opened until 3am most nights). I could definitely see how this pizza would do the job of soaking up a night of debauchery. But for a grown-up palate or somebody looking for fresh and authentic pizza pies, I would recommend an alternative. But after all, this is the East Village and dirty and hip are all the rage – which is great for a bar or a club, but not what I’m interested in when it comes to my food. I guess I just don’t get it. I must be wrong.

Is Artichoke Basille's the best pizza in NY? As is evidenced by all the hype, I suppose it depends who you ask. In my humble opinion, the grease and oil are just way too much and the ingredients not fresh enough to balance that out. I give it a 4 out of 10, but again, I very well could be wrong.

Monday, October 19, 2009

In the Beginning...

It’s weird to feel like you’re a tourist in your own city. However, for me, the experience is oddly exciting because those of us who live here tend to take the city for granted. I’ve always been one of the very few New Yorkers who actually enjoy walking through Times Square either right before Broadway shows begin or right after they end. There’s such a buzz in the air and everybody is exciting to be going to a show on BROAD-way! I feel like I’m on vacation when I go to the theater district. Now if only I could end the evening relaxing in one of those fancy hotels and watching their free HBO.

Lombardi’s is naturally a big tourist destination. It was the first pizzeria in the country. Genaro Lombardi brought his tomato pies to Little Italy in 1905 and the rest is history. The restaurant has since moved to a new location a block away and is now owned by a family friend of the Lombardi clan. But it still holds claim to the birthplace of American pizza. And I knew full well what I was getting myself into when I decided to go for lunch on a crisp chilly Saturday shortly after noon.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the waiting list moved. It took only about 10 or 15 minutes for them to call my name. We were led through one room after another, passing families and couples enjoying pizza. The enormity of this maze-like restaurant was a little surreal. One false turn and you’d end up in the kitchen.

The restaurant has undergone a major expansion (a whole new bar and front area) in the last few years, which is good because it means they have more space to turn their tables quicker (which means a shorter wait for us), but could be bad because each pizza can’t get quite get the same attention as before. We all know that when companies grow, quality often suffers in the process.

Now this was my first ever visit to Lombardi’s so I can’t say how or if the quality has changed, but I can confidently say that they still have fantastic pizza. We ordered the original, which is your traditional margherita and we had to try their famous (and quite expensive) clam pie, which has no tomato sauce, but plenty of olive oil, cheese, garlic, and freshly shucked clams.

I started with the margherita, which noticeably had more tomato than anything else. It’s clear that this pizza (and therefore all pizza) is a direct descendant of what was originally called a tomato pie. There were nicely distributed perfectly melted globs of fresh mozzarella and some garnishes of fresh basil.

The crust was nicely charred, although some slices were crispier than others, and had a slight smoky flavor. The abundant tomato sauce was fresh and well-seasoned with just a hint of sweetness. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a more generous serving of basil, but the tomato sauce was so perfectly seasoned that it really wasn’t necessary aside from aesthetics.

The clam pie (which somehow sounds dirty) was worth the $26.95 spent on the 14 inches. The pie was crowded with fresh clams (I was pleasantly surprised that these didn’t come from a can) and garnished with a lemon. The clams were chewy and delicious and all the flavors came together like an Italian masterpiece. This could have been incredibly heavy and decadent since it features all the ingredients for a nice linguini white sauce. But it was really just right. And I was amazed that the light thin crust held up the weight of those beautiful bivalves.

As we left the restaurant (with our to go boxes in tow), I really felt like I was one of the few locals. Everybody was snapping photos of celebrities on the walls and of the beautiful thin crust pizzas. Only tourists do that. How embarrassing! Oh, by the way, check out this picture I took of the famous coal-oven at Lombardi’s. Isn’t that great?

Is Lombardi’s the best pizza in the city? It’s certainly the oldest and paved the way for future coal-oven pies. I’m excited to report the pizza still stands up and impresses with all its balanced flavors and perfect textures. It’s definitely one of the best, and my rating of 9 out of 10, makes it a safe recommendation for visiting tourists and locals alike.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Passing on Patsy's

If Ray's is the McDonald's of New York pizza, then Patsy’s is the Starbucks. They seem just as abundant but they're a lot hipper and well-regarded. Okay, maybe there’s only seven locations, but it seems like I pass one more often than I don’t. They’ve become neighborhood staples that are known for their pasta and salads just as much as their coal-oven pizza. They are also usually over-run with families and children – loud children!

The original Patsy’s is still standing in East Harlem and seems sort of removed from the other incarnations. Besides the food, the name, and the similar font, it’s a completely different restaurant.

First off, the menu is a bit different. I often stop into one of the other locations to pick up an arugula salad, which was not to be found on this menu. This is also the only location that sells slices to go. There are two rooms: the take out area and the slightly more refined dining room. I was here with some friends to try the original coal oven pizza. So we got the white table cloth and everything.

The prices were a bit expensive. An original pie was $12 (fine!), but each additional topping was $3. Three bones!?! They’re charging three bucks just for fresh basil. Seriously, they better drown that thing in basil for me to get my money’s worth.

So we ordered one original pie and, to a second one, we added fresh mozzarella and basil (even though we got completely price raped). The waiter informed us that this is called a Margherita. Did we look like we just emerged from our caves?

Cynicism aside, the service was surprisingly friendly and helpful. The pizza took a little longer than I expected (especially considering coal oven pizzas should cook for no longer than two minutes). And when the two pies were brought to the table, I got a little overwhelmed. They were 18 inches of pure bread and cheese. How were we supposed to finish these monsters?

Patsy’s has a reputation for their incredibly thin crust pizza. The pizzas in front of us bore a closer resemblance to Kate Winslet than Calista Flockhart. The dough was quite bready and a bit floury (not to be confused with flowery). And the slice fell limp before I was able to get it into my mouth - in other words, a bit soggy and not firm at all.

The margherita was terribly disappointing. It was bland and the ingredients didn’t seem all that fresh. The basil tasted more like a black tea leaf than the slightly sweet herb I expect in Italian cuisine. And the tomato sauce had no zing and no depth of flavor.

The original pie looked like it could have come from any corner pizza shop. The cheese was slightly yellow looking and the tomato sauce was sort of pasted to the crust. The flavor here fared better than the margherita. But it was what you’d expect from this ordinary looking pie and was really nothing special.

From what I’ve read, Patsy’s has taken a decline in the last few years. I wish I had tasted it in its heyday, but what I sampled this night was pretty forgettable (except for that slightly greasy sensation lingering in my stomach). Maybe the focus has shifted to all their other locations (I do remember having a nice pie at the 60th Street location many years ago), but this original wasn’t too original. Just as Starbucks did recently, maybe Patsy’s needs to re-think their ever expanding empire and focus more on the pizza itself.

Is Patsy’s the best pizza in the city? Maybe at one time, but the schlep to Spanish Harlem is only worthwhile if you’re visiting El Museo del Barrio or other sites. I give Patsy’s original location a disappointing 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Early Bird Special

Nobody in New York seems to eat dinner before 7pm. It just doesn’t happen. If you eat dinner before 7, you haven’t gotten the memo. Or maybe you’re just old. Old people eat dinner early. Whenever I go visit my grandmother in Florida, dinner is at 5pm sharp. 5:00?? I just finished lunch, for Chrissake!!

For years, I didn’t eat until 9 or sometimes 10. I would go to the theater or happy hour and then go out for dinner. It just made more sense – keep the night going as long as possible. Just like they do in Europe.

But now, I’ve become an old person! Now that I’m over 30, my metabolism has slowed and the cramps and acid reflux start early. Or maybe I've just stopped playing by the rules. Lately I try to eat dinner at an early bird’s hour, especially if it’s going to be something as artery clogging and calorie rich as pizza.

And on this new schedule, I discovered if you want to eat at a popular, impossible-to-get-into restaurant, go around 6:00 and you’ll probably be able to score at least a seat at the bar, if not an actual table! And this brings us to Kesté.

Kesté was recently named Best Pizza Pie of the Moment by New York magazine. I definitely questioned the integrity of their list since classic pies like Totonno’s and Lombardi’s were absent. And the inclusion of Artichoke Basille’s on any pizza list makes me a little sick to my stomach. I tried their artichoke slice once and thought I was going to have a heart attack right there on 14th Street. Imagine a very heavy spinach artichoke dip placed on top of a pizza. Nothing fresh about it – just greasy, heavy, and nauseating.

But I was more than willing to give Kesté a try. I’ll give just about anything a try.

We got to Kesté around 6 and I was excited that we scored a table near the pizza kitchen. I heard this place has a long line at all times. John’s across the street was also line-less. I guess my new habit of eating out early has finally paid off.

I was amazed at how quickly our 12 inch pizzas were dropped on our table. Wood oven pies are supposed to cook for no longer than two minutes and this promise was fulfilled here.

We ordered the funghi, which was a standard margherita pie (tomato, mozzarella, basil) with mushrooms. And I picked the pizza del papa, which I learned was originally made for the Pope (hence the name Papa). It had a base of butternut squash cream, artichokes, red and yellow pepper, and a special smoked mozzarella cheese.

I realized I had never tried true Neapolitan pizza before this night. Roberto Caporuscio, who is the head of the American chapter of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoltetani and teaches classes on how to make this speciality 100 year old dish, popped my Neapolitan pizza cherry. And like an 18 year old hormonal girl, I never want to go back.

I was blown away by this crust - it was amazingly bready and chewy and had a yeasty fluffiness. This was a far cry from the thin crust pizza we're used to in NY. The bread sort of melted in my mouth and had a woody, earthy, buttery flavor. It also had a nice char on the bottom from the wood oven. It reminded me of a delicious edible pillow. If I hadn't eaten it all, I might have taken a quick nap.

The flavors were all bright and lively. The ingredients on the funghi were all very fresh and the tomato sauce was slightly sweet and slightly acidic. However, the pizza del papa wins for me because of that amazing smoked mozzarella. It was like taking a bite out of a campfire, but with gooey cheesy goodness. And without the actual burning sensation of a fire in your mouth. So maybe not like a campfire at all.

We were all very pleased with the pizzas. And we would have kept eating more, but we finished our two pies and knew that if we ordered another, it would taste delicious but our stomachs would not be too pleased later.

And we got the sense that the wait staff wanted us out. I didn't take it personally and attributed it to the fact that it was now after 7 and the line had begun to form outside. The rest of New York had finished happy hour and were now flocking to those hot dinner spots, including Kesté.

It took us a bit to maneuver through the crowd to get back onto the streets of the West Village. But we had a successful stress-free (except for the lack of water refills) dinner with some pretty amazing pizza. And we were satiated and back into the world with the whole night still ahead of us. Isn’t there some saying about the early bird catching the worm? Now if only these NY destination spots would take a nod from the Florida establishments and adopt the bargain price, I’d never eat past 5:00 again. Grandma, I’ll see you at dinner.

Is Kesté the best pizza in New York? It still remains to be seen, but I give it a solid 9 out of 10. The flavors excel and the textures are spot-on. And that smoked mozzarella gets a good 5 or 6 points all by itself.

Pizza, Pizza

Which came first - the cheese or the tomato? The answer isn't nearly as mysterious as the much publicized chicken and egg debate. The first pizzas in Naples were known as tomato pies and were really food for the poor people. Cheese didn’t become a popular pizza topping until later.

When Genaro Lombardi (perhaps Geno to his friends?) opened his grocery store in Little Italy in 1905, it was the tomato pies that he sold to local workers. The pies cost five cents but if somebody was not able to scrounge up the nickel, they were allowed to pay what they could afford and Gino would cut them a piece worth that amount. Hence, the birth of the slice.

Lombardi’s was the first pizzeria in New York. And it’s a fact that two of Geno’s employees went on to open other famous pizza institutions in New York that still serve Neapolitan pizzas today. Antonio Totonno Pero was the first pizzola and probably the culinary genius behind Lombardi’s famous pizza. In 1924, he packed his bags and opened his own shop, Totonno’s, in Coney Island. John Sasso was also an employee of Geno who left with his own entrepreneurial ambitions. John’s of Bleecker Street still has huge lines down the street in the West Village.

Rumor has it that Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri also worked at Lombardi’s prior to trekking uptown to Harlem (before the express trains existed) and opening his own pizzeria called Patsy’s. Patsy had a nephew named Patsy Grimaldi who trained with him and eventually opened his own place under the Brooklyn Bridge called Grimaldi’s. As you can tell, these guys were not terribly creative when it came to naming their stores.

These five self-centered Italians are still the heroes of pizza. They paved the way for everybody else who has entered the pizza race in New York. And it’s because of them we have such delicious pizza today.

There’s no question that New York pizza is the best, freshest in the country. Could it be the vast population of Italian immigrants in New York at the turn of last century? Could it be the skill of New York’s chefs over the rest of the country? Most likely it has to do with the city’s water and its rich mineral content. New York has some of the best tap water in the country. Surprise, surprise. Whatever the reason is, the pizza in New York is tops and I’m off to find the best pie in town. Pizza… I’m ready to Eat It!

Welcome to Eat This NY!

I’m a self-proclaimed foodie. And whenever I travel, I always seek out the most authentic dishes a city or town has to offer. I can tell you where to get the best lobster rolls in Maine, the best BBQ in Texas, the best fish tacos in San Diego. So why am I slightly stumped when somebody asks me for the best bagel in New York?

Now, granted, finding “the best” is a next to impossible task. Putting the myriad of options aside, everybody has their own opinions and tastes. Can you really compare a dill pickle and a sweet pickle? Thin crust pizza vs. thick crust? It’s a matter of taste, right?

Maybe. But there have to be favorites. Certain names keep coming up when you search for the best this or the best that. And it’s recently dawned on me that I’ve lived in New York for almost a decade and there are staples that I have yet to hit. It’s like when you live here and have never been to the Empire State Building. First off, it’s over-run with tourists, but also you take it for granted because it’s always there. You’ll get to it one of these days.

Well, for me, that day has come. So follow my adventures of finding the best of everything (food wise, that is; I could give a damn about shopping) that New York City has to offer. And look out for the webseries to follow soon when my real life and my food excursions intertwine. It won’t be pretty, but it will be delicious.

It’s about time that I go to Lombardi’s for pizza and Carnegie Deli for pastrami. No more excuses. I’m just going to finally shut up and… Eat This!