Friday, November 27, 2009

Slice by Slice, Part One (Lower East Side)

Pizza and beer. Well, probably more accurately, beer and then pizza. There's nothing better to indulge in after a late night of bar hopping than a greasy slice of NY's treasured pizza.

And I feel like there's no better neighborhood in Manhattan to experience both a drunk beer crawl and a cheesy pizza feast than the Lower East Side. When I first moved to the city eons ago, the LES is where I spent most of my nights out. It's a hip, still (practically) un-gentrified 'hood with lots of restaurants, even more bars, and a handful of late night pizzerias.

I headed down there during the day, which is a strange experience on its own, and hit up these drunk pit stops for lunch.

The first stop was named Rocket Joe's East which was very confusing. I kept checking my Iphone to find out where their West or Original store is located. But it doesn't exist. I guess this store was bought from the original owners and in order to keep the name the new owners had to add the "East." This is what the guy behind the counter explained to me.

What makes Rocket Joe's stand out from all the other NY pizzerias is the addition of sesame seeds to all their crusts. I like sesame seeds, especially when they're on a crunchy crust, so I was looking forward to this prospect.

Too bad nothing else about the pizza stood out. The sesame
seeds seemed to dry out the crust and dry bread was really the only flavor I could taste. I saw the orange cheese and tomato sauce, but couldn't quite place it on my palate. The whole experience was reminiscent of a frozen pizza. It was completely bland and any flavor was pretty non-existent. You have to be drunk to think this stuff is good. And I get it; when I'm drunk my tastebuds are numb and all I want is that chewing sensation. This definitely accomplishes that.

Is Rocket Joe's the best pizza in NY? I should say not. It's cheap, flavorless pizza that is only good for a drunk snack when you couldn't care less what you're actually eating. I was not drunk, so I give it a sobering 3 out of 10.

Rosario's had to be better than Rocket Joe's. And I remember this place from my younger days. I had many a 3am slice at this joint. So how does it hold up to my more mature discerning palate?

It's not bad. This is a decent NY slice. It's as good as Ray's, if not better. It's not too greasy and doesn't leave you feeling terribly heavy. The cheese and tomato sauce are equally enjoyable. The crust is not as thin as you might hope, but it's buttery and flavorful. And even though I was nowhere near drunk (I had one beer the night before), I enjoyed the NY pizza experience.

Is Rosario's the best pizza in NY? It's good for a post-drinking snack without being too greasy. 6 out of 10 ranks it up there with most of the city's standard slices.

A Tri-fecta of Mistakes

Even self-proclaimed foodies like myself have been known to make mistakes. They don't happen often, but most of my mistakes come from ordering food. That's probably why I'm so neurotic when it comes to choosing an entree. I want to make sure I try the best option on offer. "Live today like it's your last, right?" So I always assume I'll never be back at this particular restaurant and if I don't try what they do best, I may never know.

My visit to Lazzara's was not quite that intense, but I think I should have treated this place as a sit-down restaurant and come in for dinner rather than grab a slice on the run. Mistake number one.

In the middle of the Fashion District is this almost secretive hideaway up a seductive staircase to an Italian sanctuary. We really just wanted a slice. I got the wrong memo (at least I got a memo) about what kind of place Lazzara's is. It's dark and intimate and definitely a restaurant - not a slice joint. There were a few dates and a handful of families when we arrived.

I asked doubtfully whether they sold slices and the woman told us they only had square slices. Perfect! But we needed more than one slice, she impatiently told us. I informed her we were going to eat again later and she gave us the one slice but warned us once again it wouldn't be enough. We were pressed for time otherwise I would have suggested sitting down and trying for a full pie. The two slices came to 5 bucks and off we went into the night.

So, mistake number two. It turns out the slightly ornery waitress was correct. We really did need more than one slice. These thin square Sicilian style slices are known as grandma slices. Where that name comes from I have no idea, but I'm sure some proud matriarch is sitting on Long Island smiling right now. They were incredibly light. Paper thin - almost cracker-like. But it was very crunchy and crispy without being dry.

The sauce was flavorful and very tangy. They were generous with the cheese (which is not the way of most tomato heavy grandma slices) and it was strangely sharp. It almost tasted like a Swiss. It was different, yet pleasant.

My big problem was that I either tasted the tomato sauce or the cheese. They were two different experiences - and both were delicious, but I wanted a nice marrying of the two. I even peeked under the cheese and it was completely dry.

So I'm afraid mistake number three belonged to Lazzara's. The pizza was quite good (and I do want to try the whole dining-in experience to get a better taste), but I had issue with the separation of the cheese and tomato sauce. But if you pit me (two mistakes) against that ornery waitress (one mistake), I'm afraid the loser here is me.

Is Lazzara's the best pizza in NY? It's definitely a nice little find in a restaurant wasteland (the Fashion District) with tasty (if not filling enough) pizza. Their one big mistake (the separation of the cheese and tomato) earns them a 7 out of 10, while my over-use of parentheses probably scores me even less.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Another Pizza the Puzzle

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension of many pizzerias all claiming to be the original and famous Ray's. A journey into a wondrous city of entrepreneurs who have no imagination. That's the red font up ahead and the aroma of cheesy grease - your next stop, the (Pizza) Pie-light Zone!

For those few of you who have never been to New York (or don't leave their apartments in Staten Island), Ray's has been the go-to New York slice joint since the late 1970's. Unless you're a strict vegan or the owner of the Sbarro company, odds are you've ordered a regular slice from at least one of the many Ray's locations. And the running joke is that they all claim to be the Original Famous Ray's.

So which of the dozens of locations is the original original Ray's? How did they manage to sprout up in every neighborhood of NYC? And who is this Ray guy anyway?

I'm not a detective, but I did a little snooping (thank you World Wide Web) and this is one mystery that may never get solved. There is an ongoing debate as to which of the famous Ray's is actually the original. But the consensus seems to be that the oldest documented Ray's pizzeria still stands in Little Italy. It was opened by Ralph Cuomo in 1959. And as far as I can gather, no Ray actually exists (or at least not in conjunction with this franchise - apologies to Mr. Charles, Mr. Liotta, and Mr. Bradbury)

But then in the 70's, along came the Famous Ray's Pizza in Greenwich Village. And many people say this is the Ray's that started the whole slice phenomenon of the 70's, 80's and today (that sounds like a commercial for a lite FM radio station).

The name was trademarked by three owners of separate Ray's in the 1990's and now if anybody opens a pizzeria calling themselves Ray's, these guys get a cut. So somehow it seems they are now all related. What that means exactly I don't know, but I'm not about to go to every Ray's in the city to see if one is better than the other (my stomach hurts just contemplating that idea).

Over the years, I've been to many Ray's on a quick lunch break or after a late night drinking binge. I could never really tell the difference and so I'm going to lump them together as many NY-ers do and give them one overall rating.

The Prince Street store (Ralph Cuomo's 1959 location) has a completely different feel inside than the other Ray's. It's a bit more old-fashioned and rustic and welcoming.

I ordered a plain slice, which the cashier cut from the pie that had been sitting out for God knows how long and threw in the gas oven. This is the way most slice joints work in this city. During my pizza journey, I've been spoiled by pies made to order by a chef or a line cook. But that's not the old school NY way.

Ray's pizza is dirty, messy, and cheap. It's everything people come to expect from NY slices. I was actually pleasantly surprised by my first bite. I got lost in the greasiness of the cheese and the butteriness of the crust. But then I came to my senses...

After a few more bites, I felt a little heavy so I let the grease drip down onto my plate. I usually sop up the grease right away with a napkin but figured I needed to take it all in to get a fair assessment.

This pizza is adequate for a NY slice. The ingredients aren't terribly fresh (that seems to be a new craze) and nothing really stands out here except for the cheese and the grease. There's no balance of flavors or interest in cheese/tomato proportion. But do many people care? Probably not. Although for some reason, many people care which is the original Ray's. And just as that mystery will never be solved, why people love this greasy mess will continue to be an enigma.

Is Ray's pizza the best in NY? It's good for what many people desire, but it's not quality pizza and makes NY pizza seem dirty and cheap. There are many places out there that do better NY style pizza without all the calories and heartburn. But if you want that pain and artery clogging and (I reluctantly admit) tastiness, then Ray's deserves at least a 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Changing of the Pizzaiolo

Unless you inherited one or were grandfathered in, it is illegal to own and use a coal-burning oven. It's bad for the environment and it's competition for the likes of Grimaldi's and Lombardi's. We don't want any black lung or broken knee caps.

You can imagine whenever a coal-burning pizzeria closes, many budding NY pizzaioli are hoping to take over the lease and get their hands on a grandfathered coal oven. Wood ovens are a different story - they're legal and available aplenty - but it is still nice when you can rent a space with oven and all - especially when that oven is the topic of much praise.

That's what happened to Mathieu Palombino when he took over the space of Una Pizza Napoletana in the East Village. The former pizza place was fast becoming the unanimous favorite of pizza lovers throughout the city. I was a little slow with this current pizza journey and therefore missed trying Anthony Mangieri's creations. Word on the street was that he got tired of dealing with the East Village lifestyle and he just got up and moved out west. He's supposed to be opening a pizzeria in San Francisco sometime soon.

So out went Una Pizza Napolitana and in came the latest incarnation of Williamsburg favorite, Motorino. It has not been open at this new location long, but it is already a hit and seems to get more favorable reviews than its big sister.

I went on a weekday lunch when they offer a great lunch special - your choice of a personal pizza and salad or ice cream for 10 bucks. Not too shabby.

We ordered the margherita and the seasonal brussels sprout and speck pizza. The salad was pretty standard with packaged field greens and a vinaigrette.
The pizza smelled great. I took in the fumes of fresh baked bread and cooked ham and green vegetables. The smell was almost too good to eat, but what's smell without a little taste?

My brussels sprout pie was amazing. The sprouts were fresh and distributed well. The speck was salty enough with a meaty, earthy flavor that was balanced with the creamy richness of the fior di latte mozzarella. The textures were also varied and interesting.

The margherita was not as successful. The sauce was sort of wet and uneven, which made the pizza a bit soggy. I understand that Neapolitan pies have a tendency to be soggy in the middle, but it's not my thing. I think it loses some flavor and brightness when that happens. I could tell this tomato sauce was well made and had a nice subtle citrus quality, but I just wish there was more of it for me to taste.

The dough was a stand-out. The cornicione (the end of the crust) was huge with a fluffy, airy quality. The crust also had a very nice char and a woody flavor.

Maybe the magic is in the oven. Palombino did inherit one of the most highly regarded kitchen appliances in the city. But regardless, he bakes a good pie and uses interesting, complimentary ingredients. Now if only those were things you can acquire when signing a lease.

Is Motorino the best pizza in NY? They do some great interesting seasonal concoctions, but their margherita fell a little short for my tastes. I still give them a 7 out of 10 for authenticity, originality, and some good flavors.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sullivan St. Bakery's Bread Concoctions

According to "pizza" is defined as:

a flat open-faced baked pie of Italian origin,
consisting of a thing layer of bread dough,
topped with tomato sauce and cheese, often
garnished with anchovies, sausage slices, mushrooms, etc.

So there we have it folks, an actual definition of one of our favorite foods. Now, I understand that definitions are just a starting point and I'm more excited than anybody when those definitions are stretched as creatively as possible. Over the years, we've seen the creation of white pizza, gourmet pizza, deep-dish Chicago style pizza, vegan pizza, etc. But the basic structure should still remain. Or else your product becomes something else.

And when it comes to NY pizza, I expect certain components. You need cheese and/or tomato sauce. For me there is no other option here. You could do white pizza or a cheese-less tomato pie. But you can't do a pizza without both cheese and tomato. Or so says I!

Sullivan Street Bakery, which has moved quite a bit uptown from the actual Sullivan Street (its original location) to the outskirts of midtown west, challenges those rules. Jim Lahey is the mastermind behind the yeast and has been praised in the press recently for his baking skills. In the last year, he has opened Co. which focuses on Neapolitan-style pizzas. I'll save that for another post because today I'm concentrating on Sullivan Street Bakery's Roman style pizza.

There were only a few options left when we arrived late on a Monday. The signature slice here is the pizza bianca, so that's what I chose. And this is where Sullivan Street Bakery and I get into some conflict. I mean this was basically a loaf of bread. Sure, it was moist and seasoned well with rosemary and sea salt. But this is what I'd expect in a basket with some olive oil at a trattoria before we even place our order. I don't care what they do in Rome, this is not a slice of pizza!

I left with a blank feeling. What just happened? I was a bit surprised and disappointed. So I did something I was not expecting to do. I went back for a second visit.

This time I completely ignored the pizza bianca like a one night stand you pass on the subway platform. I chose the zucchini slice instead. Well, I will say this is much closer to what I expect from pizza. It still didn't have much cheese (a little bit of grated gruyere) and no tomato sauce to speak of.

What the very crispy thin crust slice did have was a nice helping of cooked zucchini, some bread crumbs for texture, and a lot of flavor. Whether this bread thing was pizza or not, it was delicious. It reminded me of a homemade zucchini casserole. It was warming, crunchy and a real treat.

There are definitely many variations to the standard definition of pizza. I guess as long as they're delicious and fun to eat, we shouldn't squabble. And if you order correctly at Sullivan Street Bakery, you'll have a new and exciting eating experience. Order incorrectly and you'll wonder how the name pizza entered the equation.

Is Sullivan Street Bakery the best pizza in NY? I can't really put it in the running. The bread is delicious and the speciality "pizzas" are flavorful. I'd rate it much higher in terms of deliciousness, but for the best pizza, it can't get more than a 6 out of 10.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Art and Science and Pizza

Things are constantly changing in this city. It feels like more so than the rest of the world. There's always a new fashion, a new restaurant, a new Apple Store, a new cockroach tormenting my roomates.

The art and science worlds are two that never seem to stop evolving. Technology is constantly surpassing us to the point of where I truly believe we are now living in the future (I mean, we can talk to each other via video now!!!!)
I find it strange but somehow fitting that Fornino calls itself The Art and Science of Pizza. The Williamsburg spot was the hip wood-burning oven pizza joint in the city back when it opened in 2004. And although the restaurant world is now five years older, I don't think much has changed at Fornino.

First off the art: Exposed brick never goes out of fashion, but everything else seemed very 2004. The reviews and articles plastered on the wall are all circa three or four years ago. The music they played was enjoyable, but it was all a little out of date (Elliot Smith and The Shins are too passe for Williamsburg, but not for my Ipod). And the pizzas themselves were good looking, but they've been overshadowed by images of the new Neapolitan heavyweights - Kesté, Motorino, and Co.

The menu was divided into three different "generations": Naples, Italy, and Fornino. This seemed a little arrogant, but promising. I was tempted to order one of their fancy third generation pies with lots of truffles and this kind of cheese or that kind of mushroom, but I stuck to my guns and decided I needed to try one of their basic, first generation pizzas, the famous Mrgherita DOC. I hope they didn't think I was less evolved since I was only ordering a first generation pie.

The servers were what you'd expect from a Williamsburg spot. They were cute baby-faced cherubs with short, dark hair and an apathetic, but friendly demeanor. I had a hard time determining if they were guys or girls, but I was weirdly attracted to them regardless.

And now onto the science: I have never made my own pizza (although I'm thinking about it for Thanksgiving) but there are obviously scientific factors that go into making the perfect combination of cheese, tomato, and crust. And I think Fornino knows what those are, but I don't think they've consistently mastered them.

The first slice was quite slippery and I almost lost all my toppings. The tomato sauce was flavorful but rather wet and unven. The cheese was rich and chewy but a bit tough. I had to hold the cheese orb in place to prevent myself from eating the whole glob in one bite.

The basil was fresh and beautiful (grown in the chef's own garden) but I wish it had been shredded so I could have tasted it on every bite. The crust was thin and smokey, but a bit dark and dry in places.

I have a feeling Fornino shines in their "second and third generation" pies. Most of the favorable reviews mention their speciality toppings. So maybe the art here is a gussied up canvas and the science is a trick to making you think these are groundbreaking flavor combinations. We may have fell for that in 2004, but times have a-changed.

Is Fornino the best pizza in NY? My 5 out of 10 score says that this might have been interesting science and delicious art at one time, but just like everything else in New York, pizza has changed and there's always something new and better out there.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lost at Serafina

According to their website, the owners of Serafina were lost at sea and swore if they ever got rescued, they'd open up an Italian restaurant. Can you imagine Tom Hanks in Cast Away telling Wilson the volleyball that all he wants to do if he is rescued is open up a chain of Red Lobsters?

Whether or not this story is true, it made me laugh. So the guys at Serafina have a sense of humor. But how is their pizza?

I've been to Serafina a few times before for brunch or a quick lunch. They're a small restaurant chain that reminds me a bit of Patsy's in their uptown locations and rustic decor. I never thought of them as in the running for best NY pizza. It wasn't until my Italian friend Anthony claimed that they have the most authentic pizza that my interest was piqued. Anthony hasn't been here long so he has yet to see how great NY pizza can be, but I figured I'd give his suggestion a try.

We chose the Regina Margherita which features Italian bufala mozzarella as opposed to homemade mozzarella or fior di latte mozzarella. All these mozzarella choices! Mama mia!

The pizza arrived with a double shot glass of red pepper flakes. That struck me as very strange. Were they inferring their pizza might need a lot more seasoning? Or was it just for those who like things really hot? I was going to let the pizza speak for itself so I reluctantly downed the shot instead. My friend Adam smartly stuck to water.

The pie tasted almost like butter. The cheese was very milky and buttery, which wasn't a bad thing, but it left a bit of a milky feeling in my mouth. The crust was very thin and crispy, not as tender and puffy as I'd expect from a wood burning oven. There wasn't much of a char on the bottom, but the ends were slightly burnt. The tomato sauce was a bit under seasoned - now I wish I hadn't drank those pepper flakes.

Overall, the pizza was quite light, even considering the milky richness of the cheese, and not too oily. There were some good flavors, but I found this to be pretty standard wood-oven pizza. I bet it would be absolutely amazing if we were stranded at sea, but since we're in New York, I expect a little better.

Is Serafina the best pizza in NY? It gets a 6 out of 10 because it's nothing exciting but better than your average slice joint and does the job for freshly made Italian pies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Undiscovered Pizza

It's the dream of every foodie to discover a secret unexploited gem. Something that people will be talking about and will push the business to the next level. Of course, that and to be a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. (Is that show even still on the air?)

I want to announce to the world (wide web, that is) that Saluggi's is great pizza and it should be getting more press. You heard it here first, ladies, gentlemen, and Time Out New York subscribers.

Alright, I'll admit that I can't take full credit. First off, I was told about Saluggi's by my friend Sarah and it already has over 30 positive yelp reviews. So really all I did was walk down to Tribeca in the cold and hand over 3 bucks for a taste of their pizza.

But for my troubles, I want a little credit, especially when you go and try it for yourself. I admit, the name leaves something to be desired, especially when said out loud. The ambience is a strange hybrid of casual restaurant and walk-up slice joint. The counter is at the far end of the dining room so it's a little confusing and awkward as to how you should order. But once you've been greeted, the incredibly nice staff makes you feel comfortable.

As I wait for my slice, I notice a sign that reads "Beat the Boss in Shuffleboard, Win Free Pizza". It turns out there is a party area downstairs where shuffleboard tournaments are regular. I felt like I was at a family house party where there's pizza upstairs, board games in the basement, and who knows what goes on in the attic, but I'm sure it's pure and wholesome.

The slice was large and looked beautiful. There was a lack of a true crust - the sauce and cheese go all the way out to the edge. But I'm alright with that since the crust ends are often dried out and don't have as much flavor as the rest of the slice. This crust was soft and tender and then crunchy and crisp as you reached the brink.

The flavor here was really well balanced. The tomato sauce was deliciously tangy and was in nice proportion to the cheese. I learned that they make their own fresh mozzarella in house. How many pizza joints can make that claim? The cheese was incredibly fresh and awesomely stretchy. Each bite almost felt like I was blowing a piece of bubble gum, but in reverse. And cheese flavored bubble gum. Take that Hubba Bubba!

There was also a bit of parmesan that gave the slice a nice bite and balanced the rich sweetness of the cheese and tomato. The fresh basil was well dispersed and was the topper in this great NY slice.

I'm telling you, if you're a fan of NY slices and want a well-made, fresh example, then put your money on Saluggi's. Just don't say the name out loud. And remember, you heard it here first - And I heard it from yelp and my friend Sarah. But that's beside the point.

Is Saluggi's the best pizza in NY? It certainly gives Lombardi's a run for its money and has entered the race with the big boys with a 9 out of 10.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Nicest Pizzeria in the World

"Here try this slice while you're waiting." "You only ordered one slice? Have this one too." "Since you've never been here before, I wanted you try this." These are not statements you hear at a New York pizzeria. Free pizza? Generous employees? These would make sense if I was in some Italian grandmother's dining room.

Yet here I was in the middle of Astoria at Rizzo's Fine Pizza. They're known for their famous thin crust Sicilian square slices and evidently for their warm customer service. I only ordered one slice, but somehow I managed to eat three and was only charged for one. And at one point the owner noticed another customer's pizza and was worried it was too well done and offered another slice.

I work at The Modern, one of Danny Meyer's palaces of hospitality. It's not unusual for us to send out a complimentary dish for a customer to try. And we always hope the guests leave with a warm feeling having just experienced a really special night out. And that's just the feeling I had when I walked home from Rizzo's. I had a smile on my face and couldn't wait to go back.

I had been to Rizzo's before and had never been blown away by my experience, although a straight male friend of mine (who will remain nameless) admitted to being so taken by his experiences and interactions at Rizzo's that he somehow developed a man crush on the personable (and attractive) owner.

Customer service and man crushes are all well and good but I'm looking for the best pizza in NY, not the most hospitable pizzeria, so I'm going to get to the food.

My complimentary slice was their Bandiera, which was basically a regular round slice with a spinach artichoke mix on top. It reminded me very much of what Artichoke does, but this was so much better. The spinach artichoke dip was clearly homemade and fresh. The crust was crisp and buttery and worked well with the heaviness of the cheeses (both mozzarella and ricotta). If anything was wrong, the decadent combination of butter and cheese slightly overwhelmed the other flavors on the slice. This version also featured a little bit of tomato sauce.

The famous Sicilian square slice
featured more than a little bit of tomato sauce. This is a true tomato pie with just a bit of fresh mozzarella in the center and some grated parmesan. The cheese is gone before you know it and the slice becomes all about the sauce and the dough.

This is what Sicilian style pizza is - it's heavy on the sauce, light on the cheese, and all about the thin crust. Rizzo's has the crust down perfectly. It's the highlight of the pizza. The tomato sauce was blander than I remembered. Last time I was here, I remember a very bold herby spicy sauce. I wonder if the recipe changed with their re-modeling. Regardless, it was still tangy and held up to the rich crust but just not as bright as I had hoped.

The square slice took a little bit of time to reach my booth (this is what spawned the freebie). It was proof that my slice was fresh and extra time and love was put into it. If you're looking for sad lonely cold pizza sitting around taking up a bacteria collection, you'll have to go elsewhere.

I had really planned on only eating a single slice since it was late. But after all the free gifts and the rich, filling pizza, I did wish I was at an Italian grandmother's house and that I might be able to take a nap on her couch.

Is Rizzo's Fine Pizza the best pizza in NY? It gets a 7 out of 10 thanks to some amazing crust, fresh ingredients, and the nicest pizza staff you'll find on this side of the Hudson.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Slice Would Be Nice

No Slices, no slices!!! Every time I had heard about John's of Bleecker, this is what I was constantly reminded. Okay, fine, the place doesn't serve slices. Maybe this was a big deal at one point, but nowadays most of the great pizza places have the same mantra. But for some reason, John's seems to be the one reprimanding the loudest. It's proclaimed on the exterior, inside above the pizza oven, on the menu, and on the website. "No slices!!!"

John's is an old-school standby that often comes up when you list the best pizza places in the city. John Sasso supposedly trained at Lombardi's when it first opened and he has brought his New York style pizza to the West Village where it has been catering to long lines ever since 1929.

John's of Bleecker is a strange mismatch of opposing ideas. It looks like a rather nice little West Village Italian restaurant from the outside. Inside, it has a dive-y hole-in-the-wall vibe. As you look around, you see fancy murals and vintage rock posters. Pizza awards. Pictures of astronauts. Where the hell are we? I feel like we entered the pizza twilight zone!

And we just sit ourselves? Fine. This really feels more like a bar than a restaurant. But here comes the waiter ready to take our order. No smile, no welcome, just "are you ready to order?" I'm all for old school charm (or lack of it), so I didn't mind too much. My friend ordered a glass of montepulciano (don't ask) and I wasn't surprised when it arrived in a small plastic cup, much more reminiscent of a Dixie cup than a wine glass.

We ordered the large meatball pizza. My family's favorite meat topping were the sliced meatballs so I was excited to take a trip down memory lane. Meatballs are not the most popular meat toppings on pizza (pepperoni or sausage anyone?) so it had been a while for me.

The pizza was quite huge. I've been ordering personal pies on my adventures, but we were hungry and ready to go to town. This is definitely closer to what I'd consider New York style pizza and less Neapolitan. It's messy, greasy, and all about the cheese. In fact, I could barely taste the tomato sauce. It all clumped up in the middle. I had to dip my crust into the center of another slice in order to get a good taste of the stuff. And it was tangy and slightly sweet, but a bit watery.
The flavors were alright, but it was way too much cheese for me. I felt like I was eating bread and cheese. Not enough balance with the tomato sauce. The meatballs were rather bland. And the only seasoning I could taste was all in the center of the pie clinging onto that ever elusive tomato sauce.

The crust was great - very thin and crispy, but that wasn't enough to wow me. And after three slices, I felt heavy and slightly queasy. It was all too much cheese. I guess this is what some people expect from NY pizza and I can appreciate that, but in that case, I'd rather just get a slice and move onto something less greasy and more flavorful. Oh, that's right, not at John's! Remember, no slices!!! No slices!!!! Okay, we get the message!

Is John's of Bleecker Street the best pizza in NY? It's definitely crispy and cheesy (both on the pie and in decor) and will appeal to fans of greasy heavy pizzas, but the lack of tomato sauce and seasoning earns it a 6 out of 10. I was a bit underwhelmed by this old standard.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Terrifying Pizza Face

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I especially love walking around the city and watching all the freaks come out and flaunt themselves. It's a campy, spooky surreal evening. I'm not one to dress up though - partly because I've been an actor for so long, so I only do it when I get paid! But also, because I can never think of anything creative enough! I mean, do we really need one more guy in drag in the Village?

Once again, I spent this Halloween being myself and that includes trying to find the best pizza in the city. Before going out into the crazy crowd, we found sanctuary at a Soho neighborhood joint called Emporio. The front bar area was pretty sparse, but I soon discovered there was a packed dining room in the back.

That's where the wood-burning oven is hiding. And I caught a quick glimpse of the pizzaiolo, Giuseppe Cangialosi. The man is from Sicily not Naples, so I was curious to see if he had the chops to make a Neapolitan-style pizza.

I was pretty impressed with our first two dishes. They have nothing to do with the main event, but they're worth mentioning. I really loved the chestnut papparadelle - it had lots of textures and interesting flavors. The wood roasted baby back ribs were closer to a short rib stew and not quite what I was expecting.

The first thing I noticed from the thin pizza was the aroma of basil. Good sign. But when I looked closer, the pizza was not so attractive. I could see the oil all over the place. It looked like a big oil puddle. I felt slippery and greasy just by looking at it.

The cheese was overly melty and a bit gelatinous looking. Maybe it was the mood lighting, but it reminded me of burnt flesh. Very Halloween, very Freddy Krueger. I can't imagine this was a choice for Halloween.

Next, I noticed that the slices were huge. The 12" pie was cut into four big slices (as opposed to the usual six). But none of this deterred me from putting the slice into my mouth.

I have to admit this was really nothing special. There weren't any bright flavors. The tomato sauce was bland and completely forgettable. The cheese reminded me of grilled cheese (which is definitely more appetizing than Freddy Krueger's face). The only real saving grace here was the crust. It was nice and thin without being crackery and still maintaining a nice fluff.

We left Emporio slightly satiated, but not completely satisfied. It's a good thing there was a whole city out there to entertain and terrify us. We fought through the costumed city and finally got to our celebratory destination: a scary movie. The popcorn I ordered seemed to do the trick and fortunately had nothing to do with burnt flesh, but I think I may have found an eyeball or two.

Is Emporio the best pizza in NY? It's a nice place to chill and get some affordable wine with some good starters. But their pizza is lacking when compared to the other NY pies out there, so they get a 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oh, the Agony!

I am sad to report, at this time, I can not include Totonno's in my search for the best pizza in the city. Totonno's might be the second official pizzeria in NY. Anthony "Totonno" Pero was the first master pizziaolo of Lombardi's. The original Totonno's opened on Coney Island in 1924 and shut down in 2009 due to a fire. In between that time, this place is always in the best pizza conversation. And I never got to try it.

There is still hope. The plan was to re-open in July and then it was announced that it would re-open in October. Well, as of November, the site is still boarded up with a "Renovation" sign promising a re-opening at some point. As we were sadly taking pictures of the place, a local walked by and assured us they will be back soon.

Totonno's now has many locations in Manhattan, all with varying degrees of success. I'm not going to judge Totonno's by one of those clones. It's the original or nothing. So until they re-open, I'm taking it out of the running. But with the hope that things could change soon.

Is Totonno's the best pizza in NY? I really don't know. Hopefully, I'll be able to give a full report in the coming months, but for now I must continue to look elsewhere. Stay tuned...

Smoke and Mirrors

One of the most fascinating new food trends is the molecular gastronomy movement. Chefs have begun playing with science and chemicals to change our traditional ideas of food. It's a neat concept. That's how you get such unexpected flavor combinations as peanut butter vodka and fried mayonnaise. Basically, it's food magic.

Molecular gastronomy, as far as I know, has yet to rear its scientific head in the pizza world. I'd be the first sucker to try pizza ice cream or pizza soup. But fortunately for now, we have to stick to the traditional methods of cooking pizza.

But in those old-school ways, it's always nice to have some surprises. And there were moments during my visit to Nick's in Forest Hills that I felt like I was at the circus.

Nick's bright little storefront was packed (it was a Friday night) with families and couples. It really felt like a safe, comfortable suburban hangout. After a short wait, I was sat and a menu was placed in front of me. I was impressed by their interesting beer selection and the option of pizza toppings. They even offer a solution for the indecisive: you can do half white and half red pizza. I was intrigued and always interested in trying as much as possible, so I bit.

First off, I was mystified by the amount of steam rising from the dough. The effect looked more like a humidifier than a freshly baked pizza pie. I was also amazed at the half/half technique. The red sauce really did stay on its respective side allowing an impressive two pizza in one illusion. The visual reminded me of the fun I have when I shave my beard. I shave one side and leave the other side full in order to fool friends with my unique half man/half boy trick.

There wasn't quite as much magic in the eating of the pizza, but it was overall pretty tasty. The very crispy crust was buttery, firm, and delicious. The sauce was thick but slightly uneven. It was a little too acidic and tangy with just a touch of sweetness. The cheese was flavorful and well-portioned.

There was a generous helping of fresh basil, but I couldn't quite taste it with everything else, especially on the red side. It was a bit more noticeable on the white. It complemented the rich sweetness of the ricotta cheese.

The most impressive trick that Nick's attempts is preparing a coal oven style pizza in a gas oven. I don't think they fully succeed, but they come close. The ingredients are fresh enough and the pizza hot enough, but I think the crust was missing a certain char and smokiness. And the tomato sauce could have been moister.

Overall, Nick's was a fun experience and worth the ride in from Manhattan. The pizza is good and the atmosphere is enjoyable. Now if only they could have used their magic to make my check disappear.

Is Nick's the best pizza in NY? They definitely make good pizza and I think the whole family will have a fun, delicious experience. I give them a 7 out of 10.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Going Posto

There are lots of pizza chains all over the city. You've got Ray's, Two Boots, Famiglia. Then many of the big guys have more than one location (John's, Nick's, Totonno's). I've already talked about the Patsy's and Angelo's empires and Grimaldi's has spread out onto Long Island and New Jersey. And I'm not even mentioning Pizza Hut, Domino's, or Sbarro. I said I wasn't mentioning those so forget I even mentioned those.

The most unlikely pizza chain in New York are the quadruplets Posto, Gruppo, Vezzo, and Spunto. They sound like four Italian dwarves offering up their thin crust pies to their principessa. But in reality, these four places all cater to a neighborhood clientele and, in the last few years, have gained local followings.

The truth is they are practically identical - just check out their websites. The restaurant layouts are slightly different but all have the same font, all give off that relaxed, local vibe, and all end in the letter "o". And their menus are identical.

So do I really have to visit all four? Seriously, I'm a very busy guy. In addition to searching for the best pizza in NY, I do have a day job. I gotta bring home the pepperoni somehow, you know. And if you're going to basically clone your one restaurant three other times, you can't expect to be treated as if you're something other than that. I'll only be visiting one Ray's, one Patsy's, etc. So, sorry, Posto/Gruppo/Vezzo/Spunto, but you only get one chance.

Posto was the most convenient to where I was meeting an old friend. And we made it in time for the lunch special. They offered two slices and a salad for a really great price. But this is all about pizza, so I got the Margherita pie, which was 9 inches and reasonably priced at $10. I'm pleased to say this is the best pizza deal I've encountered so far.

I'm not pleased however to report the results. The pizza looked beautiful and their promise of thin crust was fulfilled. The crust was almost cracker-like, which I really love. The problems started when I picked up a slice. I've never seen anything quite like this but every bit of topping (cheese, tomato, basil, etc.) quickly fell off the crust and onto my plate. This happened with every single slice I attempted to eat. I had to basically re-assemble the pizza myself. I mean, come on, this is a huge no-no in the pizza world. All the ingredients are meant to be eaten together not sloppily placed back on the slice.

I also noticed that more than a few of the fresh tomatoes were anything but and were actually yellow. And believe me, they were not yellow tomatoes by nature. Granted, tomato season is now behind us, but if you can't get fresh good looking tomatoes, then you shouldn't serve them on your pizza. It's that simple.

On the other hand, the cheese was fresh and the sauce was well-seasoned. And the pizza tasted quite good. I'm still thinking about that delicious thin crust. And for the bargain I got at lunch, I really shouldn't complain. But I'm grading the pizza here and Im not going to settle for anything less than the best.

Could it have been an off day? Could Vezzo or Gruppo have a better grasp on fresh ingredients and how to keep those ingredients on the pizza? One of my friends swears by Vezzo so maybe one day I'll get over there too. But the Posto group-o had one chance-o and I'm sad to say, it's a no-no.

Is Posto the best pizza in NY? The thin crust is as delicious as advertised, but the pizza as a whole is sloppy and difficult to eat. The comfortable atmosphere and affordable prices help save the place from total doom and help me rate it 6 out of 10.