Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fry Me To the Moon

I have recently been referred to as "the pizza guy" by my friends. I have absolutely no idea why. And everybody seems to have a suggestion for what the pizza guy should try next. I love everybody's enthusiasm. I'll just feel bad if I go to somebody's favorite pizza place and then give it a horrible review because it's greasy or not as crispy as I like. Then I turn from the pizza guy into the bad guy.

Among these recommendations, I get lots of texts and facebook messages telling me about a new pizza variation that somebody just stumbled on. Breakfast pizza, Indian pizza, Vegan pizza. They all exist. And I'm more curious than anybody, but I don't think it's really fair to include them in my search. Nobody in their right mind would say these are the best pizzas in New York. Maybe the weirdest.

One variation I was intrigued enough to try was deep fried pizza. That's right - you heard it correctly - deep. fried. pizza. Chip Shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn is a British pub/restaurant where they will literally batter and deep fry anything. In addition to pizza and the usual cod and haddock, they also fry hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, cherry pie, and a number of candy bars. And although it's not listed on the menu, I have a feeling they also fry an artery or two.

You can't help but laugh as you eat this pizza. It's just sort of ridiculous. It tastes pretty good - kind of like a really rich and battery mozzarella stick. The tomato sauce and most of the cheese gets lost, but who cares when the batter is this delicious.

I guess, it's official. I have to be the "pizza guy" to travel to Brooklyn specifically to try a deep fried slice. Either the pizza guy or British. It's crazy to me - the Brits have both Shakespeare and deep fried snickers. Where did we Americans go wrong?

Is Chip Shop's deep fried pizza the best pizza in NY? Come on, in all fairness, I'm not giving this a rating. It's almost not even pizza anymore. It tastes really good and if you're a fan of fried foods and heart attacks, then I urge you to give it a try.

Monday, December 28, 2009

And Video Rentals, To Boot!

In previous posts, I've called Ray's the McDonald's of NY pizza chains and Patsy's the Starbucks. And now I come to another visible NY pizza empire and the question arises, what recognizable corporation can I compare Two Boots to? And after much consideration, I guess they'd have to be the Urban Outfitters - they're hip, grungy, and their products seem too cheap to cost as much as they do.

Two Boots continues to expand all over the city and there are even a few locations above 14th Street, which seems to defeat the purpose for me. Two Boots has always been a drunken late night pizza stop for artists and hipsters. There is definitely plenty of drinking on the Upper East Side, but it's more of the frat boy sport watching varietal than the introspective, artistic depression varietal you'd find in the Village.

I chose the Two Boots on Avenue A in the Lower East Side. Besides it being the original location, this Two Boots also houses a video store. What a brilliant concept - you can rent your movies and buy a pizza all at the same time. This is groundbreaking. It feels so... 1987!

1987 was the year that two indie filmmakers with a love for Cajun cuisine (The name Two Boots refers to the similar shapes of Louisiana and Italy) thought to put the likes of andouille sausage and crawfish on pizza. And then name their pies after such iconic pop culture characters as Mel Cooley and Tony Clifton. Somewhere, Genaro Lombardi is spinning in his grave.

I've been to Two Boots before and really liked their thin, seasoned crust and interesting toppings. $3.75 for a slice is pushing it, but it's worth trying their unique spicy Cajun flavors on one of our all-time favorite foods.

On this visit, I tried to pick the slice that was closest to what I'd expect from New York style pizza. On any other day, I'd love to do spicy buffalo wings and blue cheese - but there's work to be done here and so I opted for the Mr. Pink: marinated chicken, plum tomatoes, fresh garlic, and mozzarella.

The kid behind the counter said that it just came out of the oven so it didn't need to be warmed up. After my first disappointing bite, I realized he was wrong. I brought the cold, limp slice back to the counter and told him to heat it up.

After that little delay, the pizza tasted much better. The thin crust now had a much warmer enjoyable crunch - it was like a whole different pizza. And it was decent. but not as good as I had remembered.

The cheese seemed cheap and not terribly fresh, while the tomato sauce didn't have as much zippiness and seasoning as I had remembered. The chicken was peppery so maybe it overshadowed the tomato sauce. The crust had a slight ashy char and a chewy depth from the cornmeal they use but it was also a bit dry.

I wish I had ordered one of their more bizarre, Cajun-inspired slices. The Mr. Pink was a bit too bland and I'm afraid when Two Boots' pizza is not spruced up by some spicy green jalapeño pesto or something, the flaws become more evident.

Two Boots' saving grace is that their flavor combinations are interesting and the locations are fun and off-beat. And even though we can download any movie we want from Itunes or have it delivered from Netflix, it is nice to see an independent video store still thriving in the big city. (Maybe I should've named Two Boots the Blockbuster Video of NY pizza chains.) Let's just hope Two Boots can stay in business if we ever figure out a way to stream and download pizza.

Is Two Boots the best pizza in NY? They serve unique and sometimes flavorful slices, but these artsy, kitschy shops are not in the same league as the big boys and they only get a 6 out of 10 from me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Slice by Slice, Part Two (West Village)

If there's a battleground for the pizza wars in New York, it might be on Bleecker Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. In the middle of the street, you can find the old standby John's of Bleecker, which has been there since 1929. And directly across the street is the new favorite Neapolitan style pizza at Kesté. The two places both garner a huge line and a devoted fan base. But the owners aren't too worried about the competition since their pizza styles are quite different from each other and it really does come down to a matter of taste.

However, bookending the street are two old slice joints that claim to have some of the best pizza in the city. I'll be the judge of that.

My first stop was Bleecker Street Pizza on Seventh Avenue, which according to Food Network, has the Best Pizza in NYC. I had been here once before with my parents (we went on a one day pizza slice expedition a while back when they were in town) and remember it being a pretty decent slice.

I don't remember if I had their signature Nonna Maria slice then, but that's what I decided to order this time around. The cashier told me it's the best slice they make. It's basically their version of a margherita. I waited a bit for the slice, which means it was baked fresh. The steam was rising so I waited even longer to take my first bite.

The first thing that turned me off was the excessive amount of grease. When I folded the pizza, the oil just slid down the slice like a heart-clogging waterfall.

When the grease drip finally subsided, I took my first unimpressive bite. Sure, the crust was crispy and thin, but the rest of the pizza was pretty flavorless. The tomato sauce was chunky and needed some zing. The basil tasted liked the dried variety rather than the fresh herbs one expects from margheritas.

The cheese was good, but it was a bit sporadic and along with the other ingredients disappeared rather quickly. There wasn't enough of anything on the bread so that toward the end, I was just eating crispy dry bread. I could see right through the tomato sauce to the sad, empty crust. I want my pizza to remain strong and composed until the end of my meal.

Is Bleecker Street Pizza the best pizza in NY? I don't care what Food Network says, their famous Nonna Maria slice's heavy greasiness and bland flavors earn it a 5 out of 10.

I didn't actually finish the Bleecker Street slice because I was saving my calories for my next stop: Famous Joe's Pizza. Joe's is on the Sixth Avenue side of Bleecker and was featured in Spider Man 2.

Unlike my previous stop, this place was not being operated by Italians (at least not at the moment). But I'm sure there is a Joe or a son or daughter of Joe who's calling the shots. This place fared slightly better than Bleecker Street. I went for their regular cheese slice and made my way to sit at the counter.

I could hear people crunching around me. Seriously. The crust was ultra-thin and crispy. The customers were sort of an orchestra without realizing it. Maybe this is how the creators of Stomp came up with their idea.

Besides the almost burnt crust (it tasted like I was eating ash toward the end), nothing really stood out. The cheese and tomato sauce were both pleasant enough and the pizza was not too greasy and rather light. The dough might have been slightly too thin because I was still hungry.

Both these pizzas are still far better than you can get in middle America, but the flavors are not exceptional and the ingredients could be fresher. If you're looking for a spectacular pizza experience, I'd stop between these two spots in the middle of Bleecker Street and get in line for either John's (traditional NY) or Kesté (authentic Neapolitan).

Is Famous Joe's the best pizza in NY? It has the most important of NY pizza characteristics: the ultra-thin crust but the cheese and tomato sauce are really nothing special giving it a 6 out of 10.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

New York is a big city for sure, but not so big that a sense of community is lost. In Brooklyn, there is a huge community of artists and musicians and most of them never leave the borough, unless they have a gig or a David Byrne lecture to attend somewhere.

And many of the hipster artist types hang out or work at Roberta's Pizza in Bushwick. Roberta's even hosts a radio station that features shows about local food and music. You can feel there is a real sense of community at this place. They even have those communal tables. Get to know your neighbors!

When we finally found Roberta's entrance (which made the place look like a grungy dive bar), we were greeted with warm smiles, but I felt a little out of place. It was as if we had entered an exclusive ski lodge in the middle of New England and we were more than welcome to visit, but we weren't staying for the night.

The service was friendly but apathetic and completely unhelpful. I asked the waitress about a specific beer and she answered that she hadn't tasted it, without any offer to find out more information from somebody who has. I think she may have been slightly stoned too because she took away our menus before we ordered and then later in the meal as we were clearly eating, she attempted to take our order again.

But the service was really besides the point. Everything was relaxed and Roberta's felt like a local haven from your daily troubles. Now on to the real reason we were here: the pizza.

We started with The Good Girl, which had no tomato sauce, but kale, taleggio cheese, pork sausage, and just the right amount of garlic. It was a nicely balanced pizza. I got some saltiness from the crispy kale (which may have been fried), sharpness from the cheese, spiciness from the sausage, and just a touch of sweetness from the garlic.

I also had to order the margherita. I didn't think it was quite as successful, but it was a valiant effort. The dough was tender and soft with a good amount of char (they use a classy wood oven). The mozzarella was buttery, rich and quite stretchy, but the tomato sauce was a little dull. The basil was undeniably fresh (I hear they grow it on their roof) and plentiful. The pizza was a bit wet, but the flavors worked well together.

Roberta's was our first stop of an evening spent eating, drinking, and being cultured in the Williamsburg/Bushiwck area. I won't go too much into the specifics of our night (who really wants to hear about the show we saw which featured lots of girl on girl fighting and subtle lesbian overtones... wait a minute....), but I have to mention the bar we ended up at.

It was The Alligator Lounge, another local watering hole that I had been to before. When we walked in, I realized I was in for some trouble because their gimmick is that they give out free personal pizzas with each drink ordered. The last thing I wanted was more pizza, but in the name of science....

I feel bad even reviewing it since it was free, but it was pretty awful. It tasted flat and bland. It had no flavor. It was a sad, dead pizza. Granted, I have been eating some of the best (and most expensive) pizza in the city, so my tastebuds are a little refined and I might be a tiny bit of a food snob. But, it's free pizza. I should just shut up and eat it!

Right before we left, a local came running into the back and invited us all up front for a drunken game of Bingo. It sounded like fun, but I had a bit of a train ride ahead of me. I can linger for as long as I want, but the truth remains: I don't live in the neighborhood.

Is Roberta's the best pizza in NY? They do a modest wood-oven pizza with smart flavors and fresh ingredients in a hip enclave in somebody else's neighborhood. They get a 7 out of 10 from me.

Is Alligator Lounge the best pizza in NY? It's definitely the cheapest (free), so I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Coal New World

There are so many different possibilities with pizza. You can have thin crust, thick crust, white, deep dish, stuffed, vegetarian, organic, kosher, leftover. The variations are endless. And what's great (but daunting for me) is that New York seems to offer every single option.

One type of pizza that was completely foreign to me was grilled pizza. I didn't know you could cook pizza outside of an oven. But why the hell not? Just slap it on the grill and you've created a whole new pizza experience.

Grilled pizza was made famous at Al Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island and was brought to NY in the 80's by the late Vincent Scotto. Scotto was a sous chef at Al Forno and opened Gonzo, Fresco, and the now closed Scopa here in the city. These Italian restaurants are all slightly upscale but offer the rare grilled pizza.

For my first grilled pizza experience, I skipped the hoity toity trattorias and decided to go to a newer, more casual spot in the far reaches of Morris Park in the Bronx. Coals stands on a busy intersection amongst hospitals and medical schools. The doctors and med students sure need a local watering hole to blow off some steam. And if you eat enough of Coals' grilled pizza, you just might need the doctors and med students for your cholesterol.

The restaurant made me think of a college bar that had been renovated to be more family-friendly. It was definitely homey and comfortable. There was even a cozy little nook in the front furnished with a stocked bookcase and an inviting sofa. Nothing screams college bar more than a bookcase and a sofa!!

At the bar (where I imagine most people know your name), I was impressed by their extensive craft beer list. Maybe I was still in the five boroughs after all.

The grilled pizzas came in two different sizes and some delicious sounding combinations - I was especially tempted by the Sloppy Joe with smoked mozzarella and fontina and the Pure Bliss with ricotta, tomato sauce, and pesto. But I had to try the margherita since it was the most basic and the starting point for all the others.

When the small pie arrived, it was so thin and looked cracker-y. It reminded me of the matzoh pizzas my mom would make for me on Passover. Oh, if only mom had made them this good!

There was nothing cracker-y about this. Sure, it was thin and crispy, but very rich, buttery, and tender. The grilled pizza reminded me a bit of a grilled cheese sandwich (I bet you never saw that one coming), but lighter and more balanced.

The bread was slathered with mozzarella and there were beautiful red mountains of tomato sauce and restrained slivers of basil dotting the canvas. The flavors were in perfect harmony. I was surprised actually since the sauce was a bit sparse, but the strong savory flavors lingered and married well with the buttery cheesy crust. There was also a nice garnish of sharp pecorino cheese which gave the pizza an edgy bite.

I also had to try the fluffernutter dessert which, like the name of the restaurant (the pizza never touches coals) is a misnomer because fluffernutters include both peanut butter and marshmallow. This one didn't have either. It was basically a grilled crepe with a nutella and marscapone filling. It was very tasty, but reminiscent of the pizza I just ate. I'm sorry, but for dessert, I'd like something different than what I had for dinner.

The grilled pizzas at Coals are unique and delicious and I might even have to make another inconvenient trip to the Bronx to try their other options. This is not your usual New York pie, but it'll broaden your horizons and might convert you to the ingenious grilled pizza. Now if only they could figure out a way to make other variations (like fat free pizza) taste this good...

Is Coals the best pizza in NY? It's inventive and really enjoyable, so that's why I give it an 8 out of 10, but this is a creative variation on our beloved pizza and not quite what one thinks of when it comes to NY style.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Folks Like to Get Away...

There have been a few times in my 8 years in New York when I've stayed within the 5 boroughs yet felt like I was in a vacation town somewhere far away. Going out to Coney Island makes me feel as if I should be walking around in my bathing suit and drinking piña coladas - as long as I keep my flip flops on to avoid all the broken glass. Up in the Bronx, City Island is a remote hideaway on Long Island Sound that is filled with crab shacks and is sort of a poor man's (a very poor man) Cape Cod. And on just about any street in Jackson Heights, Queens, you're transported to an exotic Asian country populated by Chinese, Pakistanis, and yuppies.

I wasn't surprised that I had a similar feeling when I finally made it out to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn to try the famous pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens. The name alone made me think I was heading to an idyllic bed and breakfast somewhere in Jersey circa 1973.

After the long subway ride into the depths of Brooklyn, I realized why this place is such an institution. It does feel like a local hotspot trapped in time that makes most of its revenue from curious tourists. It's also huge - you could probably spend the entire day exploring the three different eateries: the pizzeria, the spumoni stand, and the restaurant. And then enjoy your Italian three-course meal in the parking lot/garden area filled with park benches and featuring a view of dreary 86th Street.

The day I arrived was pretty windy and cold so nobody was relaxing on those inviting benches. But there was a lot of action inside the pizzeria. The tables were completely filled so I resigned to standing at the little bar that housed the parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.

I definitely had to order their famous Sicilian slice, but was a bit hungry so I figured I'd try their round slice as well. The guy cutting my slices was such a stereotypical NY Italian and he was so aggressive and pushy that I was a bit intimidated. I ordered the square slice and I guess I must have mumbled the rest of my order because he snapped back with "A slice of WHAT?" It felt like he was reprimanding me for not speaking clear enough. And I even studied speech in acting school!

I ignored the confrontation because I think he could have taken me in a fight. And instead I huddled off to the side to taste my pizza. The Sicilian slice is different than the square ones I've been having around the city. This is an old-fashioned Sicilian slice with thick crust and the cheese hiding underneath the tomato sauce (as opposed to the thin crust grandma slices that are now so popular).

Hiding is right! It didn't seem like there was much cheese under all that sauce, but I liked the scattered parmesan garnish on top. The tomato sauce was decent but didn't stand out one way or the other and also seemed to get lost in the thick bread. The slice had a soft, doughy quality with a crisp char at the ends. Most of the ingredients melted away with the bread as I bit into it.

The main flavor here was bread - it sort of overshadowed the forgettable tomato sauce and cheese. It reminded me of those frozen square pizzas I used to love as a kid. It was crunchy, doughy, and unrefined.

The round slice was even less exciting and really just filler. It's what you'd expect from a typical NY slice and it did the job, but is not worth the trip. The main attraction here is the sicilian slice, which I could sort of take or leave.

I have read that new owners have taken over this place in the last few years and the quality has declined. That's a shame because L&B still feels like an old school favorite, but the pizza is pretty standard.

If you need a bit of a respite from the big city, there are plenty of other hideaways in the greater metropolitan area. And if you're going to travel this far for pizza, it's a no brainer: Hop on the Q train to Di Fara and watch a true NY legend at work.

Is L&B Spumoni Gardens the best pizza in NY? They do a decent Sicilian slice but it's not worth the special trip all the way out to Bensonhurst. I give it a 6 out of 10 for the thick, tomato-y dough.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pie-dentity Crisis

About a year ago, the hip new pizza movement in New York City became evident when Jim Lahey opened a spare, homey pizza restaurant in Chelsea with lots of natural lighting. Lahey is first and foremost a baker and has been making delicious pizza-like concoctions at Sullivan Street Bakery for years.

This newer restaurant seems to be called Co. That's what all the press and reviews had titled it. I figured Co, was an abbreviation for something. I just hope Lahey wasn't referring to the chemical element cobalt (Co). That's not among my favorite pizza toppings.

On my first visit (many months before I began this official pizza search), the mystery was cleared up when I saw the big sign welcoming me to Company. Not Co. at all. Yet when I went inside and was presented with menus and noticed the young waiters all wearing logo T-shirts, there was the "Co." once again. So what the hell is this place called?

I've read in interviews that Lahey thought of Co. as the abbreviation for "corner" (The restaurant does proudly take up the corner of Ninth Avenue and 24th Street), so where does the company come from now? My only guess is that it's a reference to the two long communal tables that take up the majority of the dining room. Communal tables are all the rage. They're social, gimmicky, and really make you appreciate the co. Sorry, I mean the company.

But really what's in a name? It's all about the pizza! And Company, or Co. (Seriously, I don't know what to call this place. It's starting to piss me off!) makes individual pizzas in sort of a Neapolitan style. But there are many differences between these pies and the classic Neapolitans. First and foremost, these are cooked in a gas oven as opposed to a wood one. That's sort of a dealbreaker right there. I can pretty much guarantee Lahey won't be getting any invitations to the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani Christmas party.

It was an off-time when we arrived at 4pm. We were the only one's in the restaurant (which is usually bustling at prime time) except for the corner table of managers in a meeting. We didn't feel un-welcomed per se but I felt as if I saw a little too much of the man (or men) behind the curtain. Shouldn't they have their meetings when the restaurant is closed? Also, because it was so quiet, I became more aware of their ridiculous choice of music. We must have heard some weird French cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walking" three times during our hour-long dinner.

We ordered both the margherita and the flambé. We picked the flambé because I work at The Modern which makes the most authentic and delicious tarte flambee you'll have this side of the Rhine. So I always have to check out the competition.

The bread was pretty good across the board. It's obvious Lahey knows his yeast. Considering they don't use a wood oven, the bottom had an intense char and while the crust was not as doughy and tender as I come to expect from Neapolitan, it was crispy, chewy, and delicious.

I wish I could say the same for the toppings. The flambé was slightly reminiscent of California Pizza Kitchen (which is another of my former employers). That's not a bad thing if you're into that kind of stuff, but the flavors were a bit too rich and sweet for me. The bacon tasted honey glazed and the bechamel was a bit thick. Didn't come close to the light delicious ingenuity of The Modern's.

The margherita was also lacking. The pie was pretty wet and became soggy way too quickly. The pizza was very light and had just a hint of everything. Just a hint of cheese, a hint of tomato, a hint of taste.

I'm sure their more unique pies fare much better. I've heard amazing things about the stracciatella and the popeye. But my feeling is if they can't get the standards right, then you've got to re-think your concept (or at least take those options off the menu).

And the pizzas weren't bad, they just should have been better. Lots of attention was paid to the bread itself, I just wish there had been more thought put into the things that go on top of that bread. And some more thought into what to call this place because I'm getting tired of writing two names. Until they make up their mind, I'm calling this place Cobalt. Take that, Jim Lahey!

Is Co. (or Company) (or Cobalt) the best pizza in NY? The pizzas are a bit expensive and could use a little more oomph in the ingredients and the flavor combinations, but that crust is a stand-out. And it's really the only reason this place gets a 6 out of 10.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taste of the Mediterranean (Sea, that is)

When you think of pizza, generally the ingredients that come to mind are cheese, tomato, bread, basil, maybe pepperoni or sausage, mushrooms or anchovies, maybe even olives and garlic. Thanks to California Pizza Kitchen, pineapple and BBQ chicken aren't so far-fetched. But one ingredient that is often involved but not predominant is salt.

Well, the ideas change at Adrienne's Pizza Bar in the Financial District. Because the main flavor component of the pizza I tried at their hip restaurant was not cheese or tomato or basil even. No, it was sodium.

Adrienne's is found among the restaurants and bars on Stone Street, an almost secretive cobblestone street not far from Battery Park. I've been on this street before for the annual oyster festival and to eat at Ulysses Folk House. It's quaint and makes you feel completely removed from the city.

Adrienne's opened here about four years ago but somehow it still feels like they're getting their feet on the ground. The cocktail menu seems sort of up in the air and the service is tentative and a bit pushy. The logo features a line through the word "pizzabar". It almost looks crossed out. After some examination, we seem to think that it's an actual "bar" (or line) to represent the bar half of this new pizzabar idea. But it didn't make much sense and came across more as if the pizzabar hybrid wasn't a good idea after all and they decided to literally scratch the idea out all together.

But we surrendered to the pizzabar and ordered two glasses of mediocre Italian red wine and one old fashioned pie with pepperoni. Adrienne's only serves grandma-style pizza, which is basically thin crust square pies - influenced from the Sicilian style.

The pie was served in a pan and it looked pretty good. There were charred pieces of cheese in the corners and the pepperoni brought out some nice aromas.

As I mentioned before, the biggest problem with the pizza was the salt content. I felt as if I had accidentally swallowed a little bit of the ocean. Have you ever been in the ocean and a wave catches you off guard and before you know it your mouth is doing a saltwater dance? I think I may have accidentally ordered that here. I know Sicily is an island, but I'm pretty sure they keep their pizza away from the seawater.

The pepperoni pieces were charred and tasty but the natural salt content of the cured pork just made this salt party even more intense. Every once in a while I would get a welcome burst of oregano that would relieve my taste buds from the saltinity. The cheese and tomato sauce were both fine, but contributed to the salt overload. There was no escaping.

The one redeeming quality here (besides for the tasty pepperoni) was the crust. It was served in a pan and was slightly burnt at the edges, which resulted in some nice crispy cheese and crunchy dough.

The experience reminded me of a pizza party. I can see my younger self in a roller skating rink or a bowling alley or a friend's house eating way too many square slices of this crispy crunchy pizza. It's fun and tasty to chomp down on, but even my 11 year old self would probably be complaining about the salt.

Is Adrienne's Pizzabar the best pizza in NY? I want to taste cheese and tomato and salt should only help bring those flavors out, not overwhelm them. There were a few things about this that were tasty, but the overseasoning causes my 5 out of 10 rating.