Friday, January 3, 2014

Pizza Journeys

Although I've lived in California for 30 years, according to a recent New York Times test, I still talk like a New Yorker.  I have also held fast to a couple of New York obsessions.  As readers of this blog well know, I remain painfully devoted to the baseball team of my youth.  The other one -- less easily satisfied with a cable TV subscription -- is pizza.  For that, I have to wait for my occasional visits to New York, when I venture out to as many of the legendary pizzerias as my family will tolerate.

There was wonderful pizza in Great Neck, Long Island, where I grew up.  I preferred La Tosca, but a plausible argument could be made -- and often was -- that Scotto's was its equal.  We took great pizza for granted and it was hard to imagine it could taste any better.  But everything is better in the City, and back then the consensus was the best pizzeria in Manhattan was Ray's.  Yes, but which Ray's?

Ray's, Famous Ray's, Original Ray's or Famous Original Ray's?

Well, the first Ray's was on Prince Street in Little Italy, opened by Ralph Cuomo in 1959. (Ray's closed in 2011, after a legal dispute among Cuomo's heirs)  Cuomo had opened a second location on First Avenue at 59th Street, which he sold in the early 1960s to Rosolino Mangano, and which then became the first of several "Famous Original Ray's."  For me, the go-to Ray's was Famous Ray's on 6th Avenue and 11th Street, opened by Mario Di Rienzo in 1973.  Famous Ray's closed in 2011, but Mario reopened in 2012, as Famous Roio's Pizza.  In the fall of 2012, I went to Famous Roio's with that wide, thin, greasy slice still embedded in my memory.  I was deeply disappointed.  Too thick with too much cheese, and nothing at all like I recalled.  Others must have felt the same.  Famous Roio's closed its doors in 2013. 

Coal Brick Ovens

Then there are the storied coal brick oven pizzerias, beginning with Lombardi's at Spring Street and Mott, which, as the plaque says, is the "First Pizzeria in the United States."  Opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905, the pizza at Lombardi's is truly excellent, but the restaurant -- geared for tourists -- sorely lacks atmosphere.  

Lombardi, himself, trained the next generation of pizza makers, including Antonio (Totonno) Pero, who opened Totonno's at Coney Island, John Sasso of John's of Bleecker Street, and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's in East Harlem.  Patsy's nephew, Patsy Grimaldi, opened Grimaldi's in Brooklyn. 

These successors to Lombardi's form the pantheon of the great coal-fired brick oven pizzerias.  These ovens give the pizza a crispness and smoky flavor that cannot be duplicated -- literally.  New coal ovens are not permitted because they fail to meet New York's  environmental laws, but the old ovens, having been grandfathered in, can still be used.

The walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Grimaldi's feels like the true pilgrimage that it is.  Once you brave the line outside, the red and white checkered tablecloths, photographs of New York glitterati on the wall, and Sinatra on the sound system transport you back in time.  The pizza, crisp and piping hot out of the brick oven is as good as it gets.  And Totonno's is just as good, maybe better.  It is unassuming and more down-to-earth as befits its Coney Island location, and has the feel of a family-run operation -- as it should since Totonno's grandchildren operate the place.  John's of Bleeker Street, with its wood booths and "no slices" reminder, is no slouch when it comes to great brick oven pizza and comes in a close third.   

The Old Masters

There are not too many things more sacred than personally receiving a pizza from one of the Old Masters. Sal & Carmine's is indistinguishable on the outside (or inside for that matter) from any other hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, but this hallowed place opened in 1959 on the upper West Side -- Broadway at 102nd Street -- is no run-of-the-mill pizzeria.  Sadly, Sal passed away in 2009, but his brother Carmine is still behind the counter, and served up one of the best slices I've ever had.  A bit light on sauce but with a memorable, chewy crust that is not as floppy thin as a traditional NY slice (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I dragged my family to Avenue J in the Midwood section of Brooklyn for a pie at Di Fara, which is often rated the "Best Pizza in NY."  Di Fara has been run by Dom DeMarco since 1964, and he still makes every pie personally.  Yes, every pie.  As a result, service is slow and the line outside the door is long.  When we got there in the late afternoon, DeMarco's friendly but very protective daughter came out to say they were going to close for an hour because her father needed a break.  We didn't mind the wait, and were ultimately rewarded when DeMarco, himself, took our pie out of the oven, ceremoniously cut fresh basil leaves over the top, and handed it over. 

For the last few years, my favorite slice in the City has been from Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street in the West Village.  Joe's was opened in 1975, by Joe Pozzuoli, who still runs the business.   This is the classic New York slice -- thin crust, sweet tomato sauce, perfect amount of cheese. I feel like I've come full circle.

To Be Continued

2 comments:

John Myste said...

I tried to go here:

http://www.fairandunbalanced.com/

But I found this twin site instead. Hmmm.

Lovechilde said...

Welcome. It happens the other way too.

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