Friday, March 12, 2010

For the Love of Pizza

Before I dive into this post, I must first extend my most sincere gratitude to my beautiful friends who accompanied me on this semi-neurotic quest to find the finest pizza(s) in New York City.  I love you dearly, and couldn't be more thankful (and aware) that you not only shared your own recommendations, but accompanied me on some rather lengthy journeys way-off-the-beaten path, endured my obsessive ramblings about my findings, and subjected yourselves to copious amounts of frequently-frowned-upon carbs.

I also apologize if I caused any of you anxiety.  One of my dearest friends, Pete, for example, emphatically insisted that a very well-known pizzeria around the corner from his apartment in Spanish Harlem was home of what surely would be my favorite pie.  The night that I called to take him up on his claim, he suddenly paused...

"Ummm, Brad... can I call them first to see how the oven is working today, because... uhhh... if for some reason you don't enjoy this pizza... umm, do you think it will have a negative impact on our friendship?"

I laughed, "Oh Pete... of course not... I mean, I highly doubt it..."  Coincidentally, it was not one of my favorites, and we haven't spoken since. I'm only kidding... kind of...

Seriously, though... to Pete and everyone else who helped with this project: I couldn't have done it, and certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it even half as much, had I been flying solo.  Thank you...

I sampled pizza from literally seventy-two New York City pizzerias before attempting to write about the best of the best.  That's barely even a dent in the total cornucopia of options.  One website I referenced lists over 952 eateries offering pizza in just Manhattan and Brooklyn alone!

How do I even approach such an overwhelming topic, anyway?  There's no prescribed criteria for something so undeniably subjective.  More importantly, why do I (or the countless who have tackled this subject before me) even care?

Pizza played an integral role in my upbringing.  Sound dramatic?  It's true.  And I'd venture to say that most of my friends would resonate a similar sentiment.  Whether memories from pizza parties (often paired with roller skating), those eagerly anticipated pizza days in the school cafeteria (ah, the rectangular slice), late night delivery to the college dorm (it still freaks me out that the garlic dipping sauce glows vibrant green under a black light), or simply favorite familiar pizza joints with family and friends, it's a little profound what a significant recurring role a disk of dough, some sauce, and a sprinkling of cheese plays in so many lives.

Some of my dearest pizza memories from growing up in Indianapolis stem from the Paramount Music Palace, just down the street from our family church.  It was there you could enjoy pizza and a pitcher of Coke at long communal tables while watching an organist play audience requests on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ that boasted 3,000 organ pipes and percussions.  When the organist piped the theme from Star Wars, a giant disco ball sent a constellation of stars whirling around the enormous gymnasium-like pizzeria.  Hardly even concerned with the food, I would sit for hours playing my own imaginary keyboard on the table in front of me, while my kid brother spit gumballs from his bubble gum ice cream cone (there was an ice cream parlor adjacent to the dining hall) into a slobbery gray mass in his napkin, which he usually only ended up gagging on after what seemed like hours of separating the chaff from the wheat.  I was nearly devastated when the doors closed in 1995.

Another favorite pizza hangout was Showbiz Pizza Place, most locations of which have now become Chuck E. Cheese.  Unlike my schoolmates, I showed little or no interest in the arcade games or skee ball.  Instead, I preferred to sit forever in the back dining room hypnotized by the Rock-afire Explosion, an animatronic robot band (developed by a company in Orlando that also developed many of the robots for Disney World) that performed on three stages while you ate your pizza.  For a kid who loved music but had little access to live theater, there was very little more exciting for me than a warbling Gorilla named Fats Geronimo, Dook LaRue (a drumming dog in a spacesuit), and Mitzi Mozzarella (a cheerleader mouse with pompoms where her paws should have been).

Check out this borderline disturbing video of the Rock-afire Explosion's rendition of Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie".

In retrospect, I can now understand why my father never really shared my enthusiasm for Showbiz.  Back then, however, I could hardly fathom why we weren't there every single night.

As I began to reflect on my favorite pizza memories for the purpose of this post, however, I nearly immediately noticed one slightly alarming common thread.  While I can vividly recall details about the decor, crowds, and specific anecdotes from each restaurant, I cannot for the life of me remember a single thing we ate in these places.  For me, that's extremely unusual.

I needed to call my mom.

She somehow remembered the name of her favorite Music Palace organist.  Apparently there had been a few in rotation different nights of the week, though all I can really remember from my perspective is a giant toosh bouncing up and down from the bench, while his legs pumped numerous pedals to manipulate the various tricks and sound effects.

Mom reminded me of the pizzeria that had an electric train set built into the wall that delivered the soft drinks directly to your table via choo-choo.  She also quite fondly remembered the parties I threw during high school, where my friends would come over, and we'd each bake our own homemade pizzas in teams (yes, my high school parties were inarguably G-rated).

After chatting our way down memory lane for a few minutes, I finally asked her, "but for the life of me, Mom, why can't I remember even the slightest detail about the actual menus at some of these pizza joints?"

After a pregnant pause, she emitted a few short, disgusted snickers.

"Because, baby, you've repressed the traumatic part of your memories.  A lot of that pizza was AWWW-ful... soggy, limp cardboard with hardly any flavor whatsoever."

Immediately, the movie screen in my mind's eye expanded a few inches to the periphery just beyond the sweet recollections I had replayed so many times.  While I had been glued to the animatronic robot show as though we were attending opening night of a hit Broadway musical, my parents sat in the background clawing their eyes out while nervously chewing Maalox tablets.

Okay, so I wasn't exactly a foodie at the age of ten.

While we, as a family, tried some great and not-so-great pies during my formative years, my parents knew then that tradition and the entire experience are just as important, if not sometimes even more important, than the actual toppings themselves.

Embarking on my quest for the best pizza in New York City, my current home and land of some of America's most diversified and renowned pizza ovens, I also had to acknowledge that a lot more is at play in determining great pizzerias than merely the ingredients.

As I shared my experience with many different friends and dining partners, each encounter led to new recommendations, conversations with servers and owners, and countless pizza blogs and websites (you can literally devote hours upon hours reading these, and clicking links, and mindlessly meandering through cyber-pizzerias).  While my wallet and rump can't quite handle sampling each and every pizza in the city, I believe I got a rather decent cross-section of some of the better offerings.

Although my conclusions may not 100% echo the sentiment of everyone, I at least want to share the favorites from my journey.  For the sake of comparison, I tried a classic margherita pie at most locations (crust, tomato sauce, cheese, and basil).  Though toppings both traditional and exotic frequently tempted me, they were an inconsistent variable in the endeavor of comparison.  On the occasions I did try some fun variations, I attempted to try the margherita, as well, for the true purpose of my pizza sojourn.

Don't get me wrong.  I love toppings... especially unique ones.  But ultimately, if a pie can't hold its own without the mask of toppings, then it isn't a good pie to begin with.  I hope you will enjoy reading about some of my favorites, as well as a few of the photos I captured on my journey.

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Corner of Spring and Mott streets in Manhattan

You almost have to include Lombardi's in any list.  Even if it doesn't make your top five pizzas (though it did mine), it's considered by many to be the birthplace of New York Pizza.  Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi first opened his grocery store in 1897, but soon began making pizzas, which he sold to local workers.  In 1905, he received a mercantile license for Lombardi's, making it the very first pizzeria in America.  Though Naples is the birthplace of pizza, Lombardi's is officially the birthplace of American pizza, and the quintessential New York pie.  For the fanatics of Patsy's, Totonno's, or John's Pizzeria on Bleecker, these New York pizza dynasties were originated by employees or family members of Lombardi's who branched out on their own.  It could then be argued that if there had never been Lombardi's, neither would its descendants have been born.

At Lombardi's the balance of sauce and mozzarella found a sublime ratio.  Below is the extra mozzarella pie, because hey, I love bubbly, cheesy deliciousness, and I like it to cover my whole pie (not just little polka dots of it in a sea of tomato).  The only somewhat lackluster element of the pie was the crust.  Though very thin, it was a little more dense and certainly chewier than I prefer, but still leagues above most of its competitors.  Just not my personal favorite crust.

We also tried Lombardi's famous clam pizza, a white pie topped with hand-shucked clams, oregano, fresh garlic, parsley, olive oil, and peccorino romano.  I preferred the crust on this pie to the margherita, as it was crispier and flakier.   This circle of seafood is meant to be devoured quickly.  The thin crust doesn't exactly hold heat very long, and the tenderness of the clams is compromised the longer they sit... But we really enjoyed the first few pieces.

Make sure you take a walk back to the kitchen and witness the pizzas being juggled in and out of the coal-powered brick oven.  Wether or not you agree this is one of the tastiest pies in the city, there's something to be said for the history of a pizzeria that has been packed for over 100 years.  Lombardi's found a winning combination over a century ago, and you can feel and taste it in every bite.

Lombardi's Pizza on Urbanspoon

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Di Fara Pizza
1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn

Talk about a controversial pizza!  At $5 a slice versus $25 for an entire pie of 8 slices (averaging about $3.13 a slice) it's more than 37% savings to get the whole pie.  Oh, and you might have to wait an hour or more for just a single slice?  The only person in the whole place making pizza or even really touching the ingredients is a 73 year old man?  And did I mention that it's buried deep in Brooklyn, so significant travel time should be allowed from almost anywhere else in New York City?

Call me a glutton for punishment, but when I read entry after entry of people either loving or loathing this hidden (though no longer secret) gem, I simply had to hop on a train and see for myself.  Door-to-door it was going to take almost an hour and a half to travel, and then there would be the lines...

Originally from Provincia di Caserta in Italy, Domenico "Dom" DeMarco has been running his humble pizzeria on Avenue J in Brooklyn since 1964, and running it solo ever since he bought his partner out in the late 70s (the name, Di Fara, is still a blend of the names DeMarco and Farino, the latter his former partner).  There is no staff to speak of, and certainly no one else makes the pizzas except for Dom himself.  No more than two pies are ever really in the oven at once, which means on a day that the lines extend to agonizing lengths, you could end up waiting a long time for one of these coveted pies.

Despite the strong opinions voiced on so many blogs (people love to hate almost more than they love to love), I really had my own unique experience; and I feel it's important to share what struck me the most about my visit.

I love a New York pizza and a New York story.  At Di Fara, you get both.  This gingerly gentleman who shuffles around in flour-dusted shoes has been here every single day that this pizzeria has been open for almost fifty years.  If Dom is out for any reason, the store is closed (yes, of course I called before making the trek yesterday).  Though initially open 7 days a week, he has gradually cut back to opening Wednesdays through Sundays only.

Hayley and I arrived around 1:30 on a Wednesday to not much of a line at all, though the very second our order was written down, the door filled with hungry customers.  While we awaited our pie, we devoured one of the square slices as an appetizer.  Though I am a round pie kinda guy, this square was delicious.  You can immediately taste the pancetta and prosciutto simmered with the sauce (distinctly different from the round pie sauce).   After the long ride out, we needed something to satiate us pre-pie.

After I acquired permission to snap some photos, Dom came over and shook my hand.  This, I tell you, made the trip.  His flour-covered hands were both calloused and tender, and as we connected for a second, he smiled.  In that simple kind gesture of a smile and a shake, I saw a man who had become an expert at his art, proud of his achievements, yet void of any arrogance or snobbery.  Dom smiled again, and then retreated to pull my pizza from the oven, the mozzarella di bufala and fior di latte still bubbling.

To my surprise, he placed the pie directly on the counter in front of me to add the finishing touches of scissor-cut fresh basil and grated Gran Padano (a relative of Parmigiano Reggiano, aged sometimes for up to two years, giving it a strong, almost truffle-like earthiness, and a very distinct flavor in Dom's pies).

The cashier standing nearby was grinning from ear-to-ear, and so I asked asked her how long she'd been working with Dom.

She giggled, and whispered "he's my dad."

Some days, you find Dom in the shop by himself, performing virtually every role.  If he ever has assistance, it's one of his children.  Is the pie worth the price, the trip, and the potential wait?  Absolutely, 100%.  You can import fresh ingredients anywhere, but there is no substitute for when you can actually taste the love.

DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

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Motorino East Village
349 E. 12th St., New York

When I first heard from a friend that Anthony Mangieri had decided to sell Una Pizza Napoletana, I was actually physically saddened.  It was in his small East Village Pizzeria that I had first experienced, not just tasted, a true Neapolitan pizza.  An authentic Neapolitan pizza awarded the designation, VPN (vera pizza Napoletana) by the official association in Naples, guarantees the use of: 1) a wood-fired dome oven operating at around 800ºF, 2) only fresh unprocessed ingredients, including type 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, all natural fior di latte or bufala mozzarella, fresh basil, salt, and yeast, and 3) proper technique involving kneading and shaping by hand, and a cooking time of no more than 90 seconds.

Una Pizza Napoletana was only open 4 days a week, from 5:00 pm until the dough ran out, and offered only 4 pie varieties with no substitutions allowed.  They had fresh ingredients flown in from the volcanic ash fields south of Mt. Vesuvias.  Though you might wait forever only to find they ran out of dough, and spend a pretty penny if you were lucky enough to get a pie, the pizza was genuinely spectacular.

I nearly did cartwheels when I learned that Mathieu Palombino (chef and co-owner of Motorino in Brooklyn) would be opening a second Motorino where Una Pizza Napoletana once stood.  When I paid my first visit upon its reopening, I was a little apprehensive.  The former pizzeria had become my favorite, and its owner and pizzaiolo (male pizza chef) had been harsh, bold, but confident in his no-bull neapolitan pie.

As soon as I tasted the new menu, I knew that Motorino had most definitely delivered, even if notably different from UPN.  While still offering classic neapolitan pies, unlike UPN, Motorino also offers a few other varieties, as well as antipasti.

I had trusted this particularly personal patronage to share with one of my dearest friends and restaurant enthusiasts, Peter.  After the first bite, he and I both concurred that the octopus was some of the most tender we had ever tasted.  Paired with potatoes, and tossed in chili oil with parsley leaves and fresh lemon, the flavors literally gave me goosebumps.  This dish was divine, simple, and utterly perfect.

We were excited to try the fire-roasted mortadella with cherry tomatoes, olives, basil, and pecorino.  Pete was particularly eager for this dish, as he shared with me that imported mortadella had actually been banned in the United States for over three decades, simply because of an outbreak of African swine flu in Italy in 1967.  So while the processed American version called bologna had become popular, authentic Italian mortadella had only recently been allowed again in the U.S.  Boy, did we ever taste the difference.  This sausage most certainly should be banned, because it was unbelievably delectable.  Salty, lean, and tender.  Again, fresh, simple Italian ingredients working harmoniously.

My palms were sweating as the server delivered the margherita pie.  How on earth would it ever compare to its heavenly predecessor?  As you can probably deduce from its placement on my list of favorites, it was an extremely, extremely close approximation of that first Neapolitan pie with which I initially fell in lust.

For fanatics of Una Pizza Napoletana who claim that some of the magic is lost, I would draw comparison with a first replacement cast for a Broadway show.  Many in the audience will be disappointed that they aren't witnessing the original cast who created the roles.  But as you often find over the run of a show, sometimes down the line a replacement may shine in ways the original never had, bringing previously untapped nuances to the role.  After all, Anthony Mangieri's pizzeria was not from Naples, but rather an American tribute to it, ultimately.  So while it's alright to miss his mastery, I do believe it is alright to encourage new master pizzaioli to showcase their own unique approach.

The main difference between the UPN and Motorino pie, which I have read criticized in a few reviews, is that the dough is a hint soggier.  A neapolitan pie is a bit wet by definition, for sure.  Any pizza that only bakes 90 seconds is certain to retain some liquid, though those sweetened waters blend for beautiful flavors.

If I could recommend one change to Motorino, it would be that they serve the pie uncut.  UPN served a whole, unpenetrated pie, accompanied by a steak knife.  That way, as you tore and cut into the pie with whatever technique you fancy, the sauce and juices gradually spilled onto the plate, allowing you to sop them up with the end crust (which is not burnt, but merely holds browned pockets of intense flavor resulting from the dough's final sigh upon hitting the hot brick oven).  Because Motorino slices their pies, a portion of those liquids are soaked up through the crust before you are ever allowed to experiment with the initial crispness on your own.  Nonetheless, it is an extremely satisfying, inebriating pie.

Pete sampled the stracciatella, created from torn pieces of especially creamy mozzarella, with olive oil, fresh basil, and sea salt.  It was a cheese-lovers dream pie, though I prefer the duet when the smooth and buttery cheese sings with the tangy and sweet San Marzano tomatoes.

Motorino also offers intriguing variations such as the brussels sprout with pancetta, mozzarella, garlic, and pecorino.  But when it comes to dolci (dessert), they have a single offering, and you can't leave without trying it.  Hands down, the best tiramisu in which Pete or I have ever indulged.  Espresso-kissed (not soaked, like some imitators) fluffy ladyfingers sandwiching layers of lightly sweetened mascarpone, with a dusting of cocoa and a sprig of mint. Wow. Wow. And wow.

Though a pie in and of itself is more than satisfying meal, Motorino offers one of the best all-around selections with some killer additions, as well as an incredible pie.  A classic is a classic.  Motorino would be difficult to beat...

Motorino on Urbanspoon

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Keste´ Pizza & Vino
271 Bleecker Street, New York

As people curiously circumvented the mass gathering on one side of Bleecker street, I heard some entertaining assertions whispered by the passersby.  "Oh, it must be a field trip or one of those group bus tours... annoying..."  "I don't care how good anything is; you won't catch me dead waiting in a line like that for anything."  "Are they protesting something?" "Yeh, it definitely looks like a church group."

I was a part of that mass huddled on the street about which they were hypothesizing.  No, none of us knew more than one or two others in the group.  We weren't protesting anything.  The only common religion here was a cult-following for the art of pizza making.  And if you aren't steadfast enough to wait, well, then... your loss, and less of a wait time for the rest of us.

Just across the street, another line was forming in front of John's Pizzeria.  It felt like a football game, with opposing sides staring down the fans of the challenging team.  New York pizza versus Old World pie.  I almost think half the reason people waited on either side was because to simply retreat and dine at a nearby restaurant with available seating would be like turning your back on your favorite college team.  It definitely made me laugh (to the point that I am sure some people asked who the weirdo was giggling to himself).

My team was gathering in front of the relatively new Keste (Neapolitan dialect for "This is it!") Pizza & Vino, all eagerly awaiting our turn to taste one of Roberto Caporuscio's neapolitan masterpieces in the classic tradition.  Born and raised on a dairy farm an hour from Napoli, it was in the classic city where he studied with the masters as he honed his craft.

Waiting on the sidewalk for a table before even perusing the menu (who am I kidding, I'd already practically memorized it online), I was immediately struck by the profound humility and gratitude with which co-owner, Rosario Procino wove in and out of the crowd.  While he kissed babies, and thanked each and every one of us for waiting patiently, he passed around slices of the battilocchio del giorno (essentially rectangular appetizer pizza), which today involved a garlicky & creamy eggplant tapenade, with pockets of mascarpone cheese and mozzarella di bufala (my stomach honestly just growled as I typed those words and inserted the photograph).  Glancing across the street, I saw absolutely no sign  of the head coach at John's rallying his fans.  They glared at us, bitter, hungry, and without a leader.

Our coach wasn't using his pie to lure in crowds.  He was offering it to those of us on the waiting list as a gift to say thank you for waiting... it's gonna be worth each and every second.

After only 20 minutes, I was seated near the front window.  At the table immediately to my right,  a young and gorgeous Italian couple bantered with the waiter in their native tongue.  Though I felt inferior not being able to share in this musical language to discuss my order, he must have sensed it, and smiled immediately and came over.  When I shared which pizza I had been contemplating, and asked if it was a good choice, he lowered his own head to my eye level and spoke to me like he knew an ancient secret that I was about to discover... "Eet will change-ah your li-fuh..." Then he winked, and was gone.

It is told that the first Pizza Margherita was made in 1889 by a local baker named Esposito, in honor of a visit to Naples by the Queen of Italy, Queen Margherita.  Though flatbreads were not particularly new, the patriotic addition of tomato, cheese, and basil as a tribute to the Italian flag gave the world its first pizza.  It is in that same classic tradition that Keste now offers its pies.

You may be fan of any number of different pizza styles.  But I maintain the same philosophy on pizza that I do on music.  While I may not always listen to classical concertos as my preferred playlist on my iPod, it's not until you have an understanding of the classics, basic music theory and history, that you can fully appreciate or even understand the developments and genres that have evolved over the years.  Similarly, while I do love a New York pie just as much as someone might prefer rock and roll to Beethoven, there's no debate that the latter evolved from the previous.

Sound silly?  Try a pie at Keste and see what I mean.  You can literally taste the history, the beauty of a few simple, fresh ingredients, and the classic foundation from which later pies were born.  When you've finished devouring that pie (which won't take long at all), treat yourself to the panna cotta (baked cream).  It's the first I've ever really loved.  It was sublimely smooth with an exquisite essence of vanilla bean, drizzled with a delicious house chocolate sauce...

Keste Pizza & Vino on Urbanspoon

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19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn

If you are seeking the quintessential New York City day, a trip to Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn bridge is nearly impossible to beat.  While many pizza enthusiasts recommend walking over the bridge to Brooklyn for one of these famous pies, I have a better suggestion.  Hop on the subway into Brooklyn, enjoy a pizza and a Brooklyn lager, then walk back from Brooklyn into Manhattan.  Not only will you burn off some of the calories, but doesn't it make more sense to have the Manhattan skyline unfold in front of you, rather than at your back?

While Grimaldi's is notorious for its long lines, the pizza gods were smiling on us, and we were seated immediately.  Though it may be tempting to stare at the menu and dream up various combinations, it isn't going to help your pie come any faster.  These people are serious pizza-makers, and they mean business. If you look like you are still even remotely contemplating, they won't even blink your direction as they fly past your table.

We kicked off our meal with an antipasto platter of house-made mozzarella, salami, roasted red peppers, and jumbo olives, accompanied by garlic crostini.

While each component was ridiculously fresh, and enjoyable alone, I couldn't help but stack these delicious bites that packed together all of the flavors and textures.  The ultimate palate teaser.

We ordered the extra mozzarella pie, and I am going to cut to the chase.  Though the neapolitan pizza at Keste´ wins the award for my current favorite pie, when it comes to a classic New York style pizza, Grimaldi's blows the competition out of the water.

Do you see that?!?  I've come to regard the Grimaldi pie as the van Gogh of New York pizzas.  The colors, as well as the flavors swirl together in glorious harmony.  See how the cheese and sauce dance away from each other and then back together like little wisps of cirrus clouds?  You cannot tell precisely where the sauce begins, where the crust emerges, or where the mozzarella stops.  This pizza was astounding.  And the flavors on the tongue were just as magical as the painting on the pie.

I have tried and tried to pinpoint exactly what makes this pie so perfect.  Maybe it's because they place the cheese directly onto the crust first, and then add the sauce and other toppings, allowing the cheese to literally hug the dough, rather than slip across it in an avalanche when you lift the first slice.  Maybe it's their own special recipe for the cheese and sauce, or the wooden crates in which they store their pillows of dough.  Who knows?  Who cares!  Whatever it is, it most certainly works.

Be sure to take a trip to the restroom for the prime orchestra seating to the show.  As you wait to powder your nose, you have the honor of watching the chefs give birth to the pizza, from fluffy dough to the final glorious pie emerging from the fiery coal oven, literally alive, steaming several feet into the air.

They even claim to have a water chemist regularly check their systems to ensure ultimate consistency in each and every pizza that spills from the hearth.

Did I mention that they forever ruined cannoli for me?  These fried-pastry tubes filled with a light, sweetened ricotta and dipped in chocolate sprinkles with a dusting of confectioner's sugar are prepared to order.  Never again can I order a connolo (the little-known singular form of the word) from a bakery, where often the crispiness of the crust is compromised by mass-filling.  The Grimaldi's cannoli are superior.


Following our meal from heaven, we walked around the block to let our tummies settle before walking across the bridge.  Even if you are bursting at the seams, at least select a few truffles for the road from Jacques Torres at 66 Water St.  We found just enough room for the Fonseca Bin 27 port wine truffle, a champagne kiss, as well as a menage a trois (chef's secret truffle of three mystery ingredients, though we did correctly identify saffron).  Exquisite fine chocolates at their best.

Needless to say, we were certainly ready for a stroll back into the city.  Probably the most magnificent way to see the Big Apple, from the dense stacking of skyscrapers on the southern tip to the scattering of towers reaching hundreds of blocks to the North, a breathtaking way to walk off an incredible meal and wrap up the perfect New York City day.

Grimaldi's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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Denino's Pizza Place
524 Port Richmond Ave, Staten Island

My lengthiest excursion led me across the bay to Staten Island to Denino's Pizza Place.  Though several websites suggested an express bus to the pizzeria, I have always regarded a free trip on the Staten Island Ferry as one of my ultimate favorite New York experiences; and I try to take the journey several times a year.  Upon boarding, everyone frantically scurries toward the front of the boat. I suppose it's somehow Darwinian and human nature to race to the head of the pack.  Not me.  I stay at the back of the boat, and grab a bench knowing that within moments of departure, everyone else will soon learn what I already know.  The best views in the first part of the half-hour trip are watching Manhattan shrink behind you in the wake of the ferry.

Look how closely we passed by the Statue of Liberty, without paying a cent for one of those tours.

Although I love creating my own New York soundtrack with my iPod and earphones, on the ferry you will hear every language imaginable, a cacaphony somewhat often hard to resist.  There's even a snack bar onboard where you can grab a popcorn, hot dog, or even a Heineken.  Because I knew I would devouring more pizza momentarily, I refrained today (where's that willpower when I should be resisting a second or third slice of pizza?!)

As you approach Staten Island, find your way toward the top of the ferry for public transportation, and the lower level if being picked up by a car.  If you don't happen to have a friend who lives on Staten Island, you can take the S44 bus from the St. George Ferry Station all the way to Hooker Place (I'll leave it up to you to decide if the neighborhood befits the street name).

I stepped inside with my friend Dennis, a local, who laughed at my instant reaction.  Were we in a moose lodge?  The men bellied up at the bar with whiskey and beer flinched momentarily at my bright orange fleece, then returned their gaze to the televisions at either end of the bar.

We walked past the juke box and found a booth in the dining room, and ordered a pitcher of Coke.  When the pitcher and two itty bitty glasses came, along with two paper plates and a set of dime store silverware, I thought I might hyperventilate from excitement (yeh, don't even try to cut your pizza; these knives couldn't kill a stick of butter).  It felt just like I was on an elementary school field trip.

Though Dennis convinced me not to bogart the juke box with a playlist of Britney, Miley, and Lady GaGa, I couldn't help but get excited.  If the pizza was even half as serious as the no frills restaurant, the hard core clientele, or the roller derby waitress, I knew I was about to fall in love with this place.

"B-RAD...are you kidding?" Dennis looked mortified.  I looked behind me, but didn't see the cause for such concern,  "You really wore a Red Sox hat to a bar in Staten Island?  Are you trying to get us killed?!?"

At that precise moment, my roommate called me.  As if it weren't bad enough that I was wearing a neon fleece and Red Sox hat, now the ringtone I had assigned to my roommate was crooning Celine Dion's "Taking Chances" at full ringer volume across the otherwise silent dining room.  When the pizza finally arrived, we were both dove in like kamikaze pilots, as if the sauce held some antidote to dull my sticking out like a sore thumb.

I include Denino's in the list of my favorites for two reasons: the trip there is wonderful, and the crust is somewhat freakishly out of this world.  Though I prefer the pillowy pockets of a neapolitan pie, if you like a crisp crust, this has to be the crispest this side of the Mississippi.

I will not, however, recommend a margarita pie.  It was alright, but the sauce is more of a tomato paste, and the buffalo mozzarella didn't really work any wonders.  What did work, however, was the M.O.R. pizza (meatballs, onions, and ricotta).  Here, the pie came together gloriously.  But again, I include this pizza for the crust-lovers in my life.  If you want a semolina-dusted crust that is still 1/4 of an inch thick, yet snaps with every bite, this will be your own personal heaven.  Their pizza boxes sum it up...

Baffled, I asked the waitress if they crisp the crust just a little before adding the sauce and toppings.  "Nope," she replied, "we just have a great recipe and some incredibly hot ovens..."

Denino's Pizzeria Tavern on Urbanspoon
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For my next blog post, I'm debating between 50 Best Sources of Fiber OR Top 20 NYC Gyms... ;o)


Unknown said...

Love it!

Anonymous said...

Before I go back to being raw, we are taking the ferry, walking over the bridge, and going to see that sweet old man!!

SZ said...

Oh, this is fantastic. I did a list of my fave NYC pizzas a while back but I think it needs to be revisited ( if you are so inclined).

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