Sac's Place (25-41 Broadway, Astoria)
Depending on your personal pizza philosophy, you must carefully choose one of two very different entrances to Sac's Place on Broadway. One leads you into a long and narrow room with glass cases for those who prefer a slice on the run. If that's your approach, I respect it, but don't be surprised if the pizza didn't just come directly from the oven, which may or may not have been the coal oven (they reheat their slices in a regular convection oven, and even bake a few entirely in it).
For the diner who has a little more time to spare and truly wants to experience what I have come to enjoy as quite possibly my favorite pizza in Astoria, I recommend the doorway into the main dining room, where you are assured the pies are made fresh to order, thin and crispy, with a slight kiss of coal oven char along the edges. And if you prefer homemade pasta, well then there's absolutely no excuse to be in a rush.
I first visited Sac's Place in early March, on a particularly wet and slushy day. Though the actual wood-burning fireplace holds little appeal beyond cozy and rustic ambiance during the summer, I was grateful to be seating right next to the burning embers.
At Sac's Place, you instantly feel as though you have been handed a visitor's pass to a secret Astoria social club. As I perused the menu that initial visit, it seemed that every table around me knew the next table over. A gingerly old man dining solo propped his cane up against his chair, and without even glancing at a menu, the server asked him, "the salmon, right?" The elderly man smiled and nodded. A few tables over, two students were tearing into their pizza while quizzing each other for an upcoming exam. The husband from the table next to them leaned over and inquired, "how's the studying goin' girls? Seems you are always buried in the books when we see you." And then along the far wall of windows a party of ten celebrated the Confirmation of one of their boys. The server knew each guest by name.
While one of the owners, Domenico Sacramone (co-proprietor with his brother, Anthony) circled the dining room to welcome his regulars, I sat in awe, wondering how I'd never been here before, and quite honestly, not heard very much about this place. Though I had yet to taste the food, it was evident that the brothers had gathered quite a loyal following, even if most of the tables during this bitter late-winter lunch were empty. I was somewhat disappointed the brother approached literally every table except for mine before perching at the bar. But by the time I finished that first meal, it didn't matter. This place wasn't just good... it was great.
A few months passed, and somehow Sac's Place slipped from my mind, until Travis called me for lunch. He asked if we could go some place new for just some good ol' fashioned comfort food. I told him I knew just the place. It was time for a return visit to Sac's Place to see if the food was as delicious as I had remembered.
When we entered, Domenico was again sitting at the bar talking to familiar patrons, and didn't even seem to take notice that two strangers had entered. But the gentleman who had been both host, server, and delivery order attendant the last time came briskly from the kitchen. "Welcome back!" he smiled, as if genuinely happy to have earned my return visit. And then he guided us to the indoor patio area, exclaiming, "please, sit anywhere you like..." This time there were no handwritten specials in the menu as there had been the first time, and he seemed to notice my slight panic. "Don't worry," he smiled... "we have the lasagna today." It was as if he had read my mind.
The ever-trusting and free-spirited Travis just laughed and closed the menu. "Clearly you should order for both of us!"
The warm basket of bruschetta and focaccia is not for the weak of self-control. Dressed in their signature sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, these crunchy, buttery squares are more like tiny slices of pizza marinara, and could easily be devoured in seconds without the blink of an eye. It's one bread basket from which you consume everything but the last crumb before even noticing it was accompanied by pats of butter.
We started off with an appetizer portion of the lobster and crab ravioli with sauteed shrimp in a Tuaca cream sauce. These pillows of homemade pasta were stuffed with actual chunks of tender lobster and lumps of crab meat, beautifully gift-wrapped in sun dried tomato and squid ink squares. The vanilla brandy cream sauce brought out the natural sweetness of the seafood, and offered a unique and simple showcase for the perfectly steamed pasta.
The pie that you simply have to try isn't even listed in their on-line menu. They call it the Mama, named after the same woman who is responsible for making so many of the homemade pastas in the back of the house. Travis and I had to laugh, as she peeked her head out several times throughout the meal to watch our faces for reaction. It was sweet, and made me feel a little bit at home.
Mama's pie is made with a simple and perfect sauce with imported tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The crust is buttery and delicious, with a crisp outer shell that gives way to a divinely soft and airy inner crust, making each bite equally enjoyable. I have enjoyed many artisan pies, deep-dish Chicago pies, stuffed pies, thin-crust New York slices, you name it. What I love about this pizza is that it combines all of the fresh Italian flavors of a true Neapolitan pie with the crisp and buttery crust I love about a good New York slice. If you truly love pizza, this is the one in Astoria that you have to try, in my humble opinion. Again, I cannot vouch for the slice you might order next door from their take-out counter, but this masterpiece that sits on a pizza stand towering above the table would be extremely difficult to beat.
Do you see that?! In a warm iron skillet sits a footlong loaf of one of my absolute favorite Italian-American classics, Lasagna Bolognese (they do offer a vegetarian version, as well). Though this beautifully executed rendition is not a part of the regular menu, it is typically run as a special every other weekend. The ribbons of noodles are perfectly al dente, the beef tender and robust in the hearty tomato base, all held together by golden melted blankets of fresh mozzarella. It's the closest I've ever had to my mom's version, and a dish that could quite honestly have me returning every other weekend.
For dessert, we asked which items were prepared entirely in house. Though a few of the desserts are bought elsewhere, he was able to recommend a few fresh specialties. The cannoli was the only somewhat disappointing moment in our meal. Though the filling was decadent, sweet, and wonderfully light, the pastry shell was soggy. I don't know if they had been filled in advance, or if the shells had been stored in a damp or cold atmosphere, but it was certainly a let down. Nothing tastes better sometimes than a cannoli that has been freshly stuffed to order.
Our momentary frowns were instantly upturned, however, when we tasted the Tuacan sundae, almost like a bananas foster. Warm golden medallions of banana are caramelized in vanilla brandy and spices, then topped with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream. Our server, who has worked nearly every post at Sac's Place (even the kitchen) prepared this dish himself. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful lunch of Italian American comfort food not often paralleled in Astoria. Though I have been told they serve one of the neighborhood's best brunches, I still want to try their shellfish in a spicy pinot grigio sauce or prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with pine nuts. No matter what I try next, though, I can almost guarantee you will always see Mama's pie sitting somewhere on my table.