Monday, July 20, 2009

Perfect Food

I've been thinking about pizza lately. Don't know if it's our recent trips to Mario's on Arthur Avenue, our vacation in Vermont - with the requisite stop at Pepe's in New Haven - the time I've spent reading what has quickly become one of my favorite blogs, Adam Kuban's extraordinary Slice, part of the Ed Levine Serious Eats gastrointestinal juggernaut, or the fact that when friends visited a couple of weeks ago, all the way from California, we made them pizza. Maybe it's just because I'm fat again.

Whatever the reason, I've been focused on the texture and taste of a perfectly-charred crust, the tang of good sauce, the silky indulgence that is the cheese in a pie made at the highest level - and decided to put together an informal ranking of my favorite pizza places of all time, both world class/celebrated and local favorites, and some that have (fortunately) been both.

Is there anything, really, like pizza? The simplicity of the ingredients, the potential of the toppings to take the experience anywhere you want to go. The arrival of the finished product - right out of the oven - in a place where they know what they are doing. Here are some places, based on my own extensive field testing, where they really know what they are doing.

1. Pepe's (New Haven) The first "famous" pizza place I ever went to and still my favorite, going on 25 years later, a sentiment that is shared by the entire family. Ask Madison or Ava (8 and 6) who makes their favorite pizza and, after a moment of careful consideration - which, in and of itself, makes me swell with pride - they will both say Pepe's. I had this exact dialogue with Madison last week and probed a little further by asking her why. "The crust," she said without hesitation. Yeah, the line is a pain, and how long it takes to get in or complete your meal is virtually impossible to predict. But there's nothing like a Pepe's pie, and walking out of the place - stuffed to the gills - through a throng of famished and wild-eyed aspirants out there on Wooster Street is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. Madison's default is red sauce with mozzarella cheese, Ava is partial to the white pie, Gwen and I love red sauce, spinach and onion and just grated cheese. Word to the wise - they also do take-out, although based on when you call and the current state of the backlog your pick-up time can stretch to 60-90 minutes after you place your order.

2. Mario's (Arthur Avenue, Bronx) Wrote all about this welcome surprise in the Arthur Avenue post above. Here's another, with some photos, including one of owner Joseph Migliucci, making one of the pies that are so good they're not even on the menu.

3. Nick's (Forest Hills and Rockville Centre) Found the Forest Hills location in the mid-90s and more recently the Rockville Centre outpost, which is much larger and offers the same great pizza along with a full menu of salads, pasta dishes, fish, meat, etc. Phenomenal crust, almost delicate, with sauce and toppings to match. Also probably the best white pie we've ever had, with ample dollops of ricotta to go along with the mozzarella and fresh garlic. Try a pie with red sauce, onions (they use red onions) and olives, which at Nick's are tangy kalamata. Wonderful.

4. Una Pizza Napolentana (NYC) First exposure to this pizza purist was through the television, watching Ed Levine escort Todd English through the door and through a pie he described as "perfect food." It really is. OK, you want to poke fun at the "here's why what you're eating is so damned special, just in case you missed it" six-panel pamphlet available to diners as being maybe a little overwrought and self important, go right ahead. But proprietor/chef Anthony Mangieri knows what he's doing back there by that minimalist work station and wood-fired brick oven, and if he's going to turn out food of this quality I for one support his right to talk about it.

Earlier this month I saw this Slice post on the possible sale of Una Pizza Napoletana and knew the next time I was in the city I was going to have to get back there for another Anthony pie, just in case. So last week, after a late afternoon meeting way downtown, I took the subway up to 14th St. and walked across town in the direction of 1st Ave. Got there shortly before 6 p.m. and every table was filled, with the exception of the little two-spot by the door. I settled in, ordered my Margherita pie and glass of wine and weathered the "what's up with that socially-inept dude over there eating by himself?" glances from everyone else in the place. Could not have cared less - the experience was worth it.

Walked back after paying the check and congratulated Anthony on another fine effort, told him that when it comes to pizza it's his or Pepe's - both insane and totally different. He laughed and seemed to appreciate the reference. It's amazing to me that after the many, many thousands of pies he's made over the years, he still holds every one up in the oven, crouches down and peers up at the underside to get a good look at the char. Every single pie is a careful assessment, a meticulous creation. That's why this place is what it is. Tremendous. If he goes he will be missed, and followed. I left around 7 p.m. with a line of anxious and hungry customers standing out on the sidewalk. I could have been in New Haven.

5. Totonno's (NYC) When Gwen and I lived in Manhattan it was in an apartment at the corner of 79th Street and Second Avenue, and even more important than our second bathroom was the fact that Totonno's was right around the corner. And that they delivered. Never in my life do I expect to again have pizza this extraordinary literally a phone call away. When we were expecting Madison we basically lived on one thing: large round pie, with sauce, mozzarella and onions, well done. It always was.

6. Caioti (Los Angeles) Favorite place by far when I lived in California, back when Caioti was located in a small cavern-type room under the Canyon Country Store in Laurel Canyon. Wrote a little tribute in this space back when owner/chef Ed LaDou passed away, much too soon. I still remember him back in that little salt box of a kitchen, cranking out one masterpiece after another. Hopefully the legacy lives on.

7. Colosseo (Long Island) Growing up, pizza meant only one thing - Colosseo. Located in an unassuming little strip mall shopping center, there was nothing like it. Nowhere near Frank Pepe's league, Anthony Mangieri would probably have to go off somewhere and purge if he was forced to eat a slice of the stuff, but when I was in high school ordering pizza on a Friday night meant enduring a throng five deep at the counter, waiting for pies both round and square, adorned with fresh and honest toppings. No canned and sickly briny button mushrooms in play at Colosseo, we're talking fresh sauteed and smoky. General consensus and a central truth of my formative years was that a Colosseo Sicilian pie was a piece of art, an achievement that could not be touched. I used to believe this as gospel. And whenever I go back, ordering up a slice that brings me all the way back to sweating college applications and the SAT, I still do.

8. Pizzeria Paradiso (Washington, D.C.) One of the first places I ever saw people stand in line for pizza (along with Pepe's), and one of the first places I'd ever seen pizza makers drizzle olive oil on finished pies before they landed in front of appreciative diners. Quickly became one of the standbys when I lived down there in the early 1990s, when I could bear the wait and hassle of actually getting a table. It was always worth it. Saw George Stephanopoulos wander in alone one night - at the height of the Clinton Administration - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy his pizza unharassed while reading a copy of the New Yorker. DC gets plenty of visitors, Pizzeria Paradiso was a place for regulars, for locals who lived in the city and knew where to go, like a crust-and-toppings version of City Lights of China or Lebanese Taverna.

9. John's (of Bleecker Street, NYC) Of all the picks on the list, this one feels the most obligatory, but there was a period of time when I was working in an office at the corner of 44th and 6th that I did appreciate John's Times Square location, which I think may actually be closed now, and the ability to wander in for what could only be considered a quality lunchtime pie. They were also there at the beginning, or at least before thin crust, brick oven became a mass-market expectation (hello, Bertucci's), as opposed to a nice surprise. John's makes the list on history alone.

10. Ours. Not up to the high professional standards of the pizza palaces listed above, to be sure, but with one distinct advantage. It's served - right out of the oven - at home.

[Postscript - turns out Slice was right, and Una Pizza Napoletana has closed. I got one of Anthony Mangieri's last NYC pies, on my little Thursday night mission last week, and consider myself even more fortunate. So I'm down one slot on my list, and open to suggestions.]


Blogger Lydia said...

John's. Yes. My husband and I ate there when we were in NYC to be married in 1995. I'm glad to know it's still there.

5:38 AM  

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