Eli Rallo: Something in the Water — A spotlight on New York pizza
The debate over this country’s best slice of pizza is as contested and heated as the partisan political debates plaguing our society intensely in the 21st century. Democrat or Republican? Pro-life or pro-choice? Gun control? Immigration? Education? Where can you get the best pizza around here?
The question: What is the best slice of pizza in the country? At the very least, despite its vicious and aggressive implications, this debate consistently ends positively, due to a mandatory post debate taste test in order to truly come to some sort of conclusion. It’s a debate that brings people together over a slice of pizza — because at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as bad pizza (unless you’re on the West Coast, then maybe reevaluate). It’s necessary that time and time again we have this pizza conversation, one of great magnitude and vital necessity.
Take this as a state of the union address for ’za — a state of the slice address, if you will.
The Chicago deep dish, “Detroit” style pie and, of course, the famous New York slice all have cult-like followings — groups of people devoted to the locationally specific style of ’za that they hail as this country’s “best slice.” But anyone who knows anything about food at all knows that the New York slice is superior.
People that believe that any pizza is better than New York pizza have A) never been to New York B) are confused or C) are clearly wrong. Pizza was introduced to New York in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi who saw it as the solution to not wasting the day old bread in his grocery store. Lombardi’s genius sparked an energetic revolution for the city that never sleeps, making pizza a ubiquitous staple of the New York streets.
New York pizza is notorious. It is scientifically proven that the water in New York is quite literally better for making pizza dough than anywhere else in the United States. Supposedly, Frank Sinatra, Hoboken native, had New York water shipped out to the west coast biweekly in the 1940s to make edible pizza when he wasn’t close to home.
There are 32,000 pizza places in New York City, lining each street corner — all at once similar and incredibly unique. New York pizza is the pizza that began the slice industry, selling pizza by the slice instead of by the full pie, making ’za an individual experience. A casual moment. A stop by or a game time choice instead of a planned and plotted, also often shared, full pie. Opening the opportunity for small human moments in the interaction that takes place during the transaction of a lunch slice, a snack slice, a serendipity slice.
Pizza in New York is in high demand, and there are an abundance of options available to New Yorkers and visitors alike. Due to the variety of pizza places, New York pizza is a situational concept. What I mean by that is that one can always determine where to get pizza in New York based on their unique situation. There’s a major difference between your classic 2:00 a.m. late-night drunk slice, your “I need my suburban parents to meet my new significant other and like them” slice and your important-meeting-with-people-that-I-have-to-have-my-shit-together-for slice. That’s what makes the New York pizza scene so special: There’s a slice for every occasion. The breakup slice, the hangry slice, the first date slice, the quick slice, the fancy slice, the just married slice, the I have time to stand on a 30-minute slice, the celebratory slice.
In terms of specific New York and East Coast slices, you can say I’m relatively well versed. As a pizza connoisseur who was raised by a pizza messiah, I take pizza very seriously. Everyone in my family does, and the red Italian imported pizza oven sitting on our kitchen countertop is testament to just that. On a recent trip to New York, I had the pleasure of visiting my favorite spots to share some intimate moments with my favorite slices. A group of slices with which I have reliable and dependable relationships. The physical sensation is always great, and emotionally, we just connect.
Joe and Pat’s, a Staten Island pizzeria, is a firm 10. The three chefs crank out approximately 500 pizzas on any given Friday to the beats of funky ’80s music. The customers bring vibrance and diversity to the old-fashioned atmosphere. I recommend sitting at the counter with a blood orange San Pellegrino and a plain pie, about noon on a Friday, for the full experience. The plain pie is to die for, its circles of mozzarella memorable, the dash of romano to finish, a hot take, but in my opinion, a blessing. The sauce is young, punchy and sweet, a perfect pairing to the flaky, crisp crust. The crust of a Joe and Pat’s plain pie is arguably the best pizza crust in the country, if not the world. Its crust is its magic and the exact vehicle that allows customers to eat an entire pie in one sitting. It’s light, it’s romantic, it’s easy. It’s the reliable guy your parents love and you can always depend on. Joe and Pat’s is a dream slice, one that puts Staten Island on the map as more than a New Yorker’s punching bag.
A wise pizza lover once told me that in order to be a perfect 10, the slice has to pass the most important pizza taste test: You must be able to taste each ingredient; sauce, dough, cheese. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Joe and Pat’s skinny little slice of heaven is Brother’s Pizzeria Sicilian slice. Down the road from Joe and Pat’s, Brother’s is close in distance but miles away in style. Its thick, deep dish crust is a textural journey — crispy, doughy, flaky and thick. Its stretchy mozzarella and zesty, peppery sauce cratered between the soft pillows of dough make a home in your mouth. Unlike Joe and Pat’s, one slice of Brother’s Sicilian is plenty. But that doesn’t mean you should stop at one, because clearly, you need at least two slices to get a true gauge on the quality of slice.
A whole borough away, tucked into a little no-frills corner of Brooklyn, is quite possibly the best slice in the country: Di Fara. The pizzeria makes one of the most sought after slices in New York City, a two hour line of hungry customers spilling onto the sidewalk awaiting the enlightenment of a pricey five dollar slice day after day. Domenic DeMarco, the shop’s owner (also known as Jesus to his loyal disciples), stands unaffected by the daily commotion, over crackling round pies, slicing basil onto their exteriors with a pair of kitchen scissors. When I was four years old, my father took me for my first slice of Di Fara pizza, and simultaneously awakened me from the dark world I’d been living in without it. To my chagrin, but not surprise, I apparently stood up on the counter, in my young impatience and beckoned at the 72-year-old DeMarco: “Excuse me, mister, where’s our pizza?”
We didn’t wait much longer after that.
Di Fara was worth the wait then, and it still is now. DeMarco uses San Marzano tomatoes, the most famous plum tomato to come out of Italy, and I’d deem this a power move. His sauce is tangy yet delicate, the imported Italian buffalo mozzarella cheese its perfect pair. DeMarco is the only person who makes the pizza, which contributes to the ridiculous line, and also the notoriety of the famous slice. Di Fara pizza is the type of slice you wish to never end — it’s a head over heels, hot romance. It’s balanced in the way pizza should be, and its simplicity is nothing short of outstanding.
A few subway stops away is Marta in NoMad, a special, newer addition to my list. Marta specializes in pizza of the Roman style, which is funny, being that nobody ever goes to Rome for the pizza. Sure, Rome has pizza, and yes, a lot of it is good, but it’s no Naples. Marta, however, celebrates the extra thin crust of a typical Roman pizza. Of course, thin crust pizza in New York is no shock, but the pizza at Marta is notably thin. It’s comparable to a thin cracker that doesn’t crumble, a perfect vessel for its fresh toppings. Most wonderful of these toppings is the homemade pulled stracciatella cheese, which I’d call a gift to pizza. Other notable Marta ’za’s include the egg, grated pecorino, potato and guanciale masterpiece (a deconstructed Carbonara sauce finding home on a pizza) and a personal favorite of mine, the absolutely worth-it 60-dollar tartufo nero, which is topped with shaved Italian truffles. Marta is your fancier slice indeed, but we all need to feel fancy and sharp now and again.
Rounding out my New York slice list at number five is Staten Island’s best known pizzeria, Denino’s. Opened in 1937, the little brick building on the northern end of the island is at once both a tourist attraction and “the spot” for locals. Though I am a firm believer that the plain pizza is the only kind of pizza any of us should be eating — Denino’s changes the game and tests my long-standing loyalty to the plain pie. The trademark “M.O.R” pie, is the must order here. It’s a simple romance between meatball, ricotta and onion that puts Denino’s on the list. The crust here is thicker than a usual New York slice, though still slender with a sweet sauce, which is complemented by a perfect blend of ricotta and mozzarella. The meatballs make the pie a worthwhile contestant for a shotgun wedding, as it is impossible to be anything but in love with the specialty pie Denino’s is known for.
Despite my defiant opinion that New York pizza is a one-of-a-kind, out of everyone’s league slice, there are other places that certainly threaten to challenge New York’s seat at the top of the pizza hierarchy.
One of these places, Sally’s Apizza, a New Haven, Conn. hole in the wall, definitely puts up a good fight. Both Sally’s Apizza and its neighbor and brother pizzeria Frank Pepe’s consistently make national best slice lists. Both have large fan bases, and most of these fans have a strong opinion as to which place serves the better ’za. For me, it’s Sally’s Apizza, which I’ve had the great pleasure of eating at twice in my 19 years, not counting the leftovers. Both Sally’s and Pepe’s serve thin, charred crusted pizza, and their differences are not immediately apparent. However, Pepe’s is known for its trademark (and incredible) white clam pizza, and Sally’s for its signature tomato pie, stark in its simplicity, topped with nothing but a sprinkle of parmesan. Despite Pepe’s unique take on ’za, Sally’s brings me back to my base, reminds me why I eat pizza, and gives me the reality check only the best things in life can. Sally’s is open five days a week at 4:00 p.m., and the line begins to form about an hour beforehand on days of business, because the slice is that good.
What makes these slices perfect 10s comes down to a few things. First, the ingredients, all of which are fresh and, for lack of a better term, primo. Second is the heart and passion of the pizzerias; these slices are handcrafted to mean something more than just pizza. They are time machines to other worlds, invoking memories of grandmothers passed, family dinners on Sunday afternoons, heritage and a country with an innate capacity of bringing people together through good food.
What I recommend when seeking out a good slice anywhere, but especially in the five boroughs of New York, is to ignore appearances, follow the crowds, don’t be afraid of a shabby exterior or a crumbling infrastructure — instead look for the heart, the San Marzano tomatoes and the hands of the pizza chef. Those hands make the magic of the perfect slice — never underestimate the architects of such ecstasy.
Whereas in Chicago you’re confined to the deep dish, in Detroit, some square looking nonsense (sorry) and on the West Coast cardboard (sorry again), the diversity and simplicity of the slice in New York City is what makes it the pizza capital of the United States. The notoriety of the New York City slice makes all other cities overwhelmed with a jealousy so intense that they should turn it into motivation to get on New York’s level.
After all, I don’t think any of us East Coasters here in the Midwest would complain if someone could figure out the key to bringing the New York slice a few hundred miles west, but then again, confining the best pizza in the country to the city’s 303.33 square mile area is what makes it such an idiosyncrasy.