July 1, 1985 | Vintage Insatiable
The Joy of Pizza: Our Insatiable Critic Chomps Her Way to the Best
What’s the difference between good pizza and bad pizza? I don’t know. I’ve never had bad pizza. At least I’ve always felt deliciously wicked and happy eating most any pizza. Pizza, my twelve-year-old self-styled pizza authority, Joey Goldman, informs me, is like sex. “When it’s good, it’s great, and even when it’s not so good, it’s still pretty great.” Twelve-year-olds know everything. Almost. Let me just note that having tasted 187 pizzas (and dough-wrapped kindred) in the past three months, I’ve lost a certain adolescent innocence.
Does it matter who invented pizza? The Italians or the Etruscans or the Greeks? Not to me. Neopolitan, Sicilian, French, deep-dish Chicago, New York classic, California upscale creative – each has its champions. I love them all. Quality ingredients are important: fresh homemade mozzarella, preferably in slices, not grated; a distinguished tomato sauce, not just a timid tinting of diluted tomato paste; serious sausage and sautéed mushrooms, pedigreed parmigiana. But the hand of the pizza-maker counts, too. And the heat of the oven. Nothing quite rivals the flavor of a coal-burning oven. Wood-burning brick ovens don’t guarantee superior pie. And cheese analogues – cheeses that are half-petroleum – are a fast-food treachery that the dairy industry is seeking to sabotage with its decal, spotted on the window of Famous Ray’s in the Village: “We are a real cheese pizza maker.”
Purists think the boutique pizza has gone too far – half as much for twice the money. Maybe. Basil-scented pineapple atop tomato is definitely not on my hit parade. And sauce-sodden corn chips with jalapeño and cheddar taxes even an incurable junk-food fervor. I do remember thinking while devouring smoked salmon, sour cream, and red caviar on a heart-shaped pizza at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles how good all that would taste on a toasted bagel. But Puck’s pizzas are not only chic, they are uniquely wonderful. He is not what I’d call the Galanos of pizza; he is more the Yves Saint Laurent.
I whipped out a measuring tape wherever I went, discovering that some pizzas are oval, not round. Actually, weight is probably a more telling statistic, though no measure of mouth joy. Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village could have sent two muscle-bound boys from its uptown annex to deliver a sausage-and-pepperoni-pizza – it weighed as much as a suckling pig.
Toting pizza takes skill. I lost one nice pie when an elevator closed too quickly, accordion-pleating it. Thoughtful pizza shops set a little three-legged plastic gizmo in the middle of each pizza to protect it from carton collapse en route to your door. It makes a wonderful kitchen table for a doll house. Eating pizza has its hazards too. “Pizza palate” was defined in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association as a burned and ulcerated hard palate “frequently found after eating excessively hot pizzas… especially with… extra cheese.”
Many thanks to all who submitted candidates for this survey. I’m especially grateful to Evelyne Slomon, author of The Pizza Book, for a crash course in her Pizza Workshop, several hot leads to superior pies, and a taste of how easy it is to make your own. Slomon’s astonishing pizza repertoire will go public at Pizzico (1445 First Avenue, at 75th Street, 737 3328) on July 15. She’ll be in the kitchen herself molding pizza classics and daily exotica such as rolled pizza (bonata) with broccoli and smoked mozzarella, pizza rustica (custard-bound sausage on a lard-and-pepper crust), and double-crust sfincuini with meatballs. Definitely a Best Bet.
I have ranked New York’s pizza in the order of my affection – classic and boutique together, starting with a baker’s dozen of grand champions.
The best pizza in town is just a 300-calorie run from my own doorstep – at Fiorello’s (1900 Broadway, near 64th Street), baked in a nine-inch black steel pan ($8.75 to $9.50). “A visionary version of the plebeian pizza,” the menu hails it. Such hyperbole is usually hyperbole. Not tonight. The waiter is road-company Dom DeLuise, offering parmesan without bringing it, dropping a portion of pie on the table with a balletic flourish, tsking to himself as he retrieves it. But no measure of madness can tarnish the thrill of finding deep-dish pizza at its best, the Fiorello – Novarigo goat cheese and a really serious tomato sauce, thick and basil-haunted, in a buttery, brioche-like crust. The Suprema is perfect for moods when nothing but excess will do. The Margherita is splendid too, though there’s not a braised whole garlic in sight, as advertised. The waiter expresses outrage and storms off to the kitchen, returning with minced raw garlic. Forget the Capri: Radicchio, arugula, roasted red peppers, anchovies, and pancetta might sounds like a sonnet, but it tastes like a salt marsh. Also, veal sausage is missing from our Juliano. “That’s the last straw,” the waiter cries.
On a bright day, it’s bliss sitting in the greenhouse front room of Fiorella (1081 Third Avenue, near 64th street), watching the crowds surge by, especially if you order the Fiorella – a ten-inch, free-form, classic-pizza-dough version of Fiorello’s goat cheese with tomato-basil sauce. The pie has rather wide margins with big crispy blisters, but the filling is sensational. Whole braised garlic cloves make the Margherita a smash, too. Two runny sunny-side-up eggs and crisp bits of smoky bacon (even though we asked for sausage) mark the East Side Juliano as a real triumph. The Suprema here suffers somewhat from crudités a bit too crude, but it’s still nicely opulent. Prices: $8.50 to $8.95.
“It’s your first time at John’s?” the pizza connoisseur ahead of us in the line outside 278 Bleecker Street is aghast. “Where are you from?” I feel like a fraud. A restaurant critic for fifteen years. A New Yorker for twenty. A pizza-lover forever. “Idaho,” I say, inhaling the special scent of John’s coal-oven pizza and savoring the déjà vu of wood-paneled booths, the great jukebox, sense-stunning murals of the grotto of Capri and the bay of Naples signed by the artist with his telephone number… a vintage pizza parlor. There are 54 options here, fourteen or sixteen inch, listed by number ($6.25 to $11). The waiter knows them all by heart. The simplest plain cheese is fine, lacking only a sprinkle of oregano for authenticity. Dried, of course. A taste of No. 26 – sausage, cheese, and green pepper – reminds me I’m out of love with green pepper. Mushroom, peppery hot sausage, and garlic – an offering from strangers at the next table – is the best. Gluttony insists we try the mammoth calzone, too, oozing silken ricotta from its supernal crusty wrap. Alas, it harbors small chunks of pale-pink sausage, apparently uncooked. I show a piece to the waiter. Silently, he tosses it into the garbage.
Hoexter’s Café (1442 Third Avenue, near 82nd Street) crafts pizzas of great style and authority – thin, crisp miniatures (eight and a half inches) with a neatly welted edge, full of color and bold flavor ($6.75 to $7.50). My favorite, No. 1 – tomato, basil, red onion, four cheeses, and mushrooms – has so much tang and bite it makes Mezzaluna’a pies down the street seem flabby. Pizza No. 3 is a tasty vegetarian bouquet with the playful scent of fennel. No. 4 – layered soppressata sausage, escarole, and red onion on a homemade tomato sauce – is very nippy, and deep-green spinach and powerful hickory-smoked bacon give No. 5 distinct personality.
I would love the tiny little pizzette at the Soho Kitchen and Bar (103 Greene Street) even if I didn’t have a wild crush on the owner of this vast, friendly café and wine bar. They are thin, crackling-crisp, boldly seasoned, and freshly herbed (ten and a half inches; $5.95). My favorite, sausage and cheese, can be ever-so-slightly salty. I don’t mind. The vegetable pizza carries overlapping circlets of al dente zucchini, with broccoli and tomato and sometimes mushrooms, pecorino, and asiago. The same cheese base is exceptional with herbed tomato alone. What’s thrilling here is choosing from 110 wines by the glass or twelve beers on draft. And after midnight weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends, champagne by the glass is discounted 35 percent. (In a fleeting identity crisis, the powers here tried changing the name to Greene Street Kitchen and Bar, then decided it was too costly to redo the neon.)
Orso (322 West 46th Street) is still a puzzlement. Twice in a row now, dinner has been a disappointment, though it seems some gifted genie rules the stove at lunch in this show-world hangout. Happily, the slightly singed shards of Orso’s crackling, garlicky pizza bread ($5.50) remain irresistible at any hour. Huge chunks of roasted pepper, black olives, and unsautéed mushrooms with onion and tomato on that same barklike dough ($8) has real pizzazz at noontime, and gorgonzola with prosciutto and garlic on a classic eight-inch round ($7) is a winner.
The name Freddy and Pepe’s Gourmet Pizzeria (101 West 68th Street) is no exaggeration. An amiable quartet behind the counter of this stand-up, line-up little pizza joint with five tiny tables is producing pizza for the New World. Rarely will you taste spinach quite so fresh, broccoli so crunchily al dente as in their goat-cheese whole-wheat pizza. Batter-dipped eggplant adds a nice nuttiness. The only flaw is too-timid seasoning. Freddy and Pepe do all the usual pizza tricks, plus a pesto and goat cheese powerful enough to paralyze vampires, ratatouille, whole-wheat with tuna, and avocado whenever you crave it. Pizza in dozens of permutations can be had in a sixteen or eighteen inch round ($5.75 to $16). Several options by the slice are ready to be rewarmed at lunchtime, but so far, three calls for a seafood pizza to go (baby clams, squid, mussels, fresh garlic, and onion in wine sauce) have been denied. “No gotta da seafood today.”
As you head toward Patsy’s (2287 First Avenue, near 117th Street), there is an aura of desolation that might make you hesitate to leave your cab or park your car at the curb without an armed guard. We stash ours at the gas station a block and a half north and hike coolly back to taste the celebrated pies baked in this 50-year-old coal-burning brick oven. “The best in town,” a cabbie who has stopped for a slice assures us, “and I’ve tasted everywhere.” Patsy’s is very no-frills, with a raucous crew – could be softball players or a bowling team – tearing into half a dozen pies in the bar. Traditional adornments run $6 for the simplest twelve-inch pie to $9 for the more complex large one. Our thirteen-by-fifteen inch oval has an oven-scented crust you can’t stop eating, splendid spicy hot sausage, a moderation of cheese, faintly sweet sauce, and what taste like canned mushrooms.
I phoned for a small pizza with sausage and pepperoni from the Pizza Joint (2165 Broadway, at 76th Street, 724 2565), and what arrived was a knockout: a sixteen-inch round with crisp mahogany edges, super-cheesy, with long, thick ovals of wonderfully spicy pepperoni and little nubbins of something that tasted like meatloaf ($8.55). I admit it was very salty, but I’m not selling pizza as health food. (Ten, sixteen, and eighteen inch pies are $3.50 to $12; slices available, too.) The same order from Pizza Joint Too (70 West 71st Street) brought a brother from another planet – everyday sausage, innocuous crust, edible but no prize.
As far as I’m concerned, David not only makes great sticky cookies, he makes one of the three best breads baked in this town, a crusty, chewy loaf he’s now adopted as a foundation for the French-bread pizza. So far sold only in the David’s Cookies at 12 East 42nd Street by the eight-by-three-and-a-half inch rectangle ($1.50 to $1.95), David’s pizzas appear to be custom-dressed to order. Anchovies, peppers, plain cheese or double cheese, zucchini, and the vegetable of the day are the options, with or without tomato sauce (brewed here), atop a shallot-garlic-and-olive-oil wash. Sausage for my favorite pizza is fresh-ground daily for David’s by Ottomanelli, and topped with mozzarella, romano, and pamesan. Why pizza? “Stouffer’s proves people love French-bread pizza by selling half a billion a year,” says David. The clam and cheese is no more. “Too esoteric. It didn’t play on 42nd Street.”
“Waiting for Mr. Gooddeal” appears to be the bar game these days at Prima Donna (50 East 58th Street). The crowd is so thick and yuppity it makes Dante’s inferno seem like a cozy family picnic. Just booking a table isn’t the only challenge. You need blockers to get through the congregation. I was reasonably content at first tasting Prima Donna’s eight-inch couturier pizzette, $7.50 to $15 (for truffles in a stickum of cream and fontina). That was before I focused on the crispness and intensity of flavor in the aristocrats reviewed above. Still, fresh rosemary jazzes up the duck sausage with goat cheese. Colazione, a breakfast pizza, is a friendly bit of excess – fried eggs, prosciutto, olives, mozzarella, and tomato. And the sun-dried-tomato-studded Tradizionale with mozzarella and basil has dignity.
No way even one steely digestive system could possibly survey all the Ray’s, Original or otherwise, that measle this town. I did my duty and found a serious contender at the bold and neatly Formica’d Ray’s Pizza at 27 Prince Street, near the Bowery. Major rehab is raising rents here. That might account for Ray’s hopeful hanging of greenery and the trio of umbrella’d outdoor tables, where locals are likely to lurch by offering to wipe your sunglasses for a dollar. Mushrooms taste canned, alas, and the sausage is ordinary, the spinach wilted, but ricotta with pesto, buttoned with black olives, is soothing and exceptional. Everything is available by the eighteen-inch pie ($6.50 to $11.50) and often by the slice. For some reason, I didn’t taste the ham-and-pineapple combo.
The cognoscenti’s pizza, at Totonno (1524 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn) – mashed garlic in molten puddles on beautiful homemade mozzarella, hold the tomato sauce – is definitely championship class. There might have been a baker’s dozen pies pictured here. But you do get the feeling Jerry Totonno thinks he is doing the world a favor by opening his Coney Island institution from 3:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays only. Would he send a sample for our photo? Forget it. Two grim females guard the stubbly Totonno as he crafts each dough sculpture himself just as his daddy did in New York’s first pizzeria, opened by Gennaro Lombardi at 53 ½ Spring Street in 1905. One surly waitress tends the faithful… slowly. Asked to bring a soft drink or water to quiet a weepy baby, she snarls, “I’ll be with you when I can, pal.” Order two sixteen or eighteen inch pizzas ($6 to $9), and one will be set on top of the other – the tasty coal-flavored crust poufs high to protect the filling. If you’re easily insulted, Totonno may not be worth the detour.
The coal oven at Arturo’s (106 West Houston Street) perfumes the pizza crust, but a dash of salt would help, too. Even so, this crowded, eccentric little pizzeria with its lively piano is justly celebrated. Excellent neighborhood sausage, peppery hot, is the secret. Eggplant with garlic could be more exciting. Eleven- and fourteen-inch pies, $8 to $13.
Grillmania’s newest spawn is the Fifth Avenue Grill (102 Fifth Avenue), a soaring balconied space with an open kitchen and three nine-inch pizzas ($7.50 to $9.75) on an interesting menu. Shredded duck with leek, sun-dried tomato, and crisp ribbons of fennel in mozzarella is fairly good on its thinnish, flavorless crust. I’d prefer a more generous hand with the mushrooms on a garlic-studded fontina pie with shiitake and pleurote. But grilled eggplant in a fall of tangy goat cheese with tomato and basil is delicious.
It’s taken a while for Petaluma (1356 First Avenue, at 73rd Street) to get its pizzas reasonably competitive. Opening to an instant crush – the grind of guerilla warfare as status-mongers struggle for favored-table status (page 60) – does not necessarily provoke genius in the kitchen. Early ten-inch pizzas from the show-off wood-burning oven came scorched and skimpy, crusts unremarkable, toppings ditto ($8.50 to $9.50). But more recently, pies seem crisper. Fontina, mozzarella, and ricotta with asparagus as a daily special is most commendable.
Quite the most stylish spot to hit Yorkville, the Paradise Pizza Café (316 East 86th Street) is a nifty candidate for prettiest pizza parlor in town. It’s fun to sit beside a pink flamingo in spiffy pink-white-and-green splendor sharing a ten-inch bacon, lettuce, and tomato pizza or a triple cheese – mozzarella and parmesan sweetened with monterey Jack – 2 out of 42 options ($4.95 to $9.95). Unsautéed eggplant becomes anonymous under its cheese, and the fresh tomatoes suffer the out-of-season wimps, but smoky bacon tossed with warm lettuce is better than it sounds. Bolder seasoning would help. Pizza by the slice is sold till 5 p.m.
If only one could eat the menu at Ernie’s (2150 Broadway, near 76th Street). It all sounds wonderful. And so rarely is. Eleven of the twelve ten-inch pizzas ($6.95 to $7.95) sound fabulous. Fortunately, the kitchen is out of seaweed and three cheeses. Double-crust pizza – focaccia farcitti – is as tasty as parched earth and filled with odd, perhaps elderly, crab, broccoli, and sweet peppers. Adored eggplant (with leeks and roasted garlic) has no taste here, but spiced shrimp with roasted peppers and ricotta salata is actually quite pleasing.
It takes Tom’s Pizzeria (510 Columbus Avene, near 81st Street), a neighborhood favorite, at least an hour to deliver, but our sixteen-by-fourteen-inch pepperoni-and-sausage pie is delicious – full of flavor, more tomato sauce than most, and a bold sprinkling of oregano on an excellent crust, brown and crisp. A bit salty, perhaps. By the pie ($6 or $8) or by the slice.
After John’s, the most beloved pizza source seems to be Famous Ray’s Pizza in the Village (465 Sixth Avenue, at 11th Street), with its inevitable queues hungry for fuelings of cheese, “real cheese,” as the window decal boasts. Slices nibbled at stand-up tables are very cheesy or super-cheesy, but crusts are pale and boring. It takes two overlapping paper plates to hold the monster Famous slice – a hodgepodge of pickled peppers, gray sausage, tasty pepperoni, and ribbons of cheese not quite melted through – a two-pound heft, I’d guess. Eighteen-inch pies, $8.75 to $16.
The waiters are still flying at Mezzaluna (1295 Third Avenue, near 75th Street). WWDorable twosomes and palazzo-hoppers line up after the flicks for a turn at the tiny derriere-to-derriere tables. It’s a taste of Italy, transported to Manhattan. But the essential wood-burning oven, searing pizzas only at lunch or after 10:30 p.m., performs no magic. The nine-inch pies ($8 to $9.50) are blah, unseasoned, skimpily adorned. Not even a splash of olive oil rescues an insipid Margherita with broccoli.
In a sea of pizza possibilities, the plainest slice at Zipz’s Pizza (741 Lexington Avenue, near 59th Street) is modestly impressive, with crisped crust and tasty cheese ($9 to $11 the sixteen-inch pie), plus there’s wonderful fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Padrone Pete Catellotti himself tends shop in the nicely smart uptown annex of John’s (408 East 64th Street), with wood booths and gold vinyl-moiré cloths. The mythic roll call of pizzas is offered, 55 fourteen-inch possibilities from $7.50 to $11. A glorious crust, thin, crisp and full of savor, boasts spicy hot sausage, but raw mushrooms and bitter raw garlic are not downtown bliss as remembered.
It strikes me as downright criminal to charge $1.50 extra for garlic on a pizza, but the bland eggplant pie at V & T (1024 Amsterdam Avenue, near 111th Street), across from St. John the Divine, needs it desperately. Zesty pepperoni and lots of good cheese on a crisp-edged crust is a winner. You can get a twelve, fourteen, or sixteen inch pie ($5 to $10.75) at this red-and-white-checked-oilcloth hangout.
For a taste of sfincuini, the sweet and savory stewed-onion-and-anchovy pizza of Sicily, ($1.15 the rectangular slice), you must go to La Focacceria (128 First Avenue, near 7th Street), a busy little luncheonette in a mostly Slavic neighborhood. Owner Vincent Bondi will explain everything on the steam table, including vasteda – beef-spleen sandwiches with ricotta and grating cheese – a delicacy from Palermo.
It’s not the less-than-glorious brick-oven pizza at Canastel’s (222 Park Avenue South, at 19th Street) that draws the twaddle of would-be chic-lettes. A shrimp or two, a duo of clams, and one plump mussel in its shell are stuck in an unremarkable mozzarella-and-tomato-sauce base on oomphless dough. That’s frutti di mare. If the mushrooms in the vegetable pie aren’t canned, they sure taste it. Piquant gorgonzola is this taster’s choice. (Twelve-inch pies are $8.25 to $9.50.)
Pizza at America (9-13 East 18th Street) may never make the earth move, but it is definitely more edible than most whimsies here. In three visits, I couldn’t get the kitchen to do a potato or corn-crust pie (as billed on the menu), and the twelve-inch classics ($6.95 to $7.95) wear blowsy thick-edged crusts, usually soggy. Distinguishing marks are meek lamb sausage, wan tomato, al dente eggplant (a real misunderstanding). Sun-dried-tomato-and-smoked-mozzarella pie is nicely intense, its raw-broccoli garnish easily discarded.
The architecture of Ancora (2330 Broadway, at 85th Street) is infinitely more amusing than its food. Certainly, its tiled pizza oven is the prettiest in town, ditto the whimsical pottery. But the eight-and-a-half-inch pies ($6.95 to $7.50) are soggy and insipid, timidly seasoned. There’s a decent tomato sauce on the Margherita, and the Bianca – gorgonzola, goat cheese, and mozzarella – wouldn’t be bad on a well-made crust.
Just browsing at Original Ray’s (811 Lexington Avenue, near 62nd Street), I can’t resist a slice of tomato’d cheese embedded with huge rectangles of crumbed and sautéed eggplant. Very tasty. And it is even tastier after a third reheating at home sears it crisp and crackling. Custom-order pies cost from $6.50 for the simplest fourteen-inch “small” to $18.50 for a sixteen-inch with “everything.”
I love everything about Pizzapiazza (785 Broadway, at 10th Street) except the deep-dish pizzas baked in black steel pans (six, nine, and twelve inch pies, $3.95 to $17.95). Winsome and folksy, with wonderful desserts, Pizzapiazza has a loyal claque delighted to eat here. But to me, the crusts seem tough, the fillings like stew. Still, I’d be content to make a meal of the All-White – a blend of cheeses and softened onions – climaxed by a ration of double-fudge chocolate-mousse cake.
God bless Escoffier, the five-inch puff pastry pizza has come to New York. About as big as a Danish, it sits on a tiny plate at Café Mortimer (115 East 75th Street), with a dollop of arugula-and-radicchio salad alongside. And at $4.50, it costs less than $1 an inch. If only it weren’t so greasy. Mushrooms in a melt of cheese is the oiliest. Olive puree under cheese and sun-dried tomato is an invitation to Thirst City. But gorgonzola-topped onion is pleasant.
Rugantino’s Pizza (1083 Second Avenue, at 57th Street) was the very first stop on this pilgrimage, and maybe I was just hungry for pizza, but the pepperoni slice, even rewarmed, was rather impressive. Lots of anise scent in the sausage, heaped high, and oodles of cheese are obvious charms, though, to be sure, the dough can be rawish in the center. Eighteen-inch pies, $8 to $22.
A passionate vote for its pesto pie brings us to Aiello’s Pizza Emporium (581 Second Avenue, at 32nd Street), also known for its buffalo chicken wings. Crusts are crisp and browned, the pesto, alas, is just so-so. Clams are cruelly scarce on the clam pizza. The spinach is dry and unpleasant, the sausage not to my taste. But the plain cheese slice is really quite good. Sicilian or fourteen or eighteen inch pies, $6.50 to $18.
At Peppino’s Pizza (4701 White Plains, the Bronx), you get your money’s worth in the Meat Lovers Delight, a staggering collage of pepperoni, ham, sausage, and ground beef in fresh, runny cheese, but it’s not worth a major detour. Fourteen or eighteen inch pies, $5.90 to $11.90; also by the slice.
In life, perhaps a woman can never be too thin, but a pizza crust can be… as the Century Café (132 West 43rd Street) proves. Music videos on several giant screens may cheer you up a bit when the pizzelle (ten inches, $6.25) shatters into chips under its own weight. Little bits of zucchini and broccoli make a Primavera that’s elegant, but too spare and fragile for a true pizza appetite.
So much style and thought have gone into the American Pie (68 West 70th Street), it makes me wish the beautiful stuffed pizzas were more fun to eat. How handsome they are, wrapped in white or whole-wheat dough (often tough), three, seven, or ten inch ($3.25 to $15.50), or by the slice, and the fillings are first-rate – fresh vegetables, ricotta, pesto, chicken. But the eggplant is just steamed, the broccoli rather scant, a cheddar and mozzarella not quite heated through as we sample in this charming little shop. Everything needs more seasoning, garlic, onions – even just salt and pepper would help.
The late-night staff at Pizzeria Uno (391 Sixth Avenue, near 8th Street) is unnecessarily crusty. It takes twenty minutes to bake Chicago-style deep-dish steel-pan pizza, not counting a ten-minute stall at the bar (six, nine, or twelve inch pies, $2.95 to $14.95). The crust can be very tasty, but raw everything in the Veggie pie is a travesty. Sea Delice stars a couple of shrimp and what tastes like mock crabmeat. The Mexican is a cheddar-and-iceberg salad with raw onion, elusive bits of sausage – a ramekin of hot sauce crouched on top. Prudence suggests something simpler.
I’m not sure why Vinnie’s (285 Amsterdam Avenue, at 74th Street) is so popular, except perhaps because it’s there, a West Side pre-gentrification source for decent-enough pizza ($5.50 to $14.45 the twelve or eighteen inch pie, or by the slice). A crust that would be better more browned frames a good classic cheese pie.
Mama’s Famous Pan Pizza (168 Amsterdam Avenue, near 68th Street) is good enough: tasty pepperoni and thick, rather unrelenting cheese on a crust with a neat stand-up edge. By the ten or eighteen inch pie ($3.25 to $6.50, plus $1.50 extra for each option), or by the slice.
Greenwich Village school kids make the Pizza Box (176 Bleecker Street) their kitchen. Good pepperoni and pleasant-enough cheese on a very thin crust is their passion. Sixteen-inch pies are $7 to $12, or by the slice.
In my adolescence, Rocky Lee Chu-Cho Bianco (987 Second Avenue, near 52nd Street) was the ultimate pizza parlor. The leatherette booths and blaring radio (with commercials) still draw innocent lovers holding hands over sadly mediocre pizza – thinner edge burned, fatter edge not – battered eggplant in a melt of nondescript cheese, one from a roster of 26 fourteen-inch options ($8.50 to $14).
The SMOG pizza (sausage, mushrooms, onions and green peppers), winner of New York magazine’s first pizza competition in 1970, is no longer the deep-dish “gourmet tap dance” the menu touts. Goldberg’s Pizzeria (996 Second Avenue, near 52nd Street) still deserves a special prize for inventing the Diet Riot, a crustless 330-calorie treat of non-fattening mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and tomato sauce with a meager measure of mozzarella melded in an aluminum tin – “it’s a stew,” the waitress warns. But, alas, the pizza-pleasure quotient in Larry Goldberg’s nine, eleven, and fourteen inch pies ($4.95 to $11.50) has faded.
A pizza from Nebraska has made it big in Manhattan. It’s at Godfather’s Pizza, the Reise brothers import scattered all over town, and it doesn’t taste like a New York pizza. Well, the crust is pale, the flavor reminiscent of a saltine, but the pepperoni with little lumps of sausage and cheese is tasty, especially if the craving strikes and you haven’t the strength to get to your favorite counter. Thirteen- or eighteen inch pies, $7.50 to $11.40, or by the slice.
From the looks of the crowd lazing on the steps, Bella Pizza (418 Sixth Avenue, at 9th Street) is an under-30 Village hangout. Small, bare wood tables are romantically low-lit, and the staff can be euphoric. “It’s so fresh, it’s X-rated,” one counterman describes the hearts-of-palm pizza with pimiento, black olives, and dribbles of Russian dressing. Alas, our slice tastes as odd as it sounds. “In Forest Hills, we are lucky to sell one slice an hour. Here it’s jammed till 4 a.m.” Good crust, heavy on the cheese, tomato only ever-so-faintly soapy – the plain cheese pie isn’t bad at all. Eight-inch pizzette are $6.75 to $9.50, large pies (sixteen-inch to go, eighteen-inch on the premises), $14 to $18.
Whoever designed Ray Bari (201 Amsterdam Avenue, at 69th Street) has a futuristic eye. Imagine a pristine Formica’d feeding station. It’s quite inviting. Alas, crisp and tasty though the crust is here, chewing the cheese is an aerobic exercise. By the eighteen-inch pie ($7.50 to $15), or by the slice.
With Italian fare and a 200-foot bar snaking from Broadway to Mercer Street, brand-new Bar Lui (625 Broadway, near Bleecker Street) makes a calculated bid to draw downtown guppies (yuppies in groups), unleashing its pizza potential at 10:30 p.m. Half a dozen classic ten inchers are $5.95 to $6.95. Yeasty, thick dough and a sausage-studded swamp of cheese in an odd-tasting tomato sauce makes a knife and fork essential.
Trattoria Pino (981 Third Avenue, near 58th Street) is skylit proof that the wood-burning oven alone is no guarantee of pizza pleasure. Pick up a slice of the nine-inch pan-baked pie ($5.70 to $7.45; fourteen inches, $9.45 to $12.45) and everything slides off the dull, listless crust – no-taste tomatoes, huge chunks of raw onion, artichokes that taste chemical, inedible hunks of raw green pepper, shards of uncooked mushroom. In a quartet of homely toppings on the 4-stagioni, only the ham is worth eating.
“Everything is wonderful,” cries the counterman at Ray Bari’s (1330 Third Avenue, at 76th Street). How wrong he is. Yellowed broccoli, aging mushrooms, insipid cheese, soggy crust… a strikeout. Eighteen-inch pizzas, $9.50 to $16.50, or by the slice.
The nineteen-by-twenty-inch pepperoni-and-sausage pizza from the uptown Ray’s of Greenwich Village (53 West 72nd Street) is heavy as a watermelon, and my jaw is tired from trying to chew the rubbery cheese. By the eighteen-inch pie ($8.75 to $16), or by the slice.
Click here to return to the Vintage Insatiable Archive