Friday, June 23, 2006

Randominnyc Klassik Kut

Randominnyc will be be on hold for the next week. In the meantime, enjoy this classic post from the turn of the (20th) century.

An Imagined Conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Thackery Walpole St. Clair:

Mr.: My dear!
Mrs.: What? What is it?
Mr: I do believe there's a roustabout over there.
Mrs: A roustabout? Oh, it is! What shall we do?
Mr.: I'm going to call for that burly Irish fellow they have patrolling the neighborhood. Officer! Officer!
Officer Houlihan: Faith and beggorah! Hi-diddle-ee-dee!
Mrs.: What is he saying?
Mr.: Don't worry, that's just the way these people talk. Officer, there's a roustabout over there.
Officer: Oish! [sings] When Oirish ois are smoilin'! [runs off toward the roustabout, club in hand]
Mrs.: That certainly was trying!
Mr.: It's like medicine, dear.
Mrs.: How so?
Mr.: You see, the cure is often worse than the disease.

[end]

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I need toothpaste, and I don't have time to cross the street

I'm juuust about positive that the Duane Reade under the scaffolding (across the street) is set to close, but it's now been about a month since the bright and pretty one opened, and they're both still there. Two Duane Reades directly across the street from one another. Huh. (This is on 57th and Broadway.)

Signmakers of America, C'mon!

I've almost accepted the overuse of apostrophes (Make Hundred's of Dollars a Day from Home) and the use of quotation marks for emphasis (We "Beat" Our Competitors Prices), but I can't stand by and watch another punctuation mark be abused. "Within" does not have a hyphen in it. C'mon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

randominnj: Cape May

Two weeks ago, Tara took me to Cape May, NJ. She said I was being "cranky" and an "asshole," and that if I didn't relax she was going to "stab me" with a "fork." So, we went, and had a really nice time. How we got there: a Greyhound to Atlantic City, and a NJ Transit Bus from Atlantic City to Cape May (yes, we stopped and gambled for an hour). If you own an automocar, you take the Garden State Parkway to the end. Here's a map. It's far away. While the Greyhound was fine, the NJT bus was filled with disturbing people. We heard a woman leave the following message on her, um, boyfriend's answering machine: "I'm just wondering what happened last night. I thought you wanted me. If you just want to be friends, that's okay...but I want my money back." Aaah, beautiful New Jersey.

A pretty, tree-lined street. There are quite a few of these. And everything will look all nice, American flags will be flapping gently in the breeze, all will be right with the world, and then:

Wham. A house painted like prostitutes live there. I have no idea what this is about. When I mentioned it to someone upon returning to NY, she said that they're called "painted ladies" and it's a thing. Whatever. So, if you go and you see houses made to look like houses of ill-repute, remember, that's the way they're intended to look. The above one is actually kind of tame, as it's only two or three colors. There were several that had so many different colors on them that my eyes bled. We had to go the hospital. It's called Painted Lady Syndrome (PLS) and it happens to a lot of first-timers in Cape May.

This is the beach. It was quite nice looking, but as it was pretty chilly, we didn't go in the water. Along the beach there is skeeball to be played and silly prizes to trade tickets for. I cashed in for a rabbit's foot. I think it's a real rabbit's foot. It makes me kind of sad.

Tara and I went whale-watching. We watched no whales. They couldn't find any. But. We did see a whole lot of dolphins, which was pretty thrilling. Dozens of them surfacing from the water at a time. This picture makes it look 96% less thrilling than it actually was. I also got a nasty sun/wind burn. Remember, white people: sunscreen.

A view from the (lack of) whale watching boat of Wildwoods. What is Wildwoods? It's where message lady ("I want my money back") was headed. I think it's like the Ur-Jersey Shore. Mini golf + rides + alcohol. Four young Irish guys who had traveled from New York City got off the bus at Wildwoods. They came from Ireland to spend some time in Wildwoods. They left New York to spend some of their visit...at Wildwoods. Guh?

This seems to sum up Cape May. It's kinda trashy, but it's also wicker. Here, have some.

This place is located on the pedestrian mall (some restaurants, 72 ice cream shops, a bunch of Cape May T-shirts), and it creeps me out. "Rowr, come a little closer, kids, I want to fucking eat you." Have you read Stephen King's Dark Tower books? "And be a happy choo-choo train until the day I die." It's just so wrong-looking.

This was among the last things we saw in Cape May. We were waiting for the bus when one of us noticed this on a beam at the station. Eric did 12 pull ups there. Apparently, among the lace and skill cranes there are teenagers. And they, like all teenagers, are bored.

Monday, June 19, 2006

HOWTO Ride a Greyhound (Bus)

[I've taken a few Greyhound buses in the past few weeks. In a weird way, I kind of love them. They are completely and utterly off the cultural radar, and they're totally utilitarian. There are so few things like that. Also: I'm cheap and don't drive. Anyway, riding Greyhound does have its pitfalls. Here's how to minimize them.]

1 - Rework the way you quantify your time. People will be all, "It took us four and a half hours to drive here" and you'll be all, "It took me six on the bus. I'm sad." Bullshit. They had to drive for four and a half hours and you got to read and sleep for six hours. If someone randomly gave me six hours to read and sleep, I'd thank them.
2 - Put your wallet in your front pocket.
3 - Traveling by Greyhound is cheap. You will be placed in a bus with an odd collection of working stiffs, college students, and the insane. Oh, and one (1) family with numerous small children. Where am I going with this? Several places. But first: try to ride with someone you know. If you are alone on the bus, the person you sit next to, might be one of the insane. And they'll want to talk to you. Remember, you're going to be on the bus for a while, and what might start off as "This guy is awesome. I am going to have the best story," will quickly turn into, "I hate my life." Which brings us to:
4 - Bring music and headphones that block sound. Nope, iPod earbuds won't do; they'll allow you to hear the weird little kid sitting behind you repeating "Mommydaddy, mommydaddy" for hours at a time. If you want to get fancy, you can get the noise canceling type. I have a pair of Sony headphones with soft (rubber? silicone?) buds that seal my ears up. They are awesome. As a bonus, if you do get a seat right next to a crazy person, you can put them in your ears and ignore him.
5 - Also: Sit near the back of the bus. The closer to the back of the bus, the less likely you'll be seated in front of someone who doesn't have an indoor voice, and who projects forward so everyone can hear them. This gets a little complicated because: 1) the seats in the very back do not recline; 2) the further back you sit, the closer you'll be to the restroom. Before you commit to a seat in the back take a good, long sniff.
6 - Bring more music and reading materials in more genres than you think you'll want. Getting antsy on a bus is the worst thing in the world. And then you turn into the shifter-guy who can't get comfortable. Sometimes switching the type of reading material or music I'm consuming makes my brain less twitchy.
7 - Bring a sweatshirt. It's like a towel in the Hitchhiker's Guide - it has many uses. Okay, it has two: You can keep yourself warm when a sadistic driver turns the A/C all the way up, and you can ball it up and use it as a pillow. Remember: there is nothing as bad as that feeling when you lean your head directly on the window of a moving vehicle (vibrations, vibrations, BUMP).
8 - Set your phone to silent. This will make your life as well as everyone else's better. If it rings and you're on the verge of sleep...it's going to wake you up. And then you're going to do that weird sitting dance while you get it out of your pocket. It's just not worth it.
9 - There is a difference between comfortable and uncomfortable jeans. Know it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

[placeholder: alien urination]

[taken by Franklin in Tricase Porto in the Puglia region of Italy]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hypothetical Cape May, NJ Conversation

- Hello, Evelyn.
- Hello Marjorie.
- I see you have the Vacancy sign up. A little late in the season for that, isn't it?
- Oh, well, it's just the small room.
- The one with the fire ant problem.
- That was twelve summers ago, and you know it.
- Well, anyway, I'm full up.
- That's nice. You're also a husband stealing whore.
- Better than being a frigid bitch.
- Have a nice day.
- You, too.

Monday, June 12, 2006

You make me sick

[picture from the menu at a chain restaurant]

Let me guess, you're starting with our onion dippers, then having one of our sinfully good half-pound burgers, and you're going to finish it all off with a simply decadent brownie sundae? I'm right, right? I'm totally right. Okay, then maybe you should not have one of our awesome triple-thick shakes with your meal. Just an idea. Maybe you should try something just a smidge healthy. I mean, it's lunch, for the love of God. You're going to eat again in like three hours. Also, would it kill you to walk somewhere? Like, once. Okay, okay, here it is. Step 1: Have a delicious smoothie. Step 2: Do a situp. Jesus.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Pizza Quest: Introduction

The Pizza Quest started about two years ago as an attempt to eat at the best pizza places in and around New York. It's been an off-and-on event, as my free time (and capacity for my own foolishness) waxes and wanes. It remains sadly incomplete (we still haven't been to Staten Island or Franny's in Brooklyn.), but there's plenty here. So, enjoy, the fruits of the labor of a roving band of idiots (sometimes as few as two, sometimes over a dozen) who ate their way around New York (except for Staten Island. Dammit!).

Just so you know, writeups are grouped by geography (as you can see) and within that are presented simply in the order in which the places were visited.

Oh, and while I didn’t originally rate places, a couple people requested ratings (they really are helpful), and so here is how this highly scientific system works:

* = Famous Ray’s
** = Wouldn’t mind having in my neighborhood
*** = Worth a subway ride
**** = Worth a subway, a bus, a ferry, whatever, just get there.

Manhattan Below 14th St.
Manhattan Above 14th St.

Queens
The Bronx
Brooklyn
Westchester
New Haven
Mail Order Chicago

Pizza Quest: Manhattan Below 14th St.

Arturo’s on Houston –
**

The decor: The walls are filled with paintings (by Arturo, and available for purchase), pictures of Clark Gable and others, a vaguely Mayan looking calendar-ey thing...airplanes hang from the ceiling, the pianist (pianist!) cranks out background music, the bathroom has a bathtub and a chalkboard in it...It's as if someone had detonated a kitsch bomb and Arturo's was ground zero. Whoever you are, Arturo, I salute both you and the black velvet paintings that almost certainly decorate the walls of your home.

The pizza lands in the middle of the pack. We ordered two pies. The first, a fresh mozzarella-half plain/half garlic left us underwhelmed. The mozzarella had an odd, unpleasantly pungent aftertaste. The sauce was okay (Ted found it lacking, I found it alright). The garlic had the same "not-really-fresh" taste as V&T's. The crust was okay (the cheese was a bit watery and some pieces of the pie didn't hold up to it), there was some nice charring (sometimes a bit too much), and a pleasant greasiness in the rim of the pizza. The pizza was also sprinkled with black pepper (a first), which was generally appreciated, and gave the last bites a nice little kick. The second pie was plain mozz-half pepperoni/half sausage. Neither topping was great. The pepperoni was extremely mild; the sausage (crumbled), had disturbing little chewy bits in it. Shudder. The cheese was okay, with a thick layer applied directly to the crust with the sauce spread on top and around it. Again, the pizza finished well, with the peppery, crisp and chewy outer crust.

John's on Bleecker –
**1/2

Four people, two pies (one half-plain/half-garlic, one half-sausage/half-pepperoni).

If I'm not mistaken, John's is among the first round of pizzerias in New York City to open after Lombardi's (which was the first in the US), opened by a pizza-maker who got his start at Lombardi's (Patsy's and Totonno's were also founded by former Lombardi's workers). Pizzas are cooked in a coal-fired, brick oven, and their crusts are very close in style to Patsy's: extremely thin, crispy, and near-flaky, with nice charring (though, a bit too much on some slices). The sauce and cheese were where I felt the pies faltered: the mozzarella was a bit bland (applied, again, directly to the crust), though it had some nice charring and bubbling (not too much), and the sauce was a little too sweet-tasting (I'm preferring, by a large margin, the simple crushed tomato sauces most places have been offering up). The garlic was very good, large chucks (not overpowering), the pepperoni was alright (thin, not greasy, but without enough spiciness for me), and the sausage was excellent (crumbled up, great, strong fennel and herb taste). I'd rate it below Louie and Ernie's, Matt and Tara disagreed with me (saying that Louie and Ernie's crust was too thick, closer to a corner slice joint). Brian agreed with me. I win.

Afterwards we stopped next door at "Cones" a gelato shop. When asked what the difference between gelato and ice cream, the proprietor bragged, "It's made with milk, so it has 20% less fat." This is not something you brag about, as far as I'm concerned. You might as well brag that it’s made with 20% less love...still, it was pretty tasty.

Joe's Pizza on W. 4th St. –
**1/2

Five of us made it to Joe's Pizza near W. 4th. I wasn't particularly impressed with the place: it looks like a standard slice joint (actually, like a substandard slice joint), and I feared a repeat of Sal and Carmine's (an okay slice place that, due to some shared dementia, numerous people have elevated to the status of "the best"). Happily, my fears were unfounded. We faced a brief moment of panic when we realized that Joe's does not serve alcohol, but persevered: We ran into a nearby deli (We tried three before we found one with alcohol. What's wrong with that neighborhood?), grabbed some booze, listened to a fey, gerri-curled guy yell at the cashier, "Don't you curse me! Don't you curse me!", paid, and returned just in time for the first pie (Opening the bottles proved to be another challenge, and required the following: try to open on cheap table in pizzeria, give up, run outside - bottle wrapped in an ultra-classy brown paper bag - open bottle on side of telephone booth, if telephone is in use try the gate to the store next door, when store owner comes out to investigate banging noise, run inside, poor beer into cup, drink, when cop enters pizzeria to buy an Italian ice, try to "act cool.")

The pizza:

Two pies. One regular mozzarella/half-sausage, one fresh mozzarella/half-pepperoni. They were some good pizza. Thin crust (the fresh mozz pie thinner) topped with a pretty thick layer of the regular mozz, or thin blobs of the fresh, and a tart tomato sauce. Plain ol' pepperoni (though sliced very thin) and relatively thin-sliced, peppery sausage. The group was impressed, with a split decision on the cheeses (I, along with Matt and Pete, go fresh, which had a slight crispiness to it, Jaimie and April went plain, which, they said, worked better with the sauce). Complaints: crust was a little "floppy" particularly on the fresh mozz pie, and cheese, while tasty, wasn't great (completely acceptable, but didn't bowl me over). This was a very good "standard slice" place.

Una Pizza Napolitana, 1st Ave and 12th St. –
****

We went to this absolutely tiny (maybe 25 people can fit?) pizzeria on what was one of its first days open to the public. It showed. Not so much in the pizza (although on one pie there were areas of the crust that only the very charitable would refer to as charred rather than burnt), but in service: we waited an hour-and-a-half for our first pies. But, first night jitters and all…I am willing to forgive this. Especially because this place has a lot of potential; they seem committed to creating excellent pizza from remarkably high quality ingredients. They only offer four pies (all just 14 inches across) – all containing some variation on: buffalo-milk mozzarella, tomato sauce, fresh cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and basil. We had three pies, split among four people. Two Margherita (cheese + sauce), one white with tomatoes. The crusts were thin, crisp, and flaky, the cheese ridiculously good, the whole thing sprinkled with sea salt (which gives the crust a happy salty crunchiness) and a huge amount of olive oil (which gave the pie a tasty olive oiliness to me, and a greazy greasiness to others). While I am excited by the prospect of returning when they’ve worked out the (relatively minor) kinks, my three fellow pizza-eaters were less impressed. And that is why I hate them.

Update:

I returned with Tara and Jen several months later, and I have to say, this is among the best pizza I have ever eaten. We ordered three pies, then mixed and matched as we pleased. The buffalo mozzarella sort of opens up as it cooks, releasing liquid as it melts. This, when coupled with the olive oil drizzled on top, makes the pizza slightly soggy in the center, but the crust, expertly charred and crisp from the wood-burning oven, holds up. When you've nearly finished your pie, you can use the last bit of crust to mop up this deliciousness. Then the choir of pizza angels kicks in. I had two beers with the pie, but walked out feeling slightly drunk from the pleasure of just eating something so damned good. Bonus: The owner/pie man is tattooed in the extreme, they run all the way to his fingertips.

Lombardi’s, Spring St. –
**1/2

I’ve now been to Lombardi’s about five times, and it always seems to be a shrug-a-thon. I hate to sound dismissive of the first pizzeria in America, but I continue to get just plain good pies at a place that should be killing me every time I go there. Why is this? The most common factors pointed out are a lack of care and too many pies being made (the two are, of course, linked). Basically, Lombardi’s has capitalized (under owners unrelated to the family who founded it) on the fact that it was the first, and has turned itself from a pizzeria into a tourist destination, adding on a new seating area and cranking out more pies than the ancient (and beautiful) oven can reasonably handle. I wish I weren’t so negative (on one visit, the crust was downright exquisite – that’s right, exquisite – and none of the ingredients they use are less than good), but I speak from a place of disappointment. I want the first to be the best. Or at least number two or three. Instead, it goes to the middle of the pack.

De Marco's, 146 Houston –
**1/2 for the good pies
No stars for the bad one

What was ordered:

"Square pie" - half plain/half pepperoni
Round - Plain
Round - All sausage, half garlic

The reason we went to De Marco's is because it's a kinda-offshoot of the legendary DiFara's in Midwood, and as we were sitting there, eating slice after slice, all I could do was rain on everyone's parade. "Oh, this is good. But at DiFara's this would be a million-billion times better." And it is, hyperbole aside, true. The first two pies we got were very good. The square was a bit thinner than a Sicilian pie, the round, thicker than places like Patsy's (similar to the style at, yes, DiFara's). They were messy (not a bad thing) and topped with a huge amount of cheese (aged mozz, a way-too-small amount of buffalo mozz, and a sprinkling of grana padana), very good, thick pepperoni slices, and a tasty, lightly-cooked sauce (I got a nice fresh basil taste from it). Unfortunately, they fell apart as they sat; the crust was no match for the ingredients, and, yes, the forks and knives came out. But still, De Marco's was placing pretty high ("It's no DiFara's, but...") when pie #3 came out. I can honestly say that I think it had the worst crust of any pizza I've ever gotten from a pizzeria. It had almost no rise to it and tasted chalky. The nearest comparison I can make is to frozen pizza. Bad frozen pizza. Dense and gross frozen pizza. To make matters worse the garlic didn't taste cooked so much as dried out. I don't know what happened (cold oven?) but we were severely disappointed. Unfortunately, it is safe to say that (as of now) De Marco's is no DiFara's.

Luzzo's on 1st b/w 12th and 13th
**

I don’t care too much about service at a restaurant (particularly a pizza joint). In fact, I kind of enjoy the crankiness of the servers at places like Totonno's and Johnny's, where the attitude seems to be "The pizza's so good, you don't need to like us." This cranky-but you-love-us vibe was not in effect at Luzzo's: the service alternated from simply bad (bathroom out of order, a long wait for the check) to the bizarre (At one point Matt and I ordered beer. The waiter came back with one for Matt and said to me, "Give me a minute on yours." Ten minutes later, he came by with mine. Where did he go to get my beer? What happened in those ten minutes? What’s going on?). The pizzeria has a coal oven and was installed over the bones of Zito's, a bakery, only a few months ago (because of the damn, stupid environment this is the only way to open a new coal oven pizzeria in New York). I had pretty high hopes, and the pizza pretty much met them. It was a thin crust pie that was extremely light, only a little smoky, and not particularly crispy, but very good. Cheese was a choice of either buffalo or fresh mozzarella (the buffalo had a nice, full flavor to it), the sauce was light and sweet, with a little oregano bite to it. The "salami" listed on the menu was actually pepperoni (pretty good), and the sausage was extremely tasty and flavorful (lots o' fennel, no scary gristle bits in it). They were very good pizzas that were slightly different from the typical ultra-crisp New York, coal-oven slice (Patsy’s, John’s). Also, the owner/pizzaiolo came over to us for no good reason and gave us a big slab of pizza bianca (parmesan, herbs, salt, and olive oil were the only toppings). The service almost sank the place, but the quality of the pies and the good humor of the owner make me feel like this place merits another visit further down the line when they’ll have had more time to adjust to their newfound popularity.

Pizza Quest: Manhattan Above 14th St.

Angelo's on 57th –
*1/2

I wanted Angelo’s to be great. It‘s located only a few blocks away from my job, and it was the first place we few, we proud, we Pizza Questers hit. While I’d love to tell you that the Quest got off to an auspicious start, that lives were changed, taste buds enthralled, pizza enjoyed, all this, unfortunately, was not so. Five of us sampled two pies (one plain, one half pepperoni/half sausage), and were unimpressed. This was, even early on in the quest, judged to be severely substandard pizza. Though made in a coal oven, the crust was thick and doughy, not thin and crispy, and exhibited no signs of charring or blistering. The sauce was weirdly pasty and overly sweet. The mozzarella, while fresh, was merely okay. Cheers to: fresh basil on the pies (fresh basil, I’ve realized, makes me happy all out of proportion to its actual worth), sausage removed from its casing and crumbled on the pizza. Jeers to: everything else, frankly.

Patsy's in East Harlem –
The good time: ****
The bad times: **1/2

Eight of us made the trip to East Harlem to eat at the original Patsy's. First the stats:

Round One:
1 - Plain Mozzarella
2 - Fresh Mozzarella

Round Two:
3 - Pepperoni and sausage (fresh mozz)
4 - Fresh Garlic (fresh mozz)

Round Three (The dessert pizza):
5 - All peppers (sweet, fresh, red) and black olives, half with Portobello mushrooms (plain mozz)

Yep, that's right, five pies for eight people, eaten over about two hours.

Reaction: The crust was incredibly thin, charred and nicely blistered, light and crisp (some found it a little too thin, I wasn't one of them). The fresh mozzarella was terrific, the plain (meaning: aged) mozzarella (which I favored, slightly) was also excellent, a little chewy, with a nice tanginess. The sauce, according to our waiter Victor, "is just what comes outta the can, crushed tomatoes with a little basil that's in there," was simple and excellent (similar to Nick's). The sausage and pepperoni was a nice combo, the pepperoni spicy and thin, the sausage thicker and a little sweet. The fresh garlic, perhaps surprisingly, might've been the favorite (little globs of garlic that seemed to have been soaked in olive oil). The veggie pies (Victor: "You ain't gonna find Portobello mushroom in any other pizzeria in this city.") were excellent, although the toppings proved a bit too much for the crust (just barely). This is truly great pizza.

Highlight of the evening (besides the pizza), our waiter Victor, who liked telling us what to eat, the history of the ownership of the name, his favorite color. When he brought the final pie out, and saw that two of the ladies with us wouldn't be joining in, he berated them lightly, "We have three guys who come in here and eat a whole pie each of them. It's so thin..." before turning thoughtful and forgiving them, "You did have a lot of toppings." He gave us the history of the place ("Sinatra used to have pies flown out to California, Vegas from here."), told us that the other Patsy's in Manhattan don't have a coal oven and aren't owned by the same people, ("They pay a licensing fee."), and that the owner forced Grimaldi's to change its name from Patsy's when they started opening pizzerias in Jersey ("They said, 'You can have Brooklyn, okay, but you can't open up places in Jersey.'" Why was Jersey too much? I don't know.).

Update: I’m sad to say that the next two times I went to Patsy’s (both on Sundays), I was disappointed. The service was spotty, pies showed up after having sat for too long (meaning: not hot enough, and not nearly as crispy as they need to be), and the pies themselves were nothing to write home about (the outer crust on one of them was downright weird looking – as if it had ripped and then been squeezed back together). C’mon, Patsy’s, you’re better than that.

V&T’s Pizzeria in Morningside Heights –
*

As the four of us made our way out of V&T's Pizzeria in Morningside Heights, we were stopped by a homeless fellow who bummed a cigarette and then proceeded to rattle off vague and creepily memorized horoscopes based on our birth months. The salient part of mine (or, rather, the only part I understood and retained) is that I am smart. This made me feel better, as I've been called an idiot more than once since starting the Pizza Quest. Seriously, would someone who wasn't abominably stupid in some fundamental way devote a significant part of his time to compiling a list of pizzas, eating at them, and writing them up? Better not to think of it. Better to believe Homeless Guy. Then, again, Homeless Guy did refer to the well-dressed white man who entered V&T's as we finally broke away, as "Billy Dee Williams." He, clearly, is not the most perceptive human being in the world.

Anyway, the pizza. The crust was thick, but crisped (in an almost "fried" way) that was kind of pleasant. The sauce was neither sweet nor fresh tasting, and the cheese (plain mozzarella) was ample and inoffensive. The toppings were terrible. The pepperoni was oily and tasteless, with no nice pepperoni "bite." The fresh garlic had the unpleasant taste of pre-minced garlic (y'know the jar you buy at the store type, meaning: not actually fresh-tasting). The fried eggplant, though considered the specialty, was bland and added little to the pizza except bulk and chewiness. On the (very, very small) plus side: the crust did stand up to all the toppings. Why this pizza is rated highly by anyone is beyond me; it’s boring pizza (made less boring by the fact that they serve Peroni). It was really just a notch above the slice you'd grab in an average NY parlor...bland, doughy and a little-too-sweet without the toppings. With the toppings, it might actually be a notch below.

Sal and Carmine's on B’way and 102nd –
*1/2

Six of us made it to Sal and Carmine's (recently named the number one slice joint in Manhattan by the Post), on Broadway and 102nd. We ordered two pies (one plain, one half-pepperoni/half-sausage), and took them over to Riverside Park -- as 1) the place was tiny and 2) they wouldn't let us drink there. While being accosted by one particularly aggressive squirrel, we consumed two severely underwhelming pies. They weren't bad...they just weren't great. They were in the vein of a regular New York slice (not necessarily a problem, Louie and Ernie's is as well), with a thicker crust than Patsy's, et al., a thick layer of cheese, and a sweet, cooked tomato sauce. The biggest problem was in the doughy, floury crust. This led Tara to posit that the reason our pies weren't great, was because Sal and Carmine's is a "slice place," meaning that when the pizza sits out and then when is reheated, something happens. Intrigued, but unconvinced, I ordered a plain slice to test the hypothesis...and the slice was much, much better. Much crispier, with slight browning on parts of the cheese. It was just plain better, and so I say: Tara, you were right – but it’s still not great.

Totonno's on 2nd Ave. and 26th –
Not to be confused with Totonno’s on Coney Island
**1/2

Before I reached this offshoot of the original Coney island Totonno's on Friday night, I had been alternately fantasizing about a place in Manhattan that makes pizza as good as the original and forcing myself to lower my expectations (usually by thinking about the lackluster pies served up at DiFara's offshoot De Marco's). When I got there, however, I saw something that made my heart soar (yep, soar): "Coal-fired Brick Oven." I could barely believe the sign, but when I looked in the window, there it was. A big, glowing pile of coal heating the pizza oven. So, everyone arrived, we ordered, and we ate. And it was good. Just good. The best take was (I believe) Brendan's: "The top of this pizza is great." He was right. The cheese (fresh mozzarella) and sauce were delicious, the crust of the pies (one plain, one half garlic and sausage/half pepperoni) was merely okay. The rim of the crust was downright unspectacular. I actually left pieces of crust on my plate. We all enjoyed our meal (the pitchers of beer helped), but I couldn't help but be disappointed. A coal oven is supposed to make great pizza, dammit! And yet it keeps not happening.

Sacco’s Pizzeria, 9th Ave. and 54th St. –
**1/2

To be honest, the pizza quest hasn’t hit Sacco’s, but I feel like mentioning it, so, umm I am. This is the most modest of the pizzerias, a tiny joint with a counter and a couple of tables. The first time I walked up to I was both repulsed by and attracted to it…repulsed because it is almost literally a hole in the wall, attracted because there was a good line of people ordering pizza. So, what did I find when I confronted this line? A really great New York slice of pizza. The plain is just plain ol’ good – very thin, a little crisp, nice tart tomato sauce, and a tasty aged mozzarella. It’s something in the vein of Joe’s on Carmine (though just barely not as good), but with smaller slices and less facility with add-ons (my advice: keep it simple, go plain, ignore toppings and the Sicilian). In the midst of coal vs. wood and salami vs. prosciutto, Sacco’s is a simple New York slice that tastes just right.

PINCH - Park Ave. b/w 28th and 29th -
*1/2

I ran in one night and grabbed a slice...or, uh, quadrangle or whatever the appropriate pizza unit would be to describe six inches of pizza thing (PINCH stands for "Pizza by the Inch," so you order a number of inches off of a big slab of pizza). Dude. This is not good pizza. The crust was insubstantial (not thin - weirdly airy and fall apart-y), there was too much damn cheese, and the sauce was weirdly sweet. I finished it and thought, "That's the best Ellio's pizza I've ever eaten." If I were in a more charitable mood, I might try to spin that as a compliment. Feh.

Sullivan Street Bakery (Hell's Kitchen location) - 47th St. b/w 10th and 11th -
**** (but it doesn't matter)

The bread at Sullivan Street Bakery is one of my favorite foodstuffs in the world. And so is the pizza. The pizza -- thin, crispy, and square, served room temperature with no mozzarella -- is made out of deliciousness. They offer only a few varieties, but all of them are excellent. The potato and rosemary is my favorite (the thin sliced potato gets crispy around the edges and tender in the center), followed by the marinara (tomato sauce, and, err, that's about it). The problem is that while amazing, these slices don't scratch my pizza itch. Meaning, if I think to myself, "I could go for a slice," a slice of Sullivan St. pizza won't satisfy me half as well as the crappiest slice from Mr. Super Crappy, himself, Famous Ray. It depresses me to say that, but I still love you, Sullivan Street Bakery. Please don't be mad at me.

Mariella's - 8th Ave. b/w 56th & 57th -
*

Oprah's friend Gayle was sent on a quest for the best pizza in America. She went to three places - first, the one she went to in college, second, what is oftentimes called the best pizza in the US (Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ) , and third, Mariella's Pizzeria in New York (at the suggestion of her driver). This was a quest in the same way that purchasing boneless chicken cutlets is hunting. I'd had Mariella's a couple times and had literally no memory of it, so I decided to give it another chance. This is far from great pizza. In fact, it might not even be good pizza. The sauce was way too sweet and had too much oregano in it. The crust was tough and chewy. The cheese blanketed the pizza completely. Actually, blanket is too gentle a description. The cheese suffocated the pizza like a plastic bag. I also got a white slice (mozzarella and riccotta) and it was even worse. Bland riccotta and that layer of mozzarella without even bad sauce to break things up. There are several better pizzerias within a five block radius (John's on 58th, Sacco's on 8th, even the two Angelo's -- one on Broadway and one on 57th), let alone the entire city. While people having irrational love for a pizza place is nothing unusual (*cough*salandcarmines*cough*), this is particularly disappointing because Oprah's word carries, I hear, some weight. And so, Oprah viewers will come to New York. And those tourists will go to Mariella's. And they will think that's what good, NY pizza tastes like. Don't believe the Oprah-generated hype.

Totonno's - 2nd Ave. b/w 80th and 81st St. -
**1/2

Tara and I had nearly the same experience at the uptown Totonno's as at the 23rd St. location. We ordered a half-plain/half-sausage-and-garlic and it was good, but not great. It's like a blurry photocopy of the original in Coney Island. The same kinds of tastes - - coal oven, good cooked sauce, fresh mozz, same taste to the crust. Yep, it's the same kind of pizza (Genus: Totonnus), but not charred enough, and just not plain ol' amazing enough (Species: Underwelmicum). As a bonus, they do have signs up making fun of the pizzeria next door that sells pizza by weight. I can't remember them exactly, but it's sort of like, "Why the hell would you buy pizza by weight?" Okay, I'm exaggerating. Slightly.

Pizza Quest: Queens

Nick's in Forest Hills –
**
Eric and I ordered a half plain/half pepperoni (fresh mozzarella). While a huge step above Angelo's (very fresh mozzarella, nice, bright tomato sauce, fresh basil), the crust wasn't quite there. Though charred and blistered, it wasn't crispy enough (from hell's heart, I stab at thee, zoning restrictions on coal ovens!), and, frankly, there was too much of it (toppings ended way too close to the center of the pie...I like crust and all, but c'mon). Happiness: Cheap beer. Split decision on: The pepperoni. It was too damn thick for me, and reminded me of the pepperoni "chunks" one finds on a frozen pizza. Eric didn't mind it, but, then again, he's an ignorant savage.

Thirty-One in Astoria –
Pizza: **
Other Pizza-like thing: ***

I was afraid I'd tricked everyone (including myself) into a crazy, two-hour subway ride into some desolate warehouse district in Queens, but it was only half hour to a commercial area in Astoria (Hooray for geography!). I'd been expecting something along the lines of a cliched trattoria (murals, miniature replicas of Michelangelo's "David," Venetian plaster, etc.), but instead we were confronted with something that looked like, umm, Pax ("But I don't want to 'Make my own salad.'"). After a minute of confusion, we were led to the back of the restaurant - a sparsely decorated dining room with wine bottles and photographs on display and no murals (It did have a killer soundtrack - including a Spanish language version of the Laura Branigan number "Gloria"). We wound up eating four pies among us (even the large pies were fairly small). Two were "regular" pizza. Meaning: crust, sauce, cheese, toppings (in that order), and were good, but not exceptional (we had one Margherita and one with sausage, peppers, and onions). The sauce on both pies was an excellent "plain" sauce (barely cooked, crushed tomatoes), the cheese was a pretty good fresh mozzarella. The Margherita came with plenty of fresh basil and a crust that, while tasty, didn't really stand up to the toppings (knives and forks made an appearance). The "busy" pie's crust, weirdly, held up much better. There was a split decision on the sausage (I liked the fact that it was somewhat plain, with a nice pork flavor; Jorge was unimpressed).

The other two pies caused some debate. Though listed as "Foccacia," they were not the greasy, doughy type I think of, but something closer to a split and stuffed Roman-style pizza bianca. The first one we had was this airy, crispy crust stuffed with robiola cheese and drizzled with truffle oil (we badgered our waiter to give us something to compare robiola to when we ordered, but he would not. The closest analog is cream cheese - but not as dense, gummy, or overpowering). It was delicious, rich and oozing with cheese. The second one added prosciutto and arugula. Also delicious, though Matt said the cheese and truffle oil were so strong that it overpowered the additions; I disagreed. And now the debate: Does this count as pizza (someone derisively threw out the word "quesadilla")? It was round, flat, it was bread, it had Italian ingredients in it (but not on it)...eh? My feeling: If Chicago counts, so does this...but it doesn't count as "New York Pizza."

Random things: 1 - While the menu says "wood-burning" the prominently located oven is clearly gas. The good news is that it appears to be ceramic and the temperature display said it was over 650 degrees inside. This is a good hundred degrees hotter than a standard pizza oven (and a good hundred or two hundred degrees cooler than a coal-fired one). 2 - The pizzas on display in the front are Roman-style, meaning, long oval pies sold by the inch...the pies we got when we sat down was your standard round ones. 3 - On the subway, the PR guy for the restaurant heard us discussing the place, and gave us business cards on which he scribbled his initials. He claims we'll be able to get free wine with them if we go back (digression: the wine selection was small, but very reasonably priced). While I'd like free wine, I'd kind of prefer that he was just a crazy person who stole a bunch of business cards from the restaurant. We'll see.

Update: Thirty-one was gutted by a fire shortly after we ate there, which is terrible. I include the review, because (apparently) the same food can be had at Da Ciro in Manhattan.

Pizza Quest: The Bronx

Tosca, Throgg’s Neck, the Bronx –
*1/2

I had high hopes. High, high hopes. Tosca, built (it seems) on the remains of an old bakery in the Bronx is the only coal-oven pizzeria in the borough (it’s actually a full-fledged Italian restaurant). High hopes. They were dashed. Tosca, which has a kind of silly “modern” fanciness to it (“No, you’re not freezing your ass off in the Bronx, you’re in a vaguely cheesy restaurant in Miami…Miami….Miami….”). Now, it isn’t bad pizza – Tara and I got a white pie and a margherita pie – but it wasn’t great. The crust, which should be a thing of beauty if it’s coming out of a coal oven, was dry and brittle. The cheese (fresh mozz) was pretty good as was the sauce…but, meh. Again, it seems, a coal oven is nice, but skill, care, and a good recipe are more important.

Full Moon, Giovanni’s and Café al Mercato on Arthur Avenue, the Bronx –

Full Moon: *1/2
Giovanni’s: *
Café al Mercato: **

I hadn't felt the need to take my father's criticisms of the Pizza Quest™ to heart ("You're an idiot," "I can't believe you're still doing this," "Seriously, you're an idiot."), but on Saturday he raised a valid question. You see, he called, and when he found I had a cold, suggested that I stay in bed all day. When I informed him that, no, I was heading to Arthur Avenue to eat pizza he argued, "With a head cold? You can't trust the results of this. You have a cold, you won't taste anything." It was, I admit, a dilemma. The plans had been set in motion, but I wasn't in top form. Should I encourage the group to continue on without me? Should I take special care to discount my opinion and let others dictate the e-mail?

In the end, I decided thusly: I lived off Arthur Avenue and ate at these places for five years, what I can’t taste I’ll fake.

Full Moon (one pie, half-plain/half-pepperoni)

A doughy-but-tasty crust, with cornmeal on the bottom, was, really, the highlight of the pizza (the cheese, sauce, and pepperoni, was all just “good.”). Frankly, that's all I've got. Never was there so much shrugging when confronted with a pie, until we headed to...

Giovanni's (one pie, half-margherita/half-sausage)

Another lackluster pie, without even a crust to be happy about. Though we ordered a pie with fresh mozz, we didn't think that would be literal. Meaning: It was basically a regular pie with a couple pieces of fresh mozz thrown on top of the aged mozz. The sausage was unique in that it was cut lengthwise into very thin strips. Everyone was basically saying, "Meh," when the check arrived. That one pie cost almost $30. Add in a couple $4.00 beers, and you have perhaps the most expensive and least satisfying pizza on the list.

In between the two places we stopped in Cafe al Mercato, where we split a slice of their "sort-of-Sicilian" pizza. Not nearly as doughy as regular Sicilian, topped first with a thick layer of mozz (fresh, but not great), and then a simple crushed-tomato sauce. It tasted and smelled heavily of oil and was, by far, the most enjoyable pizza of the day.

But it wasn't really NY pizza, and so it is, in my opinion, a shame that "New York's Real Little Italy" as the Bronx Tourism Board hawks it, doesn't have any "Real New York Style Pizza." It’s got some pretty good slices, but nothing to go out of your way for, unfortunately. My advice: If you take a trip to Arthur Ave. bypass Full Moon and Giovanni's, and spend the day grazing, moving from shop to shop buying bread, ravioli, sausage, and other assorted goodies (we had some raw clams on the street, and I bought a dried mozzarella with fresh butter in the middle – that's right, cheese with butter in it, a combo I hope will be as self evidently brilliant to future generations as peanut butter and jelly is to our own), before winding up at one of the decent-to-excellent Italian restaurants in the neighborhood.

Mario's on Arthur Ave., the Bronx –
***1/2

Our last trip to Arthur Avenue ended in disappointment. One of us got a parking ticket, all of us felt like we'd been had by the claims of great pizza in the Bronx's Little Italy. But, we returned, and ate some very good pizza at Mario's. The weird thing about Mario's (besides the decor that hasn't changed since 1952, and the pictures of semi-celebrities hanging up, and our waiter who bore an eerie resemblance to Vince Vaughan, and the photocopied reviews present at the table and, and, and) is that they don't really want you to eat pizza there. While all the reviews hanging up make mention of the fantastic pizza, the menu claims that only an "appetizer pizza" exists. I quizzed the waiter. Waiter (Vince Vaughan): "You can have pizza as a meal before 4:30. After that you can only have it as an appetizer. I don't make the rules, so don't blame me. In my opinion though [beat] this is the best pizza in the country. I'm serious." While I wouldn't go that far, this was some seriously good pizza, probably the best I've had in the Bronx. We ordered two pies (they were delivered with just the right amount of time between them), one plain (at Vince's urging) with aged mozzarella, one with fresh mozz - half-pepperoni/half-garlic. The cheese was extremely good on both, the crust was excellent - crisp and light but still substantial, the sauce was pleasantly tart and simple, the garlic was in the form of gigantic half-cloves. Extremely, extremely good pizza. Except for the pepperoni; very thin slices with almost no bite that dribbled unpleasant oil over their half of the pie. Afterwards, a walk through the market, a visit to the cheese store, some pastries and coffee at Egidio's. In other words: an extremely pleasant day. Just be sure to get started before 4:30.

Update: Went back to have pizza at 2:30 on a Sunday. We were told we’d have to order something else. We got fried calamari. It was really damn good, but the whole thing is just insane.

Louie and Ernie's in Pelham Bay, the Bronx –
***

Matt Devoe and I went to Louie and Ernie's (which had recently been crowned the best in the Bronx by the Post). We ordered a half garlic/half sausage (plain mozz). It has a thicker crust than Patsy's or Johnny's, with no charring, and some chewiness (in a good way). The nicely crisp crust stood up to the massive amount of sausage on it. There was a good, fairly thick layer of mozzarella, smaller pieces of garlic spread evenly over the pizza (Matt prefers these little pieces, I prefer the big chunks). The sausage was amazingly good (out of the casing, nice and sweet). It was very good pizza in the "standard New York slice" vein. Regrets: I didn't save room for one of the calzones they were deep frying (deep frying!) a few feet away from us. Strangeness: It's not the prettiest girl at the dance and is located in the basement floor of a house – we saw feet and a lawnmower from our table. Ambience be damned!

It should be noted that neither Johnny’s in Mt. Vernon nor Louie and Ernie’s have a coal oven, and yet both make very good to excellent pies, whereas the coal oven pies at Arturo's and Angelo's were both deeply unsatisfying. Perhaps the idea that coal ovens are necessary for great NY-style pizza is nothing more than a myth?

Update: Returned and ate one of those fried calzones. Have one. The dough gets sweet and oily…like eating a ricotta filled zepoli. That’s a good thing, in case you were wondering.

Louis Seafood Restaurant, Throgg’s Neck, the Bronx –
*1/2

That's right, it says seafood there in the name, but, according to a couple of guys from Throgg’s Neck, it serves the best pizza in the Bronx (you can request the style of pizza: thin crust, well done, crispy. Thicker, medium-well, etc.). According to me: not so much. It was merely okay. It was close in style to Sal and Carmine's with a thick layer of brown, bubbling cheese over a "cooked" sauce and a fairly thick crust; the sauce was enjoyable, with a pleasantly heavy amount of oregano. The crust, unfortunately, was the pizza's downfall, winding up hard, dry, and chewy. If in the area, just go to Louie and Ernie's (it's five blocks away, fer godsakes).

Patricia’s Pizza and Pasta, Morris Park, the Bronx –
**1/2

If there’s been one constant in the pizza we’ve eaten on the quest, it’s that there’s an unspoken and (pretty much) universally understood cheese to sauce ratio somewhere out there, a platonic ideal every pie man naturally aims for and usually hits. It just is. When you order a “plain” (or a “cheese” or a “Margherita”), whether it’s cooked with coal, wood, or gas, whether it’s cheap or expensive…you’re getting a baseline amount of sauce and a complimentary amount of cheese (there’s wiggle room, but y’know what I mean). The Margherita at Patricia’s is the first pizza place we’ve gone to that seems to have unilaterally decided to call the whole delicate balance of cheese, sauce, and crust into question. It comes with a blanket of fresh mozzarella applied directly to the crust, and only a few splashes of tomato sauce (a lightly cooked, mildly sweet sauce) on top of that. And you know what: I kinda liked it.

Baked in a wood-burning oven, the crust was moderately thin, but pliable, and arrived with moderate charring and a fragrant smokiness. The cheese was fresh and very good (and, as I said, plentiful). The pies, called “Minis” were as large as some of the regular pies we’ve had. At first, I loved the overpowering cheesiness of it, but after a couple of sauce-free bites, I began to appreciate balance. It’s very good pizza (top third, probably), and for cheese lovers a sure thing, but ultimately pizza is more like bowling than ‘Nam: There are rules.

Update: You can order extra sauce, but there’s a tradeoff as the crust can get soggy at the end. It’s still a good pie either way.

Coals, Pelham Bay, The Bronx –
***

Coals is not a regular slice joint. Nor is it a regular fancy-shmancy place. Nor is it a regular pies-only coal-fired, etc., etc., place (which the name sort of suggests). Coals has grilled pizza. The extremely thin dough is placed atop an extremely an extremely hot (the owner said upwards of 800 degrees) grill for a few moments, flipped, sprinkled with ingredients, and served. The product is unlike any other pizza I’ve had (though it shares some of the traits – charring, flakiness – of places like Patsy’s and Johnnie’s), but is still a different beast. It’s crisp, thin, tasty, and has a pleasant saltiness. My complaint is a simple one: the method of cooking leads to a somewhat sparsely topped pie, and occasionally, the toppings are more warm than hot. Now, this isn’t really a complaint, as the results have all been delicious, and the toppings have all been good – aged mozzarella, a simple, tangy sauce, a dusting of romano (I’ve stayed away from the “nontraditional” toppings offered – corn and the like). But if you’re looking for a layer of sauce topped by a layer of cheese, be warned: you’re not going to get it here. Also: you should get a whole, large pie for yourself – you won’t have leftovers.

Does this “count” as NY pizza? To be honest, I’ve almost stopped asking myself such questions. Almost. So, no it’s not NY Pizza, but…C’mon! It’s good. Have some. Fine then, don’t.

Pizza Quest: Brooklyn

Totonno’s on Coney Island–
****

On Saturday ten (10!) of us made our way to Totonno's Pizzeria in Coney Island. We took over two tables ordered numerous pies, and were rewarded with, in my opinion, The Best Pizza I've Ever Eaten. The crust: Thicker than Patsy's, terrifically charred. The sauce: More of a traditional "sauce" than the simple crushed tomato at Nick's and Patsy's, but not pasty, sweet, or overpowering. The cheese: Very fresh mozzarella with a bit of parmigiano (Eric thought the parmigiano a bit too much); the mozz is placed directly on the unbaked crust, the sauce over and around it (leading to nice areas of only cheese and crust). The toppings: Plain, pepperoni (excellent, though Eric thought it a bit oily), sausage (some complained it was too thick, Pete could've used more fennel), and fresh garlic (spread evenly over the pie). All in all, in my opinion, the best pizza thus far. Pleasantly salty, wonderfully charred…just terrific. Great, great pizza. (Also, as you eat here pay attention to the way the pizza tastes as it cools. Things happen, and, in this humble eater’s opinion, it gets better).

And then, afterwards, a ride on the Cyclone, a walk down the boardwalk, and a two-hour subway ride home. It was worth it, this is pizza worth traveling for. Plus, you can shoot paintballs at a real live human being afterwards. True, we didn’t “Shoot the Freak,” ourselves, but the option was there. God Bless America.

Grimaldi's in Brooklyn –
**1/2

Seven of us made our way to Grimaldi's in Brooklyn (basically underneath the Brooklyn Bridge) to try what is considered to be among the best pizzerias in the city. We ate four pies (Yeah, I had five slices, what of it?), but in our defense, Grimaldi's is a thin crust, coal-oven pizza in the vein of Lombardi's/Patsy's/John's (This, somewhat, justifies that fifth slice, no?). Here are the pies:

1 - Plain: Merely okay fresh mozzarella (extremely low moisture, slightly chewy and stringy, not creamy at all), a simple crushed-tomato-style sauce on a very thin, but not very crispy, crust (there was minimal charring, but some nice puffing and blistering). The whole thing was topped with a shot of dried herbs, and several fresh basil leaves (applied before the pie goes in the oven, so they are cooked, unlike most places that use basil).

2 - Sausage and Pepperoni: This was by far my favorite pie. The sausage (crumbled) was spicy (who likes fennel!?), and the pepperoni was incredibly tasty, slightly thick, and nicely crisped from the oven.

3 - Roasted Peppers and Fresh Garlic: Very good roasted peppers that, unfortunately, completely overshadowed the fresh garlic on my slice (Jen claimed that all the garlic was on her slice. This poor garlic distribution upsets me. A lot.)

4 - Half Ham/Half Olives: I was excited by the prospect of ham (my third pork-product of the evening), but was severely let down by this slice (as were all the other ham-folk). Near microscopic ham cubes dotted the slice, and were almost unnoticeable in the mouth. The olive-eaters faired better, with actual whole, black olives (the consensus was positive on that side of the table).

The evening ended with a nice stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan, and the following conversation:

"There was just nothing great about it. It was all good, but none of it was amazing. It had no one thing that made it amazing or really interesting."

"It was like pizza-by-committee. No risks. It was like the difference between a good cook and a chef."

"This was clean pizza. Totonno's is a dirty pizza...Di Fara's is a filthy, filthy pizza. Grimaldi's was a clean pizza."

DiFara's in Midwood, Brooklyn –
****

DiFara's gets crowded early and stays crowded. One guy, Dominic De Marco makes the every pie (with love and care) and it takes him quite a while. I called to try and figure out what was the best time to go, and had the following conversation:

Him (heavy Italian accent): DiFara's.
Me: Hi, are you open on Sunday.
Him: Yes.
Me: Is there a good time to come in?
Him: Eh, hard to say.
Me: You're busy all day?
Him: Yes, pretty much. I mean, you order toppings, it'll take longer.
Me: We'll just have to wait?
Him: He-he-he, yes.

Of course, this only made me want to go more

We headed out to Midwood (not as bad a trip as I suspected), walked into DiFara's, and immediately ordered a two pies (one regular, half-plain/half garlic, one square, half-plain/half-pepperoni). Despite the horror stories of hour-long waits for pizza, everything went smoothly (This was during the RNC, so perhaps all his patrons were out protesting? Suckers!), and we got our pies in, say, fifteen minutes or so. While everyone had their favorites, it was when I bit into my third slice (a regular, plain one), that I thought: "This is it," and realized I was eating the best pizza I've ever had. And a pizza that was different from most of the others; at the other places I've liked, the pies have had three great elements (cheese, sauce, crust) that seem somehow separate, DiFara's has a slice that is perfectly balanced, with all the elements working together. It was just amazing. The crust is slightly thicker than standard New York variety (it's closer, apparently, to Neapolitan style), the sauce seems to be a simple cooked one, and the cheese...well, Dominic Demarco (the owner and pizza-maker), puts three mozzarellas on his pies (it seems – can’t find a straight answer): Buffalo milk mozzarella, fresh full-fat cow's milk mozzarella, and an aged mozzarella, before topping off the pie with a liberal dousing of olive oil. He also offered us a (paper) plate of freshly grated grana padana to apply to our slices. A note on the square pies: though I kept referring to them as "Sicilian" while I was there, they are not nearly as doughy or thick, and are only a bit thicker than the regular round variety. The big difference is that they are cooked in greased pans, which does amazing things to the crust. It was just great pizza.

Note: There’s no alcohol served at DiFara’s, but you can bring your own.

Update: I've gone back to DiFara's four or five times since, and have always had to endure THE WAIT. Yeah, what everyone says is true: It can take an hour to get a pizza.

Pizza Quest: Westchester

Johnny's Pizzeria in Mount Vernon –
****

I'm pretty sure that one of those universally acceptable principles is the idea that parents should want the best for their children. Of course, what "the best" means is largely up for grabs. Some choose such nebulous and unsatisfying concepts as instilling "values" or a "work ethic" as the best. From an early age, my notion has always been more concrete, say, things like candy or money. So, when we went to Johnny's Pizzeria in Mt. Vernon, a scant seven or eight minutes from the house in which I grew up, I was shocked both at how good it was (oh, is it good: Tara rates it the best she's had, I put it very near the top) and by the fact that I'd spent the first eighteen years of my life thinking that Crestwood Pizza by the train station was the way pizza should taste when an astonishing, far-superior alternative was located only ten minutes away. How could this abuse occur?

I decided to confront my mother with this charge, assuming that she'd plead ignorance. The truth was far more disturbing.

"I went to a great pizza place last night."
"Where?"
"Johnny's in Mt. Vernon."
"Oh, Johnny's! I've eaten there a thousand times!"

It wasn't ignorance; they simply didn't care. Sigh.

Anyway, now that I've outted my parents as the selfish ogres they are, I can talk about Johnny's. Eight of us (mostly newcomers), had four pizzas: Plain, half-pepperoni/half sausage and mushrooms, fresh garlic, half pepperoni/half plain. Incredibly thin, crisp crust with light charring. A thin layer of plain mozzarella (no fresh on the menu, so far as I could tell), topped with a thin layer of simple tomato sauce. The toppings were excellent (I didn't manage to grab a slice of sausage and mushroom). The garlic was strong and tasty, with large chucks sprinkled evenly over the pizza, and the pepperoni was a little on the thick side, and was spicy and not oily. Minor complaints: I'd love to try fresh mozzarella on it, our fourth pie was not quite as crisp as the others. Bonus: The cheapest place so far, easier to get to than you'd imagine (30 minutes on the Metro-North, a ten-minute walk from the station), and has a review from 1975 hanging up. Extra Bonus: I saw an albino squirrel on the walk from the train.

Update: returned a couple weeks later with a different group of people. Result was the same. Damn fine pizza.

Update Update: I've been back several times, and it's been consistently great.

Pizza Quest: New Haven

Sally’s –
**1/2

Modern Apizza –
**

It’s an old saw: You like the pizza you grew up with. If you grew up in Chicago, Chicago-style is your favorite and New York will never really compare. I disagree. I grew up with “NY slice joint” pizza, but my favorites have a bit of a Neapolitan edge to them (DiFara’s and Una Pizza Napolitana) or are made in a coal-oven. Some might call this splitting hairs (it’s all in the New York family), but I don’t think so. These are distinct entities, and love of one does not predicate love of the other. Also: Are we supposed to believe that this only applies for pizza or am I supposed to, for example, forever hunger for the hamburgers (gigantic, nearly round affairs with a coat of Worcestershire sauce) I had as a youth? Because I don’t -- give me flat and crispy any day. This is all a preface to the following: I wasn’t crazy about New Haven pizza.

Tara, John, and I headed to New Haven following a wedding in Norwalk and snagged lunch at Modern Apizza and dinner at Sally’s (My suggestion of a post-dinner pie at Pepe’s was met with groans and scowls. Whatever.). The pies were similar. Both places had irregular, large almost-circles, cut into extremely narrow wedges. While cooked in a coal oven, the bottoms of both crusts were pale and not very crispy (the outside crusts had some decent charring, Sally’s moreso). The only signs of charring on the bottom crusts were from the semolina used on the pizza peel (the ball bearings that allow the pie to roll into the oven) – basically there was a burnt grit clinging to the bottom of the pie. My biggest complaint was the cheese. It had been cooked till brown, and didn’t so much top the pizza as pave it over. In the sauce department, Sally’s wins (pretty handily). It had good tomato flavor and hadn’t dried out as much as Modern’s. We also split a small clam and garlic pie at Modern. It was good, but suffered the same crust problems as the “plain” (in New York parlance, or “cheese” in New Haven-ese). I really wanted to like New Haven pizza; it’s the oldest American pizza tradition outside of New York, it’s located close enough that I could convince myself I to travel there every few months to have it, and all the cool kids like it. And yet…not so much. Sorry, New Haven, I’ll be back to try Pepe’s when my knowitallism kicks in, but I won’t be happy about it

It should be noted that Tara and John had a far more positive view of the pizzas than I did. Tara even put it in her top five. She is clearly insane.

Pepe's - Bridgeport, Ct.
***

Yes, yes. I know the original Pepe's is in New Haven, and, yes, I know I haven't been there...but I was in Bridgeport. What do you want? Cunningham took me and Tara to Pepe's, where the pies are irregularly shaped, sliced into narrow wedges, covered in strange toppings, and ginormous. Oh, and they're pretty good, too. It was in the same pizza family as Modern Apizza and Sally's (unsurprisingly), but was a bit better than either. Again, the crust wasn't charred on the bottom the way I like it (though it was a coal oven, what gives, Connecticut?), the cheese was slightly overcooked to my tastebuds, and it was a bit chewier than I prefer, but it was quite good. We got a small white clam pie (excellent) and a large (meaning: huge) pie split between plain and bacon (good). Bacon? Yeah, bacon, pancetta's unruly, nitrite-filled cousin. The bacon was a bit much, I have to admit, but the pie was pretty tasty. Bridgeport, like the New Haven location, also has a line to get in. We waited a good half-hour early on a Saturday evening. While waiting we looked in on those who were already eating, comfortable and warm, and felt deep stabs of envy. So, if you want pretty good pizza and an opportunity to break the tenth commandment, head to Pepe's in Bridgeport!

Pizza Quest: Mail Order Chicago

Lou Malnati's - Chicago
No stars, because I can’t really judge, but I’d order it again.

I was ready to dislike Chicago-style pizza. It seemed like, well, the Cubs of pizza. It didn't merit the intense frothing-at-the-mouth craziness that I could easily muster for California-style (the Red Sox, if you will), because, well, it's barely pizza. I mean, it's cute that they think it's a real, grown-up pie and everything, but, c'mon...you need a fork-and-knife to eat it. Steak: fork and knife. Pizza: hands. It's science. So, it was basically a whim when I ordered four pies online from Lou Malnati's (Why, if it were merely a whim, did I order four pies? One - Shipping per pie is a lot cheaper with four. Two - You don't know me very well, do you?). The pies (plain, sausage, pepperoni, and supreme) arrived parbaked, packed with dry ice in a Styrofoam cooler two days after I placed my order. Tara and I had the plain one first, and much to my surprise we liked it. Quite a lot. Tasty chunks of tomato and sauce topped a massive oozy slab of mozzarella cheese. The crust was flaky and buttery and the pie had a heavy sprinkling of parmesan. Really, really good.

There are problems, however (I imagine most of these disappear if you are actually eating your pizza in Chicago). First, it's hard to tell when it's done (it arrives pretty much golden brown). I wound up simply pressing my index finger into the center of the pie till I burned myself. Also, I kept insisting on eating it with my hands. I scowled at it, broke it into pieces, told it to "act like a pizza," but no: fork and knife it was. Sausage came second and was less enjoyable. They roll out a sheet of sausage in between the cheese and sauce layers. While perhaps tasty at one point in its existence, the sausage wound up tough and chewy. Also, the pie stuck to the bottom of the tin (I haven't figured out why). Pepperoni proved better than sausage, but not really a match for the straightforward pleasure of the cheese pie. Finally, the supreme (sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, onion, and green pepper), which suffered from the same tough sausage as pie #2.

The verdict: It's pretty good. I'd take Malnatti's cheese pie over a few of the pizzerias we've been to and both of the places in my neighborhood, but will skip the sausage in the future. It is, however, something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Second City: It was good, but I wouldn't trade styles with Chicago for anything.

Free Concert Update:

Saturday, 6-17-06 - Saturday Looks Good to Me, Mobius Band, Human Television, and Meneguar
2pm-6pm, East River Amphitheater

[You can view the complete, updated list here.]

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Music + Video, No. 7

Why do you not like The Gnarls Barkley? Perhaps you haven't heard it, yet? Yes, no? Listen: Is good. Watch original here. The Cee-lo/Danger Mouse Rorschach Video. You like, yes? No. Perhaps you like better this here. Is The Gnarls Barkley on Conan. They wear the slippers and robes. They sing slower.

What, you still don't like?

The name?

The name is silly.

That is all. You do not like name?

You silly. You silly.

You like now.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Et tu, Stephin?

I've tried to make it a point to not be one of those people who gets all "Sellout! Sellout!" when a favorite artist dares dirty his or her hands by engaging the marketplace. I remember reading this essay/response by Dave Eggers about the idea of selling out and thinking, "Okay, that makes sense," and making a conscious decision not to worry about artists "keeping shit real." Since I read that (it must have been college), the entire culture seems to have decided not to worry, either. Songs from bands like Subpop's The Shins and Iron & Wine turn up relatively frequently in commercials or as background music on MTV, Dylan did a Victoria's Secret commercial (you can watch him leering here), and Devo has engaged the corporate world head on (click here, warning: audio starts playing immediately). And frankly, this didn't really bother me: Subpop's current lineup seems to have quite a few bands looking for mainstream success, Bob Dylan's Victoria Secret commercial seems kind of like another joke from an inscrutable artist, and Devo has always been made of 99.8% pure irony.

But I saw something on TV last night that got to me. It was a commercial for Cesar dog food featuring the bouncy opening of "I Think I Need a New Heart" by The Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields are a product of Stephin Merritt, who seems to say whatever comes to mind, and have little care for what happens (here's a recent article on Merritt, and how some things he's said have lead to charges of racism). By most reports, Merritt is a nightmare to interview, as he'll ignore questions he thinks are stupid. He's smart as hell, his music is quirky (in the sense that it's made with its creator's quirks on full display), and he makes music that is pretty far outside the mainstream. And said music is now being used to hawk dog food.

I think I finally understand why people get annoyed at artists "selling out." It's not that I'll be unable to enjoy the dog food song anymore (seeing it in the commercial has made me listen to it two or three times, and it's still a very good song), it's that it makes it clear that an artist I admire is human. I like to think that Merritt lives in a bare, white-walled studio apartment, sleeps on top of a pile of 78s he bought at garage sales, and subsists on a daily crust of bread. His only income is from fans who press bills into his hands when he walks down the street. He's being evicted, because the neighbors can't get through the camp of journalists outside his building, waiting to capture him saying something "controversial." But that, clearly, isn't true. It's not that I want him to be poor, it's that I want to believe he's an artist purely for the sake of his art. I want to believe that he's not engaging the marketplace in any way, when in reality, every time he releases a record (even if it's on an indie label), he's doing just that. And the dog food commercial made it clear: Stephin Merritt sells music for a living. I shouldn't be mad at him for it when I'm lucky enough to be a consumer, too.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Link #3: Pixies + x = Awesomeness

What would songs by The Pixies sound like, if done by other artists? Like this.

Prince doing "Hey," is my favorite.

[Thanks, Roger, and mefi.]

Link #2: Best Toy Ever

From this line of toys at FAO Schwartz, we have this guy:

Albino Squid - Friends With You Collection

Albino Squid is a jerk. He is a useful friend in that he reminds you how not to act. If you are a jerk, rejoice, you’ve met your new teammate. He wants to kick the butt of all your competitors and help you rule the world. He is the solution to all your problems.

This product recommended for 7 yrs and above.
[Thanks, Charlotte]

Link #1: Mansquito!

The best movie "review" ever. Mansquito.

[Thanks, David]