Thursday, June 08, 2006

Pizza Quest: The Bronx

Tosca, Throgg’s Neck, the Bronx –

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 –

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 –

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 –

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.

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