Thursday, June 08, 2006

Pizza Quest: Manhattan Above 14th St.

Angelo's on 57th –

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 –

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

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. –

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 -

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. -

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.

1 comment:

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