Thursday, June 08, 2006

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.

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