Filling the Blodder–Blog Fodder: Finding a Place (to eat pizza in NYC)

Cultural journalists churn out top ten lists when deadlines creep up and the need for genuine articles arises; they’re easy, highly subjective, and ripe for irrational reaction. At this moment I find myself trapped in a metal tube jetting towards North Carolina at some-odd-hundred miles an hour—captive of a pilot highly authoritative in his demand that we remain seated with our seatbelts securely fastened. Over the last seven days I’ve visited seven different New York City apartments in the quest for a new home—have seen everything from cramped art studios to insanely overpriced penthouses—and only one met my needs. Convoluted and laterally-oriented, the Big Apple’s subway system is a big pain to navigate. That people haven’t revolted against the MTA’s lacking East to West connections is a testament to the city’s appealing greatness.  Anyway, my attention has been diverted, so you’re getting something between a top ten list and critique: a reaction to GQ’s top ten New York pizza places pared down to five, further pared down to two with three personal substitutions. Enjoy!

*****

The indulgence New York foodies spend on pizza-related debate has long seemed incomprehensible to me; although undeniably awesome, it’s difficult to “perfect” something that’s ideally eaten amongst friends with a bag of Frito’s and some funky coke. There’s the classic debate between Chicago and New York style, but anybody who’s eaten both knows that’s actually a debate between bread and pizza. Chicago-style fans like bread, New York-style fans like pizza. Attempting to understand the peculiar and ever-lasting debate over the one true king of New York pizzerias, I dedicated my free time between apartment-hunting and meeting friends to some in-depth research. Many pounds and slices later, here we are with a detailed list of reviews.

Lombardi’s Pizza

Lombardis_Store

Lombardi’s claims itself as “one of the oldest pizzerias in the nation”. I don’t know how true this is—its only been around a century, so this may say more about the age of our country than the quality of the pizza—but it is world-renowned thanks to mass-media coverage. The problem with restaurants that garner reputations from history is their recipes usually fall on the back-burner in the name of gentrification and commercialization. Although Lombardi’s hasn’t expanded into a chain, its focus on commercialization is immediately apparent in its artistically designed, laminated, full-color menu (complete with photos and crazy logos).

Enough about the store. This was my appetizer:

Lombardis_App

It’s enormous. It’s covered in tomatoes. And it’s bread. When you bite into it, you won’t think “there’s an infusion of flavors invading my mouth!” nor will you think it tastes particularly great. You will think “this tastes like tomatoes on garlic bread”. It was served too early; if the chef waited longer, the tomato and bread would have blended to create a more distinct flavor, but at the expense of texture. Overall, this appetizer needs something new to make it delicious—probably a layer of mozzarella.

And now for the pizza:

Lombardis_Pizza

It’s a plain margherita with cheese and clove flavoring.

When I was six my mom drove the family to Florida. If you’ve ever driven to Florida from the North, you know Georgia becomes the longest state in the Union upon entry, as if they built the interstate in some insane spiral pattern to make travel lengthier. Anyway, midway through Georgia, my mom tells me “We’re stopping at Cracker Barrel!” Nothing pleased me more than bacon at age six, and when we arrived a small insert fell out of the menu listing “HALF POUND OF CANADIAN BACON” as a new item. Reading about the juicy succulence of the bacon made my palms sweaty. I begged my mom, ordered the bacon, and glanced every time a waiter walked out from the back, anticipating my pork’s delivery. Finally, the time came. The waiter placed my mom’s salad in front of her. He put my grandma’s grits and whatever else old people eat in front of her. Then he put my plate down.

It was covered in ham. I lifted the flaps with my fork and peered underneath, expecting hidden bacon. No dice. I opened the new silverware, remembering that my mom sometimes cooked bacon in napkins. Still, no bacon. Lip-quivering and desperate, I looked at my mom and asked “Where’s the bacon?” And my mom, almost as a side-thought, said “That is bacon, Ryan. That’s Canadian Bacon”. That’s when my hatred of Canadians began.

Back to New York pizza. The giant, sunburst emblazoned “LOMBARDI’S CLASSIC MARGHERITA PIZZA” menu listing had a laundry list of toppings under it. I thought the owner misunderstood the “Margherita” part of “Margherita Pizza” and ordered it, expecting a supreme; turns out I was the only one who misunderstood. I was bent over the Cracker Barrel all over again.

The pizza could’ve benefited from a few minutes of cooling, but was delicious once it settled. Covered in just enough sauce to provide a rich flavor, but not so much that it overpowered the pizza or separated in the mouth, the crust was charred to a hard and chewy perfection. The cheese wasn’t especially noticeable until the last slice, after many minutes of cooling, but this is preferable to the popular practice of smothering the entire pie in cheese. Clove is rarely done well—it’s on nearly every pizza, but as a visual addition rather than taste supplement; the guys at Lombardi’s utilize clove leaves large enough that provide occasional bursts of flavor, creating a vibrant synthesis for the pie. Although this was great pizza, I still wouldn’t classify it as a must-eat.

Famous Joe’s Pizza (and GROM)

Joes_Store

Famous Joe’s is a hole in the wall that gets packed around lunchtime—and that’s about all it’s worth. Although the pizzas are made fresh, they’re also generic and overwhelmingly cheesy.

Joes_Pizza

The “white” pizza (which is obviously red) tasted bland and cardboard-ish, the spice being the only memorable part. The mozzarella pizza was great, but predominately cheese-and-grease flavored. This isn’t a classy must-dine place; it’s a lunchtime dive. What does make this place recommended, however, is GROM, a nearby gelateria on the corner of Bleecker and Carmine. I haven’t had gelato this good since I was in Italy, and nothing spices up bland pizza better than a creamy heaping of pistachio, nougat, and chocolate. Subpar pizza, great gelato.

GROM Gelato--when you're finished, there'll be more cream than what was in the cup.

GROM Gelato--when you're finished, there'll be more cream than what was in the cup.

Artichoke Pizza

Artichoke_Store

I was dragged here by a friend’s friend after a few drinks—and I’m grateful for it. This is what pizza was meant to be.

Artichoke_Pizza

Look at it. Juicy but free of visible grease, fresh but lacking specific ingredient domination. Despite the restaurant’s namesake, the Artichoke Special pales in comparison to the Sicilian, with its spinach leaves, rich olive oil, mozzarella cheese, well-charred crust and light sauce.

This is the only NYC pizza that truly impressed me. Check it out.

Totonno’s Pizza

Totonnos_store

Marked with praises like “Only God makes better pizza – Zagat’s”, the awnings outside Totonno’s lead one to expect the Pie of Pies within—a veritable plate of pristine perfection. Unfortunately, the pizza fails in living up to its claim; not only does God make a better pizza (apparently…) but so do most other New York pizzerias.

Totonnos_Pizza

Although it looks beautiful, my Totonno’s pie was everything pizza shouldn’t be—soggy in the middle with undercooked pepperonis, bland onions and a watery, near-absent sauce. While too much can overwhelm and ruin even the best pizzas, a lacking sauce throws the food’s very identity into question. Too many toppings for a white pie, not enough sauce for a Marguerita—this thing was like bread that had been soaked in tomato juice and topped with a few items. On the plus side, the spinach was very fresh.

Great if you want fresh spinach.

God sets his bar just slightly higher than mediocre.

God sets his bar slightly above mediocre.

Ray’s Famous Pizza

Raysstore

Ray’s is New York’s In-and-Out Burger. The locals swear by it as cheapie pizza Mecca, and they know their stuff. The two slices displayed represent only a fraction of variety you can get.

Rays

It had a nice, firm crust, rich feta cheese mounds, and a faintly noticeable sauce. The grease-level was high—leaving a huge stain on my pants that will never be removed—but the place doesn’t claim to be gourmet. It’s cheap, and good cheap pizza is greasy, tasty, and filling.

If you’re in New York and missing Ray’s, you’re missing New York pizza.

*****

So what did I learn during this pizza-pounding venture? The most outstanding pie I’ve tasted  is from Evaroni’s–a small joint located in Kenova, WV. It’s the kind of place you can overlook for decades–but you’d be doing a grave disservice to yourself if you did. It’s uniquely sweet-tasting and square, and more importantly, nostalgic. In the Pixar film Ratatouille, the villanous, bitter food critic is appeased only when served a peasant’s dish reminding him of his mother’s cooking. This is the same experience informing my opinion of New York Pizza; it may be that Evaroni’s isn’t altogether original. But in my mind, it will always be the pizza by which I measure all others–anything else is merely “food”.

*****

We’re touching down in Charlotte an hour early listening to the pilot’s reflections on the possibilities of our gate being filled by another plane. He’s spoken a lot during the trip—much more than most pilots speak—and even quoted some poet I never read. Something about an inability to take us home—that only our minds can. The pilot’s voice is low and gravely—each word is drawn out with the slur of a habitual drunk. It sounds like the rantings of Hunter S. Thompson.

Any of the apartments I visited could have been home—could still be; the trip has been a living variorum of possible futures. Late-night parties, forbidden love affairs, squabbles over dishes. Pets that aren’t mine. Losing myself in the neighborhood. None of that.

The future is undetermined—we make our own path. Everything I’ve experienced over the last week spits in Einstein’s face.

Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. But New York has empowered me. It inspires—is filled by people with realized potential, who are themselves overshadowed only by the greats of our era. The streets are flooded with music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes turgid, but almost ubiquitous. The sidewalks are littered with would-be Michelangelos, peddling their latest works. The city doesn’t just attract artists—it creates them. In a town that represents opportunity in the same way America did sixty years ago—where almost every aspiration is possible and art is consistently created and witnessed—it’s difficult to ignore the grandiose dreams we hold dear of being rock stars and authors.

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