Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sal's Pizza (Brooklyn)

At the insistence of one of my coworkers, I made a stop at Sal's Pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to try their grandma-style slice.

Grandma-style pizza, for those unfamiliar, is basically a thinner version of it's square Sicilian counterpart, usually light on the cheese.

The good news: I got the last grandma slice at Sal's.
The bad news: it wasn't an edge piece. Blast!

Patrick at work was right- the slice was awesome. I only wish I could have ordered another! The crust had a great crispiness on the bottom (and it needs to; I can't imagine having to eat a soggy, floppy version of this).

None too burnt. You can actually see where the heat and CO2 gets trapped between the floor of the oven and the bottom of the crust, creating gas bubbles keeping the dough from touching the hot oven surface (the light splotchy areas seen above).

Sal's bakes their grandma pies with pecorino Romano, giving it a great cheese-saturated taste. I wolfed it down with a quickness and left, as the cops next to me were giving me strange stares as if I was some sort of pizza pedophile for snapping pics of my slice.

Eating a slice like this reminded me that I need to check out Brooklyn's Spumoni Gardens. We'll see if Sal's can put up a good fight.

Grilled Pizza 8/26

This week I trekked up to Williamsburg for a friend's potluck barbecue birthday party. Instead of bringing the usual corn or burgers, I decided to take my first stab at grilling a pizza. I packed up some dough, sauce, basil and cheese and jumped on the G train.

After stopping at Sal's Pizza (see above), I got to the party only to find the sauce container had opened and spilled the majority of it's contents into my bag. Gross. Note to self: double bag next time!

Despite this mishap, the steady drizzle outside, and my level of intoxication, I coated the dough in olive oil and threw it on the grill.

Oiling the dough and/or the grill itself is crucial or else the dough will stick. The coals were positioned in a thick layer uniformly across the bottom of the grill. Joshua Bousel has a great tutorial on grilling pizza in which he suggests keeping 'hot' and 'cold' hemispheres in your grill for maximum heat control. I didn't do this, but I see its benefits.

I covered the grill for about 7 minutes until the topside of the dough started to bubble, almost like a pancake. Using a spatula, I flipped the dough and covered for another 5 minutes before removing it from the grill to apply the sauce, cheese and basil. Thanks to Dev, my pizza assistant for his speedy ingredient preparation. Pizza put back on the grill for 2-3 more minutes.

I know, I know! It's light on sauce! If 75% of it didn't spill in my bag I would have put more on, I'm just glad I was able to salvage what I did. It sure looks flat-bread!

Looks like it could use a bit more cheese to.. oh well, this was my first time cooking AND eating grilled pizza, so you gotta start somewhere right? The good news is that what I lost in ingredients was made up for by the crust. The entire slab of dough had a thin, crunchy shell to it with a nice doughy, chewy inside. Yum!

Adam @ Slice has a couple excellent grilled pizza recipes/tutorials you should definitely check out before summer is completely over.

Next time I think I'll just use my own grill and keep my messenger bag out of the equation.

Two Boots

Two Boots may just be the most polarizing pizza in New York.

In my experience, if you mention these two words to anyone who's had Two Boots pizza, their eyes will either flare with excitement or squint in disgust. With six locations across Manhattan and several more in Brooklyn, Connecticut and L.A., Two Boots also runs a video store and ran the Pioneer Theater for nine years until it's unfortunate and recent demise nearly a year ago.

As a disclaimer, this pizza was delivered rather than eaten 'on location.' I promise I'm not getting lazy! We had the pizza delivered at work, and to be fair, I've had Two Boots at the pizzeria as well as delivered, and it tastes about the same either way. In my opinion, TB is different from the average NY slice in three ways:


Two Boots uses a heavy coating of cornmeal/polenta on their dough. From what I can tell, it's not actually used IN the dough, just to keep it from sticking to the pizza peel and oven. Some people REALLY don't like this touch. I myself like it from time to time but it's not for every pizza.


I don't know how to put my finger on TB's sauce- it's got a bold, peppery kick to it. No chunks and never over-applied, it really adds some character to the slice without 'stealing the show.' Again, some people don't care for it and opt instead for a sweeter or more bland gravy you come to expect from run-of-the-mill NY slices.


A quick glance at Two Boot's list of toppings and styles may leave your head spinning. Artichoke (above), crawfish, creole chicken, bbq shrimp and cajun ham are just a few of the unexpected and unconventional additions TB offers.

Keeping the film/pop-culure vibe going, Two Boots offers a list of specialty pizzas named after memorable characters from TV and film, including "The Newman," "The Dude," "Mr. Pink," and the delicious pie seen above, "The Larry Tate" (spinach and tomatoes on a white pie).

Two Boots may not be for the average pizza-eater; after all, it's not your average pizzeria. But with it's unorthodox ingredients, exotic toppings, and it's fun film twist to boot, Two Boots is a refreshing pizza oasis in a desert of analogous NY slices.

Homemade 8/16

This is my first entry about my own pizza-making trials and errors. While these posts may not feature an established pizzeria, I hope it's just as interesting and informative. I've been making pizzas for about a year-and-a-half now, and not only is it a lot of fun, it helps me get a better understanding of the technique, science, and skill of what goes into the pizzas mentioned on this blog.

Once I have a few recipes I'm proud enough to share, you're invited to come over and review it yourself!

In the meantime, I'll show you what I've been making (and what I'm doing wrong). Lately I've been naively attempting to make a Neapolitan pie. Mind you, I live in a small Brooklyn apartment which doesn't afford me access to a brick oven essential to making this type of pizza, so I'm stuck with your run-of-the-mill gas oven with a pizza stone.

The other night I pulled some dough out of the fridge, a concoction improvised somewhere between Jeff Varasano's and Roberto Caporuscio's home oven adaptation of his Kesté dough. Jeff's website has a great albeit intense step-by-step explanation of how to make (Neapolitan) pizza dough. While I used Molino "tipo 00" (a measurement of finest grain) Italian flour, I haven't stepped into the world of yeast culture starters so I stuck with the Fleischmann's dry yeast I get at the grocery store.

Hey, we're makin' a Neapolitan here! Buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes are a must! I won't get into the science that differentiates a gas oven from the highly-coveted brick oven, but basically the intense radiant heat from a brick oven will cook a pizza in under two minutes. Gas ovens on the other hand cook using convections and At Caporuscio's recommendation, I 'pre-baked' the crust with sauce on it for about 8 minutes on the broiler setting (600 or so degrees) before adding the cheese and basil (otherwise it'll burn!).

Now truly traditional Neapolitan pizzas use NO olive oil in making the dough. I don't know why, they just don't. My guess is it would burn the eff out of the pizza (remember, it's only in the oven for about a minute as it is!). I'd like to stay as traditional as possible, but I'm also not baking in brick oven. That being the case, I'm willing to bend a few rules to get my desired outcome, so I brushed half the pizza with EVOO to see if it would burn faster/cook different from the other half. The finished product:

I wish I had a better close-up of the cornicione, but the side on the right is the olive oiled side. Obviously this is nowhere near a traditional Neapolitan in taste or appearance (no leopard spots!)

What a disappointment! Not a char in sight, it hardly even looks browned! The crust was chewy, but in a stale sort of way, and by no means airy or fluffy. I am sad. The buffalo mozz tasted great, but puddled up in the middle of the pie.

Overall it tasted pretty decent- but it was miles away from what I'm trying to create. Next time I am going back to using olive oil in my dough and repeating the process to see if it makes much difference. Also, I know the preheating of the sauce on top of the dough keeps the pizza moist and not too dry while baking, but that cost my sauce it's moisture. Bummer!

I'm still trying to figure out the trick to really light, fluffy cornicione that just blows up in the oven. I would love to try Kenji's broiler & stove top 'hack' - if I only had a true broiler compartment beneath my stove.

*Sigh* The restrictions of a conventional oven. Maybe I'll just make one of these.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Patsy's Pizzeria

Yesterday I made the trek up to First Ave. at 118th St. in Harlem for one of the oldest and most well-known pizzerias in American history, Patsy's.

In 1933, Pasquale "Patsy" Lancieri and his wife Carmela opened the doors to East Harlem's first pizzeria. Patsy, a former employee of Gennaro Lombardi of famous Lombardi's Pizzeria, took what he learned from America's first pizzeria and brought it uptown. Though mainly a sit-down family restaurant, Patsy's is apparently the first pizzeria in New York to offer single slices- the first official NEW YORK SLICE.

Just like the three other "originals" (Lombardi's, John's, and Totonno's), Patsy's is a coal-fed brick oven pizzeria, which typically makes serving single slices impractical.

No worries, I didn't want a slice; I wanted a whole pie. I ordered a classic cheese, fresh tomatoes on half. Because brick ovens are so hot, the pizza only needs to be in the oven for a few minutes. Regardless, my jaw dropped when barely three minutes after ordering the pie, it arrived piping hot.

Now THAT'S a coal oven pizza (take note, Sette). It's clear to see NY's slice heritage in this pizza. Granted I could have ordered the pizza with fresh mozzarella and go for a more Neapolitan style, but I wanted the classic cheese that New York has made famous.

Beautiful. The crust was thin, crispy, and charred to perfection (well, I did have ONE blackened air bubble), but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Personally, I prefer a slice with thicker crust and chewy, bready cornicione- Patsy's is the antithesis of this, but no less delicious.

There's quite a bit of history and controversy surrounding Patsy's.
  • After Pasquale died in 1974, Carmela sold the pizzeria to an employee Frank Brija & John Brecevich. They eventually made an agreement with Nick Tsoulos (of Nick's in Brooklyn and Angelo's in Manhattan) in 1991 for franchise rights to use the name and likeness of Patsy's, spawning six more locations across Manhattan.
  • Patsy's Pizzeria has no affiliation with Patsy's Restaurant, except a hefty lawsuit and that Frank Sinatra loved 'em both (Patsy's Restaurant does not serve pizza).
  • Brooklyn's Grimaldi's Pizzeria was originally named Patsy's when it opened in 1990, named for Patsy Grimaldi- Patsy Lancieri's nephew. Legal issues from the aforementioned franchisement lead Patsy to change the name to Grimaldi's.
On my way out, I got to speak to John, Patsy's current owner, who had plenty of stories to tell of the old pizza joint.

Apparently, when Francis Ford Coppola was in pre-production on The Godfather, he brought Al Pacino to Patsy's to show him a striking scene- on one side of the restaurant sat a gaggle of New York's finest, and on the other side sat a posse of mafiosos- all chowing down on slices.

According to John, the restaurant and it's bathroom were the inspiration for the scene in which Michael Corleone shoots down Sollozzo and McCluskey with a gun hidden inside a toilet tank. However, just before shooting, Patsy requested the film be shot elsewhere. Patsy didn't want to offend his clientele, saying, "the real bad guys don't shoot cops."

Pizza sure can bring people together; it can also drive them apart.

For a great recap of the history of New York pizza, check out the Bowery Boy's podcast here.


Heading back north on the Eastern seaboard, the next stop was Richmond, VA. Ever-hungry for another slice, the AAA travel book pointed me in the direction of Sette.

The building used to be an old carriage house, the date of which I wasn't able to find out. If that isn't enough of a mystery for you, take a look at the oven:

Just what the hell is going on here? Sette's slogan is "fire-roasted pizza." Okay, fair enough, but there are no signs of wood or coal to speak of, and based on the picture, it looks like a gas oven disguised as a brick oven.

After receiving my 'florentine' pizza (spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mozz and feta), the jig was up. Definitely a gas oven, there was no charring anywhere on the pizza.

The bottom crust had an even, brown tone to it- totally characteristic of a gas oven.

You can tell how flat the pizza is- usually telling that the dough was abused by a rolling pin before the toppings were added. Any existing pockets of CO2 in the raw dough are smushed by doing this, preventing the final pizza from having a fluffy, chewy cornicione. Bad move.

Were they going for a thin crust? If so, it was a failure. The crust was thick, just boring and like I said, flat. On a more positive note, the ingredients were very tasty

At the same time, it doesn't take world-class pizzaiolo to put fresh toppings on a pizza. More and more I find myself focusing on the crust when grading pizzas- arguably the most difficult step in making a truly unique and tasty pizza.

Mom got the Margherita topped with tomatoes. Same story as my florentine.

At least they remembered to throw some basil on this trainwreck. B-O-R-I-N-G.

Sure, the atmosphere and beer list and setting were all enjoyable, but having since read a long list of positive reviews of this place, I'm just disappointed. It's one thing if you don't know how to make a good pizza, but it's another if you're duping Richmond...ites (?) into thinking they're getting a real brick oven pie.

Again, let the pizza, not the restaurant do the talking. Shame on you Sette!

IN CONCLUSION: with the exception of a successful franchise (Mellow Mushroom), none of the pizzerias I visited in 'the South' seemed to have a clue how to make a great hot slice. The pizza in New York really is better.

Mellow Mushroom

Continuing south for several hundred miles, I found myself in Charleston, S.C. The city is beautiful, and if you haven't been I highly suggest you check it.

At the suggestion of my old roomie, I decided to investigate what all the fuss was about over the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria chain.

I'm sure this place is much more packed when it's not 11:30 P.M. on a Sunday night.

I have to be honest- I had my expectations set pretty low for MM, mainly because it's a franchise and it has some sort of psychodelic aesthetic funk gimmick going on. After looking at the menu and the extensive list of (unconventional) toppings, I was expecting something along the lines of CPK.

As much as I try to stick to the 'classic' cheese for critiquing purposes, I couldn't help myself from ordering spinach and artichoke on half of my pie. Eight minutes later I was presented with a fresh hot serving of don't-judge-a-pizza-by-it's-atmosphere straight from MM's gas oven.

Thick, chewy, soft, not overly oily, and absolutely delicious. The sauce has a real zest to it that reminded me of a DiGiorno, and I mean that as a compliment (I think DiGiorno's sauce is it's redeeming factor).

I instantly recognized the Parmesan-on-the-crust-touch, a trick my friend and former Mellow employee showed me when making our own pies.

The cornicione is not as airy as most Neapolitans, but instead was fluffy, bready, and equally as chewy as something that might come out of a brick oven, and perfectly baked.

I know it looks a lot like a Domino's crust, but I promise it's far better.

Almost too dark, but just right. Dad got the Thai Chicken pizza, the presentation is fantastic-

And Mom got a custom pizza with mozzarella, potatoes, Roma tomatoes, and ranch dressing-

I can't even tell what's going on in this picture.

Mellow Mushroom's pizza is unconventional, unpretentious, and unbelievable. Sadly, the nearest MM to NYC is in Virginia. Bummer. Lesson learned: let the pizza, not the restaurant do the talking.

Pizzeria Paradiso

Well I just returned to the Big Apple after taking a road trip down south. Was there pizza involved? You betchya. The first stop was Washington, D.C.

After a brief internet search, I decided on Pizzeria Paradiso, just west of Dupont Circle. The Washingtonian is quoted as saying "The pizza at Pizzeria Paradiso is world class... better than any in Naples."

It takes brass cojones to make a statement like that, so I HAD to pay PP a visit, if only to put their money where their (or at least The Washingtonian's) mouth is. And to put the pizza where my mouth is.

The place has a radical wood-burning brick oven, so I ordered a Margherita with buffalo mozz.

I was surprised that there was no sauce, only diced (Roma?) tomatoes. At the same time, the buffalo mozzarella covered the whole pie; it was like an inverted Neapolitan Margherita. I couldn't taste the basil, the tomatoes were forgettable, but the crust was pretty stellar.

Not quite as airy/fluffy as most of it's NY counterparts, but still plenty chewy. It probably could have standed to gain from another minute in the oven, but I'm just being picky.

Meanwhile, while I was eating my pie, Mom had a pizza catastrophe that marred by opinion of PP: somewhere between lifting up her slice and chomptown city, the toppings fell clean off.

What a mess. What a disgrace. Serious points taken off for this. Shame on you Pizzeria Paradiso!

Overall the pie was tasty but ultimately forgettable. For garnering D.C.'s 'best pizza in the city' reputation, I was sure hoping the South had something better to offer..

D.C.'s redemption: The Brickskeller

Just around the corner from PP, The Brickskeller has the Guinness Book record for "bar with the largest selection of commercially available beers," coming in at just over 1,000 selections.

For beer geeks like me (my other high-caloric vice), it's worth the trip to the nation's capital alone!
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