Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Greenpoint Pizza Tour 2011

How often do you really challenge yourself? Do you ever wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, wondering what your full potential is? How many times have you really put yourself to the test?

I'm not talking about that promotion or going back to grad school, what I'm really asking is the all-important question, 'how much pizza can you eat in 3 hours?' I've often pondered this, so when Jen from The Greenpointers/Morta di Fame offered me the opportunity to realize not only my true pizza aptitude but also simultaneously determine the best slice joint in Greenpoint, she had me at "10 pizzerias."

How did we rank each slice? Appearance was worth up to 30 points, while specific and overall taste and flavor accumulated to 45 points for a total of 75 points.

After a windy bike ride north along the East river, I rendezvoused with my pizza comrades Jen and Peter at our first stop, Grandma Rose's on Graham Ave for our first slice of the day. As you can see we decided to use our mind over our gut and just order one slice at each stop and have it cut 3 ways.

Grandma Rose's: 50.5/75
(Note: they tried to bribe us with zeppoles! Fear not, I have integrity)

Next we ducked under the BQE to Nina's at 635 Meeker Ave. As soon as I walked in, they had a point against them- the place proclaims themselves as proprietors of "brick oven pizza," when in reality they just have a pair of gas deck ovens hidden behind a brick facade. FALSE ADVERTISING!

Nina's: 53/75

After a quick spin on our bikes down a quiet Kingsland Ave., we arrived at Vinnie's Greenpoint location. I was familiar with the Williamsburg location so I knew what to expect here. I always think of Vinnie's as a fun joint with a sense of humor to hit up when you're on the market for zany toppings, and the same holds true here.

Vinnie's: 55.5/75
(Note: We were also bribed with garlic knots here and stickers of Vinnie's infamous T.hanks trashcan. I'm not not gonna take 'em, but again my scores remain unaffected. However, they get bonus points for carrying Manhattan Special)

As I rode down Nassau trying to balance a bottle of MS in one hand, it wasn't long before we hooked a right and made our first stop on Manhattan Ave., Pizzeria Valdiano.

Valdiano: 56.5/75

At this point we were just walking our bikes since nearly half of our stops on the trip were within a block of each other. Next up was my favorite, Carmine's (not to be confused with the other Carmine's in Williamsburg).

Carmine's: 59/75
(Notes: Carmine's gets 2 bonus points from me for the fact that Carmine was there in the flesh, making this the only owner-operated pizzeria on the trip. That and the patron cat of pizza was looking down on us for protection. Or hand-outs.)

After Carmine's, we popped across the street to the quintessential pizzeria clad 70's era orange formica and tight eating quarters, Russ Pizza.

Russ Pizza: 50/75

Moving one block north was our next stop, the generically-named Italy Pizza. For the first time on the trip, we found a slice with some decent hole structure in the crust, but unfortunately the slice ultimately didn't deliver on the flavor front-

Italy Pizza: 53.5/75

At this point about an hour and a half in, the pizza fatigue was really beginning to set in. After taking a quick breather and fighting every urge my body was imploring me to yak, we moved on down Greenpoint Ave. to Franklin Pizza.

Franklin Pizza: 57.5/75

I have to admit, I had low expectations of this place, but all things considered it delivered pretty well. Once we scarfed our pizza thirds (I think I was the only one finishing my portions at this point), we were off to Triangolo Pizza further north on Manhattan Ave.

Triangolo Pizza: 55/75
(Note: Triangolo gets a bonus point for their Steven Segall of Fame)

Just look at that tassled-rawhide sport coat. But don't stare too long lest you want a roundhouse to the face. Last on the trip was Casanova over on McGuinness Blvd-

Casanova: 51/75
(Note: They didn't even offer a re-heat! Point deduction.)

Once we weighted, tallied and combined our scores over some brewskis, we came to the following winners:

1st Place: Pizzeria Valdiano
2nd Place: Franklin Pizza
3rd Place: Triangolo Pizza

That being said, I think we all know who really rules the neighborhood. After all was said and done, I reflected on the day and learned something about myself:

I eat too much pizza.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Park Pizza

For far too long, I've had New Park Pizza on my list of slice joints to hit up. Queens residents won't shut up about it, Paulie Gee swears by it, but I'll tell ya- unless you have a car (and who does in this city?), the place ain't easy to get to.

Check that neon steam! Located in Howard Beach, Queens, NPP isn't too far from JFK airport- which is exactly how I ended up there. We all know food at the airport is more often than not pretty horrendous; truer words couldn't be spoken about Fort Lauderdale's Jet Blue terminal. With my stomach grumbling and hot 'za on my mind (and more importantly, a car waiting in NYC), I decided the time had come for my belly to get to know New Park Pizza.

NPP proudly displays the '94 NY Post article declaring it the best slice in Queens (alongside Di Fara in Brooklyn and Sal & Carmine's in Manhattan). So what makes New Park 'fuhgedaboudit' great? For starters, they cook their pies in a gas-fed brick-lined oven cranked to the max.

Additionally, they have a standard gas deck oven used explicitly for reheats, yielding one mean slice:

...Okay, well two mean slices. New Park has come under a bit of fire lately from some of its long-term patrons who claim the quality of the pies are becoming increasingly inconsistent, often times under and over-cooking the pizza. I understood the controversy when the undercrust on my slices came out much darker than I had anticipated.

Woah, you don't see char like this on your average slice. Upon scoping this out, I gulped hard. Was it nicely charred, or brutally burnt? I really wanted this pizza to be all that it was cracked up to be.

I took one bite and it was all over. I was pie-eyed and in love. No, the dark undercrust wasn't burnt and had just the perfect amount of flavor and rigidity to support the magic happening on top.

The dough has just the right amount of balance to offer staccato salt notes coinciding with chewy sourdough tones. The cheese, while nothing special (low moisture full fat aged Mozzarella) is perfectly cooked and the staple of such a NY slice. And the sauce? Naturally sweet and tangy with what tastes like a hint of black pepper and oregano.

This is what NY pizza is all about, folks, plain and simple. New Park, let's hang out more often. It's a shame you're such a pain in the ass to get to. Is investing in a Zipcar membership just for pizza a sign that I have a problem?

If scarfing this pie is wrong, then I sure as hell don't want to be right.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Name Pub

When you think Florida Keys, I bet you imagine sunshine, lush blue water, coconuts, and maybe some seafood or a Cuban sandwich. If I'm correct in guessing that, then you clearly haven't been to the No Name Pub in Big Pine Key.

Are those... dollar bills stapled everywhere?

Yep, estimated at somewhere between 75-85,000 of them. I've seen currency plastered on restaurant walls before, but this is ridiculous! At the recommendation of a friend, I was told I had to stop through No Name on my way down to Key West recently. Had he not mentioned it, I never would have found the place, which is part of their allure.

In case you can't make out their slogan, it reads, "A nice place if you can find it." If it weren't for my GPS, I surely wouldn't have. Tucked away in the most remote of places on Big Pine, I was literally driving through people's backyards to get there. Why? Pizza, of course!

Yes, this pizza is served on circular piece of plywood and accompanied by classiest styrofoam plates. Hey I'm not complaining, dive bars are my comfort zone! No Name first opened as a general store in 1931 before adding an eatery in '36. After going through permutations including a brothel and a hide-out for drug smugglers, No Name eventually came into the restaurant/bar combo form it is now.

One quick glance at the crust will tell you the pizza is cooked in a circular pan, which coupled with the fact that it's a thin crust pie, gives it a pretty unique identity. That being said, however they bake this thing could stand to be a little hotter on the oven floor. Case in point-

I ordered a half cheese/half sausage pie, which wasn't too shabby depending on what you analyze.

The sausage had a nice fennel flavor to it and were about the size of marbles. I'm a large-chunks-of-crumbled-sausage kind of guy, but anything is better than those dense flat cuts of sausage seen on most by-the-slice pizzas.

Resting atop the sausage is one solid layer of stringy mozzarella. There's a possibility that they blend the mozz with another white cheese- maybe provolone or white cheddar, since the stuff definitely has mass.

The sauce, while mostly bland, had a slight zesty kick to it that suggested they tossed in some oregano and little red pepper flake.

This is quintessential bar pizza- boring, but fun, filling and perfectly pairs with an ice cold beer. The crust was the biggest disappointment, and almost felt and tasted like bad, undercooked frozen pizza.

That being said, I still had a blast at No Name and the pizza, while unimpressive, seemed perfect for that moment in time. Would I go back?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wonder Bar

Unless you're from Massachusetts, chances are you're going to mispronounce the municipality of Wonder Bar's home city- Worcester. Contrary to accepted pronunciation practices, grammar rules and common sense in general, the town is not "war-ches-ter." No, you'd be way off. In your thickest Bostonian accent, say it with me now: "wuh-stuh."

Based on the way the "er" becomes an "uh," maybe they should rename the place Wonder Bar Pizzer. My sister and her family live just outside of Worcester, so there was no debating whether or not I was going to check this place out. Funny enough, in the 13 years I've been trekking through this town and occasionally grabbing pizza, Wonder Bar had never entered into the equation. Not until I met J Spillane at Coalfire in Chicago last December had I even heard of the place.

Built in 1922, Wonder Bar remains virtually unchanged by time. It even smells old (I actually mean that as a compliment). Grab a seat on one of those rad stools at the bar and scope out the coolest guitar ever created:

WHAAAAAAAAT?! This killer axe was custom made for Wonder Bar by a regular patron. Check out the pizza cutter on the end, and there's even char marks on the crust! Speaking of which, you can see where the artist got his inspiration by ordering a pie (or three) from the waitress.

By default, I had to order a plain cheese- well as a half-pepperoni/half-sausage. Y'know, for research's sake...

...and lastly a fresh tomato and broccoli pie for good measure. I think we got all of our bases covered here. The sausage was just the way it should be- large chunks with hints of fennel, collectively adding a flavorful zing to the pie without ultimately overpowering it.

I didn't get a chance to check out the oven, but from what J and the bartender could tell me, it used to be coal-fired until somewhere in the 50's when, for cost-efficiency reasons, WB had the beast converted to a gas feed. Bummer, but to be quite honest you can hardly tell the difference when a pizza with just the right amount of char is placed right in front of you.

This is quintessential bar pizza in a quintessential New England bar. It doesn't get much cooler than this when it comes to hometown flavor and experience, and Wonder Bar has all the right moves.

As you can guess by the look of the pies, it's not Wonder not a slice was left by the time the tab came.

Monday, June 13, 2011

900 Degrees

I'm a strong believer that Greenwich Village is hands down the best neighborhood for pizza in America. Within the confines of the quarter square mile radiating out from 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street lies a cross section of what arguably makes New York the greatest pizza city in existence. Yes, it started in Naples and San Francisco is giving the Big Apple a run for its money, but nowhere else can you find such a heavy concentration of incredible pizzerias of nearly every style.

Not convinced? There's old-school NY-Neapolitan at John's, the perfect slice at Joe's, Roman style at Pizza Roma, the infamous "Nonna" slice at Bleecker St. Pizza, incredible Neapolitan pies at Keste, coal-fired pizza at Arturo's, funky slices at Artichoke, more Neapolitan pies at No. 28, and that's not even counting at least 7 or 8 run of the mill slice joints. So who'd be crazy enough to open a new pizzeria in the midst of all this competition?

Enter 900 Degrees, the new creation from multi-award winning pizzaiolo and dough-thrower Tony Gemignani. I'll admit the first reaction I had when I read about this place opening up was pure unadulterated joy. After having had a great time at Tony's Pizza Napoletana in SF, I was pretty stoked to see he was crossing the country. Then the reality set in- "this guy's got brass balls opening in this neighborhood," I thought, "can he pull it off? What's he have that'll set him apart from the rest?"

Well, two ovens for starters.

But that's not all. Similar to its sister site in North Beach, 900 Degrees offers a dizzying selection of not just different pies, but completely different styles of pizza (five to be exact). Just one look at the menu is enough to make your stomach growl and your knees weak.

Manning -or should I say womanning- both of these gnarly ovens (one is traditional wood-burning brick while the other is brick-lined gas-electric deck) is Tony's long-standing 'pizzapprentice' Audrey Sherman, who makes for one hell of a talented, dauntless pizzaiola. Considering how male-dominated the world of pizza seems to be, it's refreshing to see a woman kicking ass behind the bench.

While Tony and Audrey make a killer Margherita (be warned, only 73 are made per day), I had already tried it prior to returning with my camera to properly document the place. Meanwhile, another pie had been haunting my dreams: Tony's 'Original Tomato Pie,' which is Gemignani's take on the Trenton classic with an updated spin.

This thing is all kinds of out-of-control awesome.

After stretching the dough, thin slices of mozzarella are laid down, covered with a great tomato sauce equal parts tangy and spicy, then topped with Neapolitan oregano, EVOO, sea salt and freshly pinched sausage.

All of the tomato pies, along with the Sicilian, Roman, and half of the 'Pizza Americana' are baked in the electric oven, while the Neapolitans are cooked in the wood-burning guy.

Yep, that's from the electric! Before I had a chance to scarf my heavenly tomato pie, one of 900 Degrees' 'farmer pizzas' showed up!

While this isn't currently listed online, you can definitely find it on the menu at 900. I've never had a pizza quite like this, ready for it? White potatoes, leeks, Fiacco's broccoli rabe sausage (made just around the corner), Calabrese chilies, and raw goat milk cheese. "Inventive" doesn't do this pie justice.

I have a lot of respect for 900 Degrees- not only do they have the chutzpah to compete within a stone's throw of the city's best pizzerias, they still manage to bring something new to the plate. Anyone willing to challenge the status quo is a welcome addition to the neighborhood and ultimately New York City.

UPDATE: Sadly, 900 Degrees is no longer open (R.I.Pizza)
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