SPECIAL FEATURE – PIZZA WORLD TOUR 2005
DATE: May 22, 2005
To honor New York’s long pizza making heritage, Danny and I set out on Pizza World Tour 2005, picking up friends along the way. We traveled to a famous pizza place in each of the five boroughs, sampling the best slices this city has to offer.
PWT ’05 QUICK FACTS:
Total Number of Slices I Ate: 12 Slices – 10 Thin Crust, 2 Sicilian Squares
Total Number of Pizzas I Ate: 1.5 Large Pizzas – 1.25 Thin Crust, .25 Sicilian
Total Number of Slices Eaten By All PWT ’05 Participants: 42 Slices – 37 Thin Crust, 5 Sicilian
Total Number of Pizzas Eaten By All PWT ’05 Participants: 5.25 Large Pizzas – 4.625 Thin Crust, .625 Sicilian
Total Time: 12 hours, 38 minutes – Started 11:09 am, Finished 11:47 pm.
Hours After PWT ’05 Conclusion I Next Ate: 13 hours, 21 minutes (1:08 pm Monday May 23rd).
Total Personal Expense: $38.50
Best Pizza: Di Fara’s and Denino’s
FIRST STOP: BROOKLYN
PIZZERIA: Di Fara’s
LOCATION: 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn
PIZZA: Porcini Mushroom Slice, Sicilian Square Slice
BEVERAGE: Can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale
Going into PWT ’05, I knew one thing for certain - Di Fara’s would be incredible. After a somewhat crazy decision to partake in the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day, Danny, Libby, and I went to Di Fara’s for the first time. My initial visit had left me fantasizing about the singular sausage and mushroom pizza ever since. Run for over 40 years by the meticulous Dominic, Di Fara’s, despite gaining nationwide fame, has remained the same somewhat dingy and unassuming pizzeria located near the Avenue J tracks that it’s always been. The seating is cramped, the lighting drab and the wait for a slice often extends into the hours. But trust me, this pizza is worth it.
When we arrived at Di Fara’s at 11:45 am on Sunday, there were already people peering into the windows and begging Dominic to have a Sicilian pie ready when the restaurant opened at noon. On both of my visits, I have met diehard Di Fara’s loyalists who eat the pizza at least once a week. Such devotion exists for a reason. Di Fara’s pizza is like nothing else.
Dominic’s ingredients are of the highest grade. His fresh buffalo mozzarella (floating in water) goes directly from sealed containers to the shredder to the pie. The olive oil he sprinkles over the top of his pizzas is imported from Italy and is as light and crisp as a fine white wine. Fresh herbs line the windowsill and customers are free to take sprigs of oregano and basil to adorn their slices.
On my return trip, my goals were twofold: to try the “Square”, Sicilian style slice and also the porcini mushroom slice, which is only offered seasoning. Unlike the Senate Democrats, I succeeded in all my objectives. The porcini mushroom slice was a slice of Di Fara’s normal crust pizza topped with a generous portion of whole porcini mushrooms taken directly from a large jar. The mushrooms dripped with a slightly sweet oil that mingled with the cheese’s smoothness to form what I can honestly say is the best mushroom based pizza I’ve ever tasted. Because the mushrooms were room temperature and the pizza piping from the oven, the contrast of mild and hot provided a kaleidoscope effect. Eating this slice makes me reconsider not selecting funghi biologist as a career path.
And yet, the square managed, almost unbelievably, to be even better than the porcini. To quote Dario’s reaction after biting into the Sicilian slice, “This is the best pizza I’ve had.” Needless to say, I concurred. The mildly runny coalescing of cheese, oil, and tomatoes oozes above a crust as thick, buttery, and crisp as a perfectly baked loaf. Imagine Stouffer’s French Crust pizza juiced on a Mark McGwire amount of steroids – actually, don’t imagine anything. All comparisons to other pizzas are unfair. Nothing can match the crunch of the darkened crust and flowing cheese when it first hits the mouth. Words are inadequate.
Thus thanks to Di Fara’s, PWT ’05 was off to a perfect start.
SECOND STOP: QUEENS
LOCATION: 108-26 Ascan Ave., Queens
PIZZA: One Slice White with Proscuitto and Spinach, One Slice Red with Proscuitto and Spinach
OTHER: Half of a Caesar Salad
BEVERAGE: Tap Water
Journeying from Di Fara’s to Nick’s in Forest Hills, I felt like Marco Polo or Amerigo Vespucci, crossing parts of New York that to me were entirely new worlds. For one, we had to use the G Train, which up until Sunday, I didn’t even know existed. And when we finally arrived in Forest Hills, I found an area dominated by German architecture, ambitious homes, and enough trees to leave Rachel Carson grinning wildly. Pat, Dario, Danny and I had been expecting Flushing. Instead, we got Westchester.
Located on Ascan Avenue, Nick’s isn’t your typical New York neighborhood pizza place – well, unless your neighborhood is situated in Greenwich, Connecticut. The restaurant has a clean, modern design, bright light streaming in from its glass wall facing streetside. It is a comfortable space and entering, we were all struck by the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen.
We opted for a half white, half red pizza with proscuitto and spinach, so that we could have as much variety on PWT as possible. To me, white pizza is like reading Ben Jonson’s plays instead of Shakespeare – sure it’s good but why not choose the best. However, such an assumption pr
oved completely erroneous at Nick’s. I actually preferred the white slice – the luscious layer of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses forming a creamy blanket, as satisfying as well made lasagna. This coats a crust, that though paper thin, failed to become soggy at any point. The spinach was an especially appropriate compliment to the white base, as when the two mixed, they were reminiscent of an Italian version of creamed spinach. The proscuitto was much more noticeable on the red slice, which though excellent, Danny and I both found a bit too salty. However, this was a periphery concern, as the tomato sauce had a tinge of pleasing red pepper spice. Nick’s style was unlike any of the other pizza we tried during PWT, the nouveau gourmet essence akin to California thin crust. While my prior expectations might have been wrong, everything at Nick’s was very much in the right.
THIRD STOP: THE BRONX
PIZZERIA: Full Moon Pizzeria
LOCATION: 600 E. 187th St., Bronx
PIZZA: Slice of Eggplant Sicilian
BEVERAGE: Tap Water
Full Moon Pizzeria is the type of local pizza place every street should have. The cooks speak with thick Italian accents (and are surprisingly friendly), fresh slices constantly emerge from the oven, and customers of all ages shuffle in and out to grab a quick slice. Full Moon looks the part as well, from the conventional seats to the linoleum tiling.
The pizza keeps up the image. Like swimming pool ice cream trucks and Mother Goose rhymes, Full Moon’s pizza is an element that should have been present in everyone’s childhoods. The eggplant Sicilian slice I ordered was commendable for both its foccacia like foundation and the chewy roasted eggplant that crowned it. Crushed tomatoes with fresh basil and French Onion soup-browned mozzarella completed the ensemble. This square bordered on sandwich dimensions and could have been thinner, but the crust would certainly be splendid on its own or with a few drops of refined olive oil.
Though the trip, coupled with the misty weather, was a bit of a headache, Full Moon was a good motive to make my second visit to the Bronx. The distance will keep me from becoming one of Full Moon’s many regulars, but at least the pizza gave me reason to like the Bronx, even if the Yankees play just a few miles away.
FOURTH STOP: MANHATTAN
PIZZERIA: John’s of Bleecker Street
LOCATION: 278 Bleecker St.
PIZZA: Half of a Pepperoni, Sausage, and Mushroom Pizza
BEVERAGE: Tap Water
In Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (review forthcoming), he mentions various categories of books one encounters in a lifetime of reading. One such category contains books one has always intended to read, but for whatever reason, never has. This is how I felt about John’s of Bleecker, a restaurant I’ve been intending to try since my first week in New York. It took until PWT ’05 for me to finally make it.
Dario and Pat had other obligations, but we picked up Emily and Alex for Full Moon and John’s. The shuttling in and out of friends gave the tour greater authenticity, a meandering of conversation and personalities fit for Calvino’s cerebral world. We were seated in one of John’s cozy, dark wood booths, just a few feet away from the heat of the brick oven.
Having neglected pepperoni during the previous three stops, Danny and I decided to split a pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom pizza. The sausage and pepperoni were fine if somewhat benign, but taken together with the rest, they fused into an outstanding pizza. Emily and Danny weren’t overly enthusiastic about the burned edges of the crust, but I found the brick oven aftertaste as pleasing as a charred, s’more-bound marshmallow. The thin crust was generally sturdy, but in the center, under the burdensome mass of toppings and cheese, it sagged and became faintly gummy. Overall though, I really enjoyed my Manhattan slices. While it may have taken me 11 months to get to John’s, I doubt it will be that many before I go back.
FIFTH STOP: STATEN ISLAND
LOCATION: 524 Port Richmond Ave., Staten Island
PIZZA: “Half-Topping” Denino’s Special Pizza (Half pizza with sausage and mushrooms, half cheese) – Two slices of each
BEVERAGE: Half-pitcher of Ginger Ale
Aboard the ferry to Staten Island, it felt less like an ending and more like a new arrival. Though PWT ’05 was in its final throws, I was making my inaugural visit to Staten Island. And for some reason, I had an inkling that Denino’s was going to be spectacular. Danny and I were the only ones making the concluding voyage, but regardless of the outcome, the day was already a triumph. Fortunately, Denino’s heaped onto the success.
Denino’s shares the atmosphere of many suburban family restaurants – but serves food on a scale that puts such places to shame. Echoing one of the day’s themes, the majority of diners at Denino’s seemed like loyal regulars, on a first name basis with the gracious and attentive waitresses. Rose Denino, the daughter of the founding Denino, was even on hand to introduce herself to us. Unless you have Foucault’s aversion to tradition and stability, it’s impossible to not feel at home in Denino’s.
Denino’s offers their pizza with a variety of ingredients ranging from broccoli to clams. But intriguingly, they also allow customers to order “half-topping” pizzas, so that they can also taste the plain cheese. It was an unexpected touch that we pounced upon, anxious to compare the two kinds.
Cheese covers Denino’s pizza’s surface like a snow in Murikami’s Wonderland of the mind. But the cheese is spread thin enough to be enjoyable, avoiding Pizza Hut gag-inducing concretion. Unlike John’s crust, Denino’s stayed firm at all junctures, even after the pizza had cooled on the table for more than 20 minutes. From cheese to sausage, mushroom to crust to sauce, no one aspect outshone the others. But put together, Denino’s tasted like the pizza I’ve always hoped, but never been able to find. Danny and I spent a significant portion of the meal trying to figure out what made Denino’s so particularly sublime. Denino’s pie is very similar to John’s but unites into a more cohesive whole. I had imagined that nothing could match Di Fara’s, yet Denino’s did. While radically different types of pizza, both are transcendent.
Thus, Denino’s closed the curtain on PWT ’05 in a blaze of pyrotechnics to match a Times Square New Year’s celebration. Every leg of the journey showcased features of New York that make it unlike any other city in the world. And as we discovered, it is no accident that pizza is so indelibly associated with New York. PWT ’05 wasn’t only an acclamation of food – it was also an acknowledgement of the city that can be home to such widespread and seemingly inexhaustible unforgettable experiences.