Special Feature -
Pizza World Tour - When my parents set sail from Russia to the United States, it was ostensibly for a taste of democracy and the American dream. But, between you and me, I think it had to do more with getting better pizza. Why else would they have settled in New York, arguably the pizza capital of the world? And really, who wouldn’t get tired of eating slab-gray slices topped with beets, herring or beef stew?
On Sunday, I set sail for my own pizza quest, leaving my apartment at a painfully early 10:45 a.m. I wouldn’t return home until 1:05 the next morning, having ridden the Q, Q, G, E, F, 4, Bx19, 2, 1, Staten Island Ferry, the 44 bus, the 44 bus back, Staten Island Ferry, and the R, and having sampled pizza in all five of New York’s esteemed boroughs in one day. And just like my parents like to rehash their journey across the choppy Atlantic, I’ll share with you the multifaceted adventure that was the Pizza World Tour.
DiFara Pizzeria – 1464 Ave. J, Midwood, Brooklyn
A porcini slice, a Square, an A&W cream soda
To the common eye, Dominic DeMarco is a kind-looking Italian grandfather, but to a select group, he’s a celebrity. Foodies talk about his cooking with an astounding reverence. Crowds form around his counter at all times, calling out their orders. People trek in from long distances just to get a taste. Waits under an hour can be considered successful.
When I arrived at DiFara fifteen minutes before it opened, I found a guy banging on the window through the lowered gate. “Do me a favor, Dom,” he kept insisting. “Do me this favor. Put in my square pie.” He was chewing on a cigar, pacing the perimeter nervously, insisting to his two friends that this really was the best pizza in the city. They’d have a chance to find out for themselves when the gate rolled up and we stormed the pizzeria.
Dario, Vince and I took advantage of the lack of line and placed our orders. Dom worked at a leisurely pace, dutifully applying porcini caps to my slice. He grated fresh chunks of mozzarella onto a pie. He smiled and made conversation, more relaxed than our last visit (see Jan. 1) when the crowds were impenetrable. And in another key difference, our slices were ready in five minutes, about one-ninth of the wait we had last time.
I started with the $5 porcini slice, a surprisingly upscale nod for such an unpretentious place. (The décor is so barebones it barely exists.) But given my love for mushrooms, I was very excited to try this slice. Sure enough, it was phenomenal. The slightly vinegary mushrooms and the liberal pour of olive oil melded beautifully. The cheese was a great blend, the sauce had just a hint of tanginess, and the dough was crispy but soft. If I had any complaint, it was that the slice could’ve been a little bigger for the price.
I also had the square, everywhere else known as the Sicilian, a DiFara specialty. It too was pretty amazing, for many of the same reasons. The square was also messier though, oilier and cheesier, the flavor literally and figuratively extending to the very edge of the pizza. Dario proclaimed it the best square he’s had, and that he preferred it to his regular slice. Vince also gave the nod to the square over his porcini. Finally, taking the last bite of my square, as difficult as it was, I had to make it a clean sweep. It was the kind of pizza that would have anyone knocking on windows, begging for more. 9/10
Nick's Pizza - 108-26 Ascan Ave., Forest Hills, Queens
One red slice of spinach and prosciutto pizza, one white slice of spinach and prosciutto pizza, a pineapple Fizzy Lizzy
On our arduous trip up north to Queens, we picked up our friend Pat and headed to Forest Hills. As drastically as this rich enclave differed from the heavily Orthodox Midwood, so was Nick’s just as different from DiFara. For one, the atmosphere was much more serene and privileged. Vince kept remarking that it reminded him of Greenwich, Connecticut. I was just wondering if a pizzeria so fancy could genuinely produce Queens’ best.
Because Nick’s only serves pies, the four of us decided to order one topped with spinach and prosciutto. Intrigued to try more, we also opted to go half-white and half-red. After a short wait, during which Pat kicked back the chianti, the waitress brought over our pie. Again, just as DiFara’s pizza reflected its pizzeria and its neighborhood, Nick’s pizza seemed like an exact match for its environs. Clean and polished, this was a pie with pedigree.
Thankfully, it tasted as good as it looked. The spinach was clearly fresh and gave the slices a chewy crunchiness. The prosciutto was also a great touch, the salty strips contrasting well with the leafy green. The crusts packed the right amount of light char. Between the red and the white, I preferred the white, the ricotta base offering a more unique taste than the standard tomato sauce. Vince also preferred the white while Dario and Pat pledged allegiance to the red side.
The fact that pies this good could come from a gas oven was a surprising rebuke to conventional wisdom. But, between its location, its toppings and its décor, it was yet one more distinction that keeps Nick’s Pizza in a class all its own. 8/10
Tien Mao on Nick's Pizza
Full Moon Pizzeria - 602 E. 187th St., Belmont, the Bronx
A plain slice, a can of Mug cream soda
Next, we ventured west, toward the day’s biggest wild card. Of all the boroughs, I’ve spent the least amount of time in the Bronx and by a wide margin, eaten the fewest meals there. Also, our destination, the Full Moon Pizzeria, had received much less press than our other four spots. (The only other Bronx pizzeria to earn much attention, Louie & Ernie’s, was obscenely out of the way.) But still, we ventured forth, with some mix of curiosity and trepidation, as we hit upon the midpoint of the day.
Losing Dario and Pat to previous engagements, Vince and I got out at 187th and walked crosstown to Arthur Ave. We walked past bodegas, barber shops and modest Hispanic restaurants, another vastly different neighborhood from our prior two. When we reached Arthur Ave., Bronx’s Little Italy, the eateries changed somewhat, becoming more about pasta than pernil, more pizza than plátanos.
At Full Moon, we met up with Alex and his girlfriend Emily. They also had trouble finding a close subway stop (there apparently aren’t any) so they got lost and soaked by the rain. Emily’s first words, upon meeting Vince, were “I hate you,” but soon, she calmed down and we put in our orders.
Full Moon surprised me in its simplicity, a corner pizzeria just like you can find on most corners of the city. It had the standard slices, with a few specialties that they happened to be out of. I decided to keep it fittingly simple, and went with my first plain slice of the afternoon. It reminded me a lot of Sal’s (see Lunch, Mar. 19) and Nino’s (see Mar. 5), in both its texture and smell, although it was larger than both. After topping it with red pepper flakes, I bit into it. It was a very good pizza – not tremendous or magnificent, but very good.
Full Moon’s humility was a nice break from the more hyped spots we were hitting. We had gone in with no expectations, no Zagat’s cheerleading and no unachievable superlatives. All we were looking for was a refuge from the rain and a quality slice, which they happily provided. And though it’s not a destination restaurant, it was more than worth the trip. 7/10
John's of Bleecker Street - 278 Bleecker St., West Village
Half of a sausage, mushroom and pepperoni pie, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
From the Bronx, we took the express train back to the city. Leaning against the rattling door, I used the opportunity to get to know Emily. It turned out that she was from Maryland and was going to be an au pair in Rome for a year. What better person to have on the World Tour than a future resident of Italy.
We arrived in the West Village and made our winding way to Bleecker Street. Situated between Cones, the Argentinian gelateria and Rocco's, the Italian bakery, John's would have to be pretty tremendous to fit into this neighborhood. It certainly had a strong enough reputation, frequently cited as one of New York's best.
The pizzeria was broken up into two rooms, so we picked the one with the breeze. Aside from the paintings by local artists on display, it had the decor of a dive bar (right down to the noxious-smelling bathroom). Alex, complicating our plans, decided that he and Emily were going to split a pie by themselves. Because John's doesn't serve slices, this meant Vince and I would somehow have to manage a pie on our own.
We opted for a small topped with sausage, mushrooms and pepperoni. Depsite being a small in name, our pie arrived at the table looking pretty hefty. Still, we didn't have much of a problem finishing our shares, because it was very good pizza. Though Vince wasn't as taken by it, I thought the Italian sausage was especially outstanding.
On the other hand, John's had its limitations too. The mushrooms and pepperoni were both good toppings but they were also decidedly ordinary. I found the charred crust too dry. Also, while I really liked the pizza's flavor, it didn't seem as distinct and singular as, say, a Grimaldi's or DiFara creation. Still, taken on its own merits, John's was a solid effort and an enjoyable, laidback environment to spend an hour. It was only when holding it up to New York's top tier that it fell slightly short. 7/10
Tien Mao on John's
Denino's - 524 Port Richmond Ave., Port Richmond, Staten Island
Half of a half-sausage and mushroom, half-cheese pie; half of a small pitcher of ginger ale
Dusk was already setting in when Vince and I set off on the last leg. We were the only ones left on the tour, sailing across the water on that orange behemoth otherwise known as the Staten Island Ferry. It was a strangely surreal moment for me, having grown up on the forgotten borough, having contemplated its boring mysteries from ages four to eighteen.
In all that time, I somehow never made it to Denino's, the Port Richmond Pizzeria many call the island's best, so tonight was my chance. It was surprisingly easy to reach from the ferry, the connecting bus literally dropping us off in front of the restaurant. From outside, it looked low-key, a local watering hole where draft beers and Yankee games took precedence over the food. Inside, Denino's was just as casual, its stripped decor evoking the feel of a down-home diner more than a famous pizza joint.
The service was as friendly and relaxed as the ambience. When I told our waitress about the World Tour, she was genuinely intrigued and impressed. She kept asking us questions about our other stops, telling us it was a good thing we had saved the best for last. Soon, the other waitresses came over to meet us, equally curious and charming. They reminded me of the Italian mothers who used to live on my block. I was transported back to kickball afternoons, ice cream trucks blaring "Pop Goes The Weasal," the massive bagels at Novelli's bakery, getting cherry ices at Villa D'Este on my walk home from school.
Like John's and Nick's, Denino's only served pies, so Vince and I decided to split a half-cheese, half-sausage and mushroom. It was an interesting and confident quirk of the menu that would let us sample the pizza with and without toppings. As we waited for the pie and ruminated on the day, we were greeted by Rose Zancocchio, an 87-year-old spitfire and Denino's hostess who's also known as Aunt Rose. She too had learned of our odyssey and wanted more info. When we told her we'd just been to John's, she shook her head and laughed. "John used to come in here all the time when he was young," she confided.
Our pie arrived and the waitresses all smiled and watched as we snapped our photos. "So did you guys save the best for last?" they called. I bit into my first sausage and mushroom slice and at that moment, was sure that we did. Thin-crusted and mid-sized, it was similar to John's, but it packed much more flavor and depth. This was a pizza with soul and complexity, not polished like Nick's, but authentic and honest. The sauce and the cheese were both great and the dough was expertly cooked. The plain half was also excellent, exhibiting many of the same qualities, but the Italian sausage was too good to ignore.
And so, in a borough often maligned or omitted, Vince and I ended the Pizza World Tour on a triumph. Throughout the day, we had toured the city and not encountered a single disappointment, only gradations of successes, only a cross-section of styles, neighborhoods and experiences. I'd also eaten thirteen slices and more than once, tasted triangular-shaped greatness. And whether or not it was what my parents had intended a quarter-century ago, this was an American dream achieved. 9/10
See also April's Dumpling World Tour and look for the Sandwich World Tour and the Dessert World Tour coming in July.
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Sunday, May 22, 2005