I used to love pizza of all types. It didn't matter if it came from Domino's or some little Italian place or even the California Pizza Kitchen, with all their kooky toppings. Then I moved to New York, and the slow demise of my unconditional love for pizza began.
At first, I was taken with every little slice joint in town. With the exception of most Ray's Pizzas, whose sauce tastes funny, I would eat just about anyplace and be perfectly happy. Leaving town, though, became a problem. Suddenly non-New York slices got my goat. The crusts were too puffy and the sauce had little flavor. I should have known that it wouldn't stop there.
Upon reading an article in the paper about the few remaining coal ovens in New York, I took a short trip to Angelo's on 57th Street. According to the article, coal-fired ovens pollute the air something fierce, but make for truly fantastic crust. The city used to be rife with them, but air pollution regulations dictate that no new coal ovens be built. So those few which remain are highly coveted. In fact, Angelo's is relatively new, and their oven originally cooked bread at a bakery somewhere. Because of all the effort in getting the oven, they naturally want to go the extra mile with their food. They use only real, fresh mozzarella, and their toppings are top-notch. Good enough for me. The unbelievably thin crust was a revelation, slightly burned on the bottom and crispy as all get-out. Other slices, even in New York, seemed not to match up anymore. Angelo's refuses to lower itself to selling single slices, though, and the whole pies cost a pretty penny, especially for a cheapskate like me, so I learned to live with mediocrity.
Next I heard about a place called Sal and Carmine's, up on 96th street, which was purported to serve the best slice in New York. I was instructed to make sure to get a slice that had just come out of the oven, and to make sure that either Sal or Carmine was around, making sure no junk got produced. The day I went, an old-timer who looked like a Sal, but could possibly have been a Carmine, was at the helm, and he was pulling out a pie just as my friends and I walked in. The slices there tend to be good because of an overabundance of cheese, but I wasn't particularly fond of the flavor of the sauce. Don't get me wrong, it's a damn good slice, but it remained in my mind the kind of place to visit only when in the neighborhood.
A few months later, my friend Feldy suggested we eat at Lombardi's, on Spring street in Little Italy. They have been making pizzas in the coal oven at Lombardi's for about a million years, so they know what they're doing. Like Angelo's the crust was the main attraction.They deliver it crispy and burned just enough to create interesting patterns on the bottom. We tried the white clam pie, a favorite of Feldy's, but a pre-requisite for liking the white clam pie is liking white clams, which is not one of my lovable characteristics. By this time, my regular pizza consumption had dropped off considerably. I began to dread the suddenly soggy crusts of the joints in my neighborhood.
Then the capper - I came across the pizza that ended my days of simple pizza pleasure. Feldy borrowed a car from some friends of his, and we headed out to Brooklyn, to take in the Coney Island Aquarium and to riiiide... the Cyclone! On a tip from Jim Leff (of www.chowhound.com fame), we stopped in a pleasant little neighborhood called Midwood, home to DiFara's, on Avenue J. The Chowhound had written rhapsodically about DiFara's in his book, and the proprietor, Dom, seemed a little perplexed. After all, he just runs a little slice place on the corner, with beat-up tables and cartons of cans of soda serving as decor, not Peter freakin' Luger's. Dom could tell we weren't from the neighborhood by our funny accents, and he seemed rather bemused that we had made the trip all the way to visit him. We ordered up a couple of slices and waited for them to be properly heated. Then we dug in. Mama mia! The food in my mouth bore absolutely no resemblance to what I had imagined for my whole lifetime to be pizza. The crust was thin and crispy, the perfect amount of hot, stringy cheese covered the brilliant sauce, and to make sure it was extra greasy and yummy, Dom had splashed a bit of olive oil over the whole thing. The flavor made me bonkers. You can keep your Peter freakin' Luger's.
Feldy asked for a slice with artichokes, and while we were eating our plain slices, we could hear Dom's son rustling around in the back, first chopping up the artichoke, then dropping the pieces in oil. He brought them out front about five minutes later. Dom could have taken the artichokes and slapped then on one of the slices sitting on the counter, but that would never have gelled with his high standards. So he opened up the oven and laid them in a perfect slice-sized triangle on the half-done pie. He then tossed a little cheese on top, to keep the artichokes from feeling lonely, and let the whole thing cook for another ten minutes. In the meantime, folks from the neighborhood came in and out, seemingly oblivious to the specialness of their local slice place. I imagine if I had lived in Midwood my whole life, I would expect all pizza to taste as good as that at DiFara's. When his slice came out of the oven, Feldy let me cut off a bite. The fried artichokes really knocked my socks off, but I found them to be a little distracting from the greatness of the plain slice.
Since that day, I have been back to DiFara's once, and the rest of the pizza I have eaten has tasted like garbage. The only great pizza even relatively close to my apartment is Angelo's, and I'm afraid even that won't do it for me anymore, what with the high price and all. So from now on, I'm just going to leave well enough alone. Pretty good tamales and roast chicken are fine. I can't ruin everything I love to eat.
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