As everyone is aware, the terms 'coal' pizza and 'Neo-NY' are interchangeable. Coal pizza is a hybrid. The problem that I have with most coal oven pizza, though, is that they tend to marry the bad elements of Neapolitan and NY, not the good ones- the wetness and occasionally excessive Char of Neapolitan, along with the excessive approach to toppings of NY. In a perfect world, someone could come along and marry the best elements of Neapolitan and the best elements of NY. Vesta is that perfect world. They marry that gorgeous puffy chewy crispy NY crust with the wonderfully refined and elevated toppings of Neapolitan pizza.
I have to be honest, a few years ago, I was pretty skeptical of NY pizza done in a WFO- there were (and are) a lot of places that do it poorly. For a period, I was leaning towards the idea that great NY in a WFO might not even be feasible. And then Chau did his NY WFO thing, I went to Best, and now I see what Frank at Vesta is doing. I still think it's difficult to do NY in a WFO well, but, in the right hands, it can be transcendent.
As much as I love the Pizza Town experience, the pizza there is far from what I consider to be perfect. I'm pretty sure it's either cold fermented or extended room temp fermented- either way, it could use a longer ferment, the cheese is a bit sparse and it's a far cry from a Chau crumb. I have the occasional issue with quality control, but, at my best, my pizzas are better than Pizza Town. I have one or two nits with Frank's pizza, but, at the end of the day, he gives my best showing a run for the money. This is a pizza that should be winning awards. This is a guy that should be on TV getting interviewed by Anthony Bourdain.
Frank's a pretty humble guy, so he might not say that his pizza is better than Pizza Town, just different. While we are kind of talking about oranges and tangerines, and a hugely subjective component, if I've got a Vesta slice, a Pizza Town slice and a Best slice (the three best NYish pies I've had in this area) in front of me, I'm grabbing the Vesta slice.
As impressed as I was by Frank's pizza, I was equally impressed with Frank the person. People like Chris Bianco, Brian Spangler and Jeff Varasano understand the science of pizzamaking, but you mention terms like hydration or absorption value to a typical NY area pizzeria guy and they're going to give you a blank stare. I'm not calling them idiots, just not obsessively scientific about the process. Frank is a geek. He's one of us. He's playing around with different flours, hacking a Stefano Ferrara, installing special ventilation and dreaming up unique topping combinations. We all know guys that have been making pizza for decades who measure with an old coffee can that do a pretty good job, but, let's face it, in this millenium, the people with heads on their shoulders- the guys who try to understand as much as they can about their dough- they're usually going to come out on top. These days, you have to be left and right brained- to be able to, like Da Vinci, paint the Mona Lisa AND invent the Helicopter.
Nits? Well... While I found his crust almost impossibly tender when warm, but when it had a chance to cool, it toughened up a tiny bit. He didn't divulge any precise details about his recipe, but he is experimenting with different flours, so hopefully he can work this out. Ideally, I hope he can keep that incredible tenderness all the way from hot to cold. I also found it a bit amusing that the ladies at p-town were all trash talking CPKs bbq chicken pizza, and, when we walked into Vesta, the special was bbq chicken. I've said elsewhere how I generally don't find California pizza's toppings all that offensive, but, for someone with his palette, I think he can do better. As far as nits go, though, these are all very small.
I wouldn't call this a nit, because it's really my own kind of warped perspective, but I grew up in pizzerias with formica tables and white tiles and have always generally felt that pizza should be a cheap meal- and then I starting enjoying Neapolitan
I know that Frank's culinary training, his wisdom, his passion and his ingredients should all command a higher price, but it's going to take some time for me to view pizza in a more upscale light. Let me just say that I'm really glad that Vesta is a half hour away- if it was closer, I'd be spending a LOT more money on pizza.
In conclusion, I don't write for a newspaper or a blog, and I'm not part of any special pizza patrol, but, until I open my own place (10 years from now?), I consider Vesta to be the best pizza in NJ.
P.S. What can I say, it's nice to know people that know people
Just as Larry's relationship with Roberto made for an awe inspiring experience at Keste, John's friendship with Frank got us the better-than-VIP treatment at Vesta. Thanks, John- and thanks, again, Larry.