Thanks to my excursions in recent months, my perception of great pizza has expanded. I'm much more open to a variety of toppings, I'm learning to see particular variations as positive traits rather than faults and I'm beginning to be a little less NY style centric. This all being said, I'm not sticking a flower in my hair, dropping acid and singing kumbaya. My foundation has been rocked, but it hasn't crumbled. At its core are values that will never change.
Toward the top of my core value list is the inherent superiority of longer fermented dough. When NY was going through it's golden age of pizza 20 years ago, every pizzeria wasn't perfect. The ovens were more powerful, so the bake times, for the most part, were respectable, but nobody really understood the benefits of longer fermentation. Most still don't. To John Q. Pizzeria Owner, you use enough yeast so the dough is ready when you need it- if the logistics work out to a day of fermentation or an hour, to him (and, let's face it, many of his customers), it makes no difference. You'd have some shops whose logistics fared better with same days, while others would make the dough the day before. The day before places would usually sell more pizza, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find an owner that knew why.
Fast forward 20 years and you still have pizzeria guys that don't understand the benefits of longer fermentation. This is, imo, why pizza is so incredibly mediocre today- because you had so many owners that didn't understand what made their pizza great, they couldn't take the necessary steps to safeguard it. Oven manufacturers started making weaker ovens, and, rather than saying 'wait a sec, a fast bake time is integral to the greatness of my pizza' the owners just rolled over and bought the weaker ovens. Fermentation took a similar route. Because these owners didn't see the great pizza/longer fermentation connection, they didn't fight the trend towards same day doughs.
Fortunately, we know better. While countless areas of pizzamaking are hotly contested, no one on this forum, after making an overnight dough ever comes back and says "You know what, I prefer the blandness of my two hour dough." Never happens.
This is the information age. I know it's unrealistic to expect Dom Demarco to go online and learn about fermentation, but, at some point, someone had to tell the guy that longer fermentation produces a better tasting crust. And for him to ignore that information is unforgivable. And, imo, it's equally unforgivable for the guys/gals at Totonno's to be as clueless.
Bottom line, no matter how much my pizza horizons expand, I will never be able to tolerate a short fermented tasteless crust.
A second core value of mine is excess char. We make a lot of fun of Americans who call slightly charred pizza burnt, but, truly burnt pizza can be an issue. Unless a pizzeria is marketing to a specific niche demographic that's seeking out an excessive amount of char, there's a quantity of char, that, if you surpass it, you betray your customer. New Park completely crossed this line.
Now... when Paulie first mentioned New Park to me a while back, I did my homework and pulled up countless images of their 'well done' pies. They have a very long history of doing well done pies that aren't burnt, so I don't blame Paulie in the slightest. This poor excuse for a pizza was entirely New Park's fault. Kelly was able to reverse engineer a non burnt slice in his head, but I just couldn't look past the fault. I really wish I could have picked up a regular slice, but, with all the pizzas we were eating, it just felt like too much.
Those are, by far, the two greatest black marks of the trip. Any other issues I might have had are just small nits/personal preferences.
Speaking of personal preferences, I'm not entirely certain where I stand with pan pizza. It's possible that I just haven't had the right pan pizza, but, right now, from the places I've gone to, I like it, but it doesn't send my heart soaring. It's difficult, because pan pizza is such a crowd favorite and I'm pretty proud of my accessible palate, but I have to go with my gut, and, right now, the feeling I get when I walk into L&B isn't the same level of excitement when I walk up to the window at pizza town- or for that matter, the exhilaration I'm finding myself experiencing at one of the Neapolitan(ish) places.
Take Artichoke- I liked the square, a lot, but I can't help but think that if you took those toppings and put them on a pizza town or a Vesta dough, it might be better- not 'different' but better. I can compartmentalize Neapolitan and appreciate it's differences/see it for what it is, but I can't do the same thing with pan pizza. It's just too inherently similar to NY style not to be judged side by side.
Don't get me wrong, I'll keep eating/trying squares, in the hopes one will eventually blow me away, but right now, I haven't had one that could hold a torch to a great slice.
Those are the bigger themes that have been playing out in my head since the trip. From here on out, let's go pizzeria by pizzeria.Roberta's
Roberta's hasn't gotten glowing reviews on this site, so I wasn't expecting it to be all that wonderful, but, at the same time, I was aware that Paulie had been inspired by them, so I knew they couldn't be all bad. I ended up being impressed. Very impressed. As much as I still hate King Arthur flour
, I was incredibly pleased by Roberta's choice to use an 00/Sir Galahad blend. Talk about thinking outside the box! The tenderness from the lower protein flour really shined through. If I've got a Bee Sting in front of me next to a Hellboy, I'm going for the Hellboy, but the Bee Sting is still an extremely respectable pizza. Now, the Beastmaster has the dubious honor of being the worst pizza I've ever consumed, but I think that has more to do with my own personal issue with melted gorgonzola than anything else, so I don't put that in the loss column. When I think of Roberta's, my mind immediately zeros in on a tender, flavorful crust, that, when combined with the right toppings, is one of the better Neo-NY hybrids that NY has to offer.Barboncino
Ron's a really great guy and he/his staff went to great lengths to accommodate us, but his pizza did not meet my expectations. The Village Voice missed the mark. It was good and it certainly deserves it's place in the NY Neapolitan landscape, but I can't at this point, say it was better than Keste. Or, for that matter, better than Forcella, Motorino, Paulie Gee's or Robertas. The crust was a little on the dry side. It also probably didn't help that we went to Forcella right after, where the crust is considerably more moist. One of the realities of Neapolitan pizza is that you're at the mercy of whoever is forming skins/tending the oven that evening and none of the NY places (that I know of) have owners behind the counter (at least not by themselves), so you're going to get variations from different employees. I would like to think that we just caught Ron on a bad night.Forcella
Forcella blew me away. Everyone was incredibly accommodating throughout the day and night, but Giulio went above and beyond his duties as a host. I remember reading about Olio a while back and feeling like the way it was being marketed was a bit pretentious. Forcella, the restaurant, and Giulio, the person, are the complete antithesis of pretentious. I am so pleased that Giulio has found a better outlet for his talents and that we could experience it firsthand. After Motorino and Keste (and my time here), I was under the impression that I had a pretty good idea of Neapolitan pizza, but this took that preconception and obliterated it. That crust was SO moist! With that much water it gets difficult to avoid gum lines with fast bakes and this was cooked through. I can't really say, at this point, if it's my favorite Neapolitan pizza in NY, but it's definitely in the running. If Giulio ever did a brussels sprouts or a lardo pizza, I think, for me, he could beat out Motorino and Keste. Maybe.
I guess I could try to appreciate all the Neapolitan places for what each offers, but I was raised on pizza being very competitive, so that's difficult
Long before Iron Chef ever aired, the pizzerias of my youth waged battle with each other for County, State and Regional bragging rights.Best
One of the aspects of these trips that I've noticed is that the pizza tastes a bit better after I've brought a slice home and re-warmed it. I think it has less to do with re-warming having any benefit and more from the fact that I can sit down and appreciate the pizza with a greater focus. Anyway, the white pizza I had taken home from Best tasted quite a bit better than the white pizza I had in person. The sesame seeds were still a nice touch, but the caramelized onions were a bit scant and my slice ended up being a bit bland. I still have the same feelings about the red slice- liked it, but miss the oregano. Now that I've had a couple slices I'm also coming to the conclusion that the cheese is too sparse. I know Frank is trying to do something different, but, come on, don't be stingy with the cheese
It's still a really solid NY slice, but, if I go back, I think I'm taking a page out of Adam's book and trying a sandwich.Paulie Gee's
Paulie's hosting abilities are, by now, quite legendary, so I don't think I have to focus too much on how incredibly gracious and generous he was. Paulie is the man.
As you all know, I've had nits with Paulie's pizza in the past. We've all had some good laughs joking about bench flour, but, joking aside, Paulie brought his A game that night. The bench flour was indiscernible and the undercrust char (that had previously been pretty extreme) was absolutely perfect. With those two issues resolved, for me, that puts Paulie's pizza into the running for best in NY. I still think wistfully of Roberto's lardo and Motorino's brussel sprouts, but that Hellboy is holding an equally important place in my heart. And that speck pie is also a contender. Between the person and the pizza, if I make it to Brooklyn, I'm not missing Paulie Gees.
NJ leg thoughts to come...