Any way you slice it
On a crawl through parlors high and low, Ed Levine has plenty to say about pizza
By Joe Yonan, Globe Staff | May 4, 2005
Author Ed Levine has questions, lots of questions, but for starters, who's making the pizza? While he's at it, where is the mozzarella from? How hot does the oven get? And -- this is crucial -- when can he get a taste?
In Boston, the northern tip of what Levine calls the ''Pizza Belt," there are as many answers as there are pizza parlors, but Levine knows what he wants to hear. He's hoping that the owner makes the pizza, that the mozzarella has been flown in from Italy, that the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) can crank the oven up to 700 degrees or hotter, and that a pie or two is coming right up.
Levine scarfs down pizza just about everywhere he goes, hoping that it will live up to the title of his new book, ''Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" (Universe Publishing). He looks for a classic Neapolitan-American approach, with the characteristic charred spots on the crust, and for crispy edges that give way to a puffy, chewy interior with ''perfect hole structure." He wants to taste the tart sweetness of uncooked canned tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, preferably made from water-buffalo milk.
After eating more than 1,000 slices (three a day for a year) while researching the book -- mostly in the Pizza Belt, which goes from Philadelphia to Boston -- Levine knows what he wants, and he continues looking for it. Heavy on the history and culture of everybody's favorite food, ''Pizza" is also a guidebook, and in promoting it Levine, who also wrote ''New York Eats" and ''New York Eats (More)," has kept talking and kept eating.
''You know where I had good pizza yesterday?" he asks before we start a Boston pizza crawl. ''Sweet Tomatoes in Newton." Then he stops himself. ''Why, you wonder, did I have pizza yesterday? Because it's what I do."
Levine had made such a crawl once before, when he was here to research his book's Boston chapter. Accompanied by Boston magazine restaurant critic Corby Kummer, Levine tried pizza at four places, and he struck out at half of them (see left). He wrote that the city's ''place in the Pizza Belt was in jeopardy. The college kids are out of luck, and so are the foodies."
This day, then, is a chance at redemption. Four additional places are on the new agenda, which was coincidentally undertaken on Opening Day at Fenway Park, when the Sox played the Yankees. Levine resists a baseball theme to this battle of the pizzas: ''We don't have to get into the whole Boston-New York thing." To be honest, he knows his city has this one beat when it comes to pizza -- he calls New York ''the king of pizza cities" in his book -- but what's the point of rubbing that in? It is close to lunchtime, and Levine is hungry.
'I'm always hungry," he says. ''That's part of my problem."
Our first stop: the hip Cambridge 1 in Harvard Square, where the pizzas are grilled in the style of the inimitable Al Forno in Providence, and where creative, minimal toppings sit on cracker-thin crust. Levine admits upfront that this is not the pizza of his dreams -- he goes for a thicker crust -- but allows that ''when it's done well, this can be a fabulous pizza."
He quizzes manager Ian Nurse about the owners' pedigree and tries to conceal his disappointment when he hears that they own several other places, including the hip Middlesex Lounge, and that neither owner is a pizza maker. He's fascinated by the fact that of 13 pizzas, only one includes mozzarella at all.
This is one tough customer. ''Normally, I like some more hole structure, but with this pizza it's too thin," he says, and then he takes a bite of the closest thing Cambridge 1 has to a margherita, one with tomato, fontina and Romano cheeses, garlic, and basil. ''But you know what? It's really tasty. I'd be happy eating this pizza every day."
The other two he samples don't fare as well; he finds the lobster on one and the steak on the other too bland. And all of them get cold too quickly, because of that thin crust. ''The first is really good, but overall it just screams 'pizza concept' to me," he said. ''It's not that it's bad, but I'm going to say something here: There's not a lot of love in this pizza." For Levine, that's hard to excuse. ''The truly great pizza places live and die for every slice. And you can taste it."
Levine is driving at something, namely his theory of ''owner-occupied pizza." The best pizza, he says, happens when the owner is in the restaurant every day to make the required adjustments to the living, breathing thing that is fresh dough. That's why at our second stop, the eight-month-old Picco in the South End, Levine knows he's in for a treat before we even sit down. He reads a review on one wall that tells him the owner is Rick Katz, whose name Levine recognizes from Katz's days at Bentonwood Bakery Cafe in Newton, and he looks over to the open kitchen and sees Katz at work.
''He's a very serious guy about food, and the fact that he's here on a Monday lunch is a good sign," Levine says. Plus, he's got a high-tech stone oven. Levine knows the model. ''Even though it's gas, it can maintain heat up to 800 degrees," he says. ''The key is not the fuel source, although it can help flavor the crust. The key is how hot the oven gets, and how hot it stays."
When Levine starts peppering the waitress with questions -- ''Is your buffalo mozzarella from Vermont, or Italy?" ''How many times a week do you get it in?" -- she fetches Katz. ''The man himself is coming to see you," she says.
It turns out that the two are mutual fans. ''Are you the Ed Levine that's been writing about pizza in New York?" Katz asks. ''I've clipped all your articles." They launch into a discussion of all things pizza, from how Katz got into it (''I'm not a chef, but I knew I could do the pizza dough") to his favorite pizza in America (Frank Pepe's in New Haven) to the pizza Levine said Katz must try (Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix). And we haven't even ordered.
Levine can barely contain his glee: ''Rick is just what I'm talking about," Levine says. ''Did you see how he looked so horrified when I said, 'Where are you buying your sausage?' Of course he's making his own."
The pizzas arrive, and Levine tears into a piece of the margherita: ''See the flakiness, see the hole structure? That's what I'm talking about. It's a beautiful thing."
Katz has the modesty of a bread baker. ''It's a work in progress," he says later, shaking his head. ''Always a struggle." Levine takes that as another sign that this is a pizza to be reckoned with. ''You can see he's tortured by it, that he's tortured by the dough," Levine says. ''Did you see how many times he shook his head? That's what you want, the guy to say, 'I don't know if I'll ever make a perfect pizza.' "
In the North End, Ernesto's Pizzeria is a world away from Picco. Here on Salem Street, even in midafternoon, a slow but steady stream of guys in suits comes into this hole in the wall for huge slices equivalent to a quarter of a large pizza. Not bad for three bucks.
When Levine introduces himself, manager Rocco Anciello quips, ''You wrote a book on pizza and left us out?"
''Is ignorance a defense?" Levine replies.
When he researched ''Pizza: A Slice of Heaven," Levine and Kummer went to Pizzeria Regina, a North End institution and now the flagship in a chain, and indeed gave it a rating of three pies out of four. Ernesto's is 10 years old, not 78 like Regina, but it has its fans. ''Good stuff," one customer tells us as we try to choose from the 25 kinds of slices in the case.
Anciello warms up slices for us, and when Levine bites into a tomato-mozzarella one, he says, ''You know, this slice is very nice. You can't apply the same standard to this pizza as you would to Rick Katz's, and there's really no point in using fresh tomatoes this time of year, but you gotta give them credit for thinking about freshness, and this is pretty good crust." Ernesto's loses some credibility when Anciello talks about the most popular pizza, a chicken ranch concoction that includes bacon and bottled Ken's dressing. Levine nods in silence.
Our last stop is a slice of pizza history: Santarpio's in East Boston, which opened more than a century ago as a bakery. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Santarpio's started serving liquor, pizza, and skewers of meat, mostly to the Italian day laborers in the neighborhood.
It has stayed in the family all along. Nowadays, the fourth generation-- Joia, Carla, or Frank Santarpio Jr. -- is on site every day, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Frank Jr. learned pizza making from his uncle, Joe Timpone, who made the pizzas until age 80 and who passed away 16 years ago. ''He would yell at me, throw things at me," says Santarpio. ''We could make the very same pizza right next to each other, with the same ingredients, same dough . . ."
''And his would be better, wouldn't it?" asks Levine.
But the teenager learned. Now, when his employees try to make pizza next to him, it's theirs that can't compare. ''The name, the reputation, they mean so much to me and my sisters," he said.
Santarpio's doesn't use fresh mozzarella, as Levine would prefer, but the sausage is still made in house, and the crust is solid, if drowning in a surplus of cheese. ''Nice bubbles, decent hole structure -- I wish the crust had some salt, but it's not bad," Levine declares. ''And he still takes a lot of pride in the place."
This isn't world-class pizza, ''but people are looking for places that seem real and timeless because they stand in such stark contrast to the direction our culture seems to be going," Levine says. ''And is the pizza way better than the chains? Absolutely."
When Santarpio checks in on us again, Levine says, ''Just don't sell out to Domino's on me, OK, Frank?"
''Not a chance. It's the only thing I know how to do," Santarpio says. Is that the beginning of a tear? ''Like I said, it means too much."