NEW YORK TIMES
November 6, 2002
Pizza 2002: The State of the Slice
By ED LEVINE
What's the best way to set New Yorkers to bickering? Ask where to find the best slice of pizza in the city. No subject starts a battle faster—not bagels or hot dogs or chopped liver, not even the primacy of the Rangers or the fastest route to J.F.K. Pizza, introduced to New York in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi, who saw it as a way to use up the day-old bread in his Spring Street grocery store, has long been the affordable, satisfying food of choice for peripatetic New Yorkers of every age, sex, race and class. Slices of pizza, that is. Mr. Lombardi's descendants serve only whole pies at their pizza shop, and now no groceries. The Pero family, which established Totonno's pizzeria in Coney Island in 1924, does the same. John Sasso of John's Pizza, which opened on Bleecker Street in 1929, famously put a sign in the window: "No Slices." Indeed, of all the seminal New York pizzerias, only Patsy’s, on First Avenue near 118th Street in East Harlem, sells pizza slices, as it did when it opened in 1933.
But the pizza slice is ubiquitous on New York streets. The metropolitan region has some 2,750 pizzerias, according to the Yellow Book telephone reference guide. Mario Batali is about to open Otto at 1 Fifth Avenue, where he will serve thin, crisp pizza inspired by the Sardinian flat bread called carta da musica, and he said he dreams of opening a slice place on Eighth Street with a window that opens onto the street. Frank DeCarlo is serving rectangular pieces of pizza at his newly opened Ápizz on the Lower East Side, where they are made in the wood-burning stove and sold by the foot or the inch. When did pizzerias first start serving slices, and not pies? Patsy’s may or may not have been the first. Giovanni Brecevich, the current owner, has a photograph that he says was taken in the 1950's, showing the pizzeria’s distinctive white shelved slice box on the sidewalk in front. Louie and Ernie Ottuso served slices at Louie & Ernie's pizzeria in East Harlem as early as 1947; they moved the business to the current site in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx in 1959. Nunzio Trivoluzzo served slices at his pizzeria in South Beach, Staten Island, when he opened the place in 1943.
Many experts trace the slice's widespread popularity to the end of World War II, when non-Italian veterans returning from service in Italy began to crave the sliced pizza they had enjoyed there. (In New York before the war, pizza was considered strictly an ethnic food.) But John Brescio, an owner of Lombardi's, also credits the proliferation of mixers from the Hobart Corporation, which introduced its first commercial machine in 1927 and a larger heavy-duty version in 1955. "With the Hobart mixer," Mr. Brescio said, "it was a lot easier to make a lot of pizza."
Another factor that probably spurred the postwar pizza boom was the move away from coal and wood ovens and toward gas-fired pizza ovens made by the likes of Bari, Blodgett and Bakers Pride. Those ovens were much easier to install, and cheaper, and they burned cleaner fuel more efficiently — all important in a high-volume business like selling slices.
Of course, if the origins of New York's pizza slices is a bit murky, the fact that New Yorkers love the things is not in doubt. Slices are cheap, almost always $2 or less. They are convenient, with a pizzeria seemingly on every block. And they are often filling, thanks to the thick blanket of cheese that covers most pizza-by-the-slice sold these days. (Many pizza lovers credit the Ray's Pizza shop at Avenue of the Americas and 11th Street with popularizing the half-pound slice, though Columbia University students often cite the gigantic slices at Koronet, at Broadway and 112th Street, as the original good-value portion, at nearly 15 inches long.)
But the desire for lots of oozing cheese has obscured many other important characteristics of a fine slice of pizza, some pizza cognoscenti say.
"All that cheese takes pizza from being a bread item to being a vessel for its toppings," said Ed Schoenfeld, a restaurant consultant with offices in Brooklyn. "It's like getting all corned beef and no rye bread."
That's not to mention the quality of the cheese itself. So-called pizza cheese has become the norm on slices. But just what is pizza cheese? It's a low-moisture mozzarella, very occasionally blended with provolone. You can say this about it: It melts well.
The best pizzerias in New York wouldn't dream of using an inferior mozzarella. Before pizza was a New York tradition it was a Neapolitan one, said Arthur Schwartz, a host on radio station WOR and the author of "Naples at Table" (HarperCollins). In Naples, he said, "they use either buffalo mozzarella that's made from the milk of water buffalo or cow's milk mozzarella on their pizzas."
John Tiso, who now owns Louie & Ernie's in the Bronx with his brother Cosmo, uses a full-cream mozzarella made in Wisconsin by the Grande Cheese Company. "I tried using something else once, and I hated it," he said. "The only mozzarella I'll use is full-cream Grande." The cheese comes in large blocks that Mr. Tiso grinds himself. Other top pizzerias like Nunzio's on Staten Island use full-cream mozzarella made by Polly-O, a cheese company based in New Jersey and owned by Kraft Foods.
But though buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy has been available in New York for some time, it is simply too expensive to be used regularly by any but one pizza-by-the-slice man: Domenico DeMarco, at DiFara Pizza in Midwood, Brooklyn. Mr. DeMarco said he uses three parts buffalo mozzarella to one part mozzarella Grande on his majestic pies.
"Of course it's more expensive," Mr. DeMarco said. "But for me it's important to get the flavor you can only get from buffalo milk mozzarella." He also dusts his pizza with freshly grated grana padana, a slightly salty hard cow's milk cheese from Italy.
Other top slice purveyors, like both Nunzio's and Joe & Pat's on Staten Island, top their finished pizzas with a touch of pecorino Romano. But Michele Scicolone, an author of "Pizza: Any Way You Slice It" (Broadway Books), calls that sacrilege. "Romano cheese has no place on Neapolitan pizza," she said.
Ms. Scicolone has a problem with the fresh cow's milk mozzarella sold by many fancy food stores all over the country. "Fresh mozzarella is softer and very gloppy when it melts," she said. "It can wet the whole pizza down."
Still, one recent trend in the slice business has been the "premium" slice made with fresh mozzarella. Giuseppe Vitale, who runs two Joe's pizzerias in Greenwich Village, serves such a slice. "People want fresh ingredients," he said with a shrug.
Directly beneath the thick padding of pizza cheese on most New York slices can be found a dollop of sauce, too often a canned and ready-made "pizza sauce." "Most of the time it's gummy and oversweetened and lacks the straightforward good taste of good tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, well cooked," said Mr. Schoenfeld, the consultant. Imported canned Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, are the proper base for the sauce, he said.
Nunzio's and DiFara both use San Marzano tomatoes. Nunzio's adds fresh basil and a sprinkling of black pepper to the sauce.
"That's how my dad made it, and he learned from Nunzio, so that's how we make it," said Concetta Whiteaker, an owner.
Other pie men, like Joe Pasquale of Joe & Pat's, use California tomatoes grown from the seeds of San Marzanos. Mr. Vitale of Joe's has even had some success with canned cooked tomatoes from Spain.
"The fact is," he said, "every case of tomatoes I get has a slightly different flavor." Mr. DeMarco at DiFara blends fresh tomatoes and canned San Marzano tomatoes in his sauce.
Then there is the crust, that centrally important component of the New York slice, crisp though pliant enough to bend, with a few bubbles in the dough. As Ms. Scicolone put it, "Bubbles mean the dough has been hand-formed and cooked at a high temperature." Remember how John Travolta, as Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever," folded one slice around another in the opening sequence? The scene can be understood primarily as a paean to the perfect pizza-slice crust. (For anyone who might have forgotten, the movie was set in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.)
The best pizzerias make their dough every day from high-gluten flour, water, yeast and a little salt. They also serve their pizzas plain, although toppings are another hotly contested subdivision of the pizza debate.
"I've only made one Hawaiian pizza in my life," Mr. Vitale said. "One of the regular customers was eight months pregnant and told me she had a craving for Hawaiian pizza. So I bought a can of pineapple and made one for her. But that's the last time."
The final variable in any credible pizza-slice discussion is heat, and particularly the kind of oven used to cook, or reheat, the slice. When pizza was introduced to New York in the early 1900's by Gennaro Lombardi, it was made in a coal-fired brick oven used to bake bread. Places like Lombardi's and John's and Totonno's still make their whole pies in ovens like that. Patsy's, in East Harlem, is currently the only place that makes slice pie in a coal-fired brick oven. Lawrence Ciminieri of Totonno's has tried to use his own coal-fired brick oven to make and reheat slices, but he said they "stuck to the floor of the oven because the cheese overflowed."
The most common slice ovens are gas-fired models made by Bari, in business in lower Manhattan since 1950 under an immense Italian flag. (Joe's and Nunzio's, however, use ovens from Bakers Pride of New Rochelle.) The stone bottoms of the Bari ovens, which retain and distribute heat evenly despite the constant opening and closing of the oven door, help ensure the crispness of the pizza.
Of course, pizza is no longer the exclusive province of Italians. Kosher pizzerias have cropped up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Greeks have opened pizzerias in all five boroughs, making a Greek-style pizza with a highly seasoned sauce that finds echoes in the cornmeal-crusted pizzas served at the Two Boots minichain. Italians now share the Arthur Avenue neighborhood in the Bronx with Albanians, and while Tony & Tina's, a pizzeria there, serves decent if not great pizza, it has fabulous bureks — multilayer savory pies made with spinach, cheese and ground beef. And for the increasingly South Asian population in Jackson Heights, Queens, two Famous Pizza shops offer pizza with curry powder and jalapeño toppings. By the slice. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/06/dining/06PIZZ.html?8hpib