Friday, March 14, 2008

The Great Staten Island Pizzeria Crawl

One of the great social benefits of the age of blogging and online discussion forums is the chance to hook up with others of similar obsessions for mutual obsessive behavior. For instance, for over ten years I've attended jazz concerts and festivals the world over with more than fifty flesh-and-blood friends I originally met in cyberspace. My participation in the online foodie community is more recent, but in the past couple of years I've broken bread with at least a dozen erstwhile strangers, many of whose mania for things comestible makes me feel like a rank amateur.

I recently joined three other foodies, one indefatigable blogger and two active posters on bulletin boards like Chowhound and Mouthfuls, for a tour of Staten Island's legendary pizzerias. I believe this outing was in the works for close to a year, with a couple of the participants doing exhaustive research and map annotation. I went along for the ride.

I know very little about Bronx dining options, but I'm certain that of all the boroughs Staten Island is the culinary bottom of the barrel. Only the recent influx of Sri Lankan immigrants and attendant restaurants has put Staten Island on my eating radar. I hadn't really given any thought to other food options in this twilight zone between New York and New Jersey until I was invited on this ambitious pizza expedition.

It makes sense that if it had anything to offer the foodie, this largely Italian-American borough would be a destination for New York-style pizza. Indeed, most of the places we hit have long histories. We originally had three pizzerias on the itinerary, but left open the possibility of adding another one. Man does not live by pizza alone, of course, so we had a few other stops planned: a legendary old soda fountain, someplace for a beer or two, and an ice cream parlor.

We left midtown Manhattan by car on a Sunday morning at about 10:45. Two of our three must-try pizzerias opened before noon, so we headed off for breakfast at Nunzio's, our first stop. At about 11:30 we were the first customers.

At Nunzio's, which has been around since 1942, we ordered a small pie with sausage. I was happy to limit myself to one slice, two others split a second, and the biggest fresser in the crowd, our sainted driver, had two whole slices (over the course of the day he would put away eight slices to my four and change).

Nunzio's Pie

Among the four of us, I was the least thrilled with Nunzio's pizza. It had a decent, thinnish crust, but not an awe-inspiring one. I think the biggest problem was that the sauce was rather bland, resulting in an overall flavor that lacked dimensionality. A good sauce is essential for providing a flavor foundation in any red pizza.

From Nunzio's we moved on to our next destination, the Bay Street Luncheonette, a fabulous old place frozen in time, for their quintessential egg cream. I grew up with egg creams, but they're not something I have cravings for, and this was probably my first in over 25 years. When I was a kid we had seltzer delivered in those spritzer bottles, along with Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, and my brothers and I made egg creams at home, with milk from Elmhurst Dairy, in those old wax covered cartons with the flip-top lids. And may I digress to say that the milk-carton paper that replaced the wax-covered cartons of old was one of the great leaps forward in American packaging technology. Oh how I hated those little flecks of wax that would sometimes find their way into a glass of milk or Tropicana orange juice.

Anyway, the Bay Street Luncheonette is no self-consciously retro spot catering to hipsters and poseurs, it's an endangered species--a true, old-fashioned New York soda fountain and luncheonette that has lovingly been preserved and kept going by its current owner, the exceedingly personable Vinnie. It's the kind of place that was ubiquitous when I was a kid. We called them candy stores, and there were three in my immediate neighborhood: Gus's, Janoff's, and our favorite hangout, Fred & Rudy's. Now this is what I'd call a destination. Be advised that hours are short: Mondays-Saturdays they close at 3 PM, Sundays at 1. As we were leaving, Vinnie said, "Next time you have to try my cherry-lime rickey."

Before I get around to the next pizza stop, let me tell you a little more about the egg cream. In my lifetime there has never been any egg in an egg cream, and there's no consensus as to whether there ever has been. One theory has it that the frothy head looks as if it contains egg white. There also has never been cream in an egg cream, but "egg milk" just wouldn't sound right. There's only one kind of chocolate syrup for a proper egg cream, Fox's U-Bet. Sometimes, when there wasn't any U-Bet in the house, we'd make them with Bosco or Cocoa Marsh, but they weren't true egg creams. We didn't know enough to call them ersatz creams, however. Not too many places make egg creams these days, but you can still get them at the East Village legend Gem Spa, on 2nd Avenue and St. Mark's place. I'm waiting for the Indians who work at Gem Spa to introduce the masala egg cream.

From Bay Street we moved on to Joe & Pat's, founded in 1960. This was the consensus favorite pizzeria of the day, and the only one I'd anoint a true destination spot. Joe & Pat's crust is pretty thin--but not quite Roman. The crust had a nice char, and a wheat nuttiness that was missing from the Nunzio's crust. The other factor that made the pizza a winner was the bold, tangy sauce. We had a pie with scungilli, wonderfully fresh, on half of it. Apparently Emeril Lagasse will be featuring Joe & Pat's on an upcoming program. It's worthy of such exposure, regardless of how you feel about Emeril.

Joe and Pat's Pie

Denino's is the most famous and oldest (since 1937) Staten Island pizzeria. We all found the "special" pie with mushroom and sausage a major disappointment. The first problem was the canned mushrooms. The crust, which was thicker than at the previous two stops, was somewhat leaden, and neither the sauce or cheese had any character. The sausages were the highlight of this pizza. I'm convinced that Denino's is coasting on reputation.

Denino's Pie

I was ready to call it a pizza day, but a woman who worked at Bay Street Luncheonette had recommended another pizzeria, Brother's. It was near Denino's, and the two most obsessive of the quartet insisted on stopping in. Since it was a "by-the-slice" place we didn't have to order a whole pie. We all ordered "grandma" slices, an item that has been showing up at New York pizzerias of late, but which I had never heard of as a kid in Brooklyn. A grandma pie is a homestyle, thin-crust square pizza with fresh mozzarella. We didn't know whether this was a specialty of the place, but my logic in ordering a grandma slice was that it was the smallest slice available. It wasn't especially good, and I ate only half of it.

One problem, perhaps, is that the pizzas are precooked, and slices are reheated when you order. This, unfortunately, is the norm at most New York pizzerias. When I was a kid this was not the case. Pizzas were never made in advance and left out to slowly rot as they are today. If a slice was available when you ordered it, you could be sure it was hot. Otherwise you'd have to wait for a fresh pie to come out of the oven. I think it was sometime in the 'seventies, when all sorts of things started going downhill, that most pizzerias started using inferior ingredients and reheating slices from cold pies cooked hours earlier.

As we left Brother's we started discussing our next stop. Earlier we had decided that at some point we'd hit Egger's, a famous ice cream parlor, and that we'd also go for some beers. I argued that we should go for beer first, then ice cream. It seemed obvious to me that you don't follow ice cream with beer, but this wasn't a given as far as everybody else was concerned. Still, since I had the more strongly held belief, the beer before ice cream approach prevailed. Now there were two bar options: the Nurnberger Bierhaus and Lee's Tavern. The attraction of Lee's to some was that they also served pizza. The attraction of Nurnberger Bierhaus to me was that they didn't serve pizza. We ended up at Nurnberger Bierhaus, and I'm glad we did. It was a very comfortable place, with a nice selection of German beers on tap at $4 a pint and a really friendly bartender and waitresses. They also serve German food, and yes, those same incorrigible two insisted that, at the very least, we had to share an appetizer. So we ordered a sausage plate, with three slim bratwursts and some warm German potato salad. It would be nice to go back in warm weather to check out their outdoor beer garden.

We topped off the day with some utterly underwhelming ice cream at Egger's. It was somewhat gummy, and really had nothing to recommend it. I ordered two scoops, cappuccino chip, which was serviceable, and pistachio, which wasn't. There was not a nut to be found in it, and the flavor and coloring may well have been derived from a three-dollar bill. I left most of the pistachio. The real Staten Island ice cream legend is Sedutto's, though it's no longer made on Staten Island.

Overall, though there were some decided disappointments, I'd say the outing was a rousing success for the quality of the pizza at Joe and Pat's, for the Smithsonian-quality interior of Bay Street Luncheonette, and for the beer and cheer at Nurnberger Bierhaus.

Nunzio's, 2155 Hylan Blvd.
Joe and Pat's, 1758 Victory Blvd.
Denino's, 524 Port Richmond Ave.
Brother's, 750 Port Richmond Ave.
Bay Street Luncheonette, 1189 Bay St.
Nurnberger Bierhaus, 817 Castleton Ave.
Egger's, 1194 Forest Ave.


Blogger Richard said...

Sounds like a good trip and it's an excellent write-up.

In '73-'74 I drove from Brooklyn to Staten Island four afternoons a week (to get my MA in English at the now-gone Richmond College). You know if there's an opposite of a foodie, I'm it, but I do remember the Bay Street Luncheonette and its lime rickeys and egg creams.

Is it eggcream or egg cream? I've put the word(s) in stories and never know. I assume you know best. I've even seen it spelled "creme" but that seems utterly pretentious.

I learned about Grandma pizza from my friend Nina's family, whom you know. I always thought it was a Long Island thing. Her paternal grandmother (who died a few years ago at a very spry and coherent 104) actually made Grandma pizza, probably the best I've had.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

According to the article I linked, the Grandma pizza is indeed originally a Long Island thing.

8:59 AM  
Blogger ALIMONY said...


10:09 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Oh, I thought it was Long Island. The best Grandma pizza I've had recently was at this place in Bay Shore, on the way to the Fire Island ferry. I wish I could recall the name.

OK Grandma pizza at San Marco on Lorimer off Metropolitan, but I've been in other Brooklyn pizzerias that have second-rate Grandmas.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Harry W. said...

This is my first comment to you blog. I was compelled because of the lack of representation of the classic New York exclusive format of pizza - the thick, square, stay in your gut, Neopolitan. Is that an extinct form in New York? Also, Spumoni as the dessert treat to wash it all down. The combination of the two was a staple when we lived around the corner from each other.

On the Good News docket, the next time you come to the SF Bay Area, there is a new, very authentic Jewish Deli that opened on Polk Street. Critics here say it rivals the better ones in NYC.

I look forward to your search for the best Neopolitan pizza in New York. When you find it, FedEx a slice out here.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Harry, you mean Sicilian, not Neapolitan (round pies are known as Neapolitan). Sicilian or square pies are still available at almost every "by-the-slice" type of place in NY. I'm not sure if square pan pizzas are actually Sicilian, however, as in Italy they tend to be found all over at bakeries or small stand-up places that offer "pizza al taglio" (pizza by the slice). I've not yet been to L&B Spumoni Gardens (in Brooklyn), but that's possibly the most famous place around for both square slices and spumoni.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Harry W. said...

How embarrassing - you're absolutely right. My head meant Sicilian but my words came out as Neapolitan. - oh well, I am now infamous in the blogosphere as being away from NY too long. And yes, it is definitely worth a trip for a Sicilian and a Spumoni at Spumoni Gardens. I used to go regularly and if it's the same now as then, it's worth a hop.

My apologies to the esteemed bloggers for the mistake of mis-naming the square pizza.

4:56 PM  
Blogger surly said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:49 PM  
Blogger surly said...

hey peter, great roundup of the day's events. despite a few disappointments, overall i thought the trip was a success and went smoothly.

let me know if you want to do a trip to SI for some sri lankan, honduran, or west african. maybe we can round up a few others and make another day trip out of it.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Greg Strong said...

Hey, I am really impressed with your culinary gamesmanship.
Because you've just engaged in some primary research into NYC-style egg creams with Mr. Cook of Eating In Translation, I was hoping to pose to you a question.
He wrote to me saying I was wrong in this canto of my epic poem "Travelin' Travis" when I describe the proper way to make an egg cream. Am I?

There was a diner called Key West
where somethin’ strange was cookin’
They treated him great, like a rich potentate
He thought “it’s prob’ly ‘cause I’m so good-lookin”

The soup he ordered to begin
had a big round yellow ball
Matzo, they said, unleavened bread
And he saw the writing on the wall.

He’d grow to love this new cuisine
and maybe all things Jewish.
Oh me, oh my! Corned beef on rye!
Plus pickles, one or two-ish.

And something new he’d never seen
and never heard of either
a chocolate dream called an egg cream
with a spoon used as a beater.

A squirt or two of chocolate syrup
(Fox’s U-Bet, if you have it)
Milk - a dash! Seltzer – a splash!
Then whip that spoon, dagnabbit!

You whip it up real hard, real fast
and it foams over the top.
How odd it seems, no eggs, no creams,
but once you’ve had it, you can’t stop.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I'm no expert, but I assume Dave told you not to whip it.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Sushmita Mustafi said...

Nice blog i like it Kids spa parties in Staten island

5:07 AM  

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