The Great Staten Island Pizzeria Crawl
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).
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.
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.
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.