Friday, June 27, 2008

Just a Slice

By my reckoning the 1970s was the last decade when you could count on finding a decent slice of pizza in New York without trying too hard or going too far out of your way. Of course, there's been something of a pizza revival in New York of late, but most of the newer places that get serious attention are sit-down, brick-oven, whole-pie places. I'm talking about your basic, humble, gas-oven, stand-up New York slice joint. By the 'eighties the pizza landscape was in sorry shape, due to a combination of inferior ingredients and the now standard practice of pre-cooking all pies and reheating slices on demand.

The now legendary Di Fara was, in my childhood and adolescence, a basic, solid pizzeria. That was before Dom DeMarco became an "artisan." Just a few blocks down Avenue J was Pizza Center, equally good in those days. Anybody over fifty who grew up in New York can tell you about the great neighborhood pizzerias of yore. Other favorites of my Brooklyn youth included Armando's on King's Highway, which made a square that eclipsed any on Avenue J. Another great one was Bay Pizza, in Sheepshead Bay, which I first learned about from a poet who has since become a chiropractor. De Sica's, on Newkirk Plaza, close to my grade school, P.S. 217, couldn't compare to those others, but by today's standards I'd say it was pretty good, if memory serves. What I do remember for certain is that I went there several times with classmate Warren Plitt. Warren Plitt is the kind of name you remember.

When I moved to the East Village, in 1979, Stromboli, at St. Mark's and First Avenue, had quite a following. Their signature attribute was a very sweet tomato sauce that I found cloying, and pizza that was very heavy on the cheese. The guys at Stromboli claimed the sweetness was from sweet basil, but I'd lay odds the culprit was corn syrup. Freakishly cheesy, mediocre pizza seems to have become the norm in the 'eighties, due to the influence of the various, competing, unrelated "Original" and/or "Famous" Ray's. What's the plural of Ray's, by the way, Ray'ses?

There are still a few places where you can get a decent, old-style, stand-up slice, but they're few and far between. The other day I decided to try Vinci's, in the East 60s, on a tip from a coworker. I'd read in several places that the "grandma" slices were supposed to be particularly good. Well, I was unimpressed. The cheese wasn't fresh mozzarella, and I found the crust too chewy. In addition, I ordered a regular slice, a benchmark item, as it were. I'd say it was a respectable slice, better than most, but ultimately it was far too oily and the crust was too limp.

Until I discover otherwise, I'd say the prize for the classic old-style, stand-up slice goes to Joe's in the West Village. For many years, Joe's occupied the corner of Bleecker and Carmine. Now it's confined to a smaller space at 7 Carmine Street, a few doors down. At Joe's, the crust is thin and crisp, and the cheese and sauce balance quite nicely. There's a lot of turnover and there's even a chance you'll get a hot slice from a fresh pie. Once I was there a bit before noon. It was pretty quiet until a tour group entered. A woman was leading one of those New York nosh tours, and Joe's was chosen as the place for a quintessential slice. She told them, "In New York you never ask for a slice of pizza--just a slice."

Famous Joe's Pizza on UrbanspoonVinci's Brothers Pizza Corp on Urbanspoon


Blogger Richard said...

A sad story: last year, when my friend who grew up in Gowanus came back to New York after two decades on the West Coast, she wanted to take her teenage son, who'd never been to the city, to "Ray's" to get "real New York pizza."

My parents in Arizona live near a "Ray's" and go miles away to get a marginally better slice at NYPD. It's scary to think people in the provinces think "Ray's" is "New York pizza."

Unfortunately, we couldn't talk her out of going to a horrible, horrible Chinatown restaurant on Mott Street to give her son a "real New York experience." By which I guess she meant nausea.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Clint said...

We were part of one of those "nosh groups" last year. The first stop was Joe's. It was a damned good slice.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in NYC, I am a total foodie, I LOVE pizza. I've tried them all... Joe's, Lombardi's, John's, Bleecker St., Abetino's (the bastards that overtook the original Joe's and have now closed and been replaced by a sorbet/gelateria). Joe's is far and away my favorite. Get 1 slice of the cheese and 1 slice of the fresh mozzarella. Don't think, just do it. You will be a happy camper.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Jimmy Cantiello said...

Connecticut doesn't normally do slices. I guess our appetites are bigger than you New Yorkers. But I like the idea of the "slice". So whenever I come into the city I know that one of the many options are to slam down a slice or two as well as a dog, not too many minutes later. To me, that's what you call "small plates".

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the pizza has changed as much as New Yorkers have. Back in the 1970s lots of pizza was good because it was "pizza". Now NYers are a fussy, spoiled bunch - with better access to ingredients and the Internet everyone is an "expert" on everything. Look at coffee. Jesus H. Christ, coffee used to be coffee, and it used to be pretty damn good everywhere. Now everyone in NY is dropping beaucoup cash on all this specialized crap. Same thing.

12:05 PM  

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