On Pizza

Charles Lamb: This is not a city! A city is like London or New York where one can just walk outside and hail a taxi!

L. A. Law, "Do The Spike Thing" (10/31/91)

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You Are 84% NYC
Congratulations, you are truly a New Yorker. You’ve seen it all, and you’re more than a little cynical.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with this one.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a side comment about the state of pizza in Baltimore. It was really part of a larger post about something different, but Dena decided to seize upon it in the comments:

I’ve never met a New Yorker who considered pizza from anywhere else to be a real pie. Someone once told me that it’s the water used in making the dough that makes it taste so different.

She may be right about this; I don’t know. After all, it’s a bagel thing too. Bagels around here are roughly analagous to Wonder Bread in my eyes. Bread in general is pretty disappointing, except for two places: DiPasquale’s on Gough Street (WARNING: noisy and irritating music at that link), and Mastellone’s on Harford Road, practically around the corner from my home. Mastellone’s does not appear to have a website, even though both places are owned by the same guy. Go figure. These are the kinds of places where you can say something like "Gabagool" and they know what you want AND they ask you if you want it hot or sweet. Ask me if you’re curious enough. I totally heart these guys. I hate the music on the website. Can it, guys, please.

Back to pizza. It could be a water thing, but there’s also a philosophy behind pizza that so few places outside the New York Metro Area seem to have.

I won’t debate Chicago-style; I don’t have enough practical experience. I have no quarrel with Uno’s but Second City dwellers may. Feel free to enlighten me. However:

New York-style pizza has a nice thin crust that’s built up at the edges and both kneaded and shaped by hand. A 16-inch pizza has 4-6 ounces of sauce spread thinly over it and a generous double handful of mozzarella cheese. Real mozzarella is essential. A lot of lesser places will use a mix of mozzarella and something else; some places actually use a white version of cheddar. (A lot of frozen pizza uses this stuff too; go look at the side of the box.) Some places will dust the top with a little dried oregano and/or basil. Those are nice, but not necessary.

Pizza needs to be cooked in a very hot, gas-fired oven with stone on its floor. The pizza needs to go directly onto the stone, and this is where so many places go wrong, wrong, wrong. I’ve seen a bunch of places shape the dough into a pan (some of them do this mechanically) and then put the pan into the oven. How are you going to get a crispy crust if you do that? Answer: you won’t.

Worse yet are the places that do this and then put the pan on a kind of chain/conveyor belt which carries this deal through a cave of electric heating elements. Let me make this clear: you can’t bake a pizza in a fucking Easy-Bake Oven. And you certainly can’t do it in this contraption, which is maybe one step higher. The cheese tends to overcook and the crust is…it’s just sad.

If this is done right, and the oven is hot enough, the edge of the crust may actually start to form bubbles at the point where the sauce ends and the crust begins. Some places like to check the pie at about the halfway mark and pop the bubbles before they turn the pie around; other places let it go. I kind of like bubbles, but I couldn’t tell you why. Turning the pie around is probably superstitious, but then again the back of the oven is likely hotter than the front because of the door getting opened and closed all the time.

How tough is it to do this well? Apparently, very tough.

Pizza for one: In New York you buy a slice of pizza. A lot of places, especially in downtown Brooklyn, will still give you this for a dollar or less. I don’t get the "personal" pizza, the 12-inch jobbie. Get a slice and walk away from the window, munching away.

When I was 15 years old, I went to visit my dad’s parents in Las Cruces, New Mexico. There was a Pizza Hut on the corner by their place. I’d never been to Pizza Hut before. I went in and asked for a slice to go. The guy was dumbfounded: "You want a what?"

Now it was my turn to be confused. "A slice. Of pizza. This is a pizza place, I’d like a slice of pizza to go."

"Oh…we don’t sell pizza by the slice."

"You don’t…sell…pizza…by the…?"

"As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone around here does."

And that was my first exposure to the idea that Things Are Not The Same Elsewhere. Perhaps in a future post we can discuss why mustard on the burgers is also a wrongness.

Now I’m going to put on my shoes and walk up Harford Road so I can have some gabagool. On some decent bread.

3 thoughts on “On Pizza”

  1. Yeah, I’ve heard that rumor about the water too. And it was for both pizza and bagels. I think Entourage had a joke last season about a pizza place in LA shipping all its water in from NYC to preserve the flavor. I wonder if it’s true or just a reasonable-sounding rumor, hmm.
    Have you tried any of the fancy pizza joints around DC, such as Two Amy’s? Some folks swear by them, but I’ve never been that impressed (well not that impressed that I’d drive to DC just for pizza…).

  2. I do love good NY pizza and agree with your cooking method requirements. (I’ve had pizza in Illinois, not Chicago, but Urbana, and it was okay, but I like thin crust.)
    The quiz said I am only 48% NYC, which actually seems high considering I grew up on a dirt road in lower, slower Delaware. 🙂

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