I get to meet the coolest people on pizza tours. On May 18, 2008 I conducted my second tour on the NYC Pizza Bus and it was one heck of a trip! We hit Lombardi’s, Fornino, Totonno’s and L&B Spumoni Gardens. The pizza was great, but my most vivid memory is that of a particular pizza tourist named Phillip Klipper. Not only was Phil the most excited person on the tour, he remains to this day the only person who has ever performed magic tricks for the group while waiting for a pie to emerge from the oven. But these weren’t Crackerjack box magic tricks, Phil is a real deal professional magician.
When we met in 2008, Phil offered to take me on a tour of his local pizzerias in Westchester, just north of NYC. My pizza experience in those parts is limited (besides my Larchmont expedition last year) so I desperately wanted to made the trip. The window of opportunity finally opened two weeks ago so I headed north with an open mind and an empty belly. Phil was fully prepared, with a challenging list of eight pizzerias in hand. Our goal was to hit six spots, but the day took us on an adventure neither of us will ever forget.
Here’s Phil at Totonno’s on my pizza tour in May 2008 and again holding his pizzeria list and performing a coin trick in November 2010.
Our first stop was a great slice shop called Venetian Delight in Hartsdale. This is Phil’s go-to pizzeria and it was a great way to start the day. The cheese and sauce are applied in perfect proportions atop a crunchy-yet-yielding base. I wanted a full slice but Phil was smart enough to order just one for the two of us. Good call Phil! After VD, we headed down the road to Ardsley for what Phil described as “excellent gourmet slices” at Mina’s. He wanted to show me their Chicken Marsala pizza, but there were no pies out when we arrived. We decided to travel down a simpler road by ordering a slice of the Margherita pizza with eggplant.
Good pizza, but we didn’t stick around long enough for a second slice because Phil wanted to check out a place around the corner in Dobbs Ferrry called Johnny’s Pizza. I learned a hard lesson at this place: always follow your heart. Allow me to explain. Phil and I ordered a slice of cheese pizza because that’s the baseline test for a pizzeria with which you have no prior experience. But when we walked into the small walk-up counter slice shop, my eyes were pulled immediately to a square pie on the lower shelf of the display case. It had garlic, broccoli rabe and big chunks of sausage - the kind you only see at really top notch places. Phil isn’t a sausage fan (his only fault) and we had a lot of work to do, so I left it behind. Never have I regretted anything more. Upon examining the menu, I found that this pie was noted as a featured item and contained sausage from Arthur Ave, the Little Italy of the Bronx. DANG! Total missed opportunity there. I’ll probably think of it every now and then, wondering what my life would be like if I had tried it. Oh well, next time.
Luckily, Phil read my emotional projections and took me to a place called Dom’s in Elmsford, which had recently received a write-up for their grandma pizza. We ordered a slice and Dom even tossed a couple garlic knots our way! This thin square was solid in the flavor department, with a slightly oily-fried crust and little shreds of basil added post-oven. Yumers in my tummers.
Like most of our stops thus far, Dom’s is located in a small strip mall. There are so many of these around and every one of them has delicious possibilities waiting inside. Dom’s strip mall location also had something else I needed: a bank. Cash is king at pizzerias, and luck shined upon me by presenting a glorious Chase bank for my pizza funding needs. My buds know that I am a big fan of Chase bank and this day’s experience proved why. While I was dealing with money things, Phil struck up a conversation with one of the customer service reps. He mentioned some pizzerias in NYC that I hadn’t tried before and also a place they order from just down the road called Sabatino’s. Mr Chase Banker Man said they had a coal oven, which only adds to the intrigue. We had so many more pizzerias on the list, was it really wise to start following leads? OF COURSE! That’s what this is all about. A pizza safari isn’t a safari unless you get out of your vehicle and slash through the jungle with your huge machete in search of some crazy endangered species. So slash we did and oh boy did we the bald eagle of pizzas.
Sabatino’s is the full Italian restaurant upstairs and Tino’s is the pizzeria downstairs. Signs outside the building suggested the coal reports to be true and the scene inside provided the proof we needed for confirmation.
This oven is super exciting because it’s totally different from most coal-fired ovens, which are usually huge rectangular bread ovens built into (or in the back yard of) the main building. This one’s different because it’s designed like the wood-fired ovens in most Neapolitan pizzerias with the one exception of its fuel source. The door on the right side of the oven is the coal box with an ash chamber/oxygen feed below (with the open door). Apparently it was built in the late 1940’s to be used for pizza. That’s all well and good, but the proof is in the pizza, so let’s cut to the dish.
Tino’s offers two basic pies: the “reguar” pie and the “Margherita.” We tried a regular and snapped some pics of the next table’s Margherita.
With any coal-fired oven, the texture of the crust is going to be the real standout. Coal provides a dry heat and allows for quick baking in contact with a hot oven floor. This results in a dual-textured base that has a crunchy outer crust covering a soft inner crumb. The oven doesn’t need to be extraordinarily hot to do this, the bricks just have to conduct heat directly into the dough. This oven was rocking somewhere around 450 F, well below the usual 950 F we see all the time in NYC. It just goes to show, there’s more to a pizza oven than simple temperature. The domed construction of Tino’s oven helps maintain a hot floor with extra heat radiated from all angles. HOORAY!
Tino’s is a great pizzeria and it would be a frequent haunt for me if I lived nearby. The pizza’s solid and I love the ambiance. Just check out the bags of (anthracite) coal they have laying around…
Finding this coal oven pizzeria really gave me a rush, so we jumped back into the pizza wagon and headed to Phil’s favorite spot for white pizza, Nicky’s in White Plains. He kept telling me “Nicky’s is king” but I wanted proof. White pizza usually has some mozzarella, maybe a bit of ricotta and some garlic. No tomato sauce and no alfredo sauce. This slice added something I would only imagine on a delux model, a few slices of ham. No complaints from me!
On our way to one of my favorite Westchester spots, Sal’s in Mamaroneck, we passed a place along the way that looked totally rocktacular. It’s a little brick building on Mamaroneck Ave called Jimmy’s. Let me know if you’ve ever been there. I feel really creepy right now scoping it out on Google street view, but that’s just part of the job.
Sal’s is your basic slice joint and I truly think America would be a better place with one of these in every town. I was ready for something green, so we split a salad slice. But we also ordered a slice of Sicilian just for balance. Those tend to be the popular slices, so we did or due diligence and checked them both out. Good stuff, but I could tell Phil was hitting his pizza wall. To be honest, I wasn’t far behind.
A quick glance at our list revealed that we had already visited seven pizzerias. WHOA! Thanks to a couple “off the list” stops, we still had three remaining from Phil’s plan. As hardcore as we were there was no chance of hitting them all. The list still had Renaldo’s in Harrison, Johnny’s in Mt Vernon and Modern Pizza in New Rochelle. I had been to Johnny’s recently and wanted to go back, but this trip was about exploration so we decided to nix it. Of the remaining two stops on the list, Modern was the only one that had been recommended to me by another pizza tourist. We set our course and decided that this would be the last stop of the day. With that in mind, the pressure was on for Modern to deliver the goods.
We rolled up after navigating quite a few one way streets. This place isn’t easy to find at all, but on first look we knew we had scored a bingo in the game of pizza. The signs outside say that common phrase “Brick Oven Pizza” but some telltale architecture revealed clues to some real deal history.
The front of the building is two stories, but the back goes down to one and ends at the chimney. This is indicative of an old bakery, most likely fueled by coal. Any loss of hunger from the previous seven slices was replaced with excitement as Phil and I raced inside. We walked through a section that looked like it could have been an old provisions store and found exactly what we were looking for in the back. BOOM!
And here’s a shot of the oven as it was used in the 1930’s.
I’ve only seen this kind of oven once before at the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, PA. It’s called a “white” oven, not because of the white bricks, but because it has a completely separate chamber for the coal. This way, the baking chamber is free from dust and residue. Other coal ovens used in pizzerias have coal burning in the same chamber as the baked products. You can see the black boxes above and below the oven door that conduct heat from the hot box in back of the oven into the baking chamber. We asked if we could poke around in back of the oven and sure enough there was a door leading to the area where coal was once loaded into the hot boxes.
The oven at Modern was converted to oil at least 30 years ago, but still cranks out classy crusty pies. With renewed hunger, we ordered a Margherita pizza and I snapped about a gagillion photos of the oven while the pie was inside. It’s a good thing this was the last stop, because we both wanted to eat an extra slice before packing it in for the day.
And what a day it was. Major thanks to Phillip Klipper, professional magician and pizza explorer, for taking me on a doozy of a tour around Westchester. We ate some solid pizza and made a few incredible discoveries along the way. It is no small feat to hit eight pizzerias and I commend Phil for his stamina. I’ll leave you with this photo of Phil contemplating life, love and pizza.
This is a big week for your television, because you’ll be able to watch me on TWO different shows on TWO different networks. Feed this message into your DVR right away:
Tuesday, November 16 @ 9:30 PM on COOKING CHANNEL
United Tastes of America featuring Jeffrey Saad
From Cooking Channel’s website: Jeffrey Saad is on a mission to explore the incredible diversity of an American favorite - Pizza! From the ultimate New York street slice to the hearty deep-dish style of Chicago. Along the way he’ll see what happens when pizza goes upscale not to mention collides with the international influences of Indian curry - and even - yikes! - sushi pizza.
Wednesday, November 17 @ 10 PM on TRAVEL CHANNEL
From Travel Channel’s website: This battle of the boroughs is between John’s of Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and its nemesis across the Brooklyn Bridge, Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.
Exactly eight weeks after our crack team of pizzaphiles and tomato enthusiasts congregated in my back yard to dive into the highly-controversial world of canned fruit studies, an even larger and hungrier gang gathered for round two. The weather was colder and the group of tasters was larger, so our venue was shifted into the Lower East Side’s cozy Pizza a Casa, a pizza (and now pasta) training center and supply store. After analyzing the method used for round 1, we tweaked the process a bit.
Here’s how the test went down. I brought unlabeled cans to Pizza a Casa for Mark and Jenny to distribute into identical serving boats. Prior to delivering the goods, I marked each can with a letter (A-O). Each serving boat was marked with the letter from its corresponding can.
Tasters were each given a unique tasting order, so no sample was relegated to the first or last position. We graded sweetness, acidity, texture, color and overall flavor on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. We tasted 15 samples but one tomato appeared twice to act as a control. Any tasting sheets whose findings for these two identical tomatoes were drastically different were ignored in the final tally. Two sheets were disregarded for this reason; one additional sheet was ignored because it didn’t have data for most of the tomatoes. This left eleven data sheets to be included in the final tally.
I have to admit, our roster of tasters has been really exciting for both taste tests but this round was incredible. Here’s the roll call:
Roberto Caporuscio (Keste)
JoAnne Ling (Scott’s Pizza Tours)
Brooks Jones (Me, Myself & Pie; Paulie Gee’s)
Mark + Jenny (Pizza a Casa)
Adam Kuban (Slice)
Rachel Cohn (author; tomato lover)
Louis Colluccio (Coluccio & Sons)
Megan (tomato lover)
Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza)
Michael Glazer (Pullino’s, Paulie Gee’s)
Michael Park (food writer)
Sara Bonisteel (food writer)
Al Santillo (Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth NJ)
I did not participate in the tasting because I already had too much interaction with the cans. The group was stacked with killer taste buds and pizza palates so I was content to let ‘er rip and wait to tally the results. It was funny to watch because everyone was so intense. These people were so focused it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to toss a whoopie cushion under somebody’s chair but I held back. Good thing too, or someone might have blogged that the tomatoes were giving them gas to save face.
The results of the test were super interesting because the two highest rated samples were both products of Canada. Crazy, I know. But it’s also heartwarming. Most probably expected the Italian tomatoes to come out on top, but that was not the case. Next time you’re in the canned tomato aisle of your local grocery store, keep your eyes peeled for Luigi Vitelli and give them a whirl. They scored highest in all five tasting categories and took home the prize for overall flavor. Way to go, Canada!
For the rest of the results of our taste test, check out the full writeup on Slice. It even has a link to the raw data so you can make your own observations. If you missed the results of Round 1, you can check those out on Slice as well.
Pizza nerds everywhere shiver with delight at the mere mention of the greatest pizza cities on Earth. Napoli is where it started and New York is where it transformed, but New Haven fits somewhere in between tradition and adaptation. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of Southern Italians immigrated to the industrial cities of the United States. Most of them made a bunch of money and went right back to Italy but some stayed and gave life in the US a shot. Industrial cities on the late 19th Century (NYC, New Haven, Trenton, Chicago) are now the beacons of American pizza tradition and we must celebrate their significance!
My last trip to New Haven was about 5 years ago when I was touring with my band the Bikini Carwash Company. We played a show in New Haven but the real goal was pizza. I stopped at a cool place called Modern Apizza before the show, a couple historic pizzerias called Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza in between sets, and finally we had takeout from a newish joint called Bar later that night. This pizza was GOOD! So good, in fact, that I have been plotting my return ever since. I’m ashamed that it took so long, but five years and several thousand slices later I was primed for a serious pizza road trip.
We timed our trip carefully so we would arrive at Frank Pepe on Wooster street as it opened its doors at 11:30 AM. Team Alpha (Mark and Jenny from Pizza a Casa plus me) headed up from Brooklyn and Team Beta (SPT tour guide JoAnne, her husband Peter, her father Sid) started from their home base in nearby Fairfield, CT. Even with some yucky traffic, Team Alpha made the trip in about an hour and forty-five minutes. But as we turned onto Wooster Street, all traffic was forgotten and only one thing remained: pizza. Oops, I’m sorry: Apizza. That’s right, New Haven lingo holds dear to the Neapolitan tradition of squeezing words a bit, so the pronunciation is somewhere along the lines of “ah-beetz.” Whatever.
Frank Pepe has a huge coal burning bread oven that was built by the Middleby Company, now popular for their conveyor belt air impingement ovens found in most Dominos and Pizza Hut locations. Back in the early 1900s, they were building big masonry units that required their own structures. You can see in the photo below that there’s an addition to the back of the building. That’s where the oven lives! The chimney is all the way in the back of the building. If you look really close, you can see a vertical white line in the brick to the left of the chimney under the tree where there was a second addition to incorporate more storage space onto the property.
We decided to keep a standard order of a large pie with mozzarella and one white pie with clams at each pizzeria. Frank Pepe allegedly started throwing clams on the pizza in the 1960’s and it became his trademark pie. Both pies were great, but the white clam pie was magical. No mozzarella, just olive oil + grated cheese (not sure exactly which but tasted like a soft Parmesan) + oregano + tons of garlic. The balance was perfect and I’m a big fan of this dense-chewy crust. New Yorkers would be into this except for the fact that instead of cutting a pie into eight big slices, it’s more like 12 skinny minnies. No problem, you’re just allowed to eat more of them!
We made our way chronologically, Pepe’s opened in 1925 and stop number two opened in 1934: Modern Apizza. This was a favorite on my first trip to New Haven. Unlike Pepe’s, Modern fuels their brick oven with oil. I don’t know much about these ovens, but apparently many coal ovens were converted to oil and natural gas in the early 1930’s. We ordered the two standard pies and added sliced meatball to half of the mozzarella pizza because it looked delicious on someone’s table as we walked in. It tasted as good as it looked and fulfilled all my greasy cheesy needs.
Our remaining two pizzerias both opened at 5 PM, so we had some time to kill. Right after a stroll around the Yale campus, we made a mad dash to Sally’s and sat down before the place packed up. Wow, what a vibe in there! The oven is very similar to Pepe’s but almost looks like it was slapped together; some exterior bricks are white and some are red. But who cares, it’s what’s inside that counts and the inside of that oven was all HOT! Judging by the way these pies were coming out all day, I’d say these ovens aren’t blazing at 850 degrees F but more around the 650 - 750 range. The crust is dark and rich, with some more burn than char at this stop. Decent clam pie but excellent mozzarella pie! Just remember to order mozzarella because a “plain” pie doesn’t come with cheese at Sally’s.
The scoop behind this place is fun because it was started by two brothers in 1938 who happen to be nephews of Frank Pepe down the block. Salvatore’s name made it to the facade of the building because he was old enough to hold a liquor license. Most New Haven residents align themselves with either Pepe’s or Sally’s, but there’s really no need to make that difficult choice because they have completely different strengths.
With only one stop left, the crew started losing steam. Daylight was gone and we had a major stop ahead of us that would undoubtedly have a wait. All of a sudden Mark pulled out a bottle of Fernet-Branca, a useful digestif that gave us a second wind and a renewed hunger for pizza! The stuff tastes like herb-infused paint thinner but I got used to it after a few sips. In all seriousness, thanks Mark!
This new hunger gave us enough power to order not two but THREE large pizzas at our last stop, Bar, the youngest of the day’s pizzerias at just 19 years of age. Here we go: one half mozzarella, half chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon; one half white clam, half shrimp+bacon; and one whole mashed potato+bacon pie. It didn’t seem like a lot of bacon when we were ordering. Oh well. Hopes were high, as Mark’s students at Pizza a Casa and my customers on pizza tours had heralded the mashed potato pizza at Bar as the savior of all things pizza. It was tasty, but my favorite surprised the heck out of me. It was the chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon pie! Well, I actually swapped out the chicken for some shrimp from the other pie but bacon and hot cherry peppers made my day. It was really something special.Unfortunately it was pretty dark so my photos aren’t worth posting, but here’s a shot of the mashed potato+bacon pie.
Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday, right? If you haven’t been to New Haven and you’re a pizza nerd, you have some homework ahead of you. But these four aren’t the only games in town. I’m planning a revisit to hit some of the lesser known spots so let me know what I’m missing and I’ll add it to the list. I really love the rich culture of pizza in Connecticut and it’s great to see so much variety and experimentation happening within the context of this historic pizza locale. Have a slice day!
This weekend marked one of my most successful pizza experiments to date. I made a batch of dough with 21 oz of all purpose Gold Medal flour, 14.3 oz cold tap water, less than 0.5 oz dry yeast and 0.5 oz sea salt. This is less yeast than I usually use and I added the salt between mixing and kneading instead of before mixing. I also gave the dough a 1 hour autolyse before mixing. During this phase (which usually takes 20-30 min but I ran out to run an errand and left it longer - oops) allows the flour to become hydrated and requires less kneading as a result. Next I separated the dough into four 9 oz balls and stuck ‘em in the fridge for over 4 days.
Part of the experiment was to make dough that lasted longer than two days before blowing up and getting too alcoholic. On the morning of the baking session, I took two of the doughs out and let them sit at room temperature (around 74 F) for about 10 hours. They poofed up a bit, but not as much as usual. The doughs on the left had 10 hours at room temperature, the doughs on the right only had about two hours to rise. Just look at those bubbles!
Now for the ACTION —
The first pie I made was pretty standard, but my buddy Bryan brought over some tiny cherry tomatoes so we did fresh mozzarella, crushed California tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Bake time was about 7 minutes total (we added the cherry tomatoes half way through) and surface temperature of the baking surface was about 625 F at the start of the bake. Here’s the result:
The next pie helped me respond to a challenge posed by my friend Cat, who wanted to see comte cheese used on a pizza. NO PROBLEM! Comte is the perfect base for a pizza with thin potato slices soaked in rosemary-infused olive oil. I tossed on some sea salt at the very end and it was mighty tasty but a bit on the oily side. Check out the before and after.
For some reason, I sauteed a bunch of onions while waiting for the oven to heat up so we used them on the final pie. Potatoes were already soaking in olive oil, so we tossed them on there as well. Add that to the remaining bits of mozzarella and you’ve got the most tasty pie of the night. I must give major props to Choice Greene, my local provisions shop, for their excellent fresh mozzarella. I was able to snag a small chunk for about $4 and it covered two pies. This one got some freshly ground black pepper after it exited the oven and it really hit the spot.
I’m going to add more yeast to the dough next time and I’m not so sure about saving the salt until after the mix because it resulted in a very sticky dough that was harder to work with than my usual dough. Regardless, this was a massively successful pizza night and I’m looking forward to making some more dough tomorrow!
It looks like I flew too close to the sun. My beautiful tomato garden has been destroyed. Who’s to blame? I’ll tell you who: nature. For the past three days, New York has experienced weather more suited to Seattle. It’s constantly damp and gross, which is not good for adorable tomato plants. To be quite honest, I hadn’t checked on them for days. Rain means I don’t have to water them, right? NOPE! Rain means I should have thrown a tarp over them to stop wicked infiltration of unsolicited irrigation. I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw this…
Those plants are supposed to stay vertical. I carefully tied the indeterminate vines to stakes with strips of pantyhose, as not to cut into the plants and prematurely end their lives. It looks like the weight of water droplets along with gusting winds was enough to take the plants down.
This is the reason great tomatoes are grown in Southern Italy and California’s central valley. Those regions don’t get rain in the summer, so controlled irrigation is possible. We’ll have to wait for next year to test the assumption that volcanic soil from Mt Vesuvius creates perfect growing conditions, but what good is soil below if your plants are at left vulnerable to nature from above?
Upon closer inspection, I found evidence of destruction left by yet another of nature’s dark warriors: rodents. It looks like a real jerk scampered around taking a single bite out of each ripe tomato.I know the photo seems blurry but I just wanted you to experience what it looked like through tear-filled eyes.
I was afraid this might happen so I’m glad I picked a few tomatoes while they were ripe, but it looks like the plants are out of commission unless I can fix them up tomorrow after the rain stops. In the meantime, I grabbed any untouched fruits and brought them inside. Now I have to learn how to can tomatoes. Sounds like a great project for tomorrow!
Here they are, the lonely soldiers who made it through the Great Tomato Ravaging of 2010. I’ll have more updates after tomorrow’s plant fixing / tomato canning operation is complete.
The captain of the NYC PIzza Bus is an important element of the pizza tour. Today (August 4) we honor his bravery, his wisdom, his courage, and his mad driving skills. Ronnie knows the streets of New York as if he built the roads himself. His favorite slice is none other than the glorious square at L&B Spumoni Gardens and he absolutely HATES french fries on pizza.
Happy Birthday Ronnie!