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.