Monday, August 10, 2009

Pizza Love and Understanding

When I think of New York food, several things spring to mind: pastrami sandwiches, bagels, hot dogs, and, best of all to my mind, pizza. There's good pizza throughout the US, but there's something about New York pizza that makes me want to run down to the airport and catch the next plane going east.

On my first visit to New York, I had convinced myself ahead of time that New York style pizza was overrated: after all, the pizza I'd had in California that was billed as New York style was bland, used sub-par ingredients, and was generally about as interesting as chewing on a wet newspaper. By the same token, I'm sure many New Yorkers probably think West Coast pizza is all soulless dreck covered in tofu, aioli, pineapple, and a variety of toppings that have no business prancing their way onto a pizza. If so, they're just as wrong as I was.

I never seem to have enough time (or pizza stamina) to try all of the places that crop up in the never-ending New York pizza arguments so I'm not even close to being able to say I've found the absolute best, but this past month I managed to squeeze in meals at three of the classics: John's of Bleecker Street, Arturo's, and Grimaldi's.

John's was my first love in New York pizza and continues to be my favorite. The signed headshot of Vanilla Ice on the wall that says "Keep makin' dope pizza" doesn't inspire much confidence in the quality, but Mr. Ice seems to know his pizza because pizza doesn't get much more dope than John's. It was a simple margherita pizza at John's that showed me what New York pizza was really about: super-high heat from a coal-fired brick oven, quality ingredients, a crust that's thin but has some attitude, and, in true New York fashion, no bullshit.

The margherita pizza at John's

There's a philosophical cheese divide amongst New York pizza fans: some prefer the cheese in small rounds distributed across the pie (e.g., Grimaldi's), others prefer an even spread of grated cheese (e.g., John's). Honestly they both have their merits, and I can't say I strongly prefer one over the other but I give a slight edge to the John's style. At John's, apart from the delicious char marks from the oven, you get a pretty even experience all the way, but at Grimaldi's you get a very heterogeneous pie: one bite will be mostly sauce, the next will have a piece of chewy melted fresh mozzarella.

Pizza Margherita at Grimaldi's

Grimaldi's has several things going for it: they have probably the prettiest pizzas you'll see anywhere, the location under the Brooklyn Bridge is unique and scenic, and the staff are friendly and at least as saucy as the pizza. Perhaps revealing my West Coast origin, I asked the waiter if they had salad. This was apparently a funny question.

The local Olde Brooklyn Root Beer at Grimaldi's

The Brooklyn Bridge looms over Grimaldi's

Oh, and Grimaldi's has perhaps best pizza poster ever:

Now you come and say "Don Corleone, give me pizza," but you don't ask with respect.

Arturo's is perhaps not as well known as Grimaldi's or John's, but often shows up on favorite lists by locals. With a live piano player, Arturo's provided the best entertainment of the three, but the pizza didn't quite live up to expectations the night we went: the crust was a bit too burnt around the edge, and the cheese to sauce ratio skewed way too far in the cheese direction. The fact that they serve Boylan's root beer (good choice) and the restaurant has a pleasantly quirky atmosphere helps a lot, but the pizza that night wasn't in the same league as John's or Grimaldi's.

Mushroom pie at Arturo's

To sum it all up, here's a handy table with the various attributes rated on a 1-10 scale:

Overall Score
Bonus Points
Root beer by the pitcher, headshots of Bruno Kirby and Vanilla Ice
Local root beer, friendly, location
Boylan's root beer, quirky place, live music

All three restaurants make a solid pie, and I'd even be happy eat at Arturo's again because I have the feeling that I hit them on an off night. John's just ekes out the victory here with their amazing tomato sauce and their magical ability to pull more flavor than should be possible from the few ingredients, but the Grimaldi's pie is a very close contender and has one of the best crusts you'll ever find - definitely a pizza you can't refuse.


An American in London said...

Love the analysis-by-table. Jon would agree with you that John's is the best. I was a Grimaldi's girl. And now I hear all the "best" places are further into Brooklyn (Di Fara, for starters). Anyway, thanks for making me crave pizza at 9 am.

andysBro said...

While I definitely want pizza now, I am mostly left wanting a better spell-/grammar-checker to be somehow embedded into Blogspot. How my very own brother could permit two (2) errors in one (1) paragraph is actually beyond me. I have to blame bad technology, otherwise my world makes sense no longer.

Andy Murdock said...

Di Fara was on my list, but I didn't have any other reason to be in the neighborhood, so I didn't make it out there. Would love to try it sometime though.

Sorry Bro, that's what happens when I post while sleepy. Now I have to go find these typos and will not rest until they are smited. Smote. Smitten?

andysBro said...

A hint: Cheese:Sauce. C'mon, you know I have to give you a ratio of s**t.

Andy Murdock said...

Damn, I'm falling down on the job.

Ogre said...

Pizza review = excellent

post review grammar comments =

Andy Murdock said...

Thanks for your kind support Ogre. Nerrrrrds! (imagine that in Ogre voice)

Anonymous said...

i've just recently became a ny pizza convert. also thought new yorkers are overrating their pizza's till i had my very first bite at John's. O.M.G.

i've been dreaming about it since. just got back from visitng NYC yesterday and i'm already dreaming of the next time i have my John's Margherita *sigh*

Andy Murdock said...

That was my exact experience. It couldn't be all that good, right? Well, a John's margherita proved me solidly wrong (and happily so).