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04.20.2005

The Unbearable Thinness of Crust

The worst pizza in the world is sold at a certain snack counter in Edinburgh. Walk down Princes Street until it turns left onto Leith Walk, and then continue for about a block until you see on your right a diner with pink neon lights in the window. Then turn around and run as fast as your legs can take you, because even the faintest whiff of that shriveled red square of ketchup and shortbread in the display case with its clinging particles of haggis will haunt you all the days of your life.

Back in the heady post-Soviet days, it used to be possible to get really bad pizza in Warsaw. Vendors in the little plastic booths on every corner would sell you a hot dog bun spread with tomato paste and pressed ham for about ten American cents. Then the Vietnamese showed up, with their cut-rate lunch specials and even smaller booths, and the Warsaw pizza market was no more. Finally the Health Department got funding, shut everyone down, deported the Vietnamese, and now the nation's capital is a desolation of McDonald's and hipster cafés.

You can find really bad pizza in New York, but it takes a little work. One promising place is at Penn Station near the A,C,E subway line (not to be confused with the good pizza near the Amtrak lounge). The slices there are thick and sweaty, and the mushroom slice in particular has a vague sliminess to it, as if the mushrooms had been eaten and rejected earlier by an animal whose diet consisted exclusively of garlic.

Ray's Pizza is an entire franchise specializing in bad slices, but the Ray's near Lexington Avenue and 62nd deserves special mention for its combination of bad service and egregious pricing. The flavor is not quite so off (think of a dish sponge boiled in olive oil) but it is the only New York slice I have ever come across that clocks in at over four dollars. As always, for that special extra level of "screw you" lunchtime service, you really have to come to Midtown.

The most overrated pizza in the world requires a little bit of a road trip, to New Haven, Connecticut. Sally's Apizza (not a typo, just an affectation) is only two blocks down from Pepe's, a perfectly wonderful pizza place, and both places claim to have invented American style pizza back in the 1920's. New Haven-style pies are baked in a coal oven, and have a thin, blistery crust that is more rigid and less chewy than what you would find in New York.

Sally's and Pepe's have somehow split New Haven pizza opinion evenly between them, but the could not be more different - Pepe's pizza is stellar while Sally's tastes like something that was accidentally dropped into a mop bucket on its way out of the Pepe's dumpster. The plain tomato-and-cheese pie at Sally's is edible (no more), but their white clam pizza (which at Pepe's is a little hymn to Poseidon, with garlic and olive oil and big salty pieces of clam) is an absolute abomination. It tastes like a matzoh drizzled with Mazola and pencil erasers.

The differences between the two pizzerias extend to the service. Pepe's is clean and bright, and has funny little diner-style booths with numbers and coathooks on the aisle side. You are served by your grandmother.

Sally's is dark, looks like a dive bar, and is staffed by goons. The only way to get prompt service at Sally's is to wear a large pair of breasts. While Sally's apologists gush over the 'atmosphere' (which consists of hundreds of pictures of Frank Sinatra and a swearing line cook), it's easy to see why Pepe's diners might be misled by the sheer contrast into thinking that they have the tastiest pizza on Earth. And they really almost do.

But for the best pizza in the world, you have to go to Staten Island.

I concede that Staten Island is not the most alluring pizza destination. Native New Yorkers seem to treat it something like the Yukon - a faraway, barren, place crisscrossed by roaming herds of caribou. Excessive fieldwork confirms that it's not a place worth going - a kind of Northern Jersey except with New York-level taxes and a nine-dollar cover charge (for the Verrazano Narrows bridge). But the pizza really makes the trip worthwhile.

Nunzio's (the heavyweight champion of Staten Island pizza) is an unpretentious, blocky white restaurant on Hylan Boulevard, along the east edge of the island. One door leads to a takeout counter, the other leads into a small dining room with a fireplace, a dozen or so tables, and a big garish painting of the Nunzio's patriarch slicing into a volcano-like pie. Nunzio's regulars have big hair, medallions, duck tails, and strong Staten Island accents; the pies arrive promptly and are devoured by tough-looking gangs of children.

I do not know when or how Nunzio's discovered the secret of ideal pizza (it's the water, claims one of the pizza guys), but their hold on it is tenuous. Order anything except a plain cheese pie and you will get a very, very good pizza, but nothing like the Platonic perfection they achieve with their plain default pie. The crust is superthin and apparently impermeable to moisture, so the pizza stays crunchy and supple, and has little islands of cheese in a sea of really tangy, actual-tomato-tasting tomato sauce. Everything about the pizza is right - it's light, hot, has a nice olive-oil shine on the outer crust, and just writing about it now makes me want to jump in the car and drive back there. It is hard even in principle to imagine a tastier pizza.

The only possible challenger would be the Brooklyn pizzeria Di Fara, which has had a lot of press lately thanks to its colorful and ancient owner, Domenico Demarco, the Stanley Kubrick of pizza baking. Demarco is a maniacal control freak of a pizza baker who insists on making every slice from scratch, himself. When you place your order, Demarco hand-selects and plants the choice wheat kernels he will then harvest, toast and hand-grind to produce the flour for the incomparable slice you will be handed by his daughter-in-law many, many, many, many hours after you have entered the pizzeria. Not even his son is allowed to touch the dough - at fortysomething years of age, he is relegated to grinding the three kinds of cheese that go on every slice.

It is hard to evaluate Di Fara pizza because you are so incredibly hungry by the time you get it. Does it matter that the water for the dough was collected on a moonless night from the summit caldera of Mount Aetna by virgin schoolgirls? Nobody knows except Domenico Demarco; the rest of us are trying not to pass out from hunger.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I think that the long waiting period goes against the spirit of true pizza, which is meant to be baked quickly, served quickly, and eaten stoned. It's possible that Demarco's sons feel the same way, since they have recently splintered off to open a rival pizzeria in Manhattan, though the word on the street is they did not get their father's pizza gene. Someday I will pack a basket of provisions and try eating a slice of Di Fara pizza at a normal blood sugar level to get a clearer picture. It should be easier to set aside the time now that I'm unemployed.

Of course, for Lear-like levels of family intrigue and treachery, Di Fara doesn't hold a candle to Grimaldi's, located right under the Brooklyn Bridge. "Grimaldi's" is the answer you'll hear from many New Yorkers when you ask them where to find the best pizza in the city, and while not as good as the Staten Island team, the boys certainly know how to make a good pie pie. Grimaldi's doesn't serve slices, but you can get some at its estranged sister restaurant Patsy's up in East Harlem (118th and 1st), and read about the details of the internecine legal battle at astonishing length on a Grimaldi's placemat as you wait for your pie.

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