Guest Columns
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 3
Brad English

I was having an interesting night. I haven't always been comfortable just going out alone and sitting in a restaurant while surrounded by people who were out together enjoying a social experience.  I don't remember when that changed exactly, but I do remember how it became that much more of a comfortable thing while I was working in New York.  I realized that I liked it in a way because, in this city there is so much going on and it would be a shame to not go experience it all just because you were there alone.

I just had two great pizza experiences in a row, in the span of a couple of hours, and had only walked a couple of blocks.  John's Pizzeria was a throwback to a classic New York style pizza that

 
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 2
Brad English

Note from Peter: This is Part Two of Brad's recent personal pizza quest in New York City on Bleecker St in Greenwich Village. Following the lead of guest columnist John Arena's dictum that this was the best pizza neighborhood in the country, Brad had quite an interesting adventure and shares it with us here. If you haven't seen Part One, scroll down the page and begin there -- this new posting picks up from where he left off.

As I walked down Bleecker Street in the light rain, I felt satisfied.  I had just had a storybook first pizza at the famous John's Pizzeria.  I would love to have sat there longer, perhaps ordering another beer and continuing to eat more pizza.  I could have easily turned and walked uptown, dropped under the city streets back into the subway that would take me to my hotel.  But, I had a plan.  I was heading down Bleecker Street on my mini pizza quest (or as I used to term it, a Pizzeria Crawl).

I walked down the street and looked over as I passed a bustling Keste Pizzeria and almost couldn't believe I was walking right by it!  As many of you know, this place has been at the top of my list since I first experienced it.  But, I was inspired by John Arena's article and decided that I wanted to seek out something new this night.  Not far down the block I came to Pizza Roma.  I had forgotten about it being Valentine's Day, but I remembered when I saw Pizzeria Roma.  There were hearts on the window, and even a heart shaped pizza on the inside window display.  This place feels more like a small neighborhood bistro, or cafe, and this one was celebrating holiday!

I thought I would stop in at this point and just try a slice and keep walking down the street.  My plan for the night was to hit John's, Roma and Joe's.  I had a hard time cutting my John's trip

 
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 1
Brad English

John Arena recently wrote a Guest Column here on Pizza Quest about one of the best areas in the country to go on a pizza tasting tour, or to engage in a personal pizza quest in one single neighborhood.  He doesn't claim that this is the "best" place to go, lest he start a pizza turf war.  Rather, he defines Greenwich Village, NY as a special place that will deliver some of the best and certainly some of the most diverse and interesting pizzerias in one neighborhood that you will find.  I happened to have been headed back to New York the very same week that we published John's article.  I knew I wouldn't have much free time, but then again, I don't need much of a window to seek out a good slice of pizza while in New York.  I always try my best to find something new, as well as to stop in at some of my other favorite places.  In a city this large the list is always growing - especially, when you only get to come in for a visit a couple times a year. 

John had connected me with Scott Weiner of Scott's Pizza Tours.  We tried to figure out a time to get together, but our schedule's weren't lining up.  When my first moment to escape for some "me time" came I targeted Bleecker Street in the Village, where I could practically crawl to hit some of the top pizzerias in the city in short order.  My hotel had a subway stop only steps from the lobby door.  The #1 train took me to within a block or two of John's of Bleecker where I decided to start.  I had always wanted to go there, but my visits to Bleecker had thus far always taken me straight to Keste (if you've been to Keste, you'll know why I kept returning!).  But, tonight I was following John Arena's lead and was going to try a couple new places that he spoke about.  For a winter's night in New York, it was quite pleasant.  There was a light rain just starting that felt like a little mist as the tiny drops began to hit my face while I walked down the street. 

I got to John's and took a few pictures outside and could see through the windows that the place had a simple charm to it that had been worn in over time.  You quickly see just how worn in it is as you notice the carved wooden booths that so many customers, over so many years, have chosen to "decorate."  I looked over the menu and the long list of pizzas.  These are just starting points, or suggestions.  The menu encourages that you build your pie from scratch.  Each suggestion starts with Cheese, then Tomato Sauce and it goes from there.  A few things popped out at me right away: Anchovies, Sausage and Mushrooms.  It was as if these ingredients came off the page at me from different lines.  I didn't find that exact combination, but stopped looking much beyond my realization that this was the pizza I wanted.

I ordered a beer, a simple salad, my pizza and waited.  As a pizza quester this place, on this night, was perfect.  The pizzeria is old, worn, comfortable in a cozy sort of way and just oozes what a New York Pizzeria is meant to be.  It was raining outside, which always makes being inside just a little better.  It's like that difference between reading a book on your couch, or watching a movie when it's raining outside.  The room was busy.  There were a few larger groups, some smaller ones and some couples gathered around the tables in various configurations just talking, eating pizza and enjoying their night out.  I forgot it was Valentine's day here. It felt like any night in what would otherwise be a small neighborhood pizzeria in any city or small town across the world.  

My pizza came and looked terrific.  It said New York to me.  It was the classic New York style pizza that called back to my childhood memories of what defined what pizza was and should be.  This isn't what I would call street slice pizza that I also loved so much.  The coal fired crust separates it there.  But, it was that simple New York Pizza that so many west coast pizzerias just couldn't seem to reproduce for so many years.  You find a decent one, or a good one once in a while, but it's not the same.  Maybe it is the water?  Or, maybe it's an East Coast/West Coast thing?  This could be an interesting Quest series to tackle some day.

My Pizza...

I rarely get to have anchovies on a pizza at home because my family isn't "down" with the concept.  I'll hide a little in here and there, and sometimes get away with it if I chop them up really fine and sneak them into the sauce below the melted cheese, but that's not really a good idea. When they figure it out, it's bad news!  So, these anchovies were that much better!  This pizza had a perfect balance of ingredients: cheese, tomato sauce, anchovies, sausage and mushrooms.  I can't fail to mention the delicious coal fired crust again!  My pizza was a great example of how the simplest ingredients, combined in balance, can create a truly satisfying meal.

I am not here to review Johns.  I didn't speak to anyone about their ovens, or find anything else out about the place.  I was here to experience it.  I grew up in New Jersey and my pizza benchmark is based on this kind of pizza.  This is the city and the style of pizza that laid the foundation of what would later become this more formal quest.  At some point I remembered I was on a little Greenwich Village pizza crawl here and stopped short of eating the whole pie to save room for then next stop.  Let me tell you, that was tough! Johns on Bleeker St. lived up to it's reputation.  I would love to come back and explore the full range of this place some more in the future.

Next stop -- Pizza Roma....

 
Learning From the Ancients
John Arena

As students of pizza we spend a lot of time trying to uncover the “secrets” of past masters. We are constantly trying to reach back into antiquity with the assumption that there was a “golden age of pizza” and that it is our duty to resurrect these honored traditions. To a certain extent there may be some truth in that belief. But let’s not ignore the possibility that some of our longing for a so called “true” or Vera Pizza may not be as justified as we hope.  I am referring specifically to the ingredients that we select.

Modern modes of transportation have made the world a smaller place It is now much easier to access the ingredients that we assume are being used in Italy. Coupled with that assumption is the belief that ingredients from Italy are of the highest quality and will produce the best pizza. Certainly in many cases the food products of Italy are outstanding, but let’s take a closer look:

We have all used or heard about the celebrated “00” Flour of Campania.  It is usually very good and, for certain applications, it is the right choice for pizza; but don’t make the mistake of

 
The Best Pizza Neighborhood?
John Arena

Answering The Big Question

We are all very lucky that the quest for pizza excellence involves some really interesting and (usually) very tasty field research. In fact, although I grew up in a pizzeria I didn’t really start to understand my craft until I began traveling, observing and, most importantly, eating pizzas around the country and around the world. Those journeys, over more than 40 years of pizza obsession, have not only resulted in memorable food experiences,  they have also been the catalyst for some of my most valued relationships. including a treasured friendship with Jonathon Goldsmith of Chicago’s Spaccanapoli. So, as a fairly well traveled pizza lover, the question I am most often asked is, “Which city has the best pizza?” This is a question that can turn the most timid soul into a valiant defender of civic pride. It is also, in my opinion, the exact WRONG question for an aspiring pizza maker or a motivated pizza veteran to be asking. Let’s face it, taste is subjective and in the modern era just about every city can contain some hidden gems along with a collection of pretenders and old timers resting on their laurels. For me a visit to a place like Home Slice in Austin Texas, with all of its quirky charm, can be as exciting as a trip to one of the venerable pizzerias of Naples.

 

So, let’s put aside the question of “Best” which we know can never really be settled and focus on a more relevant question for those of us looking to make better pizzas. What is the best city to visit if you want to improve your pizza knowledge and experience and even your own skill? The answer to that question can not only provide an interesting destination, it will save you a fortune in international travel and put you on a path to inspired pizza making.

While the world is full of great pizza cities, there is one place that offers a glimpse of our art -- past, present and future. In fact, it is not even a city but a particular neighborhood. In one small enclave within just a 10 minute walk you can experience an evolutionary timeline of pizza making. That place is… Greenwich Village in New York City. OK, I can hear the groans going out from Boston to Phoenix, but remember I am not making a judgment about who has the best pizza. I am simply stating that Greenwich Village is the best place to visit for a one-stop pizza education. Sure Wooster St. in New Haven is the home to several great pizzerias, but they are all doing essentially the same thing. Chicago has, in recent years, developed some real pizza diversity but you would have to travel all over the city to visit them. For shear pizza concentration there is no single place on earth that compares to “the Village”.

Start out at Keste, where they are making traditional Neapolitan pizza that would bring tears to Queen Margherita’s eyes. Roberto Capporuccio’s skill will inspire you with some of the best renditions of the classics and some modern variations that are bringing new life to pizza making in Italy. Step across the street and you are at John’s, the landmark coal oven pizzeria that is a time capsule of the days before cheap slices and a million places named Ray’s became synonymous with New York style pizza. Places like John’s and Arturo’s, another coal-fired place a few blocks away on Houston St., will give you an idea of how pizza started to evolve when it got to America.

If you want to see how the very same thing happened as pizza traveled from Naples to Rome, simply step back across the street to Pizza Roma and experience the wide variety of creative pizza toppings that have taken the Eternal City by storm at places such as Pizzarium. Pizza Roma will verify that culinary self- expression is as common in Italy as it is here. Now walk a few blocks to Joe’s for a great rendition of the classic NY pizza slice. This is terrific example of the post World War Two street slice that is most often associated with New York style pizza. Enjoy their thin crust pizza and, while you are there, grab a slice of “Sicilian” pizza, the thick, square-pan pizza that most closely resembles “housewives” pizza in Italy. If you want to see the pie that inspired that style, walk a few blocks over to Ben’s on the corner of Thompson and Spring St. and order a slice of the “Palermo”. This is one of the true pizzas of Sicily, no mozzarella, just a thick sauce heavy with sweet onions (in the old country they also dissolve some anchovy in the sauce), rich with olive oil and topped with grated cheese and bread-crumbs. In Sicily they call this sfincione, a regional variation that could be considered the grand-mother of pan pizza. Still hungry? Catch a sample of modern international pizza at Slice on Hudson St. where Miki Agrawal is putting a new spin on pizza with healthy pies inspired by her Indian/Japanese heritage.
The whole trip will take one afternoon, give you new insights, fill you up, and save you a fortune in plane fare. More importantly, field trips like this will reinvigorate your personal pizza quest and inspire your own contributions to our craft.

*Pictures courtesy of Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours.

http://www.scottspizzatours.com/

 
Bread as Ferment for Social Change
Michael Hanson

Recently I was asked to talk about bread and baking to a group of Transition Town activists here in the UK. It got me thinking about the importance of bread in creating and shaping  society and community.  I had much to say, the difficulty was in what to leave out.  I came up with the title, “Bread as a Ferment for Social Change.”  I believe Jesus would have known exactly what it meant. Just as Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple he would probably through modern bread out too. With “Occupy” demonstrations springing up all over the world in response to the crisis in global capitalism/materialism I feel that the simple act of companionship needs consideration.

For over seven thousand years bread has been the staff of life in Europe and the Near East, the staple food of our ancestors. The domestication of grain in the fertile crescent heralded the transformation from nomadic to semi –urban pastoralist society. When disparate groups came together to form small villages,  then large towns (the first of which is widely agreed to be Chatal Hayuk in Turkey), the new communities needed organizing. Farming was easy and agricultural laboring was the natural way to be. On the societal and ceremonial level the new urban rulers needed to create larger and larger communal forms of worship in order to keep control.
This is when I believe our ancestors expanded and developed the ancient forms of fertility/Goddess worship practiced throughout the ancient world. Instead of honoring and sacrificing to a pagan God/Goddess they came up with ceremony and ritual based on grain and bread.

So it is only a small leap -- five thousand years or so -- to Jesus’s brand of bread worship. In the West we have largely accepted the modern Christian idea of ceremonially honoring bread through partaking of the “blessed” sacramental host. In the Near East both Islam and Judaism also have deep respect for grain and bread. In my view grain built community, and bread ordered it. Hence bread has become deeply embreaded (sic) in our psyche and symbology.  Bread, dough, and crust are  “seen” as pecuniary compensation;  so in our current economic, political, and societal crisis it seems very apposite that bread is once again being taken seriously.  The Roman Empire declined when its wheat basket around the Medditerrean was lost, creating bread inflation and social unrest in Rome.  Let them eat bread.  Give us this day our daily bread.  As more citizens near “bread line,” the queue for free food grows longer. How long before the Christian church starts to hand out panis benedictus to the poor?

The good news is that people are beginning to wake up, to sense the change. They no longer want to buy  plastic wrapped industrialized pap that ne’r a human hand has touched; through self empowerment and action they are “baking it for themselves.” They want to eat a holier bread made in an honest way; some want to earn an honest crust through baking at home. We should welcome the rise of the home baker.  Eating good bread is a symbol of how you respect yourself and the earth; baking bread is a metaphor for  one's desire to change the way one lives, and in my opinion the simplest, surest, and safest place to start to make that change. The more that people wake up and bake the better. Symbolically  they are throwing off the chains of the Walmartopoly. I just hope that the Occupy Wall Street protestors are not having to make do with gifts of out of date supermarket factory pap, but are  getting the chance to eat real food and bread.
Bread is as good for community today as it’s always been. Companionship is literally the breaking and sharing and eating  of bread with your community. Now, more than ever before, we should be baking and sharing. Jesus may or may not have fed the five thousand with his bread, but the  seeds of ideas certainly did feed their bodies and minds.

Any campaign or movement that encourages people to eat or bake good bread should  be congratulated and supported. Here in the UK we have a burgeoning Real Bread Campaign. In America I understand you too are having a renaissance in real, or artisanal, bread.  Perhaps in two thousand years time  our descendants may even measure time as BAB (Before Artisan Bread) and AAB (After Artisan Bread). Now that would be a legacy.

Pizza Quest Members: Your comments are welcome.

 

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