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.