There is nothing more satisfying, more perfect, or even more mystifying, than a perfect slice of pizza. When done properly, pizza contains the perfect blend of chewy textures, combined with salty, acidic and smokey flavors, all in a food you can eat with your hands. And it’s cheap!
However, finding that perfect slice is much more daunting than you’d think. It’s such a simple food, with only a few ingredients, that you would think it wouldn’t be so hard to find, but if you really believe that, you’re probably from the Midwest and you’re wrong.
The great thing about truly good pizza is that it’s still a mystery. Is it the water, the dough, the oven, the cheese, the sauce? Yes. And at the same time, a resounding no.
At its most basic, pizza is dough (flour, water, salt, yeast) tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. But a lot more goes into it than you’d think.
A lot of people theorize that the reason you can’t get good pizza, bagels, or even bread, west of the Mississippi, is that the water is too alkaline.
Others argue that a pizza oven that has been operating almost non stop for decades imparts it’s own special flavors to the pie.
The sauce can make or break a pie for me, but that’s largely a matter of taste. Sweet versus savory.
And mozzarella really is for the most part, just mozzarella.
What I think everyone agrees on, at the very least, is that it’s all about the crust, which means it’s all about the dough.
For the record, we’re talking about pizza here. Not that doughy casserole they serve with a straight face in Chicago. We’re talking thin crust pizza, invented in Naples, Italy, perfected in New York City, and made every day in thousands of pizzerias from Boston to Philadelphia.
New York has always been the epicenter of good Pizza in America, but in recent years it has gotten even more distilled to the borough of Brooklyn, where they make pizza that will make you change how you think about life.
On a recent trip, we had pizza at three different places in Brooklyn. These were specialty spots, not just a corner pizza places selling slices. The crust was always the right blend of light and airy, yet still somehow dense and chewy. Smokey from the wood fire. The sauce wasn’t too sweet and the cheese had just the right amount of salt, which means just slightly less than too much. It was mind melting.
Up until then my two favorite places to get pizza in the world were Don Pepi’s in Penn Station, NYC, and D’Antonio in Orlando, Florida. Neither are obvious and they differ in terms of style.
Let’s start with the more obvious choice in New York. The sign simply says PIZZA. You order a slice or two and a soda, pay, then grab your soda an wait. A few minutes later two piping hot slices as big as your face get slid over on two thin paper plates. In New York, more often than not, you eat a slice while standing. It’s in essence street foot.
A quick word about the value of buying a slice, as opposes to a whole pizza. Nothing is better than a slice. The reason being, is that the pizza is fully cooked once. Then allowed to cool, then heated up again. This gives the crust an extra mount of crispiness that is delightful. I’ve often wanted to order a whole pie this way, but never had the guts to ask.
“I’d like to order a large, cheese pizza. Can you cook it, take it out, let it cool somewhere inconvenient, then heat it up again?”
Pizzeria chefs are not particularly patient people. I think they’d either hang up on me, or show me the door.
My other favorite places is an Italian restaurant in the Disney manufactured village of Celebration, just outside of Orlando. It’s called D’Antonio. I used to do some consulting work for Disney and when I stayed in Orlando, there was this great boutique hotel in Celebration called The Bohemian. Two blocks away was D’Antonio so I could walk there.
I would come in, sit at the bar, order a bottle of wine and a pizza and just moan.
There were times I knew they were closing, and I would call from the airport or the cab and have them make me a pizza and deliver it to the hotel. Another time I came in near the end of the night and the bartender informed me that they had just turned the pizza oven off. I was crestfallen. I didn’t make a fuss, but my disappointment was palatable. The chef in the back heard me, came out and said, “I’ll make you a pizza.”
I was so happy I tipped him $20. The bartender tried to dissuade me, “No, that’s too much.”
“Hey didn’t have to do anything. He went out of his way for me. He deserves it.”
So what’s so great about this pizza? I’m not really sure. It’s got exactly the right ratio of cheese to sauce. You can’t have too much cheese and the sauce can’t be too sweet. It’s got little strips of basil sprinkled on top. It’s very salty. And the crust has just the right amount of smokey, chewy flavors. It’s fucking banging I tell you.
If you’re just having a slice, a fountain soda is perfectly acceptable. But if you’re planning on sitting down, then either Chardonnay or Champagne are the perfect accompaniment. I don’t know the science behind it, but you can never go wrong with cheese and Chardonnay or Champagne.
I’m pretty much a pizza purist, so I rarely order any toppings. Especially if I’m trying a place for the first time. I like a new school Margherita pizza, meaning it looks like a regular pizza but you add basil to the top. I don’t like the style where it’s sauce with dollops of mozzarella. I want the cheese, while not too heavy, to cover the whole pie.
I’ve tried to make good pizza at home and it’s okay. Everyone says it’s great, but I can’t get anywhere near the level of pizza that I want.
I even bought a Big Green Egg, at least partly because you can get the sucker up over 750° and make pizza. But it’s hard to do. Easy to burn. Both the pizza and all the hair off your arms.
I swear I made better pizza back when we used to live in this rented house in North Cape May. Shitty electric oven and city water. But pretty damn good pizza. Now I have a nice gas oven and well water.
It’s got to be the water.