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A Slice of New York

May 13, 2009

Let’s talk about New York style, thin crust pizza.  I approach this topic with great trepidation, because everyone has their own take on the subject.  Everyone has their favorite places, and the places they would never set foot in.  Let’s not go there.

I view NY Pizza as street food.  You are walking down the street, feeling a little hungry, and you can grab a slice for sustenance.  A pizza parlor should have a counter, so you can eat in the shop, either standing up or atop a stool.  Actual seats and tables are optional.  The service should be brisk and no nonsense.  People are in a hurry.  If that means the staff is surly, so be it.  Maybe they will have paper plates, but most likely you’ll get the goods on a sheet of wax paper.

So here is what I have come to look for in a pizza joint.
First, almost by definition, it has to be a slice shop.  I have just recently come to the realization that I prefer slices to whole pies anyway.  When slices get reheated, the bottom crust gets crisped in a way that is much more satisfying than a fresh pie.  But I digress.  What good is a pizza joint if they make the best pizza, and you can’t eat it on the go?

Every component piece needs to pull its weight.  Each has the ability to add something.  But all three, the crust, the sauce, and the cheese need to work with each other without one ingredient outshining the others.

The crust has to be super-thin; the bottom cracker crisp.  Not that the crust should be like a cracker, because that would be so incredibly wrong.  The crust needs to be yeasty, with good chew and flavor on its own.  Eating the crust around the edge should not be a burden, or a chore.  The idea of throwing the crust away should be inconceivable. When the crust is done right, it is this combination of crisp and yeasty that enables a slice to be properly folded for increased portability.

It seems odd to say this, thinking that it should be obvious, but the sauce should be savory, not sweet.  It needs to be flavorful, but thin, without chunks or bits to disrupt the thinness of the slice.  I like more of a bright tomato flavor versus a stewed tomato paste, but balance is key.

And finally, the cheese needs to taste like cheese.  It should add a salty punch and enough grease to carry the rest of the flavors and coat the lips and tongue.  Far too often the cheese used on pizza is absolutely tasteless.  It’s a crime.  If you are going to take the fat and calorie hit for a cheese-drenched food, the cheese should be worth a damn.  The other common flaw is that the cheese is applied with a far too heavy hand.

When a NY slice is perfect, all three of these components blend together seamlessly.  The crisp crust is on the bottom and the burnished golden cheese is on the top.  But when you take a bite, there is no clear delineation of where the yeasty part of the crust ends and the cheese begins.  The sauce fuses heaven and earth into a tasty amalgamation of umami.  It is almost like the God Shot for espresso junkies.  Even a pizza joint that can do it right may not do it right every time.  Consistency is the enemy of brilliance.

Toppings shmoppings.  If you can find a slice this good, toppings only get in the way.  I’ll allow for a few shakes of cheese to soak up the grease, a dash of pepper flakes if you like it spicy, and a sprinkle of garlic or herbs if that’s your poison.

Pizza with toppings is a different matter entirely.  For that, you’ll need to go to Connecticut.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. brownie permalink
    May 13, 2009 3:39 pm

    You’ve commented on the one food that I can say falls within my level of expertise, and hit it head on. Well played. My notes:

    First, no one should go to Connecticut if they can avoid it.

    Second, while you’re going into calorie debt, tossing on a topping can enhance the experience. Salty and meaty does the trick, and is the only choice for slices from the counter.

    Last, there’s no discussion here of cold pizza, which is understandable in the context of “grabbing a slice.” However, I find day-old refrigerator pizza to be quite rewarding, in which the qualities above must still apply but too crisp a bottom crust can yield a sharp, flaky mess. Toppings enhance this experience so long as they’re flexible enough in their cold state to be folded prior to consumption.

    But what the hell do I know? I had to Google umami.

  2. May 13, 2009 9:58 pm

    Dan,
    Discussion came up while waiting online for Dino BBQ yesterday, re: regional styles/variations, e.g. bbq, pizza, etc, and the corollary of “universal” tastes. Malcolm Gladwell wrote up why “Heinz is ketchup” and other brands are “not”.

    http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html

    PS: Umami is a key.

    • May 16, 2009 10:28 pm

      Thank you for the link. It’s all very interesting.

      I try — very hard — to remember that taste is a subjective thing (Mr. Gladwell’s example aside). Luckily for BBQ we have a few tangible markers to look for in determining quality: the presence of a smoke ring, the rendering of the fat, the juiciness of the meat, the cleanness of the bone, etc.

  3. May 14, 2009 4:04 pm

    OH MY GOSH.

    I am so glad I already had dough rising for pizza tonight, otherwise I would have had to quickly make plans to eat pizza!

  4. Vanessa permalink
    May 17, 2009 9:01 am

    I have recently been turned on to Marissa’s Pizza. It’s dee-lish, closest thing to a NY Slice that I have had since moving to ALB. Right off of Western onto Rt 155, 1st plaza on the right…no delivery. Try it you’ll like it.

  5. October 20, 2009 9:48 pm

    I think you’re making too many rules here. There’s one, and only one, ingredient that makes a slice great: Love.

    • October 20, 2009 11:06 pm

      There was no love at Arinell’s. And hate is too strong of a word. Maybe disdain is more accurate. But those men once made the best slice I ever had.

      Same thing goes for my favorite espresso jockey. She had the whole thing down. Down. And the whole time she was pulling seriously perfect double ristrettos, she was the picture of ennui.

      I know what you are trying to say. And to some extent it’s true. But there are also plenty of people who are full of love but empty in skill. And their small independent pizzerias are boarded up in cities all over the country.

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