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Return of the King

March 20, 2018

The Tour de Slice: Schenectady was this past weekend. Every time we go out for one of these eating tours, I’m always surprised and delighted to find there are people who want to come along. Not all tours are as popular as others.

There was the Tour de Italian Sub on one of the hottest days of the year. I may have only received three completed score sheets from that one. The high water mark was our second annual Tour de Cider Donuts where 24 people came out on a cold and rainy fall morning. How many people would come out for New York Style pizza slices?

In the end I came away with 22 completed scoresheets. That’s a significant crowd. What’s even more significant was the margin of victory. It was Pizza King, by a mile. Just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have conducted this tour at all, because when the original Pizza King was still alive, his pizza reigned supreme.

But the shop struggled in his absence, and since then my loyalties have been divided. And frankly, I wasn’t sure who would have the best slice today in Schenectady. What’s interesting is that people found something to love at every stop along the way.

Well, there’s actually a lot that’s interesting.

I should probably back up just a bit and explain a bit more about the tour, where we went, and what we were looking for in a slice of New York Style pizza. Because this tour had a very narrow focus.

The goal was to try and find a great place for a New York Style slice in a tight geographical radius. Given the high standard of pizza in the Electric City, we started there. So a while back, we opened up the floor to nominations and came up with the following list of Schenectady pizza places we expected to have some of the best New York Style thin crust slices.

That would be Pizza King, Isopo’s, Nico’s, Paulie’s, and I Love on Union.

Narrowing the field down to five is never easy. However, there are limits as to how many slices people can reliable evaluate before fatigue sets in.

You can read my detailed thoughts on what makes a great New York Style slice here. But for the sake of the tour we were evaluating the end crust, the bottom crust, the thinness of the slice, the sauce, the cheese, the toppings (if any), and our overall impression of how it all came together.

That toppings category is where things start to get interesting.

Remember how I said I received 22 completed scoresheets? 12 of those evaluators, myself included, decided to judge this contest on the basic cheese slice without any adding toppings. And while 11 out of 22 people on the tour thought Pizza King was the best NY Style slice of the day, it took the top spot from 8 out of the 12 cheese pizza evaluators.

How does that happen? Well, because it was the most flavorful on its own.

Both sauce and cheese got high marks. Mrs. Jon in Albany called out the cheese especially for being enjoyably “stretchy and tasty”. David L. who also gave this cheese slice his highest marks wrote, “Spot on!! Crust was amazing.”

As good as Pizza King was on our visit, it could have been even better. The plan was to get there at 11am, thirty minutes after the shop opened at 10:30. But last Saturday, they were running late. So when we opened, the shop was barely ready for service, let alone a flood of hungry pizza evaluators.

So some participants decided to do the downtown section out of order. And we did our best to stagger our orders for Pizza King. That means some slices were from fresh baked pies and not from reheats, which negatively impacted the score for the slice’s crispy under crust. Steve N wasn’t wowed by his slice and noted, “just moments out of the oven, may have been pulled out too soon. Bottom crust thick and gummy. Sauce and cheese were great. The gumminess brought the whole slice down.”

Moving on to Isopo’s, this was the favorite of two different evaluators, Benjamin M. and Dr. Irritation. Both of them were on team toppings, getting sausage and pepperoni respectively. Both had high praise for the sauce, giving it their highest score in that category for the day, and for the slice’s overall deliciousness.

Others felt there was too much sauce for a New York Style slice, and were disheartened to see the dreaded hashmarks of a pizza screen on the bottom crust. Although one participant tried the Thai Chicken slice and loved it. It was her second favorite slice of the day.

So the lesson here is that if you find yourself at Isopo’s, skip the cheese slice and go for the gusto. Try for something a bit out there, and you might be delighted.

Nico’s was a perfect picture of variability of slices at the same shop at the same time.

Steve N. got his cheese slice minutes after I did. They were both reheats, which is good. But our slices look like could have come from two entirely different pizza places. His was burnished on the top. Mine was pale. What both slices shared was an “ideal thinness” for a New York Style slice. It did that magical thing where the cheese, sauce, and crust combine into one beautiful layer.

Of the three people who voted for Nico’s as their favorite slice of the day, only one went the cheese slice route. Megan B. gave Nico’s her highest marks for toppings on her white broccoli and ricotta pie And having had that slice in the past, I can attest to the “good ricotta” she noted from this shop.

Had these slices spent more time heating up, I think they would have been better. Even people who enjoyed them noted their lack of heat. So don’t be shy about asking for this slice extra hot. And for anyone looking for something super thin, Nico’s is your spot.

It should be noted, that their whole pies to eat in or for delivery are entirely different creatures, with a much thicker crust, heavier coating of cheese, and a more liberal application of sauce. Personally, I would argue the whole pies at Nico’s are more delicious, but we can save that argument for another time.

Next, it was time to head back to the cars for the short drive up to Paulie’s on the north side of Schenectady. I had never been to that part of town before, but this little shop looked like it was wedged into the downstairs of a corner house.

Both Alex C. and his girlfriend rated this stop as their favorite slice. They were both team toppings, going for the sausage at Paulie’s. But it wasn’t the sausage that drove them to rank this as their top spot, but rather much of their love was based on the end crust and the cheese.

Actually, there were a lot of positive things said about this slice, but it was decidedly not the New York Style thin crust we were looking for. That said, as far as brick oven pizza goes, it was tasty stuff.

Our final stop was I Love on Union Street. Going by the numbers, only four evaluators ranked this as their favorite slice, and three of them were evaluating just cheese slices. But the numbers don’t tell the full story. Because for many reviewers it was nearly a dead heat between Pizza King and I Love. Ultimately, I Love came in a close second place.

Where I Love succeeded was in the crispness of its bottom crust, its thinness, and its flavorful cheese. Even Brian S. who was evaluating sausage pies and prefers loose sausage to sliced, ranked I Love the highest despite mounds and mounds of thinly sliced sausage. Jon in Albany had this shop at the top of his list “because of the texture, crust, and cheese.” But he thought it could benefit with a bit more sauce.

It should be said, there is a lot of variability among pizza shops.

Even at my favorite slice place back in Berkeley. Sometimes the slices were brilliant, other times they were just quite good. On this outing, there was tremendous variability even pie to pie. Whatever the reason may have been, I have had better slices from these shops in the past. Perhaps it was a factor of overwhelming shops with such a large group, or maybe they couldn’t get their best people to come work on Saint Patrick’s Day.

In the end, as always, this was an eye opening experience to taste five different slices of pizza in short order. It makes you think, and evaluate the things that are most important when it comes to personal preferences. Ultimately, for me, it came down to flavor over texture. Which I found surprising. But the taste, fattiness, and melting properties of the cheese also came into play, especially as it came to the flavor of the overall slice.

But I’m such a crust guy, that it killed me to vote against my regular slice shop—I Love on Union Street—that consistently delivers a thin, crisp, bottom crust with great color.

What can I tell you, Pizza King was simply delicious, and it warms my heart to see them rise to the top of the pack. Just make sure, no matter what, you ask them to crisp up the bottom of your slice. Even if it literally just came out of the oven.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Benjamin Maggi permalink
    March 20, 2018 11:45 am

    It was a fun time all around. Thanks for putting it together. And it is a shame that we couldn’t all take pictures of our pizza, as the differences in some slices from the same place at the same time were as different as night and day.

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