Like many of my trips to New York, the February 2012 visit was centered around art, hockey, friends, and food – the later two taking center stage this time around (but obviously not precluding a day in the Chelsea Galleries and my first visit to Newark’s Prudential Center) and like my previous visit kicking off with a pizza crawl – this time in Manhattan and with a group nearly twice the size of the Brooklyn crawl one year prior. With faces and friends both new and old a map of six spots was charted to sample pizzas equally diverse as the crowd doing the sampling and with an early flight I even managed breakfast before meeting up with the crew at our first destination, a slice shop called Maffei on 6th Avenue, at 11:00am.
With the group beginning small and growing in size as we progressed only four of us were present on arrival to Maffei – perhaps a good thing as our eventual party of 8 would have had difficulty fitting in the small confines – and with at least 6 men working the counter we were greeted pleasantly but also with a focus on expediting the order and after weighing our options for a moment 4 slices were decided upon – two Margherita slices, one Margherita with Sausage, and a “Grandma” slice – all of which were pre-prepared and ready to be popped into the large oven for finishing as we paid the tab and waited at the small countertop only to see Shock-Jock Howard Stern walk in, collect a large bag, exchange some pleasantries with the staff, and exit after settling the tab.
Waiting for a mere 5 minutes before a burly fellow behind the counter called out our orders I have to admit I was already skeptical seeing the pies sitting out and although now hot with melted cheese after a trip to the oven I can’t say the finished product was much more inspiring on visual inspection – a bit more tan, I guess – and taking a bite I think the look on my friend’s face told the same story as my tastebuds…boring. Beginning first with the crust – dull, white, slightly pliable yet doughy – and then moving to the toppings including bland tomatoes but surprisingly fresh basil and decent-if-not-inspiring mozzarella there was certainly enough here to justify the $2 price but not enough flavor to encourage me to finish it. Faring better, the two bites I had of the Grandma slice proved to have a nice dough to sauce ratio with plenty of tomato flavor but just a bit too much sugar – certainly not DiFara good, but then again not L&B bad either. An important stop on the tour if only to experience a “traditional New York slice” all I can really say is that this simply isn’t my style of pie, I don’t get why the Serious Eats Pizza Blog raves it, and if Mr. Stern would like to pay me I’m pretty sure I can bake him a better pizza in any home oven with better ingredients at less cost.
With the weather sunny and sixty and our group now five (picking up a sixth en route to our second destination) we headed next up 6th Avenue and over to 9th arriving at Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey’s Co. literally minutes after the restaurant opened its doors and with a hostess just finishing hanging the afternoon’s menu we were invited in, greeted by a young man in jeans and a t-shirt, and seated at the communal table – the only one large enough for our group – where menus sat waiting. With half of our group having already visited Co in the past while myself and the others from the Brooklyn crawl had not yet had the opportunity we quickly began to scan the pizza options (while also attempting to ignore the other intriguing menu options) while The Shins and Modest Mouse played overhead and the restaurant slowly began to fill.
A large space with a semi-open kitchen, bare wood tables, and comfortable seating our server returned to check in on us after a few moments and before taking drink orders he suggested one pizza or plate per person and also presented the daily specials – a salad, an appetizer, a pizza, and a dessert before procuring our beverages and giving us a moment to make our final decisions; 3 pizzas and no appetizers in total given the long day ahead of us – all three of which were confirmed as “great choice” or “my favorite” before heading back to the kitchen where Lahey and his team were stoking the wood fired oven.
Told that each pizza only needs to cook for approximately 90 seconds it was really no surprise when our troika of pies emerged from the kitchen and landed on our table less than fifteen minutes after walking through the door and with each bubbling, charred, and uneven yet elegant the toughest choice was figuring out where to start – though the kitchen taking the liberty of dividing each pie into six slices and setting the daily special directly in front of me certainly helped. Obviously when considering the work of a well respected baker making pizza the first aspect Co’s pies to strike me was the crust – not as thick as a pan but not as thin as a Neapolitain I absolutely loved each bite; chewy, yeasty, bubbly, blistered, and full of textural variation secondary to his overnight fermented no-knead process…honestly, it was a revelation and perhaps the best I’ve ever had even if it isn’t truly “conventional.”
Moving next to the toppings, with each pie featuring each ingredient in plethora my tasting began with “Morcilla & Apple Pie with Bechamel, Mozzarella, Gruyere, Sweet Onion, Tarragon, Lemon Zest” and following the concept laid out in his book – common things and uncommon things plus a variety of cheeses I’ll simply note this was beautiful…the blood sausage crumbly, the apples sweet, the cheeses all working in concert to form a creamy base and the onions and spices present but not overwhelming – particularly the lemon zest which seemed to amplify the spice from the Morcilla.
Moving next to the standard Margherita with Tomato, Mozzarella, Basil, Parmesan, it would be the mostly lightly adorned of the Margheritas we would sample during the crawl but with the quality of the dough and the freshness of the Mozzarella and Basil one could hardly complain. Low on acid, bright on tomato, and without any sugar the flavor reminded me fondly of the pie at Una Pizzeria in San Francisco (or formerly Manhattan) but without the characteristic creaminess of Buffala Mozzarella (or the $25 price tag.)
Last but certainly not least, “Ham & Cheese with Pecorino, Gruyere, Mozzarella, Prosciutto, Caraway” again fit that concept of three cheeses, perfect crust, and light seasoning but this time topped it all off with a thin veil of briny prosciutto – a veritable Croque Monsieur on a crust and absolutely delicious. With one member of our table a vegetarian and one professing to dislike ham I ended up with two and a half slices of this pie and all things being equal would probably consider it my second favorite non-traditionally topped pie of the afternoon – no small feat considering the fact that we tried 15 total pizzas that day and in the end I think one of my dining buddies summed up Co. best when he said “if someone said ‘let’s go get some pizza’, I wouldn’t think of this place…. if someone said, ‘let’s go to Co.’, I’d happily oblige.”
With our next two stops on Bleecker Street we proceeded down 9th Avenue arriving at John’s just after 1pm to find no line and now joined by a seventh we entered the 80+ year space to find it busy and loud, but thankfully with a large table in the back room ready for immediate seating. Having heard mixed things about John’s but feeling it requisite to the crawl in order to sample some old fashioned Coal Fired Pizza I was admittedly not expecting much walking in the door and literally from the moment we were seated in the hot and cramped room I got precisely what I anticipated.
With hard wooden chairs, Formica tables, paper napkins, and silverware and cups nearly identical to our hospital cafeteria already present on sitting it would be mere moments before our server would arrive to drop off the old-school “no slices” menu and taking her leave but quickly returning her demeanor was poor from the start but took a decided turn for the worse when we placed our order – a single 16” pie for the table – and while I certainly understand the frustration as a group of seven likely usually generates a substantial tip such an attitude in a ‘service’ industry is never excusable, regardless of situation.
Softening the blow by ordering a few adult beverages as we sat in the midst of the hot dry air browsing a décor that fit somewhere between wood paneling, graffiti, and Jerry Garcia it would be only approximately twenty minutes before someone would thankfully open the door to let in some air and another five minutes later our pie arrived directly from the large coal oven at the end of the room and while I have to say the size and presentation were impressive enough the pizza itself most certainly was not – 8 foldable slices of flavorless doughy crust (why use coal if it doesn’t impart that anticipated coal flavor,) oily cheese, and overly sugared tomato sauce that begged not only for any semblance of nuance or spice but also for an answer to the question of how or why a place with rude service, sub-par pie, abysmal seating conditions, and a mandatory 20% tip (at least for our party) has generated lines for so many years in a city that has so many other great pizzas – at least at Maffei, Ray’s, or even Sbarro you can get a slice and leave.
Making good time but at this point only 1 for 3 in terms of quality pizzas the tour would turn for the better walking across Bleecker Street to Keste, perhaps the most well regarded Neapolitain spot in town and given our time of arrival – too late for lunch, too early for dinner – we were again met with no line and seated immediately. With our group again six but soon to reach eight and only one table in the small restaurant capable of handling such a crew we were led all the way through the space by a pleasant young man and eventually seated at a long horizontal table perpendicular to the chef’s counter…and directly next to the jovial and boisterous Jacques Torres – apparently a “big” fan of Keste and even more so of their Nutella dessert pie.
With menus presented and no less than ten pizzas plus a calzone quickly catching my interest Keste would present the first spot of the day where making a decision was truly a challenge but assuming 1/2 pie per person we opted for three (plus a fourth when another couple joined our group) and with orders placed spent the next ten to fifteen minutes chatting amongst ourselves, with the piazziolos (or at least the friendly – and easy on the eyes – young woman of the group,) and browsing the brick, wood, and soft yellow space while pies entered and exited the tile oven at a rate of one or two every couple of minutes.
With the six of us chatting and myself with a great view of the oven I was happy to watch each pie’s construction – all with the same hand stretched crust that would come out thin, crisp, blistered, and crisp with a soggy center – and with some topped before the oven and others finished upon exit it would not be long before our trio would arrive. Having already mentioned the crust – a dead ringer for the neapolitain pies at Motorino but not quite as wowing as Lucali – where Keste really upped the ante was in the toppings; all not just fresh, but truly of the highest quality and beginning first with the “Regina Margherita” featuring sweet San Marzanos, Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella from Italy, Hand torn Basil, Grassy Olive Oil, and as a bonus impossibly ripe Grape Tomatoes unlike any I’ve seen in February. If a Margherita is the true measure of a pizzeria’s pie this was one heck of a yard stick.
Moving next to our more decorate options, the “Ortolana” was selected based on our vegetarian colleague and my love of artichoke hearts and with the same outstanding tomatoes this time even brighter due to a less heady house made Mozzarella the pie was completed with Mushrooms, Artichokes, and Scallions – all blistered but moist and flavorful – plus a hefty pour of olive oil. This pie was so raved that when our seventh and eight members arrived a second was ordered.
Finally, and a true case of “last but not least,” the restaurant’s namesake “Keste” started the same as the Regina with Tomatoes, Basil, Olive Oil, and Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella but on exiting the oven received some special treatment in the form of freshly cut Prosciutto di Parma, spicy hand torn Arugula, and bold Pecorino Gran Cru – the overall sum a bit saline to be sure but all told very nicely balanced by the vegetal crunch of the arugula; a trick we would see again later in the day but far more effective at Keste largely due to the quality of the ingredients, the lovely blistered crust, and the scene itself – my only regret in retrospect being that we did not take Mr. Torres advice an order that Nutella pie.
Forward we marched, now as a group of eight we approached our next stop on Mulberry Street after passing by Torrisi and Parm (no line at 3pm, fyi) and I have to admit the folks at Rubirosa had me fooled – everything about the space, the website, and the cuisine had me convinced it had been there for ages yet in fact this was not the case at all and in fact although the building itself is indeed old the restaurant itself had been open for just over a year, racking up serious acclaim along the way.
Declared on the menu and the website to represent a “family-run neighborhood Italian-American restaurant and pizzeria” and owned/operated by a group of men with a resume including Esca, Circo, and Staten Island’s Joe and Pat’s we entered Rubirosa to find the updated interior clearly harkening an earlier age and with a few stragglers from lunch at the bar but the restaurant otherwise patronless we were led through the bar area to the back dining room featuring a semi open kitchen, knick-knacks galore, wooden tables, and pressed tin ceilings plus framed pictures in black and white again pointing to an earlier time.
Seated comfortably at a table easily big enough for ten our server, a young thin fella with a decidedly non-Italian accent, would stop by and drop off menus and take our water orders – tap for some, sparkling for others – before disappearing to the back and returning shortly to present the daily specials and see if we had any questions…something we did not have for him, but rather for one another as we debated abandoning our pizza-only crawl and eventually did so opting for three plates and two pizzas that we were told would take “about twenty minutes” – more a full-fledged Italian Eatery than pizza parlor we were even asked if we would like bread, something we thankfully declined as I’m sure I’d have taken up valuable space.
With none of us hungry but certainly not full either given the pace of the afternoon, walking, and sharing it was no problem that our pizzas took longer than anticipated and just shy of thirty minutes after seating our entire order would arrive at once including a nondescript (space filler) green salad that sat at the far end of the table, two enormous 16” pies divided into 8 slices each, a Panini, and a quartet of rice balls – the latter of which began my tasting and although a bit less bold or briny than I’d have expected a very respectable rice ball replacing the traditional beef admixture with creamy mascarpone, heady fontina, and small bits of prosciutto along with toothsome rice all beneath a golden and shockingly greaseless shell.
Skipping the salad entirely as one came paired with the sandwich, the daily special Duck Panini with Fig Moustard and Fennel would prove to be not only quite tasty but also the bargain of the afternoon at a mere $7.95. Featuring easily 4oz of sliced rosemary roasted duck breast draped over crisp olive oil drizzled and pan seared golden ciabatta the base of the sandwich alone was worth the price, but what really impressed was the deft balance woven by the crunchy pickled fennel and the intensely sweet house made fig compote – a sweet meets savory pairing that highlighted the duck’s subtle sapor without overwhelming it at all.
With bites of the appetizers being passed while others delved into the pizzas it would not be long before I sank my teeth into a slice of Rubirosa’s “51-year old family recipe” crust and with three choices to select from I started simply with a slice of the classic topped with nothing but crushed tomato sauce and lightly aged Mozzarella – a simple pairing that really allowed me to appreciate the crust – ultra thin to the point of truly being “cracker thin” – with a bit of chew at the center and plenty of crunch at the edge plus a slight bit of char; a well constructed classic quite different from the rest of our crawl and although not my personal style as I prefer a bit more chew and rise to the crust, quite good.
Moving next to a split pie, one half with spicy Vodka sauce and the other with ample amounts of arugula, cherry tomato, and parmesan plus a light touch of red onion and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar we experienced the same crust here but perhaps a little less crisp this time with notes of what I believe were cornmeal coming through while the toppings were, at least for myself, a bit less successful than I’d have hoped; the vodka sauce a bit too heavily peppered but creamy and otherwise well spiced while the pile of salad was just that – a tepid salad with nice crunch laid atop hot crust and not melded to it as with the case at Keste. Admittedly a favorite of some on the crawl, particularly those with a soft spot for thin crust, I have to say I liked Rubirosa but if I went back I’d stick to the classic pie and order some pasta and antipasti before venturing too far astray on the pizzas.
For our final stop of the afternoon we lost one man leaving us with a party of seven walking from Mulberry to Bowery and with our arrival at Forcella we *almost* hit our first roadblock – the time was 4:35 and unbeknownst to us the new Manhattan location closes down to reset for dinner service from 4:30 to 5:30pm. Obviously not starving after a long day of eating and more than willing to wait even when taking into consideration my dinner plans in 3 hours at Brushstroke we all assented to the wait (even considering a sidetrack for another pie on Bowery) only to subsequently be asked to ‘wait one minute’ by the hostess who would in fact also turn out to be our stellar waitress, while she checked with the Pizzaiolo who told her to go ahead and seat us – he’d be “glad” to cook for us.
With the space newly renovated to the point of sparkling floors, tables, and even chandeliers while a large tile oven dominated the center of the room our group was seated at one of the two eight-tops up front, near the floor-to-ceiling windows, and having already mentioned our server I cannot really overemphasize how happy, helpful, and smiling everyone at Forcella was during our visit. With menus presented as we chuckled at the flyers on the table requesting our vote for “Best New Pizzeria” in one of the local papers our waters were filled and left to our decisions we decided once again to go with three pies – an order our server suggested was too small until we told her about the day thus far, at which point she stated she was disappointed she was not invited before returning to the kitchen telling us we’d made “great” choices.
Sitting and talking as we waited I took the opportunity to walk through the empty restaurant and after chatting with our server a bit about the previous five stops I then spent a few minutes watching the Pizzaiolo work – premade dough balls stored in tight bins, hand stretched, one taking a quick bath in the deep fryer, then topped with ingredients from a variety of sealed containers before a quick two minutes in the oven…everything done with great rapidity and skill, the whole process from start to finish literally less than 5 minutes in the case of the least complicated and no more than fifteen minutes from the time we placed our order to the time the plates hit our table.
Having already violated the “pizza only” rule at Rubirosa but trying to adhere to the script a bit more closely at Forcella (though the antipasti did sound delicious) since the kitchen was on break and they’d so graciously agreed to re-fire up the oven all three of our selections would arrive in close succession and with every one having emerged from the 1000 degree imported Acunto oven only moments prior the pies were all literally radiating heat on arrival – a good thing to be sure, though admittedly a test of subpar patience in a person who’d scalded the roof of their mouth twice already that day, but thankfully after snapping pictures and converting the quartered pizzas into smaller portions everything was ready to eat.
Beginning first with what was technically a non-pizza option, the house made Calzone with Smoked Mozzarella, Soppressata, and Ricotta featured the same dough as the pizza pies, but folded once over and sealed I particularly enjoyed the pillowy texture of the lightly blistered dough in this form where the exterior was crunchy and firm while the inside was wispy and wet. Topped with just a touch of tomato sauce plus crispy basil leaves and then lightly coated on the interior with the same before being absolutely stuffed with hot pepper and fennel laced salami plus creamy pockets of mozzarella juxtaposing more dense and textural ricotta this was not only a nice start to the meal but a good indicator of things to come.
Moving next to a dish I couldn’t resist the moment I saw it on the menu, the “Vomero” would arrive as a racket shaped pizza with a dense, puffy, and lightly blistered crust at the edges but substantial wetness at the center topped with Homemade Mozzarella, Ham, Cream, Corn, and Ricotta. Having fallen in love with corn as a pizza topping in both Ohio and California but having never seen it used so adeptly in the setting of so much cream and cheese I can only say that of all the pizzas we had that afternoon this is the one I’ll remember most fondly – it was sweet, it was salty, it was creamy, and although unconventional in nearly every way it was utterly delicious.
Moving last to what is without a doubt Forcella’s most talked about option there was obviously no way we were leaving without trying the Montanara and as much as I wasn’t sure how the idea of a fried pizza would work I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when I saw the pizzaiolo drop the stretched dough into the fryer for a mere twenty seconds before removing it, shaking it, patting off the excess grease with a cheesecloth, and topping it with Tomato Sauce, Homemade Mozzarella, and Basil before sending it to oven. Having already mentioned the quality of the cheese and sauce as relates to the Calzone – both as good as one would expect from a high end Neapolitan spot in Manhattan – the star here was undoubtedly the crust and although not *substantially* different from other places on our crawl the flash frying effect was certainly notable adding another degree of crunch to the dough without weighting it down while also firming up the center slightly and allowing for even more bubbly blister to the outside ring with minimal char – another great pizza variation in a day filled with many and a fitting end to a crawl with many hits, few misses, and a great time with friends old and new experiencing flavors equally diverse.