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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The East Village Pizza Contest

It all begin with a simple e-mail. One in our small group of friends sent an innocent message to everyone, "wanna get together Saturday?" Everyone quickly replied that they were available, and then came the debate about what we should do. Some suggested dinner and drinks ("check open table for a Saturday night party of 7 reservation?"), others simplified it to just drinks, but we were all kind of sick of the bar. Finally, someone suggested, "just come over to our apartment in the East Village, and we'll order some pizza and have some wine." The East Village has sooo many great pizza options that it was hard to select just one place. No, we needed to do a sampling of all the best pizzerias in the East Village, and then decide who made the best pie - so a contest was born.

Here were our contenders:
Motorino - mushroom pie - Motorino is well-known for strict Neapolitan style pies, with char-spotted soft crust and soft mozzarella.
Eleven B - plain pie - This was suggested for the typical NY style pizzeria. Soft, thin crust, nothing fancy.
Artichoke Basille - signature Artichoke pie and vodka sauce pie - Their signature pie is meant to replicate an artichoke dip appetizer translated into pizza form.

The logistics were nerdishly exciting. Several different people placed several different seamless orders on their phones, and then we had some wine to pass the time until the buzzer rang. We had a total of 4 buzzer alerts signaling the arrival of the next pizza, and each time was a thrill!

First up: Motorino delivered very quickly. They have a very hot oven, so their smallish pies cook up nice and fast. We each grabbed a slice of the earthy mushroom pizza, and soaked up the umami balanced against a puffy light crust. 

Eleven B was next. I wasn't expecting much to be honest, but with a little spark of garlic salt, this pizza was a very fine example of the NY style that most of us grew up enjoying at their parents' kitchen tables and friends' birthday parties. Really, this was the perfect comfort food.

Artichoke Basille came last, both pies slathered in their respective sauces and cheese. I had tried a slice of Artichoke pizza before, and I had about 4 bites of it before I deemed it way too heavy to finish (this is saying a lot for me). I should have learned my lesson the first time. I know people rave about it, and conceptually this translation of artichoke dip and baguette SHOULD work. But again, I was overloaded with the heaviness of it. However, their vodka sauce pizza was great! Tons of creamy vodka sauce, oozing with cheese, this messy pie had enough tomato acidity to cut through the rest of the rich ingredients.

So the winner? Alas, it was difficult. But I went with my instincts, and declared the winner Eleven B. It's always great to try something different than what I'm used to, but the classic NY plain pie is always going to have a special place in my heart.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cheesy Chiang Mai (with a side of antibiotics)

This past November, my husband and I took a long trip to an exotic faraway land in Southeast Asia: Thailand. We enjoyed noodle dishes, homemade curries, fresh whole grilled fish on the beach, and of course pizza.

Welllll, I wouldn't say I 100% enjoyed the pizza there, which I know, I know, is shocking.

But let's back up to earlier that day. We were halfway through our trip, and were spending a long weekend in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Northern Thailand is beautiful, with green jungles and mountains, rice paddies, and even the stifling heat and humidity of the south and Bangkok is muted by comparison. Many people come to Chiang Mai to "trek" (hike) through the jungles and walk through the peaceful rivers; my husband and I were no different. Since we are city-folk with minimal outdoorsy survival skills (and gear), I figured a one-day trek would be fine. And of course, as a reward for our calorie burning efforts, I chose this day as the perfect day to reward ourselves with a nice big pizza. Remember - it is my travel rule that I have to try the local pizza in every country!

We hiked a good 4 hours in the morning, then sat down to lunch at a picnic table with a local hill tribe family. Without electricity, indoor plumbing and thus proper hand-washing facilities, and utensils, I cannot imagine the filth I must have eaten. The food we ate was scrumptious: perfectly cooked sticky rice, fried chicken, local Chiang Mai spicy sausage, and some ripe juicy pineapple. Regardless, about ten minutes after eating, I was blacking out dizzy, having stomach cramps, and our trek guides were shoving a eucalyptus inhaler into my nostrils to relieve the nausea.

While I felt better after a few minutes, periodic stomach cramps persisted, and it became obvious that I could not continue on with the hike. One of our guides drove me to a riverbank, where I rested and waited for the rest of the hikers to join me. After a while, I began to feel a little better, and my stomach stopped hurting completely. Our guides drove us back to our hotel, and we arrived in our room around dinnertime.

Now I should have taken the day's events as a warning. I should have been gentle to my stomach, drank some gatorade, had some rice for dinner, and slept for like 12 hours.


I still decided I wanted - no, NEEDED to try the Thai pizza. I had even done some research before our trip, and found a place called Pizza n Pasta, a NY-style pizzeria in the old walled city of Chiang Mai that was owned by a western expat. Besides, I hadn't had any stomach cramps in several hours, so my magnificently resilient disposition must have recovered. My husband tried to stop me, but it was too late, as the idea had already been cemented in my brain. He went out to pick up the pizza, and for good measure, I asked him to pick me up a Smirnoff Ice from the local convenience store (wine in Thailand is prohibitively expensive due to import taxes).

The pizza in Thailand was honestly not that great. The pepperoni was very light, almost like a bologna. I am more of a fan of the crispy deep red variety. The cheese tasted strange and unnatural, very processed and full of preservatives. And the sauce didn't have much spice, instead a bland creamy chalkiness that was completely forgettable. I finished eating, and then went to bed with a shrug.

My night should have ended there, but unfortunately I awoke around 2 am to searing intestinal pain. I began what would become a reoccurring ritual of running to the bathroom. I started my antibiotics that night. I was sooo sick the next day during our elephant excursion and couldn't even eat a mouthful of rice. I discovered the intricacies of third world non-automatic plumbing. A world devoid of toilet paper.

I never thought I'd equate something as exquisite as pizza with something as disgusting as food poisoning. But every time my husband mentioned the heavy pizza we ate that night, a wave of nausea flashed over me, and my stomach turned.

Thailand - for all its exotic beauty - made me think bad things about pizza. And for that, it shall never be forgiven.

PS: I have since recovered, and am eating pizza in full force.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thin Is In

Today I'm here to review arguably the best SLICE in New York City: Joe's Pizza, located on Carmine St. in Greenwich Village. Almost any pizzeria can make a nice fresh whole pie, and you'll love it, and the cheese will ooze and bubble, and you'll be very satisfied. However, there are very few pizzerias in the world who can boast a good slice. 

The key to a good slice is freshness. I cannot emphasize this enough. In order to accomplish freshness, some pizzerias will keep low amounts of pizza behind the counter. They risk a customer coming in 4 minutes before a new pie is out of the oven in order to achieve this. However, more often than not, the customer will wait the 4 minutes to grab a slice fresh out of the oven. The "wait time" gamble often pays off for the pizzeria. The other way to achieve freshness is a central location where you have high turnover. Joe's Pizzeria is located extremely centrally, near the foodie tourist mecca of Bleecker Street, the NYU bars of Greenwich Village, and the bustling West 4th Street subway station. So they crank out pies all day long.

Joe's is another one of those amazing Greenwich Village institutions, with an Italian immigrant owner, a classic recipe and expert training, and 20th century pedigree. Joe Pozzuoli started Joe's in 1975, and has been succeeding at the pizza game ever since. Joe's makes one of the definitive pizzas of New York City simply by their crust. This crust is by far the thinnest I've encountered in any slice joint. Always floppy, never failing, this crust is the perfect NY style. And while Joe's consistent presence in international guide books may pack in the tourists, the confused masses never deter me from making Joe's one of my favorite weeknight slice places in the whole city.

Crust Thickness: Super Thin
Crust Softness: Firm
Crust Char: Tan
Crust Puffiness: Airy
Sauce: Authentico
Cheese: Grated, Superior
Style: NY Style
Slice Appeal: Good

*** - Excellent

What the Stars Mean:
Stars are awarded similarly to the New York Times restaurant reviews. 1 star is recommended, 2 stars is very good, 3 stars is excellent, and 4 stars is pizza perfection.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


One of the most famous appellations in the NYC pizza scene is Ray's. Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed Ray's, Famous Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, Ray Bari, and Not Ray's. Some have closed, some have moved, some have been sold and morphed into a soulless chain, some lost their lease, some lost their owner. At the end of the day, the epitome of what Ray's should be is actually the pizza joint formerly known as Famous Ray's: Famous Roio's.

Mario DiRienzo opened Famous Ray's in 1973 at the corner of West 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and named his pizzeria after his Italian family's nickname. The pizzeria changed hands many times, eventually closing in October, 2011 after landlord and legal drama. However, Mario DiRienzo swooped in, changed the name to Famous Roio's, after his Italian family's town, and reopened in April, 2012 with the help of his 27-year-old nephew, Christian. Sadly, Mario DiRienzo passed away in September, 2012, leaving the business and recipes to Christian. As with many things in New York City, this pizzeria is full of people, memories, ghosts, and history.

Famous Roio's has always been known for its major abundance of juicy cheese and thin, but soft New York style crust. These two elements really distinguish Famous Roio's from your average slice joint. Famous Roio's is also generous with their distribution of sauce, a smooth purée packed with concentrated tomato flavor. Finally, they have a prime location with lots of foot traffic, which ensures freshness. Many times I'll go for a slice, and just happen to get one from a fresh pie. For me, there is no other true Ray's in the city. Only Famous Roio's.

Crust Thickness: Thin
Crust Softness: Soft
Sauce: Smooth
Cheese: Grated, Average (though Abundant)
Pepperoni Crisp: Flat
Re-Heat Factor: Good
Style: NY Style
Slice Appeal: Good

** - Very Good

What the Stars Mean:
Stars are awarded similarly to the New York Times restaurant reviews. 1 star is recommended, 2 stars is very good, 3 stars is excellent, and 4 stars is pizza perfection.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pizza for the Pauper

Let's be honest; New York City can sometimes be too expensive. The rent is too damn high, for starters, and that results in across the board high meal prices in restaurants who need to pay said rent. And then there is the elite food scene, which features $295 tasting menus (Per Se), $26 burgers (Minetta Tavern), and $5 slices of pizza (Di Fara Pizza). All three places are widely acclaimed, by the way, and difficult to get reservations/served.

So it is easy to focus on New York City's high maintenance offerings rather than the plethora of free and cheap activities and restaurants. You can basically walk anywhere in Manhattan, and it's probably going to be interesting. Or you can walk over a bridge into a borough and enjoy the river views. I've been to several Yelp Elite events with amazing quality free food and alcohol. Art gallery exhibition openings, open houses, fancy supermarkets, and liquor stores all offer little freebie tastes. You're in luck if you like to try free wine and cheese. And we have many $1 pizza joints scattered throughout Manhattan.

Tonight I decided to try the 2 Bros. dollar pizza place in midtown, on W. 46th St. between 5th and 6th Ave. 2 Bros. is a mini-chain, with 8 locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. While this particular location is a predominantly business luncher type of place, there were still some people in there when I went for dinner at 7pm. 

Places like 2 Bros. are great for several reasons. First, there is high turnover, and that equates to freshness. For me, the main killer of slice joints is lack of freshness. Nobody wants to eat a slice of pizza that was made 5 hours ago, with a few cold discs of pepperoni tossed on top, then re-heated in a 500 degree oven for 2 minutes. Nobody wants that. So for slices? Freshness is king.

2 Bros was also great because it was basic. Just a standard tomato sauce with some herbs and spices, average cheese, average dough. Nothing offensive, nothing exceptional. The crust, however, was made in standard NY style, with a soft, but thin inside, and crisp browned bottom. I swear, I have eaten much worse slices of pizza in NYC that were not a buck.

Crust Thickness: Thin
Crust Softness: Firm
Crust Puff: Flat
Sauce: Smooth
Cheese: Grated, Average
Style: NY Style
Slice Appeal: Good

* - Recommended

What the Stars Mean:
Stars are awarded similarly to the New York Times restaurant reviews. 1 star is recommended, 2 stars is very good, 3 stars is excellent, and 4 stars is pizza perfection.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ah, Nicoletta

Michael White, aka Chef Bianco, is well known and well regarded in the New York City fine cuisine community. His restaurant, Marea, is regarded as one of the best seafood restaurants that we have in this city, which is saying a lot. He owns several other restaurants as well, Osteria Morini, Ai Fiori, and two newbies: Costata and the Butterfly. I've tried Marea for a special 29th birthday dinner, and have been to Osteria Morini a handful of times (hint: try the meatballs). However, my favorite Bianco restaurant is his pizzeria, Nicoletta.

But first let's back up and talk a little bit about Michael White's bio. He was born in Wisconsin, but his passion for food led him to study in Imola, Italy, a small town outside of Bologna. Chef Bianco lived and learned there for seven years, before returning to the states to swoop up stars from both the New York Times and the Michelin Guide, as well as a few James Beard awards.

So this New York by way of Chicago by way of Italy by way of Wisconsin saga has all somehow rolled together and given us Nicoletta. Michael White has said in interviews that he wanted to make a pizzeria inspired by his Beloit, Wisconsin hometown pizzeria called Domenico's. This pizza is more 'murican, less Italian. More strip mall, less SoHo boutique. More Pizza Hut, less Grimaldi's.

And yet this pizza is FABULOUS! The fine ingredients and topping combinations were clearly concepts of this accoladed chef. However, it is the crust that screams midwest. It is not the typical thin New York crust, but instead a bit more substantial. The pepperoni curls up beautifully, and the pizza is garnished with tangy sprinkles of parmesan. It must also be said that the side dishes and desserts are strong in their own right. Chef Bianco's famous meatballs with grandma's red sauce have come over from Osteria Morini, and while I'm not a dessert person, I was blown away by the creamy fior di latte gelato. We topped ours with blueberry limoncello and amaretti cookie crumbles, but you can get creative.

Crust Thickness: Average
Crust Softness: Firm
Crust Char: Tan
Crust Puffiness: Airy
Sauce: Smooth
Cheese: Grated, Superior
Pepperoni Crisp: Crispy and Curled
Style: Unique

**** - Pizza Perfection

What the Stars Mean:
Stars are awarded similarly to the New York Times restaurant reviews. 1 star is recommended, 2 stars is very good, 3 stars is excellent, and 4 stars is pizza perfection.

Music Nerd Alert: the post title is a reference to "Ah, Violetta" in the third act of Verdi's opera, La Traviata.

Spanish Bombs

My husband Dave and I got married on May 5, 2012. It was a beautiful day with all our family and friends, and the only thing that went wrong was the humidity. I had my hair in an up-do though, so it worked out for me. After our wedding, we traveled to Spain to bask in the Basque country, marvel at Madrid, and... bark.. in Barcelona (sorry I couldn't think of one).

We started our Spanish journey in Madrid, which is both the national capital and the tapas capital. We wanted to try everything! We feasted on many different tapas, ham, olives, cheese, tortilla española, and croquettes, just to name a few. However, we did manage to sneak some pizza in of course. The first piece of pizza we tried was a small place in the Cortes neighborhood. It was remarkable because they really loaded it up with dried herbs, and the crust had a nice puffiness to it.

The next pizza we tried was during a tapas crawl before a night out at some bars. It was much closer to the American style pizza, in standard triangular slices, which might be expected as we were in the touristy neighborhood near the Plaza Mayor. This was the best pizza we ate in Spain, and the pepperoni was super crispy.

Look how happy we are there! Awwww, honeymooners.

After a few days in Madrid, we took a long, 5-hour train ride to San Sebastián, located in the Basque region on the coast of northern Spain. San Sebastián is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and is known for being a major foodie capital. From Michelin starred restaurants like Arzak and Mugaritz, to the average pintxos bar (pintxos is the Basque equivalent of tapas) in old city, every chef in San Sebastián is aiming to be innovative. I absolutely loved it here, and it didn't hurt that the town is situated on a half-moon bay, nestled in the hills.

We of course managed to sneak in some pizza. After a leisurely afternoon grazing on pintxos, we stumbled upon a pizzeria and I decided there was no harm in trying a slice.

This pizza was super cheesy, with the nice broiled bubbles, situated on a super thin crust. It was delightfully delicate, and similar to American bar pie.

Our final leg of the trip was Barcelona, land of Gaudí. We did some amazing architectural tours, wandered a bit, and of course tried the pizza. The first stop was a small place on a touristy street near La Boquería market, and was pretty lackluster. Nothing special, just your average re-heated moneymaker on a cafeteria tray.

Our last night though, we had much better pizza near our hotel in El Born. Here it is, half-devoured.

This pizza was much more towards the European style, with a thin crust, good sauce, and not too much cheese.

Overall, Spain gave us some great memories and beautiful food. But my food memories there revolve more around ham and cheese bechamel croquettes, and less around pizza.