When it comes to the physics of a New York-style pizza slice, you want a slice that droops—but just slightly, just at the cheese-heavy tip, waiting for your bite. After that, folding the toothsome triangle supplies all the structural support the slice needs—but it has to fold easily and maintain the integrity of a proper crust. Too stiff, and it’s more cardboard than pie; too soft, and the cheese slides off and scalds your fingertips.
Al’s New York Café’s isn’t quite the perfect slice of the Big Apple’s iconic cheap foodstuff, but few things are more beautiful on a chilly Friday night during football season in Costa Mesa than sitting at Al’s, newspaper in hand and the television tuned to ESPN, waiting for the cashier to yell, “Slice!”—and it’s yours she’s talking about. They’re cheesy, orange-hued beauts—leave a napkin on one for about a minute to soak up the grease, and it turns translucent. The cheese stretches; the tomato sauce is sweet. A sprinkle of Parmesan, some crushed red pepper, constant squirts of Tapatío, even a dusting of oregano, and arguments of authenticity and purity dissolve in every crunch.
If you want to play the simulacra game, Al’s is as close to a claustrophobic New York pizzeria as can be found in OC—just a few tables inside and out, framed reviews and surf photos prettying up the walls. The brash, colorful menu features Italian-American pasta favorites (oh, how the baked ziti is crisped just so, and the chicken cacciatore is mamaganza). A stack of pizza boxes, folded for an order, sits below the television in a perilously balanced pillar. Most orders are takeout, and most of the customers during the day are of the Newport Beach type—not surprising, since Irvine Avenue is the border. But at night, Costa Mesa proletariats emerge to order dinner, treating the restaurant with the reverence of taking Mom to South Coast Plaza.
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You can buy subs and deli sandwiches, and they’re good ones, but if that’s really what you want, you’re better off about 10 minutes away at Gallo’s in Corona del Mar. So stick with the pizzas and pastas, priced nearly as cheap as their East Coast cousins—two wide slices and a drink for five bucks even. Between Al’s, Pizzeria Ortica, Doria’s and Il Dolce, Costa Mesa reigns supreme over the county for its pizza offerings—which starts to make up for its Mexican-hating, but that’s another story. . . .
Al’s New York Cafe, 1673 Irvine Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-1212; www.alsnyc.com.
This column appeared in print as "A New York Slice of Mind."