A Son of California Tours New York's Pizza Scene
Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us that week to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
Pizza is an art unto itself and if you start diving into intricacies of regional versions, that is a whole new level of minutiae. The term "New York Style" gets thrown around pretty freely here in OC but it's a rare bird for sure and I don't think it migrates very far from its nest. The one thing you can say is it's great. I'd be the first one to start blowing holes in faux perception but it's a fact of life as certain as gravity that the ubiquitous pie there is one of a kind. That crust is reminiscent of lavash but with flavor: mineral, carbon and the taste of the oven, looking demure, but possesses a dash of malice that makes it bite back a bit. Like the subtle poetry of true al pastor rings in your mouth, so does the pugilistic rantings of New York pizza and that pie cooked at the right temp/time blooms like a flower poking up through the cracks in a Brooklyn sidewalk.
I'm a tough sell on the whole NYC thing. I think there is too much of everything there and not nearly enough nothing. San Francisco is about as urban as I can handle for any length of time. But there are pockets of humanity in all the inhumanity if you know where to find them,
The Luger Burger
All photos by Dave Mau
Roebling Pizza on the south side of Williamsburg is such a place. I first stumbled in there on a swampy summer night to grab a couple pies to go along with a nice bottle of rye whiskey for a rooftop dinner with some friends. It's the equivalent of a hole in the wall taqueria, unassuming with a great product. It's also located dangerously close to Peter Luger and their epic 12 dollar burger (with that 1/4 inch thick piece of bacon), which goes great with a couple mid afternoon cocktails.
Fast forward two years: I'm back in town, this time being hosted by owner Marc Alvira for an afternoon of pie-ology, which included a tutorial on how to throw dough and the insider's scoop on the pizza scene. Alvira has a well-anchored view of The Biz and is particular about how he makes his pizza. The dough is air-proofed overnight instead of in a proofer (sort of a sauna to accelerate the process.) Each batch is made by him or his Uncle Pete and when the dough runs out, so be it. He also hand grates his Mozzarella, doing it on the long side to ensure long stands, insisting that mechanical graters warm the cheese and ruin it; I agree. Of course the sauce is home made and it has a nice balance to it.
Good ol' Marc
The shop's roots go back a long way too. Alvira's "uncles" Joe and and Mike had it before him and their father, who came from Naples via a British POW camp for Axis soldiers was the one who opened the place shortly after World War Two. The shop is an institution by any measure; in fact, their battered "Pizzeria" sign is one of the first images that comes up under a google search for Brooklyn pizza.
I spent a few hours at the shop and had several revelations. To begin with, I've never been able to throw a pie despite all my half-assed efforts but it was different here (I've even tried that cheesy fake practice dough). Their dough was like warm taffy after the overnight proofing process; gooey, pliable and forgiving, even I couldn't screw it up. Also, I had never built a few pies in a row but I found out how efficient the small pizza station was. But, by far, the biggest Oh-My-God moment was when I ate a slice that was literally fresh out of the oven, cut a mere 45 seconds after it hit the counter. We don't get too much of that out here. THAT was eye opening and I felt like I had finally seen and tasted pizza nirvana. Alvira also built me a real New York style hot dog (lamb casing and all) served along with a cold Presidente beer and it was just about perfect (rumor has it the kitchen guys at Luger order 25 of those dogs at at time to go).
I'm not even gonna pretend to be an expert but I do have a half baked (pun intended) sense of culinary propriety, thus I'll defer to Alvira's eloquent description of what makes New York pizza what it is...
"Where most say that water is the discriminating factor in what makes good pizza, I think that there's much more to it than that. First, there's the heritage, the NY pizza scene's foundational shops literally came right out of Naples. The originals had founders that brought ingredients and recipes over on the boat. That authenticity, with the neighborhood culture of support and criticism can't be replicated".
"Another is the temperament of the New Yorker, passionate and discriminating. Even with all this history, you still find crappy pizza everywhere, and where you find crappy pizza, you find passionless shops, ones that let their accountants dictate what ingredients to use, what proportions to keep, etc".
"And thirdly, the clientele. Most cities don't have the population that NY enjoys. Most cities don't boast thousands of pizza shops. New Yorkers are picky. And the neighborhood shop has to keep it real or go".
"As for the quintessential NY slice. When I'm tasting, I always try a plain cheese. I look for a crust that is at once crisp and chewy. Balance in the sauce, and then between the sauce and cheese and so on. A good NY slice should be much more than the sum of its parts. It should have a character of its own".
Here in the OC there are some notable pizza joints, from what I call "comfort pizza" at Round Table right on up the ladder to the pie at La Parrolaccia in the LBC and my current go to--Pizzeria Ortica. I'm also a sucker for Costa Mesa's Haus of Pizza even though I think deep dish can be an abomination at times. But I gained new insight from this time spent "behind the scenes" as it were and now have higher expectations from those out here that steadfastly insist their pie is "New York" good. I'm not a bucket list guy but, if I had one, spending an afternoon making pies at a legit Brooklyn pizza shop would be on it. Mission accomplished.
Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check outwww.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!
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