Let's just get my bona fides out of the way here, shall we? I grew up in the suburbs of New York (yes, that's right, I'm a Jersey boy) with a dad with a foodie bent. We ate every pizza we could find, from Di Fara's in Brooklyn and Lombardi's on Mott St. to the slice joints that seem to be a fixture across the street from every commuter rail station in the region. I know what the pizza of my youth is like.
The peculiarly New York way of ordering pizza in a slice joint ("Two cuts plain anna Diet t'stay!") makes a lump of homesickness rise in my throat, despite the fact that I'm approaching more time on this coast than I spent on the other coast.
I've spent more than a decade in California looking for the slice joint of my youth in L.A.--pizza reheated in the oven, the right condiments (garlic powder, dried oregano and red pepper flakes) on the tables, occasionally coarse banter between the screechy cashier and the burly cooks in back ("Porcamiseria, don't you ever shut up?" "No, 'cause you're fuckin' deaf or something!").
I've found some places in L.A. that scratch the itch, but it took a long time before I found anyplace in OC that fit the bill. Slice of New York in Seal Beach was always a contender, but recently I tried NY's Upper Crust Pizza in Irvine and was pleasantly surprised... and a Dueling Dishes was born.
Slice of New York is the quintessential slice joint: whole pies in a glass case at the counter, people walking in and grabbing a couple slices to go, Formica booths, brick (or faux brick) walls, and a soda machine.
Their crust, while not perfectly New York slice joint style, was closer than anyplace I've had in the region other than Vito's in L.A. It had the right bubbling and the right chewy texture (better on the sausage slice than on the cheese slice), and it cracked ever so slightly at the edge when I folded the slice in half.
The sauce was not bad; not quite as tangy as it should have been, but at least not the sickeningly sweet ketchuppy abominations wrought by most people attempting to make real "red gravy".
The sausage on the pizza was absolutely perfect. The first rule of a slice joint is they use real sliced sausage, not that ground crap that looks like meaty rabbit pellets. The pepperoni was good too, but it was the sausage that stole the day.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza is a small chain that originated in--I cannot believe I am writing that good food came out of this town--Laguna Niguel. It's since expanded to eight locations (see below for addresses). The pizza for this came from the Irvine location.
The sauce on this pizza was absolutely perfect: that hit of garlic, oregano and tomato, and not sugary. I imagine that the same sauce gets used on the pasta; if that's true, it could be that they would be a worthy competitor for best red sauce in OC, the current incumbent being Mammalucco's in Brea.
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Their sausage was also sliced, but inexpertly, and slightly burned from the trip back into the oven. It had a pronounced anise flavor, which overwhelmed the taste of sweet sausage ("sweet" meaning not spicy).
The crust, while a valiant attempt, was not right. The taste was good--it had been allowed to rest and ferment--but the toppings were spread right to the edge, which prevented that bubbly rim so important to New York pizza and made it really hard to fold neatly.
Both pizzas were acceptable and both are worthy competitors, but sadly it was simply no contest: Slice of New York, our 2006 winner of Best Pizza in OC, won this Dueling Dishes hands down. That said, South Countians, go to NY's Upper Crust; it's a long drive from Foothill Ranch to Seal Beach.
Slice of New York, 142 Main St., Seal Beach; (562) 493-4430.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 28051B Greenfield Dr., Laguna Niguel; (949) 831-4300.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 23624B El Toro Rd., Lake Forest; (949) 855-4300.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 5613 Alton Pkwy., Irvine; (949) 653-1033.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 30211B St. of the Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel; (949) 249-9700.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 26612F Towne Centre Dr., Foothill Ranch; (949) 951-7400.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 18687 Main St., Huntington Beach; (714) 843-9222.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 5291 E. 2nd St., Long Beach; (562) 987-4700.
NY's Upper Crust Pizza, 30076 Haun Rd. #220, Menifee; (951) 301-8600.