So far, I’ve been to New York only three times. And of those three visits, I managed to have a proper New York pizza just once. It was from a no-name shop that advertised a $2 slice on its window. I wouldn’t be able to relocate the place if I tried, but since it was a memorable trip, that pizza remains one of the best experiences of my life.
When I walked up to the cashier and told him what I wanted, he shoved a steel spatula underneath a slice as large as my face from one of two whole pies on display. He then chucked it into an oven, closed the door, took my cash and gave me change. And in the time that elapsed, the slice had heated enough to become the crisp-bottomed, piping-hot piece of pie that I soon folded into a V and ate from a flimsy paper plate. And as I stood at a counter that faced the street, I realized I couldn’t have dreamt of a better pepperoni pizza.
I’ve had plenty of other New York-style pizzas since then, everywhere from Vegas’ secret pizza at the Cosmopolitan to Home Slice in Austin. Those were very good pizzas—great even. But for me, repeating that seminal experience in New York has remained elusive.
Perhaps my fondness for that pizzeria had something to do with how I encountered it serendipitously while on vacation. I wasn’t searching for it; it just happened to be there at the exact right time.
I imagine I’d feel the same way about Sal’s Pizzeria in Foothill Ranch if I didn’t already know it existed. Despite being located deep in OC’s suburbia in a food court that abuts a movie theater—just about the opposite of a New York street scene—it’s the kind of joint I’d wander into without thinking too much about it, maybe after watching an action flick next door.
And during an afternoon at Sal’s, I witnessed dozens of people doing just that. They meandered in not because they were looking to repeat some past epiphany, but because they were hungry, and a slice of pizza is easy and cheap. I saw everyone—from a Rubio’s employee at the end of his shift to a 10-year-old girl clutching a $5 bill—picking their slice from an array of ready-made pies. When they did, the blue-haired cashier threw their chosen piece into the oven to melt the cheese and crisp up the bottom. These were the crispiest slices I’ve ever had. Although the dough going toward the edge crust was thicker—a characteristic that made it hard to fold—Sal’s slices were so crunchy on the bottom they produced an audible crackle when bit into.
I also discovered Sal’s is one of the few pizzerias in Orange County that makes a grandma pie. This is the pizza you should be eating here. For a grandma pie, dough is pressed into the corners of a rectangular sheet pan greased with lots of olive oil. It’s homey and thick, halfway between a New York pizza and a Chicago deep dish. Sal’s version of the grandma pie—which is purported to have originated at Umberto’s in Long Island—is not lacking in cheese or heft. And like the other slices baked here, the grandma reheats to a raucous crunch.
There are two kinds on offer: one has plain cheese and red sauce, while the other features a topping of seasoned breadcrumbs. If you’re Sicilian, the latter might sound like sfincione, the pie your actual grandma might have made for Christmas. It probably is, and it’s the topping you want. Never mind that the starch-on-starch action seems as wrong as wearing socks with sandals; it’s not.
In fact, rather than being redundant, breadcrumbs on a pizza already made of bread works surprisingly well. Not only do they harbor flavors of caramelized onions and possibly anchovies, but the breadcrumbs also double the crunch factor. When you sink your teeth into a slice, you experience it simultaneously on two fronts: from the top and the bottom.
So, was I able to relive the memory of that first New York slice? No, but Sal’s grandma slice formed a new one. And the next time I encounter its equal, wherever that may be, I’m going to compare it to the time I had it here. Of course, it helped that the pizza was part of a wonderful and carefree Fourth of July weekend. Let’s face it: sometimes your fondness for a certain food isn’t about where you have it, but how you felt when you did.
Sal’s Pizzeria, 26612 Towne Centre Dr., Ste. F, Foothill Ranch, (949) 951-7400; www.salspizzerias.com. Open Mon.-Tues., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Grandma pie slice, $3.25-$3.75; thin-crust slice, $3-$3.50. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.