Ladies and gentlemen, last weekend almost put Slice out of commission, as Saturday was the day I was asked to sit among the judges in the Best Pizza on Long Island Contest. Five categories. Five pizzerias in each. Twenty-five samples. Four days later, I still blanch when someone suggests slices for supper and I can barely bring myself to think about pizza. But you have been demanding new entries, so here goes...
Slice roving reporter E-Rock and I met at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Flatbush Terminal of the Long Island Railroad. E-Rock is accustomed to assignments that involve travel, and I needed a grisled road warrior to serve as guide and provide veteran survival tips. His advice involved a flask filled with whiskey. I had to maintain a steady stomach for some grueling gustatory work, however, and wasn't able to imbibe with him during the hour-long train ride to points east.
SAINT LOUIS, LOUIE We arrived at the Farmingdale LIRR station around 11:20 a.m. Two cabbies were waiting for potential fares. "Let's go with Saint Louis," E-Rock said, pointing out the hack's Cardinals ball cap and jersey.
"It's a shame about [Cards third baseman Scott] Rolen, huh?" E-Rock asked the driver. [Rolen was on his way to becoming an MVP candidate but got hurt a few weeks ago.]
"Oh. I gave up on baseball. I'm a Yankees fan now. What the hell are you guys going to Adventureland for? Adventureland f&*kin' sucks."
"A competition to find Long Island's best pizza."
"Yeah. What do you think's the best pizza on Long Island?"
"Long Island pizza's shit," and then, as if it would explain everything, the cabbie followed with, "I grew up in Brooklyn."
Some of the best New York pizza we've had has been from Brooklyn shops, so we understood his logic. But we were hoping the contest would prove our driver wrong.
We paid the $11.50 fare (Farmingdale cabs inexplicably charge per person, in our case, $5.75 each to go about one mile), exited the cab, and walked straight into the pizza festival, where we were greeted by the festival's pleasant but busy organizer, Suzi Batta. Ms. Batta said the judging would start at 12:30 p.m. and that we should have a look around in the meantime. We did.
As I said, five pizzerias were competing. They had been selected by LongIsland.com readers in an online poll that ran for several weeks before the finals. The pizzerias: Cherrywood, Giuseppe's, Joanne's Gourmet, Prince Umberto's, and Spasso's. Each shop had a table to do prep work at before sliding their candidates into the gas-fired, brick-lined oven, which had been trucked out and set up on-site courtesy of Marsal & Sons.
Not only were the five finalist pizzerias present, but there were also representatives from pizzeria supplier Cremosa Food in addition to a novel costumed character named Pizza Pup (left), whose mission is to inspire children with the power of positive thinkingand pizza, of course.
We met some of the other judges, among them Miss Long Island, DJ Chef, "Tony" and "Tina" from the New York production of Tony n' Tina's Wedding, broadcasters from radio stations WBAB and WBLI and food writers from the Times and the Long Island Press.
But let's cut to the chase and talk about what you come to Slice forthe pizza.
Long Island pizza did not seem to differ all that much from New York Citystyle pizza, a statement which may or may not sit well with the pizzerias concerned. Like Gotham pizzerias, the five representatives varied greatly in crust thickness and sauce techniques. Their cheese-application philosophy seemed to be the one thing they had in common, and they blanketed their slices with lots of it. All the regular slices I tried seemed to be a using high-quality full-cream low-moisture mozzarella, which melted nicely and yielded a buttery, greasy (in a good way) bite. The sauces, however, seemed to differ a bit from NYC pies in that they were spiked heavily with seasonings that masked the true flavor of the tomatoes.
Here Comes the Judging
The other judges and I started with the 12:30 p.m. "Best Regular Slice" competition. I had skipped the previous night's dinner and that morning's breakfast, so I was hungry by the time our skinny half slices were served. I gobbled them up handily and took notes. My favorite in this category was Cherrywood Pizza's. Their crust was ultra thin, and they had a nice ratio of cheese to sauce, going a tad more lightly on the mozz than the other pizzerias.
After about 20 minutes of pizza-eating, the Best Regular Pizza judging was finished. We had a nice half-hour break before coming back to the table for Best Sicilian. While on break, E-Rock and I explored Adventureland a bit. I only made it was far as the gigantic arcade, which you have to go through to get to the can.
Pinball (5 balls for a quarter!), Skee-Ball, and various shoot-'em-up games were in the house. I was drawn in by Galaga, which became my favorite game during the brief time my dad owned a pizzeria in the early '80s and we had one in the store. But from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed one of those grab-the-prize crane games; its title, "Big Choice," reminded me why I was there, and I headed back to the judging table just in time for round two, Best Sicilian.
We're not huge fans of squares at Slice. We like a good one when we come across it, but in general we go for the thin, pliant crispness of a good regular slice. But I set aside all prejudices and went about tasting. I ate the first two half slices put before me whole and quickly began feeling full (another reason I don't like squares: Why fill up on something that's mostly bread?). Pacing myself became key; from here out I heeded the advice of a new coworker and took only a few choice bites of each sample. In this category, I liked Joanne's Gourmet the most. They had a light, crisp crust without a hint of underdoneness (so often the case on Sicilians), and tangy fresh sauce.
After another break, some pinball, and a Coke, the judges were back at the table. Mercifully, the organizers had decided that Best Marinara Pizza was next. Good: Something lighter. I envisioned crisp, thin Neapolitan-style marinara pies but was surprised to get a range of cheese-free styles, from Sicilian types to Grandma-pizza types to what might be described as a cheeseless regular. Obviously, sauce was key In this category; I consulted my tasting notes, tallied my private marking system and found Cherrywood running first in this category with Giuseppe's a close second. And then it was time for a breakand for the pizza-eating contest.
We're huge fans of competitive eating at Slice, so E-Rock and I were happy to meet Arnie "Chowhound" Chapman, chairman of the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters. With him were professional eaters Skinny Scott Soifer and Gentleman Joe Menchetti (above right). Earlier in the day, "Chowhound" Chapman had a couple slots to fill in the eating contest, and he approached E-Rock as a potential contestant. E-Rock declined, and Mr. Chapman excused himself to search for other recruits. "What, do I look like I'd be cut out for competitive eating?" E-Rock asked me, "Or maybe like a good coach, he could sense my potential." I tried to get E-Rock to join in, but as the contestants took their seats, he was not among them. The whistle blew and eight minutes later, Gentleman Joe had won by a nose with nine slices down the gullet. Nine slices that earned him a quick $100, a T-shirt, and the golden pizza slicer.
With such a display of gluttony, it was a wonder any of the judges could eat again. But Grandma pizza was next. Grandma pizza, almost what you'd call a thin-crust Sicilian, is virtually unheard of in most of New York City, but as you head out east it becomes more readily available. Howard Beach, Queens, is said to have some excellent examples, and E-Rock and I were excited about the possibilites on Long Island. I thought Prince Umberto's served the best one there that day. Theirs was not merely a rehash of their Sicilian, as was the case with a couple of the other pizzerias' fare.
The Last Mile Is the Hardest Mile
Last up: the Specialty Pizza category. Most of the entries, actually all them, made use of chicken in some way, except for Cherrywood, which made a spicy chicken pizza and a shrimp-topped pizza (judge's choice which to sample). Many of them employed the Buffalo-chicken-wing concept. Specialty pizzas aren't really our bag at Slice. We feel that if you want chicken wings, order chicken wings. If you want pizza, order pizza. If you want both, order them both but eat them separately. That said, this reporter has been known to put Chicken McNuggets on his Mickey D's cheeseburgers and has experimented with chicken-fried meatloaf, so he's no stranger to fusion cooking and had little trouble separating personal preference from the pride-filled cooking before him. In this cateogry, we gave an equal amount of points to Spasso's for their crispy-breaded-chunks-of-Buffalo-spiced-chicken atop a a slice that oozed cheese (all the better to hold the big nuggets on) and Giuseppe's subtlely-spiced chicken creation that allowed the flavor of the perfectly cooked foul to shine.
My stomach also gave high marks to the fact that this was the final category and that its owner would not be cramming anything else into itand I did not until Monday morning.
As much as I overdid it on food that day, I've been overdoing it with words in this entry, so I'll wrap up with the official results of the day's scoring: Best Regular Pizza: Prince Umberto's of Franklin Square. Sicilian: Spasso's of Wantaugh. Marinara: Cherrywood of Wantaugh. Grandma: Prince Umberto's. Specialty: Joanne's Gourmet of Roslyn.
It turned out our cabbie was wrong. There is good pizza on Long Island.
Bonus Video Slideshow
Shouts out to LongIsland.com for organizing, Marsal & Sons for bringing the oven, all the pizzerias for showing putting their hearts and hard work into their pies, and L.I. Cares and Island Harvest for raising money at the event for Long Island's hungry.
We'd also like to give special thanks to Richie, who we met at Changing Times Pub on Melville Road. E-Rock and I had the bright idea we'd avoid the exorbitant Farmingdale cab fare by walking the mile or so back to the station. We made it about a quarter mile before it started to rain cats and dogs. Lucky for us Changing Times was there for us to duck into. We talked to a friendly volunteer firefighter there who offered to give us a ride the rest of the way. Thanks for the hospitality, sir. Next time you visit the city, shoot us an e-mail and we'll treat you to some of Gotham's best pizza.