Update (1/28/2009): Isabella's Oven Closed Until Further Notice
I had a truly great pizza in a new pizza place on Saturday, and though I'm not going to tell you that I have seen pizza's future and its name is Isabella's Oven, the way Jon Landau did a zillion years ago when he saw Springsteen live and declared that he had seen rock and roll's future, I will say I had a pie that would easily make a New York City top ten list and maybe a national one as well.
Now in New York, when you declare a pizza place that's not on anybody's radar to be Pizza Hall of Fame-worthy, there can be hell to pay. But I'm willing to stand the heat of the wood-burning oven.
A couple of weeks ago, as I noted on Ed Levine Eats, I got a call from Alex Raij of Tia Pol raving about a pizza she had just eaten on Grand Street at Isabella's: "Beautiful wood-burning oven, great pizza, I just figured you're the guy who wrote the book on pizza, you should know about it."
Fast forward to Saturday night. My wife, Vicky, and I and our friends Bob and Marcia had just left the Sunshine Cinema on Manhattan's Lower East Side (Once is very much worth seeing, by the way) and were confronted with the age-old "where should we eat?" question. We tried a couple of old standbys in the neighborhood, but they were either booked or too noisy. It was getting kind of late, so Bob suggested we get something light, like a slice of pizza. I remembered Isabella's. I didn't have an address or phone number. All I knew was that Alex told me it was on Grand Street next to the fine bialy bakery Kossar's.
Sure enough, when we drove by Kossar's, there it was, a sliver of a pizzeria that looked like it might be getting ready to close. We parked and went in. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful wood-burning pizza oven. We asked for a table for four. "Right this way," the friendly server said. "You're just in time for the music."
We walked past the pizza oven through a door and hit an outdoor patio lined with metal tables and chairs facing the back of the building, a brick wall. A seriously talented jazz trio was playing standards on a makeshift bandstand in front of the wall.
Our server gave us the menus. We ordered a 16-inch Margherita DOC, made with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and some Parmigiano, as well as a pear-and-gorgonzola salad.
Our waiter bought us plastic plates to share the salad, which was unexpectedly good, though the greens could have fresher. He told us to save the plastic plates for our pizza.
The pizza was astoundingly good. If Isabella's can manage to consistently turn out pies as good as the one we had on Saturday, it might make it into my top ten pizzas to be found in this country. It was Neapolitan style, but better. The crust had a high lip (cornicione, the Italians call it) and had the magic pizza crust one-two punch: a crisp exterior edge that gave way to a tender interior. The mozzarella di bufala was just melted through and sparsely distributed on the pie. The sauce tasted of high-quality canned tomatoes, and the basil was fresh. I didn't even taste the Parmigiano-Reggiano, but this pizza didn't need the flavor kick it would provide anyway. The only thing the pizza did need was a little salt in the crust and a little Sicilian sea salt tossed onto the whole pie à la Anthony Mangieri at Una Pizza Napoletana.
Our waiter asked us how the pizza was. "Phenomenal," we said in unison. "Tell me about the place," I said to our waiter.
He smiled and answered, "Well, we opened three weeks ago, and we're still figuring things out. We were mentioned by this snobby food critic on a blog recently, and it's been kind of crazy ever since."
"Do you know who it was?" I asked.
"I think the guy was named Lee or Leev or something. I'll go ask the owner and find out."
A minute later he came out to our table and announced that the snobby critic that mentioned Isabella's on a blog was Ed Levine.
Levine, huh? We all started to laugh before my wife pointed to me and said, "That's Ed Levine." The waiter laughed nervously and immediately high-tailed it to the pizza oven and returned with the owner, a T-shirt clad Italian American named Philip Marino. He said his mom, Frances, was around the restaurant business growing, that he had gone into club promoting for awhile, and that now he and his mother had opened Isabella's.
"My mom makes everything but the pizza," Marino said. "Luigi Olivella from Naples makes the pizza. We take everything we do here pretty seriously. And I think it shows."
I couldn't agree more, and as a snobby food critic, that's a strong recommendation.
Address: 365 Grand Street, New York NY 10002 (near Essex Street; map)