400 High Street, Orange NJ 07050 (map); 973-675-3336; startavern.net
Pizza type: Bar-style
Oven type: Gas deck ovens with brick floors
The skinny: Some of the best damn bar-style pizza you will eat. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Worth the detour or trip (about 25 minutes from NYC in good traffic). But try a plain pie first
Price: Plain pie, $9.50; topped/specialty pizzas, $11.50 to $14.50
And so it was with Star Tavern. I'd never been but had heard and read great things about the bar-style pizza there. When that's the case, you often go in knowing you have overblown expectations — and you brace for the possibility you're going to have to bring out The Truth Hammer.
I'll cut through any suspense: Star Tavern makes an amazingly great thin-crust pizza. I'm craving the stuff as I type this, and not just because I haven't had breakfast yet. If you don't already live in Orange, or in Essex County (because if you do, you already know this), Star is worth a detour — and even a trip.
As Off the Broiler's Jason Perlow writes in his 2006 post about the place, you really do have to try the plain pizza first.
It is nearly perfect bar pizza in this state. A crust that's cracker-thin but not crackery, firm enough to support the weight of the sauce and the ample amount of cheese piled atop it. The tangy cheese and sauce are spread right out to the rim of the pizza. As owner Gary Vayianos told us, "Our pizzas are smaller than what you'd get in New York City, but we top to the edge, so here you're getting as much cheese, sauce, and toppings on one as you'd get on a pizza that leaves two inches plain."
This method has the additional benefit of creating some really spectacular bites at the very end of the slice — nearly caramelized crunchy bits of cheese as seen above.
How do they do it? Take a look at this pan:
Star first oils a customized, cut-down, black pan-pizza pan with soybean oil and works up the thin crust pizza inside it.
After baking for a while on the pan, the cook will grab hold of that sort of "handle edge" that's been left on the pan and slide the pizza out onto the oven floor.
The result is that you get a pizza with the most amazing crust. It essentially fries in the pan for much of its time in the oven, so it gets that crisp but sort of springy, almost-spongey texture that fried breads get. But then it takes on a nice thin layer of crispness from the time spent directly in contact with the oven surface.
The crust even held up to our Everything Pizza, loaded with peppers, onion, pepperoni, sausage, and anchovies (above). By the way, Look at the beautiful little chalice of grease that pepperoni has become! I'd love to try a pepperoni-only pizza here.
From the photos alone, I think we have Colony beat. Very similar style, but the upskirt from Colony does not seem to compare!
While the two are similar, they're both different in many ways. And though I did prefer the crust at Star, I thought the toppings at the Jersey pizzeria were not as special as those at Colony.
The clam pie was flavorful enough (especially with some lemon squeezed over), but, Vayianos told us, it's a clam sauce. He told us he uses fresh clams for the sauce, but you won't find nice chunks of the bivalve atop your pie.
The Everything Pizza (above left) and the Meatball Pizza (right) were similarly good, but somehow the near-perfect (for bar-style pizza) execution of the plain pizza outshone them all.
So, yeah, get the plain pie first, then experiment. I'm planning my next trip already, and I'm itching to see how a plain with just pepperoni works.
I'm still craving Star Tavern pizza and am planning another trip. Maybe next time, I'll do that pepperoni-only pie.
If you look closely in the exterior photo at top, you can spot Scott "Pizza Tours" Wiener, Jason "I Dream of Pizza" Feirman, and Mark "Pizza a Casa" Bello. Yes, it was an veritable (and impromptu) PizzaCon.