Emma's Brick Oven Pizza & Cafe
101 North Union Ave, Cranford, NJ
(map); 908-497-1211; emmasbrickoven.com
Pizza Style: bar pie
Oven Type: Coal-burning brick
The Skinny: Very! Cracker-thin crust with good top char
Price: $13–$20 per pie, toppings $1–3 each
You're probably not going to just stumble upon the quaint and quiet center of the suburban-Jersey commuter town of Cranford—but hey, if you ever do, rest assured that at the very least, there's decent pizza around.
Emma's Brick Oven Pizza & Cafe has been firing up solid-quality pies and a pretty vast menu of other Italian (often pronounced "EYE-talian," in these parts) fare since 2004, steps away from a NJ Transit station and a breezy 40-minute jaunt from Manhattan. Part bar pie, Emma's tops a fine crust (and we mean fine—practically paper thin, at times!) with an even hand.
The joint is sort of a modernized (maybe even vaguely upscale-ized—but very vaguely) pizza parlor, complete with table stands for pie plates and banged-up serving knives slid under each crust. Friendly (in Jersey?), attentive (in Jersey??) staff shuttle apps like fried risotto balls and classic stuffed mushrooms to tables packed with first dates, solo eaters, and rowdy families. A vinaigrette-dressed grilled-octopus salad could have used less dressing and more grilling, but the seafood was abundant and fresh, with tender purple tentacles hanging out all over the place. A house salad was surprisingly heaping; plenty of greens and good crisp veggies to split among two or three people, despite a deceptive $4.50 price tag.
We ordered two individual-size 12" four-slice pies, which arrived on almost comically warped pizza trays. (The trays perched precariously on the table stands, and casualties must be pretty common. We watched with sad eyes as the table next to us lost a great-looking pepperoni pie to a wobbly tray and toddler's wandering elbow. Man down!)
The star at Emma's is, undoubtedly, the crust. Cracker-thin with an even base and lovely, crackling char on top, the pies manage to hold a little snap throughout, refusing to sog under the weight of sauce and toppings. An upskirt inspection revealed a little cornmeal, but the flavor was pure flour, water, salt; ever so slightly and deliciously sour.
Eschewing mozzarella on the first pie, we opted instead for fresh grated Parmesan, roasted garlic, and mushrooms. The sauce had a sweetly acidic tang and was nicely seasoned with oregano and not-too-much-salt, letting the snappy garlic and smoky mushrooms really shine. The other came topped with sausage, Parmesan, and two types of mozzarella (smoked and regular). Rather than the fennel-sausage crumble often found in New York–Neapolitan spots, Emma's favors Jersey bar-pie-style sliced sausage. The meat curls nicely in the oven, letting the sweet and anisey grease pool in the middle.
The restaurant is BYO, and we wished we had. Though the salads arrived (and were devoured) quickly, the made-to-order pies took considerably longer to come out, and were too piping hot to dive into. A couple sips of beer might have taken a little of the edge off the pizza-craving desperation at that point. (And let's face it: It's often necessary to take a little of the edge off when you're hanging out in Jersey.)