I do not live or die by the specialty slice. On any given day, a good old-fashioned cheese is more than enough to satisfy my considerably-sized, pizza-craving belly. But when a pizzeria proudly boasts "over 30 different varieties of pizza" on its menu—an establishment such as Gino's Pizzeria & Restaurant of Great Neck, for instance—I'm inclined to see what all the fuss is about.
Gino's is a Great Neck slice staple. There are some who argue on behalf of nearby Francesca's, but a good friend of mine who grew up in the area passionately prefers Gino's. To her, Gino's is pizza. This is what she, and many other Great Neck locals, look to it as the benchmark for all things triangular, saucy, and cheesy.
At Gino's, "options" is a theme that extends beyond the food. You can order slices to go at the counter, or enjoy an extensive list of pies and other assorted Italian restaurant staples in the dining areas out back and upstairs. On my inaugural trip to the Great Neck joint last weekend, I chose a mix of the two: a cozy seat in the back of the house with three slices aimed straight at my face.
The results: a mixed bag of highs and lows, punctuated perfectly by vodka.
I kicked things off topping-free with a classic cheese slice ($2.30). Gino's sticks to the basics here (a mozzarella-heavy cheese blend atop a thin coating of basic tomato sauce; nothing fancy) and the result is what you'd expect: good, solid pizza. I was presented with a wonderfully browned slice, blackened at points. I'm the type who always seeks out the burnt bits, and this one more than fit that bill. Not everyone's cup of tea, of course, so be wary if you're a burnaphobe.
My second slice, the Eggplant Parmigiana ($3.75), was a disappointment. Kudos to the crust for staying strong beneath the massive amount of fried, breaded eggplant piled high on the slice, but that's where the compliments end. The dollops of ricotta tasted stale, the eggplant was mushy and not crisp, and the vast volume of toppings overwhelmed. Not recommended.
Here, we have the winner: Pizza alla Vodka ($3.75), made up of a thin layer of creamy, tomato-based sauce topped with equally thin slivers of fresh mozzarella. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else needed. While I wouldn't say no to some fresh basil or the addition of some good prosciutto, as it stands Gino's Pizza alla Vodka is really, really tasty. It's so good, in fact, that I had to bring a second one home; it barely survived the car ride. Needless to say, I look forward to slaughtering future generations of Gino's pink-sauced slices.
(For what it's worth, you can order this slice with baked rigatoni on top—not an uncommon topping to find in the Long Island pizza scene—but I advise against it. The addition of carb-on-carb action would greatly detract from the pizza's lightness, but to each their own.)
Not straying too far from the pie selection, I rounded off my meal with a chicken roll ($5.50). For the unfamiliar, chicken rolls are just a few steps removed from calzones, stuffed to the gills with breaded chicken and mozzarella (no ricotta to be found here). It's one of the most consistently featured menu items at any Long Island pizzeria, and certainly one of my most ordered meals. Gino's take on the dish did not disappoint, sporting flavorful chicken coated in marinara and oozing, gooey mozz, all melded together in thick, doughy goodness. I do think that fifty cents is an annoying price tag for a side of the same tomato sauce that coats their slices, but it's the price you'll have to pay if you want to take the roll for a dip.
At the end of the meal, watching families at nearby tables chowing down on fresh-made 18" cheese pies ($14), I realized I was missing out: Gino's counter slices are great (well, two out of three isn't so bad), but fresh out of the oven, the pizza looked downright delicious. I would do terrible, terrible things to have a whole alla Vodka pie to myself right now. Thankfully, Great Neck is the halfway point between my hometown of Huntington and my current residence in New York City. I'll have plenty of opportunities to correct my rookie mistake down the road. But before that, perhaps a trip to Francesca's is in order...