On Sunday, I visited Coney Island to assess its pizza options and get a first look at the recently opened Grimaldi's outpost. Coney Island boardwalk fare is nicely summed up by my first stop—Nathan's, where dozens of people lined up, not only for hot dogs but also for different sorts of seafood (including frogs legs, four for $7.49—400 calories), wedge cut fries, and more fried things. An electronic display sign that had spent a year counting down from Fourth of July last year had almost reached zero: the eating contest just a day away.
I snapped a few photos and then walked around the corner and up one block to the boardwalk and the beach to look for pizza. The first option I saw was Famous Famiglia—Donald Trump's favorite—where a dozen or so people waited for pizza. A couple months ago, I tried a slice from the Famiglia at 96th and Amsterdam. I didn't like it very much and so decided against trying a presumed replica in Coney Island.
One block east from Famous Famiglia is the pizza option I'd had in mind when I decided to head to the boardwalk: the newly renamed Paul's Daughter, a Nathan's-like stand that has faced the boardwalk and beach from the same location for decades. On display, they had hot dogs, sausages, french fries, cotton candy— and, there they were: a pair of cold slice pies. I spotted two gas deck ovens, saw no evidence of a pizzaman or pizzawoman, but ordered a slice because I had to know. It did not taste like New York pizza. The main problem was its crust: no chew, no spring, no good fold—dead weight. Also, neither the cheese nor the sauce spoke to me.
But I know Paul's Daughter. Or, I should say, I have enjoyed its fruits of the sea many times before. (As recently as last year it was called Gregory & Paul's and, along with Ruby's bar a couple of blocks away, had faced imminent extinction last summer. Both survived by promising to make renovations in exchange for new eight-year leases. This is good. We have already lost a number of remnants from the pre-Cyclones days.) While I know good and well that Coney Island has world class pizza (which we will get to momentarily), please allow me to introduce the idea of a pre-pizza boardwalk snack...
For me, clams represent a perfect food for boardwalk eating. I love that in Coney Island, despite litter on sidewalks, police presence on every corner, and masses of people all around during any given summer day—and the perception, or at least mine, that the beach and its environs are dirty and polluted—that one can trust Paul's Daughter enough to eat their raw clams. The clam shucker, whose name is Fernando, showed me the bushel tag. The clams were caught one day prior on Long Island and had been delivered that morning.
Because the current state of pizza in Coney Island is one of geographical division, clams will do well to tide you over. The boardwalk and Surf Avenue, the street nearest to the beach, have historically lacked good pizza. But now change has arrived.
Many Slice readers know that you can visit Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano, New York City's oldest family-run pizza shop, by walking three blocks north and two and half blocks west from the Stillwell Avenue subway station. Grimaldi's, as in big-lines-under-the-Brooklyn-Bridge, has opened up along Surf Avenue less than a block from the station. I predicated Sunday's visit on the conducting of a brief compare/contrast between the two places.
I would first try Grimaldi's and then head to Totonno's. But at 12:30 pm—smack in the middle of lunchtime—Grimaldi's employees were mopping. "Come back in a while," someone said. So I headed to Totonno's.
Once there, I asked the owner Louise "Cookie" Ciminieri what she thought about the new Grimaldi's opening so close by. I've known Cookie for a number of years and if there are two things I should say about her, they are: (1) she does not misrepresent her feelings; and (2) she cares a great deal about her pizza.
Her reply: "I really don't care. It doesn't mean anything to me. My customers keep coming, I keep on making pizzas, that's it."
Totonno's serves only pizza and offers just a few regular toppings (nothing strange like pineapple or ricotta). I love their regular cheese and tomato pie and I love their white pie. The white pie is mozzarella, fresh minced garlic, and olive oil—that's it. They will make a pizza half white, half regular, and if I'm solo, that's what I often get.
When I bite into a slice of Totonno's white pizza, the first discernible flavor is garlic, aromatic in a way that suggests absolute freshness. Next comes the gentle pull of the mozzarella, followed by the richness of olive oil and cheese. Finally, I notice the sublime crust—the heart of this pizza masterpiece: first chew, then crunch, and finally a flavor-finish of char from the coal oven.
Totonno's regular pizza varies from the white only in its lack of garlic and the presence of a sweet, chunky and juicy tomato sauce. The sauce does not overpower but instead complements the fresh mozzarella to create perfect balance. (Small plain or white pizza, $16.50; large, $19.50)
Totonno's pizzamaker Michael Gammone estimates that 15% of the pizzas Totonno's sells are of the white variety. Not bad for a version that's missing a key component!
By the time I left Totonno's and headed to Grimaldi's, each of Totonno's nine tables was occupied and at least a half-dozen customers had departed with outgoing orders.
Grimaldi's approximately 1,200 square foot dining area features rows of clean, black wooden tables on iron bases, each with a metal pizza stand that awaits the arrival of the only food they sell. The vibe, accentuated by the sounds of bass-heavy dance music—but not too loud—seems created to welcome a Coney boardwalk and beach crowd.
My plain pie arrived. ($15 for a large) The crust is chewier and foldier than Totonno's, and because the cheese and sauce alternate emphasis in some spots one can overwhelm the other within a given bite. I wished my pie had come out crisper but it's their first week open, they deserve a break.
I asked an owner how he feels about the looming presence from Totonno's down the street. He answered, "They do their own thing, we do our own thing. Everybody's gonna have enough business."
"Have you been there?" I asked him, "And what do you think?"
"I have," he said, "it's alright."
For the average non-pizza-obsessed eater, Grimaldi's is many tiers better than boardwalk and other Surf Avenue pizza—and, for that matter, much of the pizza in New York. For a sublime pizza experience, I recommend Totonno's. Totonno's—pizza, atmosphere, and owner—has the sort of character that harkens back to earlier times.
Cookie has loyal customers, many of whom come to Coney Island just for her pizza.
When I was there, she introduced me to a couple of longtime customers. They had driven from Long Island just for pizza and had already consumed one large with extra cheese and had ordered another of the same. I stated to them what I have for years considered self-evident: "If you want pizza in Coney Island, go to Totonno's." The response: "If you want pizza anywhere, go to Totonno's."
Grimaldi's has a better location, near as it is to the subway and the beach. I have no doubt that during the summer, it will be busy. But what about the rest of the year. Cookie told me that Totonno's business drops during non-summer months. Will Coney Island Grimaldi's attract busloads of people as it does under the Brooklyn Bridge? Do tourists wish to visit Coney Island in the winter? Maybe....