Neptune, NJ: Learning to Love Pete & Elda's Cracker-Thin Crust

[Photographs: Casey Barber]

Pete & Elda's Bar and Carmen's Pizzeria

96 Woodland Ave., Neptune NJ 07753 (map); 732-774-6019;
Pizza style: bar pizza
The skinny:Thin-crust pies with a surprisingly sturdy crunch
Price:Extra Large Plain Pies, $12.95

A flexible work schedule is a big draw for those of us who've made the switch to the freelance lifestyle. (I get to work outside on a breezy backyard patio to write this review, for one thing.) But the greatest perk for a freelance food writer might be the ability to dine at off hours, steering clear of pile-ups and long lines at otherwise-mobbed restaurants. That's my strategy, anyway, for avoiding the Disney World-length waits at Pete & Elda's.

The technical name for the place is Pete & Elda's Bar and Carmen's Pizzeria, but those who grew up at the shore just refer to it by its first two names. Show up on a Monday around 3:00 pm and you'll breeze through the waiting room, lined with benches on which families from Bergen County to Asbury Park will be sitting butt-to-butt by 5:00 pm on a Friday. Inside, it's typical Shore Bar decor: frosted glass, TVs by the mile, neon beer signs, and paper placemats on wood laminate tables.

Unlike most super-thin crust pizzas, which droop, sag, and sog from the weight of their toppings, Pete & Elda's crust is crispy and surprisingly sturdy, like a Carr's water cracker—and with the same water cracker-like lack of flavor. No yeasty sweetness, no savory chewiness, just a hint of char from the oven and a crust that shatters with a crunch at first bite. On top, lightly cooked, nearly unadorned tomato sauce puddles around melted cheese. Neither are thrown on with a heavy hand. Even when sprinkled with toppings—black olive slices straight from the can, glistening pepperoni rounds, or a touch of fresh minced garlic—the slices remain light as air instead of overwhelming. It's an acquired taste, to be sure, but the crackery crunch is oddly satisfying.

Though the menu says that pizzas come in small as well as large, extra large, and extra extra large, I've never actually see the small version in its natural habitat. It's no problem for me to polish off a large pizza as if it were a mere appetizer; without a heavy crust and cornicione to weigh things down, it's easy to crunch through half a pizza without stopping for breath. I'd imagine the small pie is so miniature, you'd be able to fold it over on itself and eat it one-handed like a roll-up. So for most of the pizza-eating world, an extra large pie ($12.95) will do you right. The hungriest of hippos could probably even take down a double XL without breaking a sweat. Do it on your own, and you'll be rewarded with a free t-shirt.

Is a Pete & Elda's pie worth the long lines? Frankly, I don't think so, which is why I work around the system. My first P&E experience came after a two hour wait, and was a sore letdown for my ravenous appetite. And even if the pizza were on the level of Pizzeria Bianco (for which I've camped out twice) or Ippudo ramen, I wouldn't cool my heels and torture my appetite that way—I don't like waiting hours for my food.

But the crispy crust has worked its magic and converted me to the "cracker snack" style of pizza eating, a term I've coined just now for the strangely addictive crunchiness that's Pete & Elda's hallmark. Don't arrive unprepared and expecting a traditional thin crust, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Go early and beat the shore traffic, or if you're a night owl instead of an early bird, the bar kitchen's open until 1:00 am.