135 W 116th St, NYC, NY 10026 (between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell Jr; map); 212-222-3030; 1forno.com
Pizza style: New York
Oven type: Wood Burning
The skinny: They under-utilize the oven, but decent, inexpensive slices nonetheless. Best in neighborhood.
Price: $2 per slice, $11 per pie; Toppings $1/slice, $2-3/pie
New York-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven became a thing a few years ago when Best Pizza of Williamsburg introduced it to the masses,* but I never expected it to make its way all the way up to my 'hood in Harlem. If you discount the now 80-year-old East Harlem institution Patsy's (and we're talking the real Patsy's, not the inferior spin-off locations around the city), Harlem doesn't have much going for it pizza-wise. 1Forno is a step in the right direction.
*Does anyone know of a restaurant that was doing it before Best?
First things first: despite using a wood fired oven, 1Forno's pizza is not significantly different in flavor or appearance than what you'd get in a decent slice joint downtown. The pies still take around 7 to 10 minutes to bake through, and they come out a relatively even golden brown, as opposed to charred and crackling like the pizzas at Best.
That said, they're still quite tasty. And at $2 for a pretty large Plain Slice, they aren't a bad deal, either. On a good day, Patsy's smaller $1.50 coal-fired slices a few blocks away easily beat 1Forno on flavor. But Patsy's can also be inconsistent, slices charred and crisp one day; floppy and soggy the next. You're almost always better off ordering a whole pie and waiting for it to come out fresh.
"1Forno would be good hangover pizza," said my wife. She's right. The slices aren't too saucy or cheesy, but they're greasy in that pleasing, NY-red-grease kind of way; the kind of greasy that forces you to closely monitor both ends of your folded slice for drip attacks.
If you want more grease factor, their Pepperoni Slice ($3) uses extra wide deli-style pepperoni. It's a nice touch, and a testament to the structural integrity of their crust, which holds up impressively against the onslaught.
That crust's underbelly is the only place where you really see hints of the high temperatures a wood-fired oven is capable of. It gets some really nice spotty browning on it, and for the most part, the texture of the crust is near-ideal. A thin layer of crispness followed by a layer of crumb, with tender-but-moist chew.
The only place it's lacking is around the edges:
Not much rise or color going on there. I glanced back at the dough balls stored behind the counter pre-stretching. They looked slightly under-rested to me, which may explain the overly tight crust structure.
The strange crumb structure around the edges defines the Garlic Knots (3 for $1), which looked great but had a strangely fluffy, dry interior with no real chew or stretch at all. We took a bite and set them aside.
Of the two sandwiches on the menu, you can skip the Sausage & Pepper Hero ($4.99), which comes filled with mostly saucey peppers and a few slivers of generic sausage that looks like it was boiled yesterday.
The meager slices of sausage reminded me of the old "bad food, and such small portions!" joke.
The Meatball Hero ($4.99), on the other hand, is pretty fantastic. Ultra-tender meatballs that are perhaps just a touch over-seasoned are smothered in tomato sauce and cheese, placed on a split hero roll, and then sent into that wood oven to toast. The oven man shoves it right into the back, so it actually comes out with a hint of smoky char.
There's no doubt the pizza at 1Forno is decent, but given their facilities, they have the ability to make it excellent. So why don't they?
I asked myself yesterday if "wood-fired" might become the new "brick oven." That is to say, back when I first started seeing the term thrown around in the late '80's, "brick oven" actually had a legitimate cachet to it. You heard it in a name and assumed a certain level of quality. Then it started getting slapped on every other pizza joint around; Pizza shop owners banked on customers assuming that brick was synonymous with good pies, ignoring the fact that good pizza is good pizza and bad pizza is bad pizza—no matter what oven it comes out of. These days, it's reached the point where I almost avoid places that advertise their brick oven.
With the uptick in popularity of the legitimately good, wood-fired places (1Forno falls somewhere in the middle of the pack), is it only a matter of time before the term "wood-fired" becomes a mark of hucksterism over quality?