339 Witherspoon St., Princeton NJ 08540 (map); 609-921-8041; contespizzaandbar.com
The skinny: Thin-crust pizza is a tradition for college kids and long-time Princeton residents
Price: $11-$22 for full pies
College towns are stereotypically riddled with cheap slice joints, but for each underwhelming hole-in-the-wall, there's a local favorite known and loved by all the other people who live and work in these picturesque 'burgs.
So it is with Conte's, a pleasantly lived-in, un-fancified joint a mere two-minute drive from the Princeton campus. Like its kindred spirit Vic's, Conte's is the kind of place that remains unchanged by trends or the passage of time. No freshly made, hand-pulled mozzarella blankets the pies; no artisanal hand-milled flour goes into the crust; and the craziest topping on the menu is anchovy. And that's why people love it.
My lunch date, Christine, who's been living and working in Princeton for nearly a decade, gave me the skinny before we converged on one of Conte's formica tables. When the restaurant's crowded, the servers will ask for your order while you're being seated to keep up with the flow of pizzas entering and exiting the ovens, so we planned our topping combinations in advance: Roasted red peppers and garlic, house-made sausage and onion, and half a plain cheese pie. We skipped the meatballs, though; the New York Times called them "unremarkable," and Christine agreed. "My kids actually like mine better," she admitted.
Unlike the overcooked bitterness that keeps many people, myself included, away from green peppers as a pizza topping, the strands of roasted red peppers were sweet and tender. Coupled with the pungent flecks of garlic sprinkled across the pie, the two toppings were like Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly in You've Got Mail: one sharply acidic, the other softly sweet, but perfectly suited for each other. If more pizzerias offered roasted red peppers instead of their banal green counterparts, what a wonderful world it would be.
The onions were an equally happy surprise. Expecting a hit of breath-busting flavor with my first bite, I was instead greeted by a mellow, almost genial onion taste. The sweet, wafer-thin Vidalias weren't caramelized or deeply cooked, but the near-raw slices still maintained a gentle bite that balanced and soaked up the rich pockets of pork fat from the sausage. Another masterful pairing of ingredients that proved you don't need a huge roster of toppings to make a great pizza; just a few really good ones that play well together. The sauce and cheese are standard enough—though satisfying on their own, they ultimately work better as a canvas for the more interesting tastes of the veg and meat piled on top.
I'd be tempted to pair all four of my chosen toppings—sweet onions, roasted red pepper, salty sausage, and sharp garlic—on a single pizza on the next go-round. The thin crust, brittle and crunchy at the edges, might groan a bit under the weight of this multi-tiered wonder, but overall it maintains enough crispness that I'm confident it could handle the uber-Conte's pizza I've been constructing in my mind.