Update (1/28/2009): Isabella's Oven Closed Until Further Notice
Ladies and gents, the always opinionated DJ Bubbles has checked in once again. Because I never know when he's going to strike, I'd been unofficially calling his stunning dispatches "drive-bys." Now I'm formalizing it. Here's the DJ Bubbles Drive-By on Isabella's Oven. It's a must-read, so do click through the jump. Adam
Words by DJ Bubbles | It has been said before that having a great meal can be a transcendent experience. When someone has poured all his soul, energy, and being into something so divine, you can taste it in every bite. It isn't something that happens all that often in these times, but when it does, you don't soon forget it. To say that I had one of these experiences this Saturday may be trueI'm still not sure. How is that possible, you ask? That's a good question, and all I know is it happened on my second trip to Isabella's Oven after a very mediocre first visit. The difference in pie quality was immediately apparent after I had my first slice of an individual Margherita while sitting on Isabella's outdoor patio. However, the questions regarding this newbie's consistency linger, and I have to ask myselfwas this past Saturday the beginning of a beautiful friendship or a flash in the pan, mere pizza fool's gold?
My first visit was prompted by a recent posting on Slice from everyone's favorite foodie, Ted Levine [Do you mean Ed Levine, Bubbles? —The Mgmt]. After his glowing review, I had no choice but to make a sojourn of my own two Sundays ago and see for myself because, after all, you can't always take Ted's word at face value. Besides, I like doing my own homework even though these assignments aren't exactly cake (they're pie!). So on I went to Isabella's on this warm Sunday evening round about 8 p.m. One would think good ol' Luigi (their Neapolitan pizzaiologreat guy) and his trusty brick oven would be warmed up by then and slinging out top notch apizz. Wrong. What is it with putting together a legit Margherita D.O.C. these days? Luzzo's and No. 28 have had their troubles as of late, too. At any rate, I had a pie with an identity crisis. Luigi seemed to want to stick to his Naples roots and make a 'wet' pie, but he seemed to forget the cardinal rule with respect as to why it should be wet in the first placea good amount of sauce, not olive oil. I love my Margheritas finished with olio d'oliva, but to do so takes a degree of subtlety, not a heavy hand. And why skimp on the sauce? With a terrific blend of sweet, fresh tomatoes that had a nice acidic aftertaste, there's just no excuse to go light in that department. After all, the benchmark of a pizzeria should be its Margherita, not a damn white pie! Not only that, but when you pay $6 extra for a D.O.C. instead of a regular Margherita, the bufala mozzarella better come correct. Let's just say it also was not on pointno tang, no bang, you dig? I left the restaurant that night feeling confused, slighted, and worried about Captain Levine's ability to spot The Next Great Pie of New York.
For whatever reason, I decided against it and, instead, made my way downtown. I first hit up L'asso (also for the second time in a week) and decided that'd be the last time I'd frequent this establishment for some time to come. Talk about a pretender. It's great to have a big brick oven in the middle of your open kitchen, but if you are going to top your Margherita slices with a sauce that bad and a crust that tastes like burnt toast, donate it to a pie man who isn't going to let oregano (oregano!) overpower every bite you take. I needed relief, my friends. I decided that I should give Isabella's (and Ted Levine, for that matter) one more try before I lit it up on Slice for the whole world to read (or maybe just us diehard pieheads).
As I alluded to before, Luigi & Co. simply knocked my socks off with something as simple as Isabella's regular Margherita. Fresh mozz that, although it didn't have the tart or tang of bufala, had all the creamy and buttery goodness you could ask for coming from cow's milk and provided the perfect contrast to that primo sauce that I spoke of beforeonly this time there was more of it.
What got me, though, was the crustI've never had better in all my days as a pizzameister (it's going on 29 years, folks), and it simply melted in my mouth. When people say pizza melts in your mouth, they're usually wrong, because that means that it has to have an agreeable crust. You need a crust that you don't have to struggle with, or bite into too hard, a crust that you don't have to chew too many times before it can be comfortably swallowed. Most important, you need a crust that you would never think of setting aside on the pan after you've eaten the "body" of the slice. I know, I'm getting hot, too, just thinking about it! And because I like to do my homework, I went out the next night to compare this masterpiece with one of my more reliable bellweathers, Nick's, and I came away feeling vindicated. Nick's is no slouch, but it's no Isabella's, either. The Isabella's of this past Saturday, that is. I guess one of the lessons we can take away from my ongoing adventures in Slicedom is that we should never expect our favorite pizzaioli to be perfect all of the time but, when they are, it can be that rare transcendental experience.
Address: 365 Grand Street, New York NY 10002 (near Essex Street; map)
Isabella's Oven, One Great Pizza on a Saturday Night [Slice]
Isabella's Oven photo set [Slice's Flickr photo archives]
More Dispatches from the Bubbster
DJ Bubbles Wishes You a Happy New Year
A Sunday Night Slice Walk
Vezzo, the DJ Bubbles Drive-By
The Best Grandma Slice in New York?
The Syracuse Pizza Manifesto
From the Mailbag: 'The Definitive Top 10 List'