This afternoon I had the pleasure of riding aboard what I'll call the Scott Wiener Pizza Express.
Scott Wiener is a true pizza lover, one who keeps a pizza journal that's legendary among those who know him, and his love and enthusiasm for the pie is truly infectious. So much so that a little more than 20 people showed up for a tour that would take us from Prospect Heights to deep Brooklyn, up to East Harlem, and back again to Brooklyn (see map, after the jump).
We met at Franny's just before it opened, where we pretty much took over the place. The staff was friendly and handled the crowd with ease, even though I'm sure they weren't too happy we only ordered a handful of pizzas for a rather large group. They seemed pretty amused that we were on such an ambitious trip and even offered suggestions on where to go next.
Anyway, at Franny's our table had a buffalo mozzarella and tomato pie; an extra virgin olive oil and sea salt pie; and a clam, chiles, and parsley pie. My favorite was the clam pie (right, foreground), and it's the first time I had ever had it; they've always been out of the clams whenever I've gone. As one of the tour members pointed out, the clam pie had a lot of flavors going on that slowly developed as you worked your way through the slice. I agreed. I also liked the buffalo mozzarella and tomato pie. I abstained from the olive oil–sea salt pie (right, background) so that other folks could grab some pizza.
We made quick work of Franny's since we had a long day ahead and then boarded the bus for the first time. It's been ages since I've been on a school bus, but it was like old times, especially with Scott leading the way, making the whole affair feel like some sort of crazy field trip. He had this thing amazingly organized, with a bullhorn to make announcements, a cooler full of water for the ride, and a little goodie bag that held chocolates, a mini journal and pen for taking pizza notes, and a container of lemon-lime Tic Tacs, "for cleansing the palate."
Our next stop was L & B Spumoni Gardens, in Bensonhurst, and our able driver, Gus, got us there in no time. Ever prepared, Scott had already called ahead and ordered two of the joint's famous Sicilian pies. (Yeah, two pies for 20-some people might not sound like a lot, but the idea was not to stuff ourselves at one place.) Within two minutes of taking a number of outdoor tables, the hot, steaming square pies were ushered out and almost as quickly consumed.
If you're down with the L & B, I'd say the quality was the same as usual. An impossibly light and airy crust topped first by mozzarella and then a heavy layer of sauce, dusted last by a sprinkling of Parm. The sauce, yes, was as sweet as ever, and if that's your bag, it'd do you right. I usually have to be in the mood for such a sweet slice, but I was today, so it hit the spot.
So then we were back on the bus. We made our way along 86th Street toward the Gowanus Expressway. Around 20th Avenue we passed Lenny's, the place where John Travolta's Tony Manero orders pizza at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. We wanted to visit but couldn't, since Gus said the traffic was too bad to find a good parking spot for the bus. Oh well, it's there for another tour.
Our next stop was Luzzo's, which I secretly dreaded because I thought we'd be spending a lot of time doing sit-down and waiting for our pies. But Scott ordered ahead and informed us that we'd be doing a grab and gobble, eating it on the way up First Avenue to Patsy's in East Harlem. Here's a vid of the Luzzo's experience:
The Pizza Express: Next Stop, Luzzo's from Adam Kuban on Vimeo.
Anyway, my thoughts pretty much fall in line with Ed Levine's take on Luzzo's. Everything about it is great except the crust. It needs a bit more salt for my taste. But today, I don't know if it was the hunger or what, but it was pretty good. Not great—the crust was still a bit bland—but it was better than usual.
As we traveled up First Avenue, we saw one of those double-decker tourist buses, prompting one pizzanaut to yell, "Our tour is better than yours!" I think she was right. We weren't sitting in a convertible bus freezing our faces off—and we had pizza.
We also stopped at a red light in front of this place:
My question to Scott: "WHY ARE'NT WE STOPPING AT THE BEST PIZZA ON FIRST AVENUE?!?" I mean, Luzzo's and Patsy's when we could have the best? Psshaw.
So we get to Patsy's, and Scott, of course, had called ahead. We still had to wait about ten minutes for our three pies, but it gave me a chance to do something I'd never done before: grab a single slice of Patsy's from the slice end of the operation (above). I've only ever ordered whole pies there. Turns out Scott was just the opposite—he had only ever had slices. So today, we each tried something new.
Instead of going in, doing the sit-down thing and overwhelming the staff, we decided to eat our take-out pies on the sidewalk in front of Patsy's, no doubt to the amusement of passersby. I was a bit disappointed with Patsy's. As with the last few times I've been, it was a soupy, oversauced, overcheesed mess. It tasted good, don't get me wrong, but it was just out of balance. It's to the point that I no longer say with confidence that it's my favorite place in Manhattan. It was hard to say which I liked more—Luzzo's or Patsy's. Luzzo's had the balance down pat but not the flavor. Patsy's had the flavor but not the balance. They could each take a page from the other's book.
So after Patsy's, we stormed the bus again and headed down Second Avenue. There was talk of where to find vegetarian and vegan pizza. (Jessie, if you're reading this, the place is called Slice, the Perfect Food and we passed it between 73rd and 74th on Second.) Scott decided that we had plenty of time to hit Ray's on Prince Street.
By a few reputable accounts I've found, this is the first Ray's. I know that a lot of people have said that there is no definitive original Ray's. Even I've said that at one time. But after talking to Lou DiPalo at DiPalo Fine Foods in SoHo and after reading this story in the New York Times, it seems like the one on Prince Street, opened in 1959, has the most solid claim.
Same deal at Ray's: the call-ahead and the pick-up. Traffic was a nightmare on lower Second Avenue, but by the time we got to Ray's there was, miraculously, a bus-sized parking spot out front. Scott ran in, and within five short minutes of idling, we were on our way. Unfortunately, we would end up spending about 30 or 40 more minutes trying to make it to the Manhattan Bridge back into Brooklyn, where the last stop on the tour was Grimaldi's.
At this point, the tour diverged. Those interested in Grimaldi's had the choice of leaving the Pizza Express for good while the remaining bus riders could take the good ship back to Franny's for disembarking. The group was almost evenly split on this one. The line at Grimaldi's wasn't too bad, but I was getting tired and opted to skip, interested instead in getting a ride back to my neighborhood. And so, after a little more than six hours, we were back at square one, and one of the friendly Franny's servers from earlier in the day even came out to ask us how things went.
They went well, very well, I thought, thanks to Scott and his amiable group of pizza lovers. I'm now waiting for Pizza Express II.