"His slices were so good that they didn't have to deliver."
The other night I started thinking about Sal and Carmine's. Adam reported on Sal's untimely death, but somehow I feel the only true way to pay one's respects to a pieman (and Sal was one of the all-time great piemen) is to have one of his pies.
So last Friday I left the Slice–Serious Eats office around 7 p.m. and took the 2 Train to 96th Street and Broadway. I know I could have taken the local one more stop and ended up a couple of blocks closer, but I wanted to start my homage to Sal by acknowledging the location of the original Sal's Pizzeria on 95th and Broadway, where my love affair with Sal Malanga's pizza began in 1973.
Sal and his brother Carmine opened the original Sal's in 1959, three blocks from my first New York apartment. I was making $111 a week working for the Department of Cultural Affairs in the New York City Parks Department, and though Sal's slices were 25¢ more than every other pizzeria's, it quickly became my go-to slice. How could it not? Sal's slightly bready crust was crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Therein lies the magic about Sal and Carmine's crust: It never gets hard, no matter how long it's been out of the oven. The sauce was slightly seasoned (maybe it was canned pizza sauce—no matter), and the aged mozzarella they used had just the right touch of salt.
Once you had a Sal's slice you could accept no other. They were magical, more workmanlike and less idiosyncratic than Di Fara, but no less artful and satisfying. That's it, now that I think about it: Sal's slices were just so damn satisfying. And you didn't need a finely honed pizza aesthetic to know that. One bite was all it took. That was the way it was then, and you know what? That's the way it is now.
All these memories came flooding back as I walked up Broadway to 101st Street. I called to order my half-plain, half-sausage well-done pie. Sal's grandson Luciano Gaudiosi answered the phone: "Sal's." A quiet tribute to his grandfather, perhaps? Who knows. "Ten or 15 minutes," he said and hung up. Another Sal and Carmine's trademark: No name and no phone number necessary.
I walked in and saw Luciano manning the oven. I told him what I had ordered over the phone. I told him how sorry I was to hear about Sal. I introduced myself. Luciano responded, "Oh yeah, you're the one who didn't like the canned mushrooms." I was crestfallen. Here I was trying to pay my respects, and the only thing Luciano remembers is that I criticized his grandfather's use of canned mushrooms. I told him, "I loved Sal's pizza, except for those mushrooms."
"That's all right," he reassured me. He gestured toward the mushrooms: "It's just so much easier to use them."
Sal & Carmine's
2671 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (b/n 101st/102nd; map); 212-663-7651
I asked what had happened to his grandfather. He told me Sal had woken up in the days before he passed away, complaining about his back hurting, perhaps from sleeping wrong. He had gone to the hospital at his grandson's insistence, though he really wanted to come into work and make pizza. Sal couldn't stand being at the hospital, so he checked himself out.
A few days later Sal was readmitted to the hospital. His kidneys were failing. He was waiting to begin dialysis when his kidney failure led to cardiac arrest. Luciano told me this, obviously trying to rein in his emotions. "He was a good man," Luciano acknowledged with more than a touch of pride and love in his voice.
I told him that his grandfather had left his mark on the New York pizza landscape. His slices, I told him, were so good that they didn't have to deliver (Luciano told me there was a period of time, from 1959 to 1967, when Sal's did in fact deliver.) His pizza was so good that I used to pay the late charges to Hertz just to keep the car an hour longer to pick up a pie.
He smiled slightly. I think he knows that his grandfather was one of the last of the great New York City slice-pie men. I'm sure that's one of the reasons he's making pizza himself.
I hailed a cab to take my pizza home. My son, Will, was watching the Mets-Yankees game. We each put a slice on a plate and took a bite. "This is such good pizza," Will said. I had to agree. So satisfying, so seriously delicious, and so Sal. Sal would have been proud.
Luciano, along with Carmine, are doing everything Sal's way, the right way, the only way.