NY & C(hicago) Pizza: Fugheddaboutit!
I love pizza! Everyone reading this site loves pizza (I hope). The very thought of a 14- to 18-inch round, properly baked crust covered with a fresh, spicy sauce and a fresh, creamy mozzarella (and perhaps some crumbled fennel sausage) triggers a salivary response worthy of one of Pavlov's dogs.
So the recent opening of a new high-concept pizzeria here in Santa Monica, California, set me percolating and salivating with anticipation. The name, NY & C (as in New York & Chicago), belies the concept. The Big Apple and the Windy City, competitive in everything from sports to architecture to music, have also battled for the crown of "best pizza," and the two young men who opened this establishment, Chris, born in Staten Island, and Sam, born in Chicago, fervently and regularly touted their respective hometowns as the source of the best pies in the country. Well, one thing led to another and, eventually, a pizzeria was born (with one wall devoted to New York memorabilia and the other wall covered with Chitown photographs and signs). Naturally, the menu follows this schizoid urban theme: NY & C offers thin-crust New York–style pies and slices as well as deep dish Chicago pies.
The choice of thick crust pies to represent the Windy City has already elicited some native sniping on the local food blogs. I've found, to my surprise, that many Chicago natives unequivocally reject the deep dish style in favor of thin crust. My only encounter with this controversial pizza varietal occurred decades ago at a Pizzeria Uno outpost in San Francisco's Marina District. I felt then, and still feel, that this culinary creation should more accurately be called a casserole, not a pizza. That said, I looked forward to the L.A. pizza scene offering this much-discussed but rarely seen pizza species.
First Visit: A Couple of Slices
I had planned for a Friday lunch with a couple of friends but, the night before, I was in the neighborhood and couldn't restrain my curiosity or hunger. I ordered two New York–style slices, one regular (just sauce and mozzarella) and one sausage. While I waited, I looked up at one of four flat screen televisions and watched highlights of my, ugh, beloved Knicks. They lost badly. What's new?
Then, the slices arrived. Granted, this was just a preview of the real test the next day, but I was happily surprised, especially considering that these were merely reheated slices. There was a bit of tip sag, but I walked out of the joint thinking, "Not bad!"
The sauce and cheese were well balanced in distribution and tasty enough. The sausage slice crust, for some reason, was noticeably thinner and crisper than the regular. Still, the slices impressed me enough to warrant some reasonably high expectations for the next day's pies.
Second Visit: Whole Pies
Well, my fellow pizzaphiles, I must admit with a heavy heart, that both pies we ordered left me and my companions shaking our heads in confusion and disappointment. For starters, the New York pie (half "Central Park" and half "Times Square") had to be customized because the "Central Park," the closest to a Margherita that NY & C offers, comes with slices of tomato. Ugh!
Sorry, but other than the diminutive and delectable heirlooms that come atop one of the great pies I had eaten at Bruce Hill's Pizzeria Picco, I detest sliced tomato on a pizza.
Oh well, not a big deal, right? But the pie brought to our table had barely been set down when I had to ask that it be put back in the oven until it was properly cooked. Even when it was brought back it was visibly underbaked—for my taste anyway.
Slip Slidin' Away
However, the truly disturbing incident occurred when we each reached for our slices. As soon as we lifted the slices off the tray, every, and I mean every, trace of the toppings, including most of the sauce, slid right off the crust.
I have never seen this happen in decades of eating pizza. Admittedly, I've had Neapolitan pies that were quite soupy, but never have I had this happen to a conventional, New York–style pie. We had to use the spatula to reapply the toppings to our crusts.
A further odd note had to be the overly large basil leaves adorning the pie (see photo at top of post). That said, the chunks of sausage were quite tasty and the cheese and sauce, though not exceptional, were satisfactory. The crust, though, most definitely needed at least five more minutes in the oven. Oh well, what's one more disappointing pizza out here in L.A.? At least we still had the Windy City pizza to look forward to.
The Chicago Deep Dish Pie
Rarely having eaten the iconic Chicago deep dish pie, I will admit that my comments should be taken with a grain of salt. The good news is that the crust, flaky and somewhat crisp, and the sauce, flavorful, chunky and plentiful, satisfied our taste buds. It did seem a bit too light with the meats, especially when one considers that abundance is reputed to be a Chi pie's defining characteristic.
Well, in this head-to-head battle of the pizzas, I'd say that the Chicago pie won on a disqualification. The New York pie literally could not stand up to the Chicago pie's firmer foundation. Yet, I didn't feel right judging NY & C solely on this performance. I vowed to return in order to gain a truer evaluation of its wares.
A Third Visit
I returned to NY & C last week hoping for the best. This time when I ordered I asked that the pies be cooked well-done. We started with salads, chopped and Caesar. Both salads tasted fresh, were nicely dressed, and both were certainly abundant. In fact, my associate commented that he'd return just for the salad.
As for the pies, this time we ordered a half plain (cheese and sauce) and half sausage, peppers, and onions. Again, in spite of the fact that we asked for it to be well-done, the crust still tasted a bit pasty and looked too blonde. It was better than on the first visit but still left much to be desired. The toppings stayed put though, and we were able to consummate the experience, reasonably satisfied.
The other pie, half olives and bacon, (not my choice), half meatball, was a vast improvement over all of the other pies I'd tried on my two visits. The crust, though somewhat lacking in flavor, at least revealed some charring and blistering. The thinly sliced meatballs tasted spicy and the bacon and olives, though not what I would ever order as a pizza topping, elicited satisfaction from both of us. My friend did complain, though, that the olives seemed to overwhelm the pie.
In all fairness, when I discussed the under cooked crust "problem" with one of the owners, he said that the customers seemed to prefer the crusts blonde. Personally, I only like blonde women and brownies. When it comes to pizza, please make it dark.
Another issue I had was the overwhelming level of sensory overload we were subjected to. While they must be trying to appeal to the younger, attention-deficit generations, four televisions and loud obnoxious commercial radio blaring through the speaker system made for a rather uncomfortable dining experience. I'm not pushing Lawrence Welk, but this was just too much for my ears and eyes.
Furthermore, these were rather expensive pies. At $25 a pie with a couple of toppings, the price was harder to swallow than the pizza.
Last, and probably the key to the pizza problems here, neither of the owners made the pies. All I could see in my mind's eye as I sat in the restaurant were images of pizza legends, Dom DeMarco and the Pope of pizza, Chris Bianco, lovingly making every pie served in their establishments. I don't expect every pizza I eat to reach those ethereal heights but come on. Isn't greatness at least what we all should aspire to?
My last thoughts: Had the pizza been better, I'd certainly endure the annoying noise level. Interestingly, this was perhaps the only pizzeria where I can say I preferred reheated slices to a fresh pie. After these two experiences, I would definitely return to NY & C, but I would insist on a longer than normal cooking time. As needy as the L.A. area is for quality pizza, I can only hope that these two guys have what it takes to learn from their experience and refine their pizza making. After all, it takes more than an interesting concept to truly succeed.