A Hamburger Today
Staten Island: Lee's Tavern
60 Hancock Street, Staten Island NY 10305 (at Garretson Ave.; map); 718-667-9749;
Pizza Style: Bar pizza
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Classic version of bar pizza
Price: Bar size, $5.25; traditional large, $9; toppings, $1 or $2 extra, respectively
There are no signs outside Lee's Tavern to indicate that it is in fact Lee's Tavern. And walking into the place, there's not much of an initial indication that one would be able to get a fine example of bar pizza there. The place is worn to a dull patina—the vinyl floor and irregularly matched tables and chairs, the bar itself—all look weathered.
Arrive on a Saturday afternoon in February and the bar will be packed with burly working men wearing jeans and work boots, Harley-Davidson T-shirts jutting out from under their flannel shirts as they drink frothy tap beer and complain about the weather. But looking beyond the bar, illuminated by large windows that allow daylight to flood in, you notice a rear dining room packed with families. Walking farther into the place, you spy a rear kitchen with two large pizza ovens. And by now you smell red sauce, meatballs, and crisp fried calamari, their aroma masking the odor of stale beer and tobacco. The sound of children laughing masks the grumblings about the rain.
Lee's Tavern has been around since 1940, and the secret of its success might be that it is both a neighborhood bar and a family restaurant. It is the type of place that you don't find much anymore—it is a throwback in the real sense of the word. You get the feeling that not much has changed in the ensuing decades, although the menu prices have probably crept up.
The menu is concise and Italian-American–themed: hero sandwiches, pasta, garlic bread, fried calamari, and, most important, pizza.
The "traditional" pizza at Lee's uses low-moisture mozzarella, red sauce, and a thin crust. Offered in both large and bar sizes, I went for the smaller bar pie, which is a steal at $5.25 plain or $7.25 with the sausage I ordered on it. It didn't actually need the sausage nor any of the other commonly available toppings (pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, etc.). Plain Jane–style, it attains a perfect level of synergy.
The thin crisp crust has plenty of snap and crunch but it is not completely crackerlike. There's some tenderness there, some suppleness to add textural contrast. A slice from a bar pie will exhibit slight tip sag, I imagine a slice from a larger pie more so. Because the crust is so thin it does not require a load of sauce and cheese, and thankfully they are applied in sparing amounts. The sauce is a mild, slightly sweet affair that goes perfectly with the cheese, which comes molten with just the hint of blistering. The pie is balanced in every important aspect—ingredient ratios, crunch-to-chewiness, creaminess-to-tang. It is above all a pie that is subtle in its deliciousness.
Lee's also offers a pie using fresh, homemade mozzarella. I ordered it plain but actually should have ordered it with sausage. Actually I should have skipped it altogether. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just that the cheese had less flavor that the already mild cheese on the traditional pie. I love fresh cheese on pizza, especially buffalo mozzarella or fior di latte, but I think they really work best on quick-cooking Neapolitan-style pies. When the cheese spends only a few minutes in the oven it weeps but retains some moisture. Put the same type of cheese in an oven for several minutes longer and it loses a lot of moisture, in the worst case leaving a desiccated, shriveled mass. I just don't think fresh cheese works for bar pizzas. Not that there was anything wrong with the fresh cheese pie at Lee's, it is just that the other cheese is better suited to the task.
The recent Neapolitan pizza craze had fostered an obsession with authenticity in sourcing of ingredients and techniques, yet it is all happening 5,000 miles from Naples. As much as I love Neapolitan pies (they are my favorite), I can't help but feel that there is something just as authentic about the pizza at Lee's. It has served generations of Staten Islanders, producing a pie that I am sure more than a few locals will consider, using Sam Sifton's Pizza Cognition Theory, the only real pizza out there. From their perspective they are not wrong.