De Lucia's Brick Oven Pizza
3 First Avenue Raritan NJ 08876 (map); 732-725-1322
Pizza Style: Somewhere between New York–style and Neapolitan-American
Oven Type: Oil-heated brick oven
The Skinny: The oven has been in operation since 1917 and pizza has been around since the 1930s at this Raritan landmark still run by the same family, now in its fourth generation of ownership. The pies are supremely crisp with the cheese and sauce completely integrated
Price: Small, $5.90; large, $9.75
My hopes were high when I arrived at De Lucia's Pizzeria, and not just because the place looks like it could have been featured in the opening credits of The Sopranos (were it not for Pizzaland actually getting that part). De Lucia's had received the title of best plain slice by the Pizza Patrol and I was expecting something spectacular.
Certainly the place has all the hallmarks of a great pizzeria — a storied past, a vintage oven, four generations of family ownership. The pizza is all made from fresh ingredients and is assembled by a cadre of pretty young girls before being handed off to Allie De Lucia, the old man of the operation, who shovels the pies into the vintage oven.
Said oven is, I think, the most compelling reason for visiting De Lucia's — it is a working relic. Encased in white brick, it was once coal-fired but was converted to oil operation at some point in the distant past. It has been in operation since 1917, when family patriarch, Constantino De Lucia, founded the establishment as a bakery. Pizza came later, in the 1930s, and proved so popular that by the '50s it became the only menu item.
The pies emerge from the oven bubbling ferociously. The cheese, a skim-milk, low-moisture mozzarella, comes out molten and integrates completely with the tangy sauce, coloring the pie a bright orange, pockmarked with thumbnail-size black blisters.
This synthesis produces something that is the opposite of the disparate elements of a Neapolitan-style pizza or the Trenton tomato pies I so enjoyed last week. In the latter cases, the cheese and sauce are distinct elements, easily identifiable. The pies at De Lucia's offer a different, unitary vision.
The crust is on the thicker side of things for the style of pizza. It is supremely crisp, almost like a grissini. It produces a loud crunch when bitten, even at the cheesy tip of the slice. Unfortunately that crispness is not balanced by any pliancy whatsoever. There is zero textural contrast — it is all crunch from tip to rim. I think I would have liked it more had it been on the thinner side, but I found the density, crunch, and lack of contrast a bit of a chore to eat.
I wondered, since most people seem to get their pizza to go, if perhaps the pies soften somewhat in the box — that they might lose a little of their rigidity. This is often the case on thinner pies but not with the De Lucia's slices I took away. They remained completely rigid.
My expectations were not met on my visit to De Lucia's, but that doesn't mean that you won't love it the way the Pizza Patrol did. If you value the integration of cheese and sauce into an amorphous mass and love a supremely crunchy pie, then I think this place will satisfy you. I happen to prefer my pies softer with the toppings remaining distinct.
But that is the beauty of pizza, there is a style to suit every palate. And what a boring place the world would be if it all tasted the same.