2600 SW Barton Street #C3, Seattle WA 98126 (map); 206-935-1800; giannonispizza.com
Pizza style: New York–style
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: This mini-mall pizzeria's ode to New York slings crisp thin-crust pies and huge slices
Notes: The "small" here is 14 inches across, easily big enough for three (or two, if you're both plenty hungry)
Price: Cheese slice, $2; 14- to 18-inch whole pies, $12.99 and up
With notable exceptions, most New York-style pizza made outside the Big Apple is like the Trojan Magnum XL: Too big for your own good, and tasting of rubber. Seattle has made little effort to break away from the pack, but a recent meal at Giannoni's has left me with a glimmer of hope for the future.
Giannoni's sprang to life in the summer of 2007 at the hands of California transplants Quentin and Donna Burns. After Donna's mother passed away and left them with a little money, the Burnses decided to set up shop in West Seattle and name their pizzeria after her for good luck. They hired a consulting chef from Naples to train their staff, learned how to make everything themselves, and the rest is history.
If first impressions counted for everything in the omnibus of American pizzerias, then Giannoni's would barely register as a footnote. Crammed between a Sally Beauty Supply and a Taco Del Mar in the Westwood Village Shopping Center, with a full battalion of soccer mom minivans and SUVs parked out front, you would not be faulted for mistaking Giannoni's for a knockoff of some national chain like Round Table or Papa John's. The modest interior is minimally decorated with a definite slant toward the utilitarian, save for some stylish graffiti on one wall and two ancient arcade cabinets. But once a piping hot pie hits your table and you dig in, any aesthetic crime committed by the prosaic architecture is forgiven.
This is New York pizza, plain and simple. Sure, some of the pizzas have Italian names, such as the Capricciosa, or the Alla Salliccia, but they're served right alongside heretics like the Hawaiian and BBQ chicken pies, which the aforementioned Neapolitan chef refused to allow on the initial menu. The Margherita tries to meet Naples and New York in the middle, and while it's definitely closer to Montauk than the center of the Mediterranean, I thought the result was strong. Aged whole-milk mozzarella steps in for fresh and melds with the tangy tomato sauce (crushed San Marzanos seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano) to form a gooey orange mass that is impossible not to crave after the first bite. The basil chiffonade, nicely robust, cuts through the considerable salt in the sauce and cheese and keeps it balanced. The whole pizza really clicked for me; it was easily the best thing I ate at Giannoni's.
Conversely, the cheese slice lacks any basil, and manages to be less salty than the Margherita. Perhaps it's because the amount of sauce on the individual slices is severely reduced from what's slathered on the whole pies, leaving only the most tenuous of layers beneath the generous portion of blistered mozzarella. I can see some people getting up in arms over the sauce deprivation here, but I didn't have a problem with it; the slice tasted great. It's also a meal in itself, fully a foot long from crust to tip, and folds in half effortlessly, just like a New York slice should. At two bucks, it's a steal.
Less successful, I think, was the Hawaiian slice. Nothing particularly heinous about it, but it came across pretty limp and flat-tasting, and the radioactive-yellow Dole pineapple scattered over it is genetically engineered not to blow anyone's mind. Skip it.
I also tried the Appassionato di Carne, a meat-lover's fantasy of epic proportions for which the crust was no match. The grease seeping from all the meat, coupled with the sheer weight of the toppings, left slices plucked from this pizza sagging. That is not to say they weren't good eats, because they most certainly were. I liked the savory, crumbly sausage from Isernio's and the char-rimmed discs of Canadian bacon, and how the flavor of the salami shined through despite heavy competition.
The Mezzo Fretzo perfectly demonstrates how, at least in my opinion, goat cheese is a better "alternative" pizza cheese than Gorgonzola. Cheese from goat's milk is certainly richer and more textured than mozzarella, but it doesn't leave you feeling like you've eaten an entire meal after one small slice like Gorgonzola is prone to do. The little cubes of chicken, oddly enough, reminded me of McNuggets, which you may or may not find off-putting. As for the fresh sliced tomatoes, I feel they neither enhanced nor detracted from the slice's overall impact; tomatoes this time of year are little more than moist red orbs. Curious flavors aside, I thought everything came together pretty well.
The one area that could use a little improvement would be the crust, although watching co-owner Donna Burns hand-toss it was a treat. Structurally, it's sound. It's thin all the way to the cornicione, where it puffs up and crunches audibly between the teeth. Beneath the crispy exterior lie alternately dense and expansive webs of soft gluten strands that stretch mightily when pried apart. But it's the flavor that's a bit lacking, tasting more of well-salted breadsticks than anything else (and incidentally, the crust is best eaten at home, reheated in the oven, so that it also takes on the texture of breadsticks). Not necessarily bad, and totally serviceable, but just average. A sourdough starter would go a long way here.
I always have high hopes and low expectations when trying pizza that claims to be New York–style, but Giannoni's bucks the trend of crappy, flavorless imitation. The cheese slice in particular can stand toe-to-toe with any number of real New York City slice joints, a feat that Quentin and Donna Burns should be proud of. And this Margherita should be the go-to pie for anyone in the neighborhood.
The pizza here is good enough to warrant going big, so there's no shame in ordering one with a diameter three-quarters the length of your arm. And yes, you can brag about it.