Fort Lee, New Jersey: Franco's Metro

Editor's Note: Welcome back your friendly neighborhood New Jersey pizza correspondent, Tim Kang! In case you missed it, last week he took us to Fort Lee Pizzeria.

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[Photographs: Tim Kang]

Franco's Metro

1475 Bergen Boulevard Fort Lee, NJ 07024 (map); (201)461-6651; website
Pizza style: New York-style
Oven type: Gas and Brick Oven Gas
Notes: Open 11am-11pm Sunday-Thursday, 11AM-midnight Friday-Saturday.
Price: Pizzas $6.95 to $17.95

On Fort Lee's western border lies another famed local institution, Franco's Metro Restaurant, Bar & Pizza. Calabrian immigrants Franco and Antonietta Azzarelli originally opened up the business as Main Pizza in 1972 on Main Street. After business boomed, they moved to their current location and eventually expanded their restaurant to feature a bar and dining room separate from the pizzeria. The restaurant side features excellent Italian dishes that attract loyal customers and long waits.

In the rear of the main dining room stands a brick oven emblazoned with the restaurant's logo. Diners can order personal sized 10" pies baked in this oven, or a NYC-style pie baked in the pizzeria's conventional gas oven. When I approached, I noticed a fake log within the brick oven sitting above a gas flame; this odd touch didn't bode well for my visit.

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Don't get me wrong; I'm a pizza snob, not an oven snob. While the pizzaiolo prepared my pizza, I looked with anticipation at the thick slices of fresh mozzarella sitting amidst uncooked canned tomatoes strewn across the surface. Establishments like Nick's Pizza have shown that gas ovens can turn out great pizza (heck, Brian Spangler does it at Apizza Scholls with an electric oven), and this gas-fired brick oven turned out a visually promising Margherita pie. Coupled with a basil chiffonade and an extremely bubbly cornicione, it seemed like I was in for a treat.

The endcrust was obviously well cooked, but unfortunately the first bite revealed a woefully undercooked 1/2" thick crust at the tip of the slice. I found the tomatoes a bit too raw and sweet for my taste. The thick cheese slices cooled too quickly and left me biting into solid mozzarella. Given the disconnect between the pie's overall doneness and a four to five minute cooking time, I suspect three culprits for these undercooking issues: the crust's thickness, the discrepancy between the floor and dome temperatures, and a relatively low temperature of this particular oven compared to its wood or coal-fired kin.

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The pepperoni and onion pie from the pizzeria's conventional gas oven fared slightly better. The pizza had an undesirably lopsided distribution of greasy, soft pepperoni, and the onions came in a passable ΒΌ" thick chop.

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It had a thin 1/8", crispy, yeasty crust, but its dense nature made it tough for me to bite through. The cheese to sauce ratio tipped greater than 1:1; that's too much cheese for my taste, but on the upside the loose sauce had a balanced flavor that didn't rely too much on herbs.

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On these counts, this pie tasted better than the brick oven Margherita primarily due to the crust doneness, but the sum of its parts left me indifferent.

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The story fortunately shifts with the salads. The superb Caesar salad comprised of fresh romaine and crispy croutons and was properly topped with Parmesan shavings. The creamy Caesar dressing had a distinct anchovy undertone that gave a surprisingly bright lift to the umami-rich flavor profile.

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The iceberg lettuce salad came slightly overdressed but still hit the spot with its thinly shaved red onions and juicy olives.

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The garlic knots, my beloved classic NYC style pizzeria staple, came out piping hot and fresh. They had a chewy, dense crumb that tore easily. I honestly enjoyed them more than the pizza due to their soft texture and garlic-and-herb-buttered sheen.

I've heard good things about the pasta and meat dishes at Franco's Metro, and I intend to return to try them. But I likely won't be back for the pizza; it would do fine if you lived in the area and wanted delivery or takeout for a football game, but it's not worth going out of your way.

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