New Jersey: Nostalgia and a Solid Slice at Fort Lee Pizzeria

Author's note: Greetings fellow pizza-lovers! This is your friendly neighborhood New Jersey pizza correspondent (formerly known as 'pizzasnob') checking in for my first weekly report. You will discover the origins of my eponymous pizza snobbery and hopefully get inspired to try a place in my beloved home state. I will set a ground rule now though—please, no mentions by anyone of stereotypical Jersey slang or anything that has to do with The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, or those "Real Housewives." If you do, watch out—you may end up wearing concrete shoes in the bottom of the Hudson. Real pizza, the people behind it, and their craft and care will reign supreme. Iron Chef references ARE allowed.

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[Photographs: Tim Kang]

Fort Lee Pizzeria

2469 Lemoine Avenue, Fort Lee, NJ 07024 (map); 201-947-2421; website
Pizza style: New York-style
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Classic Northeast Italian American cooking and a proper pizza.
Hours: 10 am to 10 pm, closed Sundays
Price: Pizzas $10.50 to $22.50

Before "true Neapolitan," coal-ovens, char levels, and bufala came along, the classic gas-oven NYC-style slice served as my gold standard.

Since I'm a believer in Sam Sifton's Pizza Cognition Theory, I want to highlight one of my personal pizza touchstones: the local family-run New Jersey pizza joint.

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Pizza is the perfect communal food and most New Jersey towns have at least one good pizzeria that doubles as a democratizing community center. Fort Lee, New Jersey, is a large enough town to contain support such establishments. Founded in 1973 and converted from an old diner, Fort Lee Pizzeria (FLP), located on the northern edge of town, epitomizes this ideal.

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Down to the 1970s-era d├ęcor, Formica tables, a first-generation Italian grandma occasionally manning the counter, and the requisite town police roster proudly displayed on the wall, this place is the real deal. It serves old school red-sauce southern Italian home cooking, featuring pasta, pizza, and heroes. Second-generation owner Rick Pulice informed me that they still use the original recipes that his parents adapted from their native Calabrian roots.

The plain pie at any pizzeria stands as my test of its muster, and FLP's version stands up well. When evaluating a plain slice, I first note the cheese to sauce ratio, critique the sauce, then analyze the crust.

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      Cheese-to-sauce ratio: FLP passed this test with flying colors. I estimate a roughly 1:1 ratio, the maximum before the cheese starts to overpower the slice. A slice should visually have an evenly mottled surface. When I bit into FLP's steaming slice, the mildly fruity sauce evenly offset the gooey, classic S&R brand low-moisture mozzarella in a way that transported me back to my childhood pizza Ratatouille-style. Lesser places sell slices that look almost white or have half an inch's worth of cheese on top
    1. Sauce critique: The sauce has a mild fruity note. FLP lightly pre-cooks its imported canned tomatoes for the sauce and barely herbs it, if at all. I tasted maybe a hint of oregano, but I really had to imagine it. This is a great thing, folks. This sauce may not in the same league as the best coal- or brick-oven pizzas in NYC, but its subtlety and fruitiness score very high marks

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    1. Crust analysis: The upskirt shot shows a typical NYC-style crust—sturdy, quarter-inch thick, functional, and cooked on wire mesh pizza trays. It had a typical bready flavor without any particularly fragrant yeast note, and a relatively open-holed crumb in the end crust. These features yielded a solid, chewy crust with a crisp surface. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either

    The plain slice verdict: Although the crust was less than transcendent, it's a decent slice that will surely satisfy you. It obviously doesn't achieve Di Fara's level of greatness, but this solid slice closely matches the pizza I loved in my youth. Rick told me that many of his clientele regularly return to this location from out of town; it's a spot that inspires nostalgia.

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    A topping of prosciutto and onions greatly elevated FLP's plain cheese pizza by utilizing two key techniques. First, they thinly mandoline-sliced their onions instead of chopping them into wedges. When cooked, the delicate, paper-thin strands released an extra amount of fragrantly sweet onion flavor without imparting an overpowering onion bitterness. Second, instead of building a blanket of prosciutto on top after cooking the pie, the cooks distributed prosciutto in clumps amidst the sauce and applied the cheese and onion layer on top. Burying the meat imparted the prosciutto's flavor to the sauce and cheese while cooking and retained its soft texture. Each bite comes into harmony: rich and meaty pork, cheese, and sauce mingled together and set off with fruity tomato and bright onion notes on top. This is a pie that other pizzerias should imitate.

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    How are the other toppings? The moist, fennel-herbed coins of sliced sweet Italian sausage paired well with chunky peppers and thin-sliced onions. I just wished for a bit more sausage, the serving felt a little skimpy. The pepperoni was pretty standard-issue greasy stuff, but the only real miss of the night was the use of canned mushrooms. Fresh mushroom flavor and texture would have worked better than the slippery canned variety did.

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    Don't bother with the 'Caesar' salad: it had fresh vegetables and garlic knot croutons, but was topped with canned olives and confusingly didn't come with Caesar dressing.

    I haven't tried the pasta yet, but I've ordered the hot heroes in the past; the chicken parm and meatball subs have vibrant sauces and taste freshly made. They're worth a trip, though the pizza is enough for me. If you ever get stuck in GW Bridge traffic and need a meal, take the Lemoine Avenue exit and drive a mile and quarter north to Fort Lee Pizzeria. Their food will make you feel like a kid again.

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