Belleville, New Jersey: Insanely Great Pizza at La Sicilia
155 Washington Avenue, Belleville, NJ 07109 (map); 973-751-5726
Pizza style: Grandma style
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Genre-defining grandma style pizza, plus excellent seafood
Price: Pizzas $6.50 to $13. Cash only
Fellow pizza-crazed friends, I'm usually hesitant to hype anything for fear of backlash, but I must emphatically present a new candidate for the great pizza hall of fame.
It is a garlic-laden, tomato-loaded masterpiece that, in Kuban vernacular, has haunted my dreams since I ate my last bite.
Giuseppe Ali, La Sicilia's affable proprietor, immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 from Agrigento, Sicily. After navigating a 30-year circuitous bout of restaurant gigs in Bayonne, the West Hamptons, and Jersey City, Mr. Ali opened La Sicilia in Belleville, New Jersey, six years ago as his first pizza-centric venture. The net effect of all his experience is a menu full of exquisitely delicious, classic red-sauce Italian cooking.
The Palermo pie, their heart-stoppingly delicious grandma-style pizza, is a stunner. It features a 1/2" thick, parbaked square crust foundation topped with thin slices of fresh mozzarella, slathered virtually edge-to-edge with a devastatingly good crushed tomato sauce bursting with garlic and fresh herb flavor. A sprinkling of grated pecorino finishes it off.
The crust has a slightly dense crumb but stays chewy and soft. It has a slight amount of oil that imparts flavor but doesn't bog one's stomach down. The minimal edges at the ends and corners toasted up with a satisfying crunch.
Similarly to Dom De Marco's square pie method at Di Fara, Giuseppe parbakes the crust with a thin slick of sauce and lets it cool before topping it with cheese. The subtly sweet and creamy cheese then stands out more clearly as a separate but team-playing component.
The mind-bendingly good tomato sauce lying on top serves as the true heart of the dish. To make each daily batch of this perfect sauce, Giuseppe mixes and calibrates the flavor of his own blend of imported San Marzano tomatoes and domestic Alta Cucina plum tomatoes. The vibrant, succulent sauce then receives a heavy dose of garlic. He adds an exquisitely fragrant, higher-quality dried oregano, basil, and some other secret elements.
Great pies like this inspire guessing games because of their transcendence. I drove myself crazy trying to figure out what other elements these were—maybe a splash of white wine imparted that extra umph of flavor, or maybe tarragon? Whatever the case, this pie has me hooked.
The NYC-street style pizza didn't fare as well in comparison, but it was still decent. I ordered a pie with cheese on one half and sausage, bell peppers, and onions on the other.
The cheese to sauce ratio skewed way too heavily towards cheese for my taste; the minimal slick of sauce functioned almost as an afterthought. However, the pie had an overall salty umami impact that I enjoyed.
The thin, 1/8" crust came overcooked to the verge of burning in some sections, but it did have redeeming qualities. The crumb was soft, if a little dense.
The crust skin and undercarriage had a layer of fine, paper-thin bubbles dotting its surface that imparted a satisfying shatter as I bit in.
The sausage came thinly sliced lengthwise and packed plenty of sweet fennel flavor. The white onions were sweet and green bell peppers were satisfyingly crisp. They beautifully combined with the fennel and pork flavors; this classic flavor combination works for a reason.
I have to mention the spicy mussels appetizer. They come perfectly soft and chewy and swimming in a garlicky tomato-based broth. The best part of the night involved dipping the Palermo slices into the mussel broth. Everything great about the Palermo reached even new heights with the added seafood flavor—it's a match made in heaven.
There you have it folks, my humble bid to present La Sicilia's Palermo pie as a new inductee into the pizza hall of fame. Its amazing that a pie this good only costs $13. So please check it out for yourselves, and make sure you get the mussels to dribble the stock (and a mussel or two) on top. Even if you don't agree with my superlatives, you won't be sorry for the trip.