Waldwick, New Jersey: Nellie's Place
My recently-awakened taste for bar pizza led me to check out another local favorite this week. Irish immigrant Nellie Roche, the eponymous owner of Nellie's Place, started working at the restaurant as a waitress in 1970 and eventually bought the place with her husband Joe and other business partners in 1983. By 1989, the couple took full ownership, renamed it from Stasny's to the current name, and introduced the current menu that includes its popular pizzas.
The Star Ledger's Pizza Patrol rated the plain pizza here higher than Kinchley's, so I came with a fresh memory of last week's winning violent torpedoes* of pizza to see how this place stacked up.
I can see why the Star Ledger liked this plain pie better than the one at Kinchley's. The cheese to sauce ratio skewed to a more favorable 1:1 balance. The sauce tasted fresher and sweeter. On the downside, it had a runnier structure, and the flavor of the sauce reminded me more of ketchup than I would have liked. Nonetheless, it still tasted markedly better than the overcooked paste passing as pizza sauce in most budget-friendly pizza shops.
The crust had the a similar thickness to the Kinchley's crust, measuring about 1/16"-1/8" thick, but it didn't didn't match the excellent crisp crunch of Kinchley's. It also had a significantly lower amount of bubbling. Some would prefer this crust, though—its softer, chewier, and slightly flakier texture reminded me of a miniaturized New York pizza slice.
This pie is cooked in a traditional gas oven without the aid of a pizza screen. Personally, I prefer the crisper cracker-like crust in a bar pie, since the texture dimension differentiates it as a distinct class. If I wanted a softer and chewier crust in a razor thin profile, I'd go to Pasty's in Harlem for its superior flavor.
Interesting enough, Nellie's had a "Fra Diablo" option to give me a real point of comparison with what made me like Kinchley's pizza. Nellie's pie was delicious in its own right but had a few flaws.
The spicy kick in this sauce tapered out into a pleasantly slow burn, but the sauce still made me think "ketchup" more than I would have preferred. Furthermore, it lacked the bits of onion that gave Kinchley's Fra Diavolo pie its special flair.
The server suggested getting the house-made sausage, so I paired it with basil on half a pie to make life interesting. Sure enough, the combination worked well—the vibrant basil offset the meaty flavor of the sausage. However, the sausage's flavor let me down.
The "house-made" description got my hopes unrealistically; these were run-of-the-mill salty porky slices. The fennel seeds didn't taste very fresh and were too sparsely distributed. The only favorable trait was the way the sausage slices crumbled at the edges for some added texture.
On the margherita half, it seems that Nellie's laid wan, flavorless tomato slices and basil atop a presauced and cheesed base and finished the product off with dollops of fresh mozzarella. It almost tasted good. I liked the extra juicy dimension that the sliced tomatoes gave to the pie. But things didn't add up.
The complete lack of flavor in the tomatoes left me underwhelmed. Cooking the basil removed its vibrancy. The fresh mozzarella pieces also cooled to a rubbery texture too quickly since they didn't have any sauce to melt into.
Overall, the pizza was decent. I'm not sure if the place is worth a pizza-obsessive pilgrimage like Kinchley's is, but it would certainly suffice if I wanted to kick back and share pizza and drinks with a bunch of friends. It's a good value for the price. They have plenty of seating space, a full dining room for families separate from the bar, an extensive drink menu, and from what I hear, killer sweet potato fries.
*I had to work that into one of my reviews at least once!