A Hamburger Today
Landmark Tavern: New-School Bar Pies in an Old-School Setting
259 W. Mount Pleasant Ave., Livingston NJ 07039 (map); 973-533-9787; landmarklivingston.com
Pizza style: bar pizza
The skinny: Modern toppings on the classic thin-crust bar pie
Price: Large pies $10-16
The look of the Landmark Tavern tells you it's old the minute you step through the door—1970s old, based on the dark wood paneling and red vinyl seats cluttered around tables in a stepped series of low-ceilinged rooms. But the basic setup, seemingly good for a decent bar pie while you watch whatever afternoon game's playing on SNY, is unrecognizable as a former stagecoach stop dating back to 1882.
Ah, New Jersey. Sneaking that 19th century history into everything. A mural to the left of the bar paints a picture of the tavern's former life, a white clapboard house along a dirt road that saw everything from horse-delivered newspapers to picnic socials off the front porch (now a banquette-lined extension to the bar room where the mural is painted). These days, union workers belly up to the bar after their shift ends to catch up via burgers and beers, and families herd the kiddies into booths after yet another softball game.
And modern tavern-goers want modern pizzas. We live in a CPK- and Puck-inspired world, one where you'll find chicken fajita, Thai, shrimp scampi, and buffalo chicken pizzas even in a no-frills tavern like the Landmark. I made equal concessions to tradition and innovation with an order of the Old World pizza ($12) and the pesto pizza ($14). The Old World, a variation on a white pizza, came sprinkled with mozzarella, fresh garlic, and a healthy dose of black pepper on an olive oil-brushed crust. Sauce was optional, but bar consensus told me most people order the Old World with it, and when in Rome....
Adding the sauce was the right choice for this pizza. Though I'm not the world's biggest dried oregano fan, the simple crushed tomato sauce, dolloped on top of the mozzarella like ricotta on a white pizza, worked in the pie's favor. They weren't kidding with that black pepper; visible like freckles across the surface, it brought the heat in a good way. But the slightly sweet sauce kept it in balance with the buttery crust and salty cheese.
And the origin of the Old World name? No older and no further toward Europe than Little Falls. Owner Penny Oswald learned it from the owner of a now-defunct bar when expanding the Landmark's kitchen and menu beyond burgers and beers in 1999. The building's been in her family for 53 years and had been run as a tavern even before her cousin Al bought the place, but we can all credit Penny for bringing pizza to the Landmark.
We can also credit Penny for the pesto pizza, her favorite of the lineup, covered with a thin but super-garlicky swipe of fresh basil sauce spread to the edges of the thin crust. Almost more like a flatbread than a pizza, the pesto soaks into the crust to infuse it with oil and flavor and leave a deeply satisfying golden richness. And on such thin pies, the cheese crisps up almost frico-style, like when you microwave your nachos a bit too long or a slice of Cheddar falls out of your grilled cheese sandwich when you flip it in the pan. I love those little bits of caramelized cheese, so I'm down with a pizza that's more or less covered in it.
No offense to the Old World, but I guess I'm a New World gal after all. The black pepper spice carried me through the meal—I'll take a little bit of sinus-clearing heat wherever I can get it—but it was the pesto pizza that surprised me, and it's the one I'd order again. Bar pies they might be, but Landmark's pizzas offer quality variations on a theme in an unlikely setting. Bonus: any pizza tastes better when it's served with a $3.25 beer of the week, even more so when that beer's Brooklyn Summer.
About the author: Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories., a freelance food writer, and a transplanted Pittsburgher making the most of the Garden State. Find her on Twitter: @GoodFoodStories