An East Village Pie-athalon: Who's Got The Best Neapolitan Pies?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There are three Neapolitan-ish pizzerias all within a one block radius in the East Village between 11th and 12th street and Avenues A and 2, making it a prime dining destination for pie-eaters from the city. I mean, who wants to head all the way out to a neighborhood with pizza in mind, find out its too busy to dine at, and have no more options?

The question is: If you're headed to the East Village, which pizzeria should be on the top of your list? Is it Motorino, Luzzo's, or Numero 28?

I gathered a few friends and went for a three-way pie-athalon, tasting pies and meatballs at all three pizzerias to see if we could get to the bottom. It's crust or bust, baby.

The Criteria:

The pizzerias were judged on the following:

  • Margherita Pie, Overall (25 points): The classic pie should have a good balance of fresh, simple, sweet-tart tomato sauce, fully melted (but not browned) buffalo mozzarella, good extra-virgin olive oil, and basil aroma that permeates the pie. The crust should be crisp and puffy with a good amount of charred leopard spots. Crisp, more than crunchy. This one is all about balance.
  • The Underbelly (10 points): When you pick up a slice, you want to see a good amount of charred spots, and a big contrast between the darkest regions and the lightest. Even golden blond is definitely not what we want.
  • The Bones (10 points): When Neapolitan pizza dough is good, you should want to eat the pizza bones, just to get some of that excellent crisp-on-the-outside, fluffy in the middle, smoky, charred breadiness.
  • A Spicy Sopressata Pie (5 points): It's one of our favorite toppings, but the quality of the cured meat can make or break the pie. We want our sopressata to taste like high quality cured pork, not simply fancy-pants pepperoni.
  • A Specialty Pie (10 points): We ordered one of the house special pies at each location to see what the pie-men can do when given free creative reign.
  • The Meatballs (5 points): Every pizzeria served meatballs, and if you've ever paid attention to the difference in quality between balls, you'll know that it takes every bit as much skill and knowledge to make great meatballs as it does to make great pizza. How do their balls compare?

The Margherita

Luzzo's: 16/25 ($17/$22 small/large)

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Despite their signage, Luzzo's doesn't make a completely traditional Neapolitan pizza, but that's no matter, they are quite tasty either way. Their tomato sauce could use a little more sauce and the cheese they use could be a bit creamier, but the balance is spot on. My biggest complaint is with the crust, which is consistently super-thin and borders on crackery. I miss the nice bready layer that a top-notch Neapolitan pie should have.

Motorino: 21/25 ($15)

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One of the greatest pies in the city, Motorino has a great balance of ingredients. Puffy, charred, blistered dough with great chew and a paper-thin crisp layer on the exterior, bright, fresh tasting sauce, plenty of creamy, oozy buffalo mozzarella, and basil that's applied before it goes in the oven (as it should be), so that the aroma perfumes the air as you eat the pie, rather than simply getting bursts of fresh basil in your mouth on random bites. Occasionally Motorino pies can border on too cheesy, but those times are few and far between.

Numero 28: 10/25 ($17/$28/$36, small/double/triple)

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High quality buffalo mozzarella that comes out not melted. Decent tasting crust that gets baked in an oven burning too cool until it's crackery and crunchy (if you order a double or triple, it's even worse—they roll the dough out with a rolling pin instead of stretching it). Heavy tasting tomato sauce applied in splotches and splashes on top of the cheese (like a Trenton tomato pie). Basil that's applied post-bake in big rough, stemmy tears. The place is fun and lively, but the pizza is far below the high standards set by its two neighbors.

The Underbelly

Luzzo's: 7/10

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Some fine looking spotting here, though I personally find it a bit too thin with a texture that becomes crackery. Good, smoky flavor to the char.

Motorino: 6/10

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Good thickness and chew to the crust. On this particular visit, the dough was a little less charred than I'd like, but the flavor was there.

Numero 28: 4/10

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Dry texture and anemic flavor, this is a crust that clearly spent too long in the oven, drying out instead of staying crisp and moist.

The Bones

Luzzo's: 5/10

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Luzzo's pies biggest shortcoming is its' more or less evenly-browned crust which, while tender and flavorful, lacks the great interplay of charred crispness and poofy, bread-y center.

Motorino: 9/10

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If Motorino were to throw all its toppings right into the 900°F oven and burn them to a crisp and spend the rest of their days serving just their naked crust, I'd still love them. There's no denying that once you get down to the pizza bones, this is a fine, fine piece of bread. Deeply flavorful, well seasoned, and a magnificent contrast of textures.

Numero 28: 3/10

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The pizza bones on a Numero 28 pie are barely risen, due to poor rolling and stretching technique. Rather, they stay flat, evenly browned, and crackery with not much flavor to speak of. I left mine sitting on the plate.

Sopresatta

Luzzo's: 4/5 ($18/$23 small/large)

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Adding sopressata to their regular pie is an immediate upgrade. The spicy sausage is flavorful and crisp, and the rendered fat gets absorbed nicely by the sauce, adding some much needed flavor.

Motorino: 5/5 ($16)

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Motorino's sopresatta has that sweet/salty funk of good cured pork. You know that aroma. It's what you get with the best prosciutto or pancetta. Couple that with a decent amount of heat and a sprinkle of garlic and basil (not to mention crisped up edges and cupped slices that help deliver the richly flavored rendered fat to your mouth.

Numero 28: 2/5 ($15/$26/$34 small/double/triple)

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They certainly aren't shy with their sopressata, applying it with a heavy hand. I wish it had gone on more evenly. We ended up with one slice that had a mere sliver of an edge of a slice of sausage, while another slice had a full five disks of the stuff. It's thick cut and curls/crisps nicely, but it tastes no better than standard deli-counter pepperoni, lacking the sweet porky flavor of well-cured meat.

Specialty Pies

Luzzo's Quadrata Marinara: 7/10 ($17/$22, small/large):

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Luzzo's crust fares far better as a base for their quadrata, a square pizza that comes in three flavors. We opted for the simplest, which combined their tomato sauce (still needed salt), a sprinkle of fresh thyme and olive oil, and some perfectly roasted, sweet slices of garlic. The dough seems slightly thicker on this pie, enough that the crunchiness that dominated the round pies gets tempered by a thicker layer of soft bread, making for some fine pie-eating.

Motorino's Brussels Sprout Pie: 9/10 ($16)

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The first time I had Motorino's brussels sprouts pizza, I questioned how centuries of human ingenuity could have ignored such a glorious combination for so long. The brussels sprouts leaves stay crisp and bright green, their edges shriveling and charring into sweet, nutty whips that combine with the smoky pork and pecorino/mozzarella blend. This is one of the great pies in the city (though Motorino's clam pie is not far behind).

Numero 28's Numero 28 Pizza: 2/10 ($17/$27/$36 small/double/triple

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A near perfect exercise in how to take ingredients and put them together in a way that makes every one of them worse. Some fine prosciutto gets piled onto a pie laden with bland white button mushrooms and mozzarella, then the whole thing is drizzled with copious amounts of chemical-tasting truffle oil cream. The cream is broken even before it goes on the pie and only further devolves into a greasy, curdled mess from the heat of the crust underneath. What's the word for the opposite of synergy?

A pizza should be restrained and balanced. This one is a hot, greasy, sloppy mess.

The Meatballs

Luzzo's: 2/5 ($10)

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Their sauce is flavorful enough and the balls are well seasoned, but they're as tough as rubber with barely any binder, and tiny to boot. An oozing cheese core gives them a bonus point.

Motorino: 5/5 ($9)

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Gigantic meatballs heated up in their wood fired oven and topped with their great fresh tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, and a dusting of Pecorino Romano. Well seasoned, deeply flavorful, and so tender that you wonder how they ever manage to transfer them to the plate (they fall apart if you even look at them wrong), these are probably the best meatballs I've ever had anywhere.

Numero 28: 0/5 ($12)

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They came to our spot at the bar looking pretty, and a quick dip in the sauce revealed some nice flavor. Unfortunately, the meatballs were literally frozen solid about half an inch under their surface, rendering them almost completely inedible.

The Winner: Motorino!

Even before tallying the scores up, it was pretty clear which pizzeria was going to reign supreme, but here we go, nonetheless:

Luzzo's: 39/65 (total cost: $62)
Motorino: 55/65 (total cost: $56)
Numero 28: 21/65 (total cost: 61)

And hey. Best score, and cheapest to boot. The only problem with Motorino? It's tiny. About 20 seats in a small, small space. However, the pies do come out fast and furious, so unless you've got an extremely large group, you shouldn't have to wait too long on any given night. For large parties, Luzzo's will do just fine—I've found myself there on several occasions when Motorino simply had no way of seating a group of 8 to 10.

As for Numero 28? While the original West Village location was making some decent pizza a few years ago, its modern, expanded empire simply doesn't hold a candle to the other options in the neighborhood. Skip it.

Motorino

349 E 12th St # A New York, NY 10003‎ (map); 212-777-2644; motorinopizza.com

Luzzo's

211 1st Ave # 1 New York, NY 10003‎ (map); 212-473-7447

Numero 28

176 2nd Avenue New York, NY 10003‎ (map); 212-219-9020; numero28.com

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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