"Have you been here before?" Frank Balzano, co-owner of Totonno's asked us after we ordered our pies. We had. "Okay, I think we're back. But tell me what you think."
He was zipping around the tiny dining room like the platonic ideal of the dotting grandfather, sporting a Totonno's tee and wipin' down tables. Cookie Cimineri was there, of course, running the floor, hugging longtime customers, and doing her Totonno's thing.
"You're gonna have to go outside," Cookie told a customer who, after placing an order, had posted up by the refrigerators. "You're going to cause an accident or something, I can't have you here."
So, nothing has changed. This exchange was just one of many that brought a smile to our faces, when Carey Jones, Max Falkowitz, and I visited Totonno's this Sunday. Arriving at 1 p.m., we found the pizzeria packed with eager customers: mothers and fathers with their babies, kids paying for pies as dad waited in the car, men in track suits drinking wine alone and gawking at our pies, and a crowd of hungry fans waiting outside.
And the pizza we're all here for? Carey would have you know Sunday's pies—a sausage and mushrooms and a white—were some of the best she's ever had.
"Why can't all white pies be this good?" Max asked, and it's a good question.
Whereas many pizzerias overload their white pies with ricotta and garlic, putting out oily and cloying pies, Totonno's keeps it simple. A touch of garlic, but not so much that you can't kiss your better half after, and a bed of creamy, stretchy mozzarella make for a pie that we can confidently call one of our favorite whites in the city. You could call it a more laid-back, delightfully milky alternative to Louie & Ernie's ricotta-forward take.
The Sausage and Mushroom is no less worthy of your table. The bright and acidic sauce, fresh if a little quiet, makes a good foil for the peppery, meaty sausage and tender sliced mushrooms. The toppings are applied with restraint, for a pie that is wetter than the plain but nonetheless crisp.
Carey was particularly fond of the end-crust, admitting, "I could eat those forever." Light, airy and poofy, "In a good way," were words that came to mind when describing our pizza. But always with enough structure, as Max pointed out, for it to still feel like a New York pie. Just don't expect an end-crust as porous and crispy as you'll find on some New York slices. As Adam's photo illustrates, you'll get some nice color, marked by splotches of black on the undercarriage. Our only complaint would be that the bones, if only by default, were our least favorite part.
After our meal, Max and I both agreed that post-Sandy Totonno's was undoubtedly better than the last time either of us ate there. For him, that was in 2010. For me? A mere 8 days before, when I dropped by with the Robicelli's and a mutual friend. (For the record, the pizza was quite good that evening.) But the pies I had on Sunday were the best I've ever had at Totonno's.
When I spoke to Adam Kuban the day after his own visit, he told me, "[the pies] were along the lines of what I remembered when I started going there in 2000." The nostalgic value of those meals, and the benchmark they set for the self-proclaimed budding pizza freak, shouldn't be discounted. Food is never as good as we remember, and yet. For those who feel Totonno's may have slipped after the 2009 fire, right or wrong, these post-Sandy pies offer a rebuttal and a return to form. Three days later, I'm already craving more.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.