A Slice of Heaven: Bar Pizza

Bar (or tavern) pizza is an entity unto itself within the pizza realm. It's been around at least since Prohibition ended in 1933, but who knows, maybe there was a speakeasy serving pizza. It is served all over the country, although I have found a preponderance of bar pizza in New Jersey; Staten Island, New York; Chicago; and Connecticut.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceWhat defines a bar pizzeria? They're usually family-run businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation. It's pizza served in a bar (of course), which means minors are not let in unaccompanied by adults. At Vito & Nick's on Chicago's far South Side, a sign on the door greets all perspective customers with that very message. Bar pizza is served by waiters, waitresses, and bartenders who, let's just say, have been around the pizza oven more than a few times. They may make you feel welcome, but only after sizing you up for a full minute. They usually have a twinkle in their eye that's not immediately discernible, and more than a little bit of attitude. A bar pizzeria likely has plastic tablecloths if it has any tablecloths at all. There's a good chance that the choicest tables are booths.

What is bar pizza like? It's usually very thin-crusted to (I'm guessing) leave plenty of room in the eater's stomach for beer. It's baked in a gas oven that may have replaced a coal oven if the bar is old enough. Bar pizza is made with decent, commercial, aged mozzarella and comes topped with canned mushrooms, standard pepperoni and, if you're lucky, house-made sausage. You will not find any fancy-pants ingredients or toppings in or on a bar pizza, although at the Brü Rm. at Bar in New Haven, Connecticut, they have created a yuppie, postmodern bar pizzeria that serves things like mashed-potato pizza and blonde ale. It's actually good pizza and good beer, but somehow it seems antithetical to the original idea of bar pizza.

In the last 20 years, a new kind of bar pizza has cropped up—a decidedly fancy-pants pie, served in the bars of serious restaurants all over the country. Chef-proprietors such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck wouldn't deign to serve pizza in their formal dining rooms at dinner alongside the foie gras and caviar, but, like the rest of us, they love pizza and wanted to figure out a way to serve it in their restaurants.

I ate more than my fair share of workingman's bar pizza while writing my book A Slice of Heaven. Here are my favorites.

Reservoir Tavern | Boonton, New Jersey With its low ceilings adorned with stained acoustical tile, the Reservoir Tavern needs only a knock hockey set and a ping-pong table to be the rec room all of us wanted to have growing up. The Bevacqua family has been turning out pizzas and other homey Italian-American fare since 1937. The pizza here comes out of a bread oven with rotating shelves that looks very much like the oven at Santarpio's in Boston. The pies are hearty, fairly thick-crusted, and have a great crunch when you bite into them. The sausage is made in-house, and though they use standard aged mozzarella on their pies, they will substitute fresh mozzarella on request. The potato-and-bacon pizza would be spectacular if they used thinner potato slices. 90 Parsippany Boulevard (Route 287); Boonton NJ 07054; 973-334-5708

Santarpio's | Boston Santarpio's opened as a bread bakery in the same East Boston location in 1910. In 1933, after Prohibition was lifted, the Santarpio family took over the pool hall next door and started serving pizza, pasta, and grilled lamb-and-pork sausage skewers to the Italian laborers who worked and lived in East Boston. pasta and grilled lamb-and-pork sausage skewers to the Italian laborers who worked and lived in East Boston. Why the unlikely combination of pizza and grilled meat? Because, as current owner Frank Santarpio remembers with a chuckle, "Our neighbors and customers, Italian laborers, worked hard and drank hard, and they wanted filling, cheap food and a piece of meat." The pizzas were made in a coal-fired brick oven until 1952, when, according to Santarpio, "the thing just fell apart, and they had to replace it with a Reed gas bread oven, which had five shelves that could hold eight pizzas each." The crust at Santarpio's has plenty of crunch and char, although, Santarpio says, "A lot of people these days want it more like the chains, so if they want it not too crispy, we'll give it to them. But if we make it for 'em the way I like it, it will be the best pizza they ever ate, as long as they have good teeth." 111 Chelsea Street, Boston MA 02128; 617-567-9871; santarpiospizza.com

Vito & Nick's | Chicago In 1952, Vito Barraco and his son Nick began serving thin-crusted pizza at their tavern at 79th and Carpenter. It (and they) would eventually become famous all over the South Side of Chicago. Thirteen years later, the Barracos moved to their current location, a low-slung building on the corner of 84th and Pulaski. The Barracos use excellent local sausage on their pizza and, much like Stamford's Colony Grill, their hot oil spices up the pizza considerably. 8433 South Pulaski Road, Chicago IL 60652; 773-735-2050; vitoandnick.com

Brü Rm. at Bar | New Haven, Connecticut Bar is the quintessential yuppie tavern pizzeria. When you walk in, you're confronted by big copper beer tanks and a huge gas-fired brick oven. Bar doesn't deviate too much from New Haven pizza tradition. They serve their pies on metal rectangular trays just the way they do it on Wooster Street. Bar's clam pie has just enough fresh briny clams on a slightly charred and crisp crust, and their more conventional pies like sausage and mozzarella aren't too shabby either. Bar devotees swear by the designer toppings, but I say when in New Haven, eat New Haven pizza. That means no mashed potatoes on your pie. 254 Crown Street, New Haven CT 06511; 203-495-1111; www.barnightclub.com/bruroom.html

Eddie's | New Hyde Park, New York I'm not a big fan of cracker-thin pizza crust, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Eddie's pizza, which features a crust not much thicker than one of those pieces of cardboard sandwiched inside my laundered shirts. Though the crust is cracker-thin, it's surprisingly pliant. You can fold a slice of Eddie's pizza. Through five owners and 73 years, Eddie's has been pleasing Nassau County residents determined to save the bulk of the room in their stomachs for beer, not pizza. 2048 Hillside Avenue, New Hyde Park NY 11040; 516-354-9780

Colony Grill | Stamford, Connecticut I was turned on to Colony Grill by a pizza-loving patron of Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut. He said that although he loved Sally's, the one pizza he could not do without is Colony Grill's. It's the oldest establishment serving food in Stamford, Connecticut, having opened in 1840. The only thing on the menu is pizza: small, round pies baked in a pan. The crust is the quintessential ultrathin, crackerish bar pizza crust, and the sausage may be made in-house. The pièce de résistance at Colony, its reason for being, is the spritz of hot pepper oil they'll add to the top of your pie if you so desire. Make sure you have a full mug of beer when you bite into the hot-oil pizza—you will need it. 172 Myrtle Avenue, Stamford CT 06902; 203-359-2184

Denino's | Staten Island At Denino's, the pizza box says it all: "In Crust We Trust." They should trust their crust, because it is light and crisp and pliant. Denino's is a classic red-brick tavern pizzeria (with a separate dining room), but it is just as welcoming to kids after a little league game as it is to middle-aged softball players coming in for a pie and a brew after a game. I'm crazy about Denino's sausage pie, which features fine sweet Italian sausage made fresh every day by a local butcher. If you want to go vegetarian, try the white pie, made with mozzarella, onions, fresh garlic, and a splash of olive oil. After more than five decades, you might think the Denino family has gotten bored with making pizza. Not so, according to third-generation co-owner Michael Denino: "We still put our heart and soul into every pie." 524 Richmond Avenue, Staten Island NY 10302; 718-442-9401