710 Van Houten Avenue, Clifton NJ 07013; map); 973-777-1559
Pizza Style: "Emma"-style
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Skinny is right! The wafer-thin crust has remained unchanged since 1945
Price: Small pie $9, large $11
Emma Barilari liked her pizza thin. That's understating things a bit. She liked her pizza so thin that dollar bills laid flat next to a slice threatened to tower over it. So thin that light passed through it.
But, at the same time, she didn't like it to be as crisp and arid as a cracker; she wanted some pliancy and textural contrast there. This is something that takes some skill and a particular set of circumstances to achieve, something that might even require a "secret family recipe." That might have been a problem, except that she and her husband happened to own a restaurant called Mario's.
Mario's opened in 1945 as a bar, but within a few months pizza was added, followed by a full-blown Italian-American menu. The restaurant expanded physically as well—the simple bar underwent four additions throughout the years, making it a sprawling building large enough to hold banquets. But some things have remained constant. The pizza has remained unchanged since the "new" oven was added (in the 1950s) and Mario's is still family-owned—Ken Barilari, Mario and Emma's grandson, runs the place.
The room was remodeled in the '70s but little has changed since then.
The sign outside doesn't even list the area code; back then it was 201, since changed to 973.
Getting back to Emma and her penchant for slice svelteness, her taste in pies attracted converts from the regular pie sold at Mario's, which is itself not especially thick. As people would see her eating her paper-thin creation they would ask to have theirs like Emma. Ken Barilari reports that while one in ten used to order the pie, "Emma-style" now accounts for 40 percent of pizza sales at Mario's. At this rate by the time Mario's turns 100 it will be selling only Emma-style pies. Which is how it should be. Not that I have tried the regular crust—who in their right mind would argue with an Italian grandmother?
The details about how the crust gets so vanishingly thin without devolving in to matzo are of course family secrets, although Ken did divulge that they do not use a rolling pin and that the pizza cooks for about 5 minutes near 550 degrees. Of course the oven has a lot to do with the product; as Barilari says, "You change the oven, you change the pizza."
What is remarkable about the Emma-style pie is its paper-thin but pliant and tender crust. It is cooked through but retains enough moisture to have some chewiness. The end crust is cracker crisp, shattering when folded, but because it is so thin it's not a chore to eat and balances the softness of the interior nicely. The thin layer of sauce (which is homemade, like the dough) and the melted mozzarella are both applied in perfect proportion to achieve a wonderful synergy with the crust, producing a creamy, sweet, yeasty, crunchy yet tender bite.
I tried half of my pie with slices of homemade meatballs, which were very good, but even they were a bit too thick for an Emma-style pie, which achieves such a pleasing gestalt plain that it needs nothing else.
Barilari is proud of his pizza and the heritage at Mario's. "There is a lot of great pizza out there," he says, "but ours is unique."
Indeed it is. There is a reason that Mario's has customers who have been going there for as long as 50 years, and Barilari says there are plenty of former Clifton residents who make it their first stop when visiting.
When I ask him if his children will be taking over Mario's, making it the fourth generation and taking Emma-style further into the new century, he turns melancholy. "I wish, but I don't think so," he says, his voice fading in volume.
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