Pickled Italian peppers and home-grown basil, oregano, and rosemary. A state-fair award-winning apple pie recipe from Ohio made from (somewhat) locally harvested fruit. Heat in the dining room supplied by a wood-burning stove. Nope, not a trendy "Ball jar joint" helmed by young Midwestern transplants in Brooklyn. This is all going on at Sac's Place in Astoria, Queens, one of the handful of coal-oven pizza joints in NYC.
Sac's Place is owned and run by the Sacramone brothers, Domenico and Anthony. Anthony, the older of the two brothers, started the pizzeria 22 years ago. He was working with ATM systems at a bank at the time and says he made with the encouragement of this then-girlfriend, now wife. "We used to go out to eat to all these places, Italian restaurants, pizzerias, and she got tired of hearing me say I could make better food," Sacramone says. "'Do it,' she said."
She invited Anthony to move in with her so he could save money, and he eventually secured the space at the corner of 29th Street and Broadway in Astoria.
It's got a coal oven, so you'd think the place was ancient, right? I did, but Sacramone says it was a candy store with a notorious history (closed for heroin dealing, he says), then a typical corner slice joint, and then he took over in 1989.
The brothers installed the coal oven in 1999, and all the pizzas are cooked in it. Not pictured is a set of gas-fired ovens, which Sac's uses for reheating slice pizza and cooking calzones and Sicilian pies—the coal oven is too hot for those.
Pizza here is very thin, and if you ask for it well-done, very crisp. It's still got some flexibility and some chewiness, though. It is not crackery, as many very thin-crust pizzas are. The crust is noticeably light, and even after several pieces does not weigh on your stomach.
The sauce, made from San Marzano tomatoes, is fresh-tasting, bright, and, depending on what type of pizza you get, it's either simply crushed tomato with some salt and garlic or a more New York–style sauce, thicker, and run through a food mill. (The brothers say they buy all their tomatoes for the year at once, tasting a number of different lines from Italy before settling on one and buying enough to last them.)
The crust takes on a nice amount of char without tasting bitter or burned. Make sure to ask for it well-done. "A lot of people complain that our pizza is 'burned,'" Anthony says, so they often throttle back on their pies. The first couple of times I ate at Sac's, in the early 2000s, I noticed floppier pizzas—until I learned the well-done trick.
On a recent visit, I tried a half-regular plain pie/half Sac's special (which has the crushed-tomato sauce with the garlic and sliced — as opposed to shredded — fresh mozzarella). After learning they also did the nice hunka-chunk sausage, I ordered that, too.
Both pizzas were satisfying and had a great balance of ingredients and flavor. Folks seeking a bready crust with lots of oven spring, however, should probably look elsewhere. This is a very thin, flat pizza.
Pastas, Pickles, Pie
In all the times I've eaten at Sac's, it's always been pizza for me. After all, this is Slice, right? But on a recent visit, I tried the gnocchi with ragu and a ravioli with smoked mozzarella and roasted red pepper (the house-made pasta itself has red pepper in the dough). Both were very good—as good, if not better than the pizza.
Remember I mentioned pickled peppers, etc.? The Sacramones own some property in Pennsylvania, where they grow vegetables for use in the restaurant and buy produce from neighboring farms. They pickle Italian peppers for use year-round.
Oh, and the pie? Domenico's mother-in-law is from Ohio, where she's won the state fair pie contest three times. He wheedled the recipe from her and serves it in the restaurant—made from apples from their Pennsylvania neighbors (so, yeah, local-ish).
These homey touches seem very au courant Brooklyn, but it's just how the Sacramones learned to cook — they're first-generation Italian-Americans, their family tracing back to the Abruzzo region. It's nice to find a place that's sort of accidentally of the moment — especially when it's a coal-oven pizza joint.
25-41 Broadway, Astoria NY 11106 (at 29th Street; map) 718-204-5002; Adam Kuban is the founder of Slice, where he has been blogging about pizza for more than eight years. You can follow him as @akuban on Twitter.