Walk into Nino's Pizza in Bay Ridge and the first thing you'll notice is how narrow the place is. With only a few feet of width between pizza counter and wall, the presence of just one or two customers makes entering a little difficult. You could wait outside until someone departs, but if you do others will go in. So enter, pretend you have no issue with limited personal space—anyway, there are tables in the back—and study the selection of pies.
If, aside from well-developed crust, you are like me and like good tomato flavor, you'll need to try more than one of Nino's pies. Many of them feature bright red tomato sauce painted in stripes across the top.
My love for tomato-prominence exists in part as a response to the curious "evaporation effect" that seems to strike the sauce component of many pizzas. Does the baking of low-moisture mozzarella at 650º suck the liquid out of submerged sauce? Do pizzerias skimp to save $? Do only chunks survive? Who knows.
But at tomato-happy Nino's, even the regular slice ($2.50)—an option I would avoid, not because there's anything wrong with it, but only because the other choices are better—offers plenty of sauce under its thick coat of stretchy low-moisture cheese.
You should start with a square of Gran Mama ($2.50), Nino's thin spin on the pizza type that likely migrated to the five boroughs from Long Island, but originated in the kitchens of Italian home cooks. According to its menu, Nino's is "Where the real grandma pizza first took place." It's a bold claim that of course can't be true—in fact, an owner confessed to me that they've offered a grandma pie for only about ten years—but, he clarified, since their grandma differs from the others, they call it the "first real grandma." In other words, their way is the real way.
Never mind this. Nino's Gran Mama is different and it is excellent! The crust is super thin, but not at all brittle. In fact, every bite yields chew as well as crunch; quite a feat. On top of a par-baked flat "shell," they first distribute an even layer of low-moisture mozzarella, then paint on diagonal stripes of a semi-chunky marinara sauce, and finish the job with strokes of basil-laced olive oil. Some may find this pizza too saucy, but not me; on more than one occasion I have wished for extra Staten Island-bound traffic so that I can stop at Nino's for this exact slice. (Nino's is located in Brooklyn, not far from the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.)
Another tomato-centric pie at Nino's is the Margherita ($19 pie, $3 slice). During our visit last weekend, this was my wife's favorite. (I can't pick a favorite.) Nino's Margherita is a round masterpiece made with cloud-white, fresh mozzarella, real-deal NYC crust (it chews, it crackles, it folds), and an ample supply of smooth tomato sauce—done in stripes, of course. Its basil component, requisite for any pizza called "Margherita," is the aforementioned basil oil. A post-bake scatter of basil leaves would add a little something—but why squabble? Nino's Margherita is good the way it is.
We also tried a slice from Nino's Sofia Loren (their only offering named for a person—unless you count grandma) ($3.50), which features a big-chunk tomato sauce, garlic two ways (it's cooked into the sauce and also scattered on raw before baking), and that same cloud-white mozzarella. (Nino's sources its mozzarella from Aiello Brothers in Brooklyn. They make good cheese.) This garlicky, tomato-amped version of the Margherita reminds me of pasta with tomato sauce and garlic, but as a pizza (I know, cliché, but it's true).
One surprise at Nino's—given my years-long affair with their thinner crust pies—is the Sicilian pizza ($2.50), which I tried for the first time last weekend. It offers good complexity from ample fermentation, it has chew, and—despite its thickness—it tastes light. The tomato sauce commands authority over the cheese component, such that it avoids the heaviness often characteristic of Sicilian pizza in New York. In other words, it does not fall to the bottom of your stomach like an avalanche boulder. And it's really good.
Of course, there is no gold standard when it comes to the ingredient proportionality of a pizza. Excluding toppings, there are three parts: dough, sauce, and cheese. Some places— like Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street, in the Village—emphasize equality of parts. And while I realize it's what hungry stomachs and/or inebriated brains often want, the pizza at many places has too much cheese. At Nino's, the tilt is toward tomato. This makes me happy because good canned tomatoes contribute fresh flavor to pizza.
Nino's makes excellent pizza in a neighborhood filled with pizzerias. It would take several visits to hit them all. Without question, Nino's is a good place to start. Head down, squeeze your way in, and start eating.
I've posted a related piece about Nino's on my blog, Pizzacentric. You can link to it here.
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