Since 2009, I've been doing year-end "8 Pizzas That Haunt My Dreams" posts on Slice. It is not necessarily a list of THE END-ALL BE-ALL BEST PIZZAS EVER. It is a list simply of 8 pizzas that grabbed my attention in the last 12 months and would not let go. Sometimes it aligns that 8PTHMD is a list of best-in-class pizza, but often it has as much to do with sentimentality and the overall experience as it does with the pizza itself. This year is more sentimental than most.
As has been the case since my wife and I had our daughter, I didn't get around to that many pizzerias in 2013. I'm limited largely to where I can go on my lunch break, which means a lot of central Manhattan pizzerias. That said, I did manage to get as far as Austin, Texas (during SXSW), and a couple visits to Williamsburg Pizza, which would normally be out of my lunch-hour range. Then there were the pizzas that truly haunted my dreams, because that was the only place I could experience them. I meditated on them a fair amount while tweaking my bar-pie recipe throughout the year. Anyway, without further ado, I give you the 8 pizzas that haunted my dreams in 2013...
Via 313, Sausage and Pepper Pizza
Detroit-style pizza is the thing at Austin, Texas's Via 313, whose name references Detroit's area code. Brothers and Motor City expats Zane and Brandon Hunt have two locations that operate completely out of trailers in East Austin. I visited the one outside the Violet Crown Social Club on East 6th Street, where I tried the Sausage and Peppers pie. It was as good if not better than the Buddy's pizza I had while visiting the Detroit area a few years ago. The perfect amount of greasiness and crispness. The gooeyness of the cheese. The pillow-soft crumb. The perimeter surrounded by that signature ring of fried cheese. The sauce is bright and herby, which is good, because there's two large slicks of it atop the cheese. It's a mish-mosh of satisfying textures and remains foremost in my brain even though I had it in early March. I'd love to see someone do a Detroit-style pizza in New York.
Motorino, Lunch Special Pizzas
Motorino has long been one of my favorite wood-fired oven pizzerias in the city. It had been a while, though, since I'd had it or the phenomenal lunch special there—$12 gets you a salad and a choice of one of four pizzas (Margherita, Brussels sprout and pancetta, hot soppressata and garlic, or the marinara). What really haunts my dreams about this particular visit pictured above is that the conversation at lunch—with photographer Daniel Krieger—inspired me to get to work on my bar-style pizza recipe. Not only that, but Daniel gave me some great tips on Instagramming food that I have been using since. The pizza itself was spot-on, as usual. Both these pies have been longtime favorites of mine (and my wife) and have been influential in the pizza world, at least in my opnion. I would say that any pizza with Brussels sprouts on it has to give a nod to Motorino.
Totonno's, Plain Pizza
This plain pie from Totonno's is another sentimental favorite from 2013, though the pizza itself was indeed very good. It was a return to form after the joint reopened from the damage done by Hurricane Sandy. So that was one sentimental reason. The other was that I ate here on my birthday, meeting Paulie Gee to discuss a possible apprenticeship at his pizzeria and, if I enjoyed the work, the possibility of me opening a branch of Paulie Gee's in Portland, Oregon. The crust here was good, a bit thicker than I'd remembered, but not by too much. Our second (unpictured) pie was a sausage pizza, and the crust on that one was PERFECT. But, really, I wasn't paying all that much attention to the pizza.
The funny thing is that Totonno's has served as the backdrop for a couple of inflection points in my life. The first one would be the April 4, 2004, "Slice Pizza Club" outing at which I ran into Ed Levine. That meeting would eventually lead to me selling Slice (and A Hamburger Today) to Serious Eats and joining up with Ed to edit SE—a life-changing experience. And this past year, on March 28, 2013, I was there at Totonno's talking about the next steps in my pizza evolution with Paulie Gee. I'm going to have to ask Totonno's for a chunk of coal to bring to Paulie Gee's PDX to sort of "bless" the joint with good vibes.
Colony Grill's Bar Pies
Colony Grill is one of the two in this list I didn't get to this year but whose haunting has haunted me much this year. The bar pie is one of my favorite pizza styles, and I think Colony has a fantastic one. I'm particularly drawn to the cheese. As I've mentioned here many times before, I LOVE the pockmark effect. The bits where it's pockmarked are chewy and take on a different flavor. The other parts are gooey and pull-apart stringy as you pick up a piece or bite into it. The edge has a frico-like thing going on, reminiscent of Detroit's pan pizzas. It is a thin-crusted melange of textures. I've been trying to recreate the effect on my own bar pies—and thankfully I think I'm close. Hopefully in 2014 I'll be close enough to do a bar-pie pop-up and test my results with friends and the general public.
Tappo (and Gruppo/Vezzo/Posto/Spunto), 'Shroomtown pizza
As part of my ongoing bar-pie research this year, I made a few visits to the Tappo/Gruppo/Spunto/Vezzo/Posto mini empire of thin-crust pizza joints. Lord knows why they didn't just name them all Gruppo as per the East Village original, but they're all the same pizza. One of their signature pies is the 'Shroomtown, and it is fantastic. It's kind of a foodie thing to talk sh*t on truffle oil, because generally truffle-oiled things are over-oiled and it's just sort of a cheap trick and most truffle oil is just synthetic and not even derived from real truffles anyway. BUT, here it works. The three-mushroom blend is great, with the shiitakes adding a meaty element to pie. This is easily one of my favorite vegetarian pizzas out there and one I'll probably look to for inspiration for new pizzas on my pizzeria's menu (minus the truffle oil).
I think I have a post on FOA's about how I think Gruppo/Spunto/Vezzo/Tappo/Posto are essentially bar-pie joints in everything but name only. I still think that. They serve thin-crust pies in an unpretentious, neighborhood-y setting. I had the above pie at Tappo, during an enjoyable lunch with Tribute Pizza's Matthew Lyons, so I will list that location in the contact info here. If you want the others, google 'em.
Star Tavern's Bar Pies in General
Star Tavern is another one I didn't get to personally this year but whose pizza and techniques have been on my mind a lot in 2013. That's because the bar pie target I'd been trying to hit this year was a hybrid of Colony and Star. Going off a purported recipe for Star Tavern online, I have been making pies with semolina in the crust. I've married that crust to the Colony pockmarked cheese. That's been my thing. It may still be my thing, unless I veer into Chicago/Midwest thin-crust territory, which I just may, because I've had some promising results. But still, Star is great. And I owe them a debt of gratitude for having a semi-open kitchen, which allowed me to see how they make their crust, which at best is sort of baked-fried and then straight-up baked. See, it starts its life in a steel pan with lots of oil (where it fries a bit) and is then turned out onto the oven floor, where it crisps up. Such good stuff. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only weird one who likes this kind of pizza, since there aren't really analogs to it in NYC. But Star is beloved among Jerseyites, and they can't all be weird or wrong, can they? (Don't answer that.)
Williamsburg Pizza, plain regular and plain grandma slices
All I can say after visiting Williamsburg Pizza in early November is that this pizza is f*****g fantastic, pardon my French. There have been many lamentations about the overall dismal state of New York pizza, but places like Williamsburg Pizza flout that longtime trend. If you're ideologically opposed to New York pizza to begin with, it won't change your mind. Nothing will. But if you've always kind of scratched your head as to why some people are so NUTS about this style of pizza, Williamsburg may give you an idea. It's like eating New York-style pizza in B&W and then suddenly eating it in color. This is one of the best examples of the New York style going right now. And they just expanded to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Tufino Pizzeria, Nonna pizza
This "Nonna" pizza from Tufino was pretty stellar, and that's saying something, because I usually don't like ricotta on a pizza. Then again, Tufino takes a minimal approach, doling out dollops of the stuff rather than the slathering that many of New York's old-school white pies get. I like this approach. The meatballs (here broken into chunks) are pretty good too—juicy, flavorful, not dried out and leathery as is often the case with meatballs on pizza. The crust here is naturally leavened, which gives it a fine, complex flavor, and this one was cooked perfectly—just a bit of charring, not too much, so that flavor came through. I'm happy that this place is two blocks from my apartment.
Bonus: Paulie Gee's, Famous Original A pizza
I'm sorry if I'm tooting my own horn here, and I know that his is Pizza No. NINE, but the single best/most memorable slice I ate in 2013 is the one that's missing from this pizza. This is a "Famous Original A" from the secret menu at Paulie Gee's. It means a lot to me because it's the Ghost of Pizza Past, Present, and Future all baked into one symbolic pie.
For those of you who don't know, I've been working at Paulie's since early May doing prep work on Sundays and a pizza-making shift one night a week. Like a lot of folks, and like Paulie, I have always had THE PIZZA DREAM. Around this time last year, my wife and Paulie both said, in so many words, "Stop dreaming and start doing." (I believe Paulie may have said, "Talk is cheap, Slicemeister.") The initial point of my apprenticeship at Paulie's was just to see if I would even like the work that goes into working in and owning a pizzeria. As my wife said, "You may end of hating it, and then it's time for a new dream, but at least you'll know."
At this point, The Pizza Present, I can say I don't hate it. It is hard f*****g work. I'm not doing it full-time, so I don't have that perspective on things, but it is fulfilling and I'm happy, if tired, at the end of a day's work there. So now I'm looking to The Pizza Future—as you may have seen, the news about that broke last week, and in 2014 I will be taking more concrete steps toward opening and running a branch of Paulie Gee's in Portland, Oregon.
What about The Pizza Past? Well, the Famous Original A is nothing crazy or super unique—in fact it's pretty much Paulie's "Brian DeParma" (sauce and Parmigianno-Reggiano) with a dusting of Romano and then sausage and onion added—but this it's the flavor combo that my soul recognizes as "PIZZA," thanks to the sauce-heavy, Parm-dusted Chef Boyardee box-mix pizzas my family used to make on Pizza Night. The "A" takes that flavor but marries it to a great crust and quality ingredients, and I look forward to a day when I can put in on the menu of PGPDX.