I’d found out we would be presenting at The 2nd World Congress on Interventional Therapies for Type 2 Diabetes in New York much later than I would have preferred. Don’t get me wrong, being selected to present at the Congress was an honor and it is not that I don’t love New York – but the fact of the matter was that I’d just been there the month prior and I was due to fly to Paris a mere 10 days after the Congress. Add in the fact that I’d had zero days off since my last trip due to working plenty of overtime to help offset some of the upcoming travel bills AND that this issue had me flying into New York after an overnight shift…eh, who am I kidding – sleep or no sleep I love to eat, I love New York and its people, and I love pizza – a confluence of interests that led to myself and three locals to meeting up for a Tour of some of Brooklyn’s (and America’s) most highly regarded Pizza spots.
With Steve 2 (as opposed to Steve 1) graciously offering to pick me up from LGA and Steve 1 (as opposed to Steve 2) graciously willing to do the leg work on getting to our first stop early to order the pie the “hop” would begin around 1:30pm at DiFara – a spot considered by many to be the best Pizza in America and often with an hour-plus line befitting such distinction – something I’d prefer avoid at any time, but particularly on my 34th sleepless hour save for a quick nap on the plane – thankfully luck was on our side and the drive went quickly, free parking was easily found, and by the time we arrived the pizza was in the oven.
With pleasantries exchanged and promises of the fourth member of our group, Laura, arriving shortly the next ten or so minutes were spent talking about the history of the space, Dom’s meticulous methods, and the neighborhood. With news clippings as the small space’s only decoration and Dom meticulously crafting each pie while his daughter and son worked the counter and back room the space was packed – not a seat to be had – and as such when our first pie was ready we opted to eat right at the counter.
For our first taste of the day it would be a round pie – DiFara’s signature – half plain and half with mushrooms and semi-sun-dried tomatoes. While not truly “Neapolitan” given the style of the ancient oven and overall tender-yet-crisp chew to the crust, there is no doubt that the pie was the result of a serious craftsman working with serious ingredients. With the dough barely capable of supporting the trio of cheeses, sweet tomatoes, herbs, and dousing of extra virgin olive oil let alone the toppings and hand snipped basil each slice was a steaming hot oozing mélange of flavor – some dark and bubbly, others less crisp and more chewy. Preferring my pizza with a bit more rigidity I cannot say this was the best pie I’ve ever tasted, but I definitely understand the appeal and would certainly not hesitate to return.
With our fourth adventurer arriving the next item to arrive from the oven was the Sicilian – an enormous pie with just the essentials – that marvelous blend of cheese, an ample coating of San Marzano tomatoes, a lacquer of olive oil, and that hand snipped basil. An enormous pie – easily enough to feed four, this pizza was what I’d hoped for – it was perhaps the best “thick” slice of pizza I’ve ever encountered. With a buttery crust not unlike that of a deep dish in the Windy City but far more textural and nuanced each slice stood up admirably to the bounty of ingredients without being “too heavy” – a delicate balance that few pizzas manage. With myself eating three slices of the Sicilian and the others eating a slice or two each there was plenty to spare; thankfully it was boxed up and kept in Steve 2’s car or I’d have surely eaten more. Making our way from the small restaurant to our cars I remembered what a friend once told me about DiFara’s and I can’t say it any better myself – “You don’t go there just too eat Pizza – you go there to experience Pizza as an art form crafted by a master.”
Continuing along our previously determined route – 2 persons per car – our next stop would be one of the oldest in Brooklyn – L&B Spumoni Gardens. Having heard of this space from some local friends in the past but having never seen it mentioned on a “best of” list (actually, most of what I’d heard was quite negative aside from two glowing recommendations of the namesake Spumoni) I went into the experience with modest expectations – expectations seemingly warranted by the rather unkempt clientele (think track suits and fake-gold chains) and gaudy exterior (think neon lights)…..plus Steve 1’s statement that he wanted to bring us here as a “contrast” to DiFara’s – and that he wasn’t going to order any pizza.
More a full-fledged eatery than DiFara’s or the other spaces on our trip, the first thing I noted when entering the non-pizza half of L&B was the smell – it wasn’t “bad” but it reminded me of the ketchup factory near where I grew up – not a good sign since I saw spaghetti sauce and not a Heinz bottle. Following Steve 1’s lead and first ordering a small spumoni for a little over $2 I have to admit that although I’m pretty sure there was nothing artisan about the ingredients or organic about the colors this was some tasty ice cream – a bit more icy than creamy but absolutely loaded with faux-pistachio flavor, buttery almond/vanilla, and Hershey’s kisses tasting chocolate.
Making our way next door where Steve 2 and Laura had already taken a seat I was greeted by a burly smiling fellow serving up slices and when I ordered a single slice he gifted me a second for free as there were only two left in the pan – a nice gesture, even if it would turn out to be wasted. Taking a seat and subsequently a bite I instantly noted the previously “contrast” – this square slice was pretty terrible. With a doughy crust not terribly different from the frozen sort you’d expect from Costco topped with a sort of briny and bland sauce and grated parmesan plus what was undoubtedly bagged mozzarella (perhaps from Costco?) the only fair comparison I can make is to the square slices served up at Little Caesars in Joe Louis Arena when I was a child…a pizza I never really liked, but a pizza I always finished due to the excessive arena price and a pizza I’ll always remember due to the location. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) for L&B the price was bargain basement so I had no trouble placing the second slice in the trash before leaving the memorable (for better or worse?) location.
Hopping to our cars and navigating the suddenly stiff traffic our next stop would be a somewhat “new kid” on the block – at least compared to our previous two visits. Opened in 2008 with a second location now inhabiting the abandoned Una Pizza location on the LES and considered by some (including the much maligned Sam Sifton,) to be the best in the city, I entered Motorino hoping for something revelatory and arriving just after 4:00pm I also entered a restaurant less than half full – another bit of good fortune given the fact that the journey was less than half over.
Seated quickly and offered beverages by our server, a young lady named Bryana who was friendly if not efficient, Steve 1 and I decided to place the order before the others arrived in order to save time. Given the fact that we were dining with two vegetarians both pies were ordered half-meat/half-without, though we were warned that we’d be charged full price regardless. With Steve opting for a Sprecher’s Root Beer and myself sticking with water it would be only a short while before the others would arrive – free parking yet again – and perhaps 20 minutes before the pizzas would arrive from the hand crafted oven.
Opting against standard options despite the fact that their margherita is quite well thought of, our first selection was the Pugliese with burrata, broccolini, chili flakes, garlic, and half sausage. Arriving still bubbly from the oven with nicely charred edges and a crust that was slightly puffy but crisp and not overly doughy due to what I believe was cornmeal, the mélange of flavors was perfectly balanced and although quite hot on the tongue, excellent. Obviously Neapolitan in influence with a wet center and plenty of olive oil the toppings were present in plethora and each bite was as good as the first.
Digging into the second pizza – a pie that landed on Food and Wine’s 25-best Pizzas in America this year – it was at this point that the restaurant began to fill up and also when I noticed the cheesy 80s pop music overhead. Normally I’d be a stickler for the sort of restaurant that could go from calm and welcoming to noisy and hip in a matter of seconds, but this time it barely mattered as I devoured my slice of Brussels Sprouts pizza with fior di latte, garlic, smoked pancetta, and pecorino. Similar in presentation to the first and definitely one of the more unique “new-style” flavor combinations I’ve experienced anywhere I was simply floored by the complementary nature of each flavor – every one acting to coax out subtleties from its partners without stealing the stage…it was only after we left that I realized I never tasted their tomato sauce – a misstep I’ll certainly have to correct on my next visit, though probably at the Manhattan spot and during brunch as I'd like to check out the egg pizza in addition to the oft-raved tiramisu for dessert.
For our next stop – let’s just say we left Motorino just on time, and barely. With traffic thinned out substantially we actually made excellent time trekking to Carroll Gardens but unfortunately there were no parking to be found for a good twenty minutes – twenty long minutes that would lead us past no less than four pizza parlors including our eventual destination – Lucali – yet another location dubbed by various national publications as the best Pizza in America.
With Steve-1 showing off his parallel parking skills a mere block away it was a quick walk to the doors of the small space and despite arriving at 5:45 we were thwarted – the first table available would be 7:15 according to the young lady at the door. Standing and waiting to inform our dining partners of the news and feeling a tad discouraged what happened next still leaves me puzzled, but regardless of the reason (I’m pretty sure the Pizza Gods simply loved our ambition) after approximately five minutes of waiting one of the folks ahead of us in line opted out of her seat and suddenly we owned a 6:00pm table for four.
With Steve telling us stories of Mark Iacono’s ground up (literally – he built the oven, the tables, and the chairs) operation and the months spent watching Dom make pies in order to perfect the art door to Lucali would open at six on the dot and we were quickly ushered in a table near the front – close enough to the window for some natural light to blend with the candles, but also with a great view of Mark as he worked the dough and chopped ingredients in a nearly Zen-like fashion – head always up and watching the room as a stark contrast to Dom’s nearly non-stop eye contact with the pie.
With only two options on the blackboard – Pizza or Calzone – and perhaps ten total ingredients to top the pie we opted for a single pie to split amongst the four of us – half with artichoke, half with portabella. Watching Mark work the dough, top it carefully, and place it in the wood burning brick oven while my friends chatted I had no doubt it was going to be good – it was like watching a ballet – but I had no idea it was going to be the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.
With a thin crust – crispy, light, and irregularly bubbled yet able to hold up to the ingredients with ease, sweet tomato sauce with a hint of smoke and basil, and handmade mozzarella at its base the pie was exemplary. Pliable yet toothsome, sweet yet savory, slightly soggy at the center but not oversaturated with oil – really, no, I can’t top exemplary as a descriptor. Add on simple yet flawless mushrooms and sautéed artichoke hearts – my heart melted with each bite because I knew that at the end of the day I’d have to go back to eating Pizza that wasn’t this good.
With the bill ($26 for a single pie) paid and our flirty server heckling us when we suggested we were heading elsewhere for more pizza (note, Mark’s brother recently opened a Pizzeria and we probably should have gone there too) we made our way outside to find the line longer than when we entered – clearly others already knew what I’d just learned – that something this good is something worth waiting for.
Walking away from Lucali towards the car, Steve-1’s wife would catch up with us for the final stop of our tour – the newest kid on the block and the only one that no one in our group had ever visited - Paulie Gee’s. A bit out of the way, decidedly hipster-trendy, and featuring an esoteric craft beer list and unique toppings (and names) for their pies I’m not sure any of us really knew what to expect, but when we arrived to a 20-30 minute wait it seemed that no matter what was inside it clearly had people lining up to experience it.
Standing and chatting in the entry way as the wind outside had gotten a little too chilly for comfort it was only a matter of moments before we were inside at the bar and perhaps fifteen minutes total before we were seated. With the space quite dark and the noise level energetic but not deafening we shared a communal table for ten halfway between the entrance and the handmade stone oven and despite the packed nature of the space our service was excellent throughout the night. Starting with 2 pizzas and a bottle of wine as late 70’s/early 80’s rock played overhead I must say that of all the places we visited on the trek this was definitely the most fun and our conversation the most lively.
Opting for one tomato sauce pie and one of the more out of the ordinary options, each with half meat, our first choice was the “Regina” – a bubbly pie with a lot of character featuring Fior di Latte, Italian Tomatoes, Pecorino Romano, Olive Oil, Prosciutto di Parma, and Fresh Basil. With the cheese reportedly made from unpasteurized cow’s milk the flavor was surprisingly intense (with a likely assist from the Pecorino) and the other toppings fresh, but what made this pie stand out for me was the spring to the crust - it wasn't quite as Neapolitan "wet" at the center but instead had a hearty “chew” throughout without being “chewy” – a fine line many pies fail to walk so carefully.
For our second pie it seemed the rest of the table was finally beginning to get full (or else they just felt the need to indulge me as I ended up with three slices) but without overstating I think I can say it was one of the most unique pizza’s I’ve ever tasted. Titled Cherry Jones and featuring the same lovely Fior di Latte this time paired with Gorgonzola Cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, Dried Bing Cherries and Orange Blossom Honey – there really isn’t much I can say that you can’t imagine from the ingredients. Sweet meets savory, smoky meets creamy – all on that same fantastic springy crust – it could’ve been a main or dessert. Actually, for everyone but myself it was dessert.
Call me crazy or call me a glutton, but a great meal without dessert just seems wrong and part of the reason I decided on Paulie Gee’s as our last stop was indeed the dessert menu – a compellation of dessert pizzas, baked goods, and ice creams including one that really struck my interest - Van Leeuwen Artisan Dark Chocolate Ice Cream topped with Baconmarmalade. That’s right – deep, rich, velvety ice cream made with Michel Cluizel chocolate topped with crisp bacon reduced in spices to form a spicy pork “spread.” I really don’t need to tell you how sinfully good this was – I only wish the marmalade had been interspersed in the chocolate before it began to harden, but that was nothing a little bit of mashing with the spoon couldn’t handle. Thick Vosges Mo’s Bacon Bar, but Ice Cream, Spicy, and Better.
Having consumed 14 slices plus the ice cream and at that point going on my 40th sleepless hour (with a presentation to do the following day, no less) we settled the bill and made our way to the streets with some members of our group marveling at the fact that we’d just spent nearly 8 hours eating pizza but no one was overly full – a testament to good planning, excellent timing, spreading a meal out over time, and a lot of luck. With Steve-2 graciously (again) offering to drive me back to Manhattan I bid farewell to Steve-1 and his wife, climbed into the car, and surprisingly even managed to stay awake during the drive back to Manhattan. A great experience with great people – honestly, there is nothing I’d have changed…next visit; Manhattan Pizza Crawl. Who’s in?