A Cut Above
New York-style pizza is a tricky thing. In the places where it's done properly -- on the island of Manhattan, in one of the boroughs or, with rapidly declining rightness, in any of the cities that make up the outer estates of the Pizza Kingdom -- it's not even called New York-style pizza. It's just pizza -- 'za, a pie, a slice. You might find a joint selling Chicago deep-dish pizza or New England charcoal-fired pies, but these will always be labeled as such, because they are essentially foreign foods. And by the unwritten code of the pizza man, if you are hawking such one-offs in Bensonhurst, Rochester, Buffalo, Camden or Philly, you'd damn well better let people know before they even walk into your shop. Otherwise there could be confusion, angry words, possibly bloodshed.
Because in these places, real pizza always means a thin crust; means a proper, sweet red sauce; means a big, greasy slice wide enough to fold and hold cupped against the heel of your hand. This isn't the "New York" way of doing it, it's just The Way. And the Tao of the pizza man is understanding that within these strict parameters, there are infinite possibilities. As with sushi, the art to New York pizza-making is finding perfection in tiny adjustments to a simple product. And Chicago deep-dish has about as much in common with real pizza as a Mrs. Paul's fish stick does with a high-grade toro hand roll.
But as you travel a certain distance from the Pizza Kingdom -- say, west of the Ohio border, north of Syracuse or fifty miles south of South Philly -- the pies begin to require labels. At this point, the labels also become meaningless. Getting a "New York-style" slice in Winnipeg, Atlanta or Mooseface, Wisconsin, is eating a lie. Outside of the tri-state area, the best you can hope for is a good forgery to stick in your face -- a pie made in the image of true greatness but destined to come up short.
Still, restaurateurs outside of the charmed territory persist in copying the work of the Big Apple masters. Here in Colorado, Anthony's Pizza and Pasta has been growing its mini-empire for nearly twenty years, from its first location at 1550 California Street in 1984 to a tenth outpost that soon will open in Highlands Ranch. Most of them resemble Anthony's small, strip-mall location on East Iliff in Aurora, which is cast from the ex-pat mold, with Yankees, Mets and Giants pennants on the walls, a smudged TV in the corner by the door and a few tables lining the perimeter. The kitchen is open, more or less, and busy all the time; these guys take their work seriously. You have to wait for your food here, and Anthony's makes no apologies for that. Customers must suffer a certain amount of hunger and deprivation while the kitchen goes about its business. I like to think of the delay as a necessary purification of the spirit, but it's really just a slow torture of sights and smells as other people's plates and pies are paraded past.
Anthony's calls its 'zas by their proper names. There's a "traditional New York thin" only parenthetically referred to as a "Neapolitan round," and a fat, full-bodied Sicilian that the menu warns can take upwards of two hours to prepare. There are also pastas, heroes and an array of toppings to put on them and the pies, a grab bag of interchangeable elements that's both artful and spare -- no more than you'd expect from a place that looks and smells the part of a busy neighborhood pizzeria, but no less than anything you could want.
And on my first visit, what I want is a little bit of everything. I want to jump the counter and stalk through the coolers, taking a finger-full of red sauce here, a mound of mozzarella there, then stuff my pockets with meatballs for the ride home. But I am restrained by the need to concentrate, first and foremost, on my pie -- a traditional New York thin. When it arrives, it's steaming beautifully. The color is that perfect, mottled, creamy reddish-pink and yellow-orange -- shades that could only be called "pizza" in the big box of culinary Crayolas. And the smell -- all yeasty, sweet and saucy with just a hint of bitter oregano -- is like home to me. The slices are cut large, meant for folding, and the mild sauce is properly understated. Most pizza places west of the Mississippi reflexively kick up their reds with crushed red-pepper flakes or, occasionally, pepperoncini brine to give them a bite that I find as grating as nails on a chalkboard. But not Anthony's.
The crust is wonderful, too: stiff and solid, but with enough developed gluten so that it bends without cracking. I pick up a slice, fold it, cup it, wait for the point to sag, then bite. The cheese is mellow with whole milk and just a little funky, well-matched to the sweet sauce; the dough is nearly flavorless, acting only as an architectural support for the flourish of good ingredients. In fact, everything is as it should be except for one thing: There's no orange grease. The slices are greasy, no doubt about that. They're well-lubricated by what little water cooks out of the sauce and the oils squeezed from the cheese by the heat of the oven, but those liquids never congeal into that magical stuff that's supposed to ooze into the fold of the slice and then run out across the back of your hand.
On my next visit, I take a tasting tour through the other side of Anthony's menu. I try stuffed shells and ravioli in a solid, chunkier version of the house red -- almost a rustica with fat, soft chunks of tomato concasse, missing only the deep bass note that a little pork stock or finely ground espresso would have added. The pasta is nicely cooked, al dente enough to hold form under the weight of the sauce and the thick cap of melted mozzarella, and both fillings are heavy with good-quality fresh ricotta, parmesan, romano, what-have-you.
The meatball hero is a two-hander, fat and loaded with meat, and ladled with just enough sweet red sauce to wet the center of the bread without compromising the structural integrity of the crust. The chicken parmigiana sandwich comes so packed with big, tender slabs of breaded chicken breast that they hang out the sides. Both sandwiches would collapse under the weight of their own ingredients if it weren't for the life preserver of melted mozz that keeps everything glued together. And after a few bites, even that isn't enough for the chicken parm. Like a good barbecue sandwich, it requires a fork or fingers to finish, and there's a reason the to-go version comes wrapped in foil.
At Lil' Ricci's, which has been hanging around Tamarac Square for more than a decade, the meatball sandwiches come wrapped in foil, too -- which is handy, but not because the foil makes it easier to eat them. No, the foil makes it easier to throw them away after one bite. And you'll want to.
If the forgery of New York-style street-corner cooking is an art -- carefully and diligently practiced in some kitchens, not so much in others -- then the guys at Anthony's are expert counterfeiters and the slack-jawed goofs working the ovens at Ricci's are the Franklin Mint, banging out commemorative Elvis plates and shoddy Civil War chess sets for suckers who mistakenly think they're buying objets d'art for three easy payments of $49.99. Ricci's meatball hero might just as well be soup served in a plywood trench. The sauce is watery, bitter and chunky with sour tomatoes. The meatballs taste like bouillon-flavored wads of papier-mâché. The hoagie roll is squishy, damp and pasty on the inside, stale on the outside. And the whole thing comes capped with a smear of rubbery cheese, stiff to the touch, with all the flavor of a milk carton.
But Ricci's looks right, with its scattering of tables and deep booths, a mural of the Manhattan skyline (King Kong included) covering one entire wall and a mix of young kids, old folks and cops all tucking into their food under the warm lights. The service is quick and friendly, the dining room is clean, and the place even smells like a Brooklyn pizzeria should, with the mingled odors of yeasty starter, garlic and onions, cooking tomatoes, the acrid tang of degreaser and the infernal heat of several stone-footed ovens going full blast. But since that's where the similarities end, I wonder if the owner somehow manages to buy the smell bottled and just sprays it in the air once or twice a day like room freshener.
If the meatball hero is a disaster, the pasta is worse. With one bite, you can tell it's wrong in every fundamental way. The flavorless pasta is limp and mushy like wet newspaper. The manicotti filling is made of some kind of wretchedly cheap, coarse and grainy ricotta that tastes of milk on the edge of going sour. And the sauce is an ugly, beaten mess -- bitter and acidic and horribly sugar-sweet and chemical, as though someone in the kitchen accidentally knocked a shaker of NutraSweet into the pot and just left it to steep. But that's not all. The sauce is also watery from not being properly reduced, and so slick with oil that I could use what's left at the bottom of my plate to lube my car.
Ricci's pizza is its only saving grace. And even that isn't actually good, but it does remind me of a certain class of New York pie joints -- the kind that never deliver; that are open only around the ragged edges of sketchy neighborhoods, usually in locations that were formerly dry cleaners' shops or ethnic bodegas catering to a nationality that no one but retired cartographers and geography teachers have ever heard of; and that serve the sort of pizza you'd make if you were trying to re-create it from a magazine picture with no recipe and no knowledge of what the final product was supposed to taste like. These are the places people end up at around 2:30 in the morning, always accidentally, and usually too drunk to decide that maybe Basques, Turks, Magyars or Laotian immigrants aren't the first guys you want to go to when you're in the mood for a slice.
Still, these places try hard. And what they come up with while they're flailing around blindly, attempting to assemble something that at least looks like a pizza, isn't always bad. But for anyone brought up in the American public-school system, the taste of rubbery cheese on a crust like single-ply cardboard immediately brings back memories of pizza in the cafeteria every Thursday.
Let's give credit where it's due, though. In this one case, Ricci's forgery is perfect. I've never tasted a bad pie done better.
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