When I'm in need of an energizing, centering, head-clearing taste of the Big Apple, I usually go to New York Pizzeria, a little hole-in-the-wall strip-mall joint in Glendale. But last month, I realized it had been a long time since I'd made a trip back to the state that spawned me and the city at its heart, so -- under the guise of giving an honest assessment of how Denver's best New York-style pizza stacks up against the real Gotham article -- I wondered if I shouldn't fly back for a few days.
In all honesty, I wasn't heading back only for a slice of pizza. That would have been insane, since there are services that will overnight you a fresh-tossed pie for much less than the cost of a human's plane ticket. But I also intended to stuff myself with Philly cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, my mom's cream of broccoli soup, maybe a garbage plate from Nic Tahoe's. Add all that up, and the shipping costs began to look prohibitive. So in the name of spendthrift gluttony and in the interest of educated reportage, I proposed a spring jaunt to the big city.
In my mind, it was absolutely vital.
The boss disagreed.
And I went anyway.
Now, I did have one other reason for dropping in on Midtown (see Bite Me), but that New York slice was still near the top of my to-do list. I found it in Manhattan, at a street vendor's cart on Sixth Avenue around 42nd Street. The vendor's name was Leon, and his cart was a magnificent contraption: a gleaming machine made of aluminum, plastic and punched tin, with hinged doors and warming boxes, cold trays, two fat propane tanks and chrome-spoked wheels that any lowriding cholo would covet. It was the Cadillac of the pushcart world. If you have big dreams of owning your own street-side hot-foods cart, this baby is the one you fantasize about, the one whose picture is showing when you tuck the catalogue under your pillow at night. Maybe it wasn't that much compared to the bright spike of the Chrysler Building towering overhead, but it was prettier than a Yellow Cab, for sure, and at least as sleek and sharp-angled as some of the women stalking by.
Anyway, it was tough to miss. And it was tough to miss the man wrangling all that tin, because for all the sweating, suffering labor that must have gone into the lovely behemoth that sat on Sixth, not one minute of toil had gone into fashioning the man who sat slouched against the trailer hitch on its ass end.
That was Leon. He held a special place on the top-ten list of God's ugliest evolutionary mishaps, coming in somewhere between dust mites (which are pretty terrifying under the magnifying glass) and East St. Louis (equally terrifying, even from a distance) on that roster of all-time ugly. Take Rocky's friend Paulie from the movies, go upside his head a couple of times with a nine iron, give him a voice like Ethel Merman on the wrong end of a whiskey bender, and you're in the ballpark.
Leon served chili dogs, sausage and peppers, and soft pretzels. He gouged rube and local alike on bags of chips and cold sodas. He'd sell you a map or a stuffed animal for your kid and give you directions (though if you wanted the right directions, you probably should have slid him a fiver). But most important, he sold pizza -- cheap and by the slice. I like a man with scruples, especially of the culinary variety, and I liked Leon because he had a deep and abiding mistrust of any pizza made outside of New York. As a matter of fact, Leon had a deep and abiding mistrust of any pizza made outside of his sight, and he warned me against eating at several spots (all referred to by the name of the guy who owned them -- Jimmy's place, Tony's place -- as if I knew those guys personally), for a variety of colorful reasons.
Leon insisted that his 'za was the best -- "King a pizzas, right here," he said -- and who was I to argue? A simple country mouse like me, alone in the city that never sleeps? Why, I was thankful for his friendly advice, and told him so in no uncertain terms, explaining that if I couldn't trust a fast-talking Manhattan street vendor who looked like something fresh off the set of a George Romero zombie movie, then who could I trust?
Seek and ye shall find, sayeth the good book. And while biblical scribes probably didn't have Leon in mind when they penned those lines, I sought, and Leon was what I found. The king a pizzas and his cart. Leon and the first slice of honest-to-Jesus, 212-area-code, New York-style pizza I'd had in six years.
But in New York City, no one calls it "New York-style" pizza -- because no one has to. It's just pizza, a slice, a definite article used for describing a thing as nature intended it to be. Pizza in Leon's world (and in mine, and also in that little corner of bizarro Colorado that is New York Pizzeria) is warm but not hot, with a thin crust that's touched lightly with a sweet, unspicy sauce and real cheese -- not cheez or "cheese product." It also possesses a magical capability for creating a strange orange grease that's magnetically attracted to button-down Oxford broadcloth. The more expensive the shirt, the stronger the attraction.
Pizza only requires modifying adjectives to describe the extent to which it has been done wrong. Made the crust too thick? Chicago-style pizza. Made the pie in a pan because you didn't have a good brick oven? Connecticut- or Canadian-style pizza. Made it square and forgot the cheese altogether? Call it a tomato pie.
I'm not saying that any of these varieties are necessarily bad, just that they're wrong. (In my elitist world of obnoxious food snobbery, there's room for differences in pizza taste and style -- if not variations in cassoulet or San Marzano sauce.) They are bastardizations of the ideal pie, which itself is a bastardization of the Italian original. But then, most great art is the work of accomplished thieves capable of recognizing something good and making it better. That's true with painters, it's true with poets, and it's true with a good pizza man.
Step through the doors of Denver's New York Pizzeria and you're stepping through the doors of a true New York pizzeria -- and into the world of good pizza men. The smell of hot ovens, sweating dough, sweet tomatoes and charred baking flour is as unmistakable as it is universal, and if you catch the place going full-bore on a busy Friday, when the heat and humidity radiate from the half-open kitchen in the back, it can be like walking into a warm, damp hug. The decor isn't much to speak of -- Brooklyn street-corner chic with a black-and-white linoleum floor, a dozen scattered tables and booths, the ubiquitous New York skyline prints and a small TV that always seems to be tuned to a baseball game -- but I'd like it less if there were linen tablecloths instead of red-and-white-checked plastic, less still if there weren't remnants of flour in all of this restaurant's cracks and grooves. I like this pizzeria because it's simple, because it uses paper plates, because its unassuming location is overlooked by the vast majority of commuters perfectly satisfied with their drive-thrus and chain eateries.
For significantly less than it cost me to do a week back East, at New York Pizzeria I can get a can of Dr. Brown's black cherry soda and a slice that's as close to Leon's best as it's possible to make without the mineral after-bite of New York tap water and 5,000 feet of additional air pressure. The crust is limber enough to fold without splitting down the middle, limp enough so that -- after folding -- it droops at the point, yet still tough enough to hold three toppings (not counting double cheese) before losing its structural integrity. Go for more than three, and I can't be held responsible for what might happen.
The toppings that should be fresh -- like garlic, spinach and sliced roma tomatoes -- are, but the pantry isn't going Spago-style crazy with the weird stuff. Good-quality Italian sausage, peppers, sliced button mushrooms, pepperoni, salami if you ask nice, and anchovies if you like to gunk up a good 'za with little fish are all available, but if you're looking for shiitake mushrooms or bee pollen or seahorses on your pie, forget it. Grease it's got, though. I don't know where the stuff comes from, what chemical reaction it's a by-product of, but I do know that even though I've ruined at least two shirts here, I keep coming back whenever I want pizza done right.
And I'm not alone. Off the top of my head, I can think of three local restaurant guys, all former New Yorkers, who swear by this joint specifically because of the grease. As much as good cheese and a chewy crust, that weird orange oil that drips between your knuckles is part of the package. It's the deal you make with the devil -- trading wrist burns and dry-cleaning bills for a few perfect bites -- and no slice is New York-style without it.
But New York Pizzeria is an equal-opportunity supplier, and in addition to New York-style also does pan-style Sicilian with a swollen, boxy crust; thin-crust pizza with white sauce or a very mild, well-balanced pesto; and specialty pies named for Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and both Long and Staten islands, whose toppings are oddly appropriate: sliced meatballs and black olives for the Bronx, white pizza with chicken breast, fresh garlic and roasted red peppers for Long Island. The place does calzones right, too, rolling up good dough (in three sizes -- lunch, dinner and "big as your head") around five cheeses and a generous pile of fillings, then baking the package so that when the outside is getting cool and stiff, the innards are still hot as lava. The dipping sauce on the side is a plain marinara -- a little sweet, not spicy, and most likely the same stuff they're using on the pies -- but sometimes it carries a mean acid bite. This means one of two things: Either someone went crazy with the dried oregano when making up the batch, or the sauce was left in the cooler too long and started to ferment. But a sour side of sauce is hardly a damning offense, because the calzones are so good they require little in the way of outside help.
Everything else on New York Pizzeria's menu is window dressing. There are pasta dinners -- spaghetti and meatballs done in a workhorse fashion, and baked ziti with a chicken cutlet that's nothing more or less than what you'd expect -- as well as a Coney Island potato knish, stuffed with soft mashers and sweet onions, then breaded and fried golden-brown. The board lists a half-dozen hero sandwiches and Sabrett all-beef hot dogs with mustard, kraut and onions, and the kitchen even makes a few passing attempts at salads. But a salad is what you order with a couple of pies, not instead of them.
Back in New York, Leon is somewhere on Sixth Avenue, injecting a nice touch of ugly into a world of mirrored glass and steel. He's fishing wet hot dogs out of his cart, giving tourists the wrong directions to the Empire State Building out of pure cussedness, and loudly peddling those nasty stuffed animals to every father who walks by with a kid in tow. And while I'm glad that my first slice back in the town that does it best came from him, a few days and 2,000 miles later, I was biting into a slice at New York Pizzeria, realizing that this place knows every trick, every taste and every bit of magic that the king a pizza knows.
But if you find yourself in Manhattan and happen to bump into Leon, don't tell him that. It's not the kind of news the king would take lightly.