I'm fresh off a long weekend in New York City, where it's possible to buy a big, floppy slice of pizza on just about every block in Manhattan. But to go to New York and eat just those renditions, dripping with grease and kept warm under a heat lamp or reheated at the last minute in an oven, would be tragic. There are pizzerias in the Big Apple that really do it right, turning out wonderful bubbling pies on blackened airy crusts that explain the snooty attitudes of New Yorkers who maintain that they'll never eat pizza west of the Hudson River.
My favorite pies are located off the island, in Brooklyn and Connecticut. With limited time last weekend, though, I didn't want to drive for two hours in order to stuff my face with cheese and tomato sauce, so Connecticut was out. Instead, since I'm a gluttonous hedonist, I devoted one day to determining, once and for all, which "best" Brooklyn pizzeria really is the best. Armed with the best dining companion a girl could ask for -- a guy named Rob, who's eaten so much pizza in the city of New York that he can actually tell you, without looking, what kind of oven your pie was made in -- I set out to sample the goods at Di Fara, Totonno's and Grimaldi's, the consistent winners of New York's top honors for best pizzeria (along with Lombardi's and John's in Manhattan).
And because I like to share, here's the food porn -- and the lowdown.
My past experiences with Brooklyn pizzerias give Di Fara an edge in my ranking scale, though I've never pitted it against other spots over the course of just a few hours. Plus, the pizza here would probably taste good no matter what, because I'm usually ready to gnaw my paper plate by the time I get it: Elderly owner Dominick DeMarco maintains sole rights to make the pies, and the wait stretches to anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours after you place an order.
Worth it, though. The thin crust is baked crispy in a pizza oven, topped with a blend of mozzarella and Parmesan over the salty zing of a San Marzano tomato sauce. When the pie comes out of the oven, it's drizzled with olive oil before DeMarco uses a pair of scissors to cut fresh basil over the whole thing. It practically oozes into my mouth, and before I know it, I've induced a food coma by eating almost the entire thing.
The downside: Unless you're really into kosher bakeries, DiFara's tiny spot is pretty much the only reason to come to Midwood, which takes some time to get to from Manhattan and gives you just about nothing to entertain yourself with while you wait. Not exactly what you want to do if you've only got a few days to see New York.
The super downside: no liquor license, so bring your own beer. (One of the best features of dining in New York is the fact that this is allowed.) After feasting in this no-man's-land in the middle of Brooklyn, we jump on a train to Coney Island for some beach and boardwalk action with a lot of other out-of-towners. Nestled along one of the nearby avenues is Totonno's, our second contender. Though the family of master pizzaiola Anthony "Totonno" Pero eventually opened a few more outposts of his pizza joint in Manhattan and Queens, the original started serving beachgoers in 1924. Pero died a few years ago, and the third generation of the Pero family now runs the shop, decorated like a dining room you might find in your Italian grandma's house.
These pies feature a very flat crust, topped with salty mozzarella impeccably balanced beneath sweet tomato sauce, baked in a hot brick oven until crisp as a cracker. Rob teaches me a valuable crust lesson: From the char on the bottom, you can actually taste the earthiness imparted by the brick.
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Thankfully, this place does serve booze, because after fighting the crowds on Brighton Beach for an hour or two, it's nice to walk back up the boardwalk and self-medicate with a Brooklyn Pilsner. Our final stop is in Dumbo, a mere subway stop from Manhattan -- which, naturally, ups the crowd factor. I once waited in an hour-long line in negative-20 windchill to get into this pizza parlor, a dimly lit room stuffed with long tables with checkered cloths, shared by parties who practically have to sit in each other's laps.
Rob insists that these coal-fired pies are his personal favorite, citing the crust, replete with blackened bubbles just the way it should be, and the milky mozzarella, which is stretchy but still firm, and more subtle than that of the other pizzas we tried. Also more subtle is the thinner tomato sauce. I'm normally a purist when it comes to my toppings, preferring just cheese, sauce and basil, but I never forgo Grimaldi's spicy Italian sausage or quarter-sized slices of pepperoni. Those meats make the pie for me.
And the communal vibe makes the place -- but sadly, Grimaldi's may be evicted from this original spot, and I hear the other outposts aren't quite as good. The winner? If we're just talking pizza (not atmosphere), I'll stick to my original DiFara's call; for me, it's the only pie that fully lives up to the hype. But carrying out a Totonno's pizza to the beach would make for a delightful summer afternoon. And the great crowd at Grimaldi's, coupled with the joint's proximity to Manhattan (and yes, the crust and cheese), means I'd probably patronize that place more than either of the others.
So, no definitive winner -- looks like I'll need another weekend in New York.