Pizza

Have You Ever Had Fried Pizza?

Mmm...pizza partly fried in oil.

If you follow the logic of the state fair, there’s not a single foodstuff that can’t be improved by a dip in a deep fryer. Snickers, Twinkies, Oreos, Coke, even batter-coated butter —a couple minutes in gurgling, scalding oil create a calorie bomb that’s one part oddity, one part oh-I-shouldn’t indulgence and all intestinal distress.

One bite of crisp, oozing butter, and you’ll glean an important lesson from this parable: Just because you own a deep fryer doesn’t mean you should use it.

Luckily, no one told that to Giulio Adriani, the madcap pizzaiolo behind Brooklyn’s Forcella. It’s one of the new-model pizzerias sweeping New York, complete with a wood-burning oven, ingredients and even a chef imported from Italy. But what separates Forcella from the doughy pack is a singular, stomach-expanding, deep-fried delight dubbed the montanara.

Curious how the fried pizza is made? Check out my full article at Food Republic.

Gut Instinct: Papa's Knows Best

Papa's Tomato Pies, the pride of Trenton, New Jersey. Dubious signage, delicious food. Photo: Flickr/gopf2222

After an exhausting weekend spent exploring the power of whiskey and one-dollar bills during my Philadelphia bachelor party, the last thing I wanted to do was spend Sunday afternoon shoving my face into a hot, oozy pie.

"I think we need to get you a tomato pie," my friend Will said, knee-steering our car from the City of Brotherly Love at a speed that Indianapolis 500 aficionados would appreciate. "It's what you eat in Trenton, New Jersey." He grabbed his BlackBerry and clacked a query into Google. The results unfurled instantly. Phone calls were made as Will rocketed down the interstate. "Are you open?" he inquired of Papa's Tomato Pies. A pause. "Beautiful," Will said in his honeyed lawyer voice, ordering a large pie. "We'll be there in 15 minutes to pick it up." He killed the call. Then he sped up, Trenton's skyline approaching as quickly as a camera's zoom lens.

Perhaps I should pause to explain. A tomato pie is not a savory summertime treat. It's pizza. Then again, it's pizza in reverse. To create a Trenton tomato pie, the ripe red berries of the nightshade family are crushed, not turned into sauce. A thin crust is topped with olive oil and a smattering of cheese, and then the chunky tomatoes and a finishing oily drizzle. Finally, the pie is cooked till it's as crunchy as a Saltine cracker.

In Trenton, the major practitioners are De Lorenzo's and Papa's Tomato Pies (804 Chambers St., at Roebling Ave., papastomatopies.com). Since it was Father's Day, it was only fitting that we chose this paternal restaurant, opened by founder Joe Papa in 1912. Nearly a century later, Papa's is America's oldest family-owned pizza restaurant (a distinction that separates it from Lombardi's Pizza, which was founded in 1905). Today, Papa's looked every one of its 99 years. A vacant adjoining storefront had a taped-on arrow pointing to a door to the right, which was outfitted with a stained glass "P." Yellowing tape held together the awning, featuring a cartoony, mustachioed Italian chef.

Looks can be deceiving. Inside, vintage lights hung from the ceiling over wooden booths, and the walls were covered with photo collages of contented customers. We walked to the cash register and seized our pie, eager to return to the road. "Are you sure you don't want to eat here?" asked Nick Azzaro, the family's third generation of pizza makers, who runs the restaurant with son Dominic. "What's the rush?" I wanted to explain my hangover, how my head felt as it were filled with fighting feral squirrels. In short, I wanted to be in bed. "Sure, let's eat it here," Will said, before I could protest. The box was whisked to the kitchen. We slid into a booth. The pie was placed before us on a round metal sheet. The circular feast was a mosaic of vibrant red and blistered white, the edges cooked as dark as a Caribbean tan. I bit my slice. The crust crunched as if it were a kettle-cooked chip, the textural tomatoes' natural sweetness singing louder than the creamy mozzarella—a contrast to the average New York slice, where the sauce often plays second fiddle to cheese.

Azzaro, who looked a bit like Harvey Keitel wearing Christopher Lloyd's Back to the Future hair, abandoned the kitchen to observe. "What do you think?" he asked. Singular. Delicious. A different kind of pie altogether. Azzaro took the accolades in smiling stride. Then we came back with our question: What's the difference between a tomato pie and a pizza? It's a matter of cost, Azzaro explained. Used to be, every Trenton establishment slinging tomato pies had a vertical neon sign that announced the specialty. Then neon grew more expensive. Since sign makers charged by the letter, cost-conscious owners opted for the more succinct "pizza."

To me, there's still a distinction between a pizza and a pie. In lieu of pillowy dough, a cheesy blanket and a bedspread of zingy tomato, you have purer expression of its ingredients. The result is a regional delicacy good enough to make you—or was that me?—forget about a hammering hangover.

Read—and vote for—the original story at the New York Press website.

Dollar Pizza. Or, My Worst Idea Ever

Photo: Sam Horine

I am a man filled with many bad ideas, but this may have been the worst: spend the day carousing Manhattan, eating nothing bu slices of pizza that cost a buck. The adventure was for my Metromix Dollar Grub column, a moment of low-cost inspiration I'm still ruing all these years later. Want to see me go from hungry to queasy? Check out the full story at Metromix. Eat it up! Sorry, the company has folded and deleted my story.

Gut Instinct: Choke Job

A creamy, creamy Artichoke pie. Photo: Manger La Ville.

My early pizza education was doughy and disturbing. I cut my teeth on school-lunch cardboard rectangles crowned by pepperoni cubes, greasy deep-dish Pizza Hut pies and Papa John's floppy slices that I dunked in nuclear-yellow garlic butter. Further torturing my developing taste buds, my family's freezer was filled with heresies such as pizza bagels and frozen pies bought for a buck.

"What I wouldn't give for a slice of New York pizza," my mom would often say, her eyes looking toward her northeast hometown, far from the culinary wastelands of suburban Ohio. I'd nod in sympathy, if miscomprehension. To me, Pizza Hut was the cheesy pinnacle. It's hard to miss food you've never had.

But upon planting my flag in New York City, I began a pizza re-education that'd impress Chairman Mao. From DiFara's to Lombardi's, from buck-a-slice joints in Hell's Kitchen to each and every Ray's pizzeria, I soon understood my mom's longing for crunchy, pinkie-skinny pizza. Top a triangular slice with crushed red pepper, fold it in half and I had a low-cost lunch. Or dinner. Or the last, late-night line of defense to prevent a skull-hammering hangover.

From the safe perch of age and hindsight, I now consider my Pizza Hut days as misguided as the time I dyed my hair with household bleach. We learn from mistakes. We grow wiser and smarter. Yet a few weeks ago, I stupidly agreed to dine with my cheapskate friend Matt at Artichoke Basille's Pizza. "I have a Groupon. We get a large pie and four beers," he said, whispering words that appealed to my penny-pinching heart. "You're paying, right?" "Brother, I already paid." Bingo.

Ever since buddies Francis Garcia and Sal Basille opened their first pizzeria on East 14th Street in early 2008, Artichoke mania has gripped New York. The fervor has been fueled by the namesake artichoke slice, which is capped with a mess of mozzarella, pecorino Romano, spinach, artichoke hearts and cream sauce. To me, that sounds as appealing as an espresso enema. But I also have peculiar tastes, including spooning numbing chili-pepper sauce from a jar as if it were Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Who am I to judge?

Matt's Groupon was for the first sitdown branch of the rapidly expanding Artichoke chainlet (the third location is in the West Village), located on 10th Avenue and West 17th Street, within spitting distance of the High Line. We arrived at the Chelsea location at 6:45 p.m. on April 14. Hordes thronged the sidewalk surrounding Artichoke, as if Justin Bieber were performing inside.

"Matt, when does the Groupon coupon expire?" I asked. "Tomorrow," he said. Goddamn it, we were in the grips of Groupon Fever, a particularly irritating modern disease: So driven are customers to use their dining discount before it expires that they'll gladly queue for an hour or two. I despise waiting to dine. There are too many terrific restaurants in this town to ever waste time in line, tapping toes and fingering iPhones.

"Do you really want to wait?" I asked Matt. "I want to use my Groupon," he said, twirling his mustache petulantly. So we waited. Twenty minutes dissolved into 40, which soon sludged into an hour. As my stomached growled, I watched as sheep-like diners ordered identical meals: large pies, with four golden beers. Few deviated. It was a restaurateur's nightmare—endless packs of pinchfist customers. I was pleased to see Artichoke packed, but why take a monetary bath to fill seats?

I gained more insight into Artichoke's Groupon deal when we finally sat to sup. We ordered our gratis pints of Coors Light and an artichoke pie. Soon, so very soon, it arrived on a metal pedestal like the king of a gooey kingdom. "Are we supposed to cut this or dip carrots into it?" I asked Matt, pointing at the gloppy swirl that passed for the topping. For this cheese-and–tomato sauce purist, the pie was pure heresy. "Just shut up and eat," he said. I tried. Lord, did I try. But it tasted akin to fire-singed concrete topped with Bloomberg-rich alfredo sauce. I felt like a Civil War soldier given a piece of cold hardtack and two choices: munch or starve.

I chose to eat. Though the meal was free, my poor stomach soon paid a hefty price.

Read—and vote for—the original New York Press column at the paper's website!

Gut Instinct: Fearing the Wurst

A school bus trip to a forgotten borough gets to the meat of the matter

It was an offer most folks could refuse.

“Show up at the City Reliquary at 11 a.m. Saturday, and we’ll ride a school bus…somewhere,” was my fancifully mustached pal Matt Levy’s pitch. He was orchestrating arts collective Flux Factory’s inaugural Going Places (Doing Stuff) outing. Rent a school bus, give the guide free reign and then ask passengers to depart to destinations unknown.

“Sign us up,” I reply, for I’m a man who enjoys mystery—meat and otherwise. My girlfriend and I arrive in Williamsburg with my stomach growling like a muffler-less Mustang.

“I told you to eat dinner,” my girlfriend says.

“I did.”

“Beer is not dinner.”

The previous eve we visited the recently revived International Bar (120 1/2 First Ave. betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.). Though the grit and communicable diseases have been Mr. Cleaned, the drinks remain panhandler cheap: I pounded $4 whiskey-Schaefer couplings in lieu of solid food.

“Well, let’s eat before the bus leaves,” she says, leading me to cupcake-mad Cheeks Bakery (378 Metropolitan Ave. at Havemeyer St., Williamsburg, B’klyn; 718-599-3583). I order a strawberry scone the size of a mouse’s torso.

“Three dollars,” the counter lady says without irony—surprising, since we are in Williamsburg and the price is a joke.

I disappear the crumbly scone in two bites, then I investigate a bodega’s choices for sustenance. Amid Doritos I discover Engobi—caffeine-infused Energy Go Bites crackers, bearing an orange $.99 sticker reading value priced. The flavor is “lemon lift,” which inspires as much culinary confidence as Cheez-Whiz.

For experimentation’s sake, I purchase a bag and crunch brittle, scoop-shape crackers. Engobi tastes like puffed Fruit Loops rolled in crushed Lemonheads candy, sticking to my teeth like peanut brittle. Enough Engobi: It’s time to go places. And do stuff.

“Who think we’re going to Manhattan?” asks Matt, as adults pretzel into the cramped kiddie seating. Crickets.

“Brooklyn?”

Zip.

“Queens?”

Nada.

“Bronx?”

A couple hands.

“What about…Staten Island?”

As travelers clap and hoot like A-Rod smacked a World Series grand slam, we bounce across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the first stop, Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s grotto. It’s an artificial stone-and-seashell cave containing religious iconography, much like our next stop at the Castleton Hill Moravian Church.

“We’re going to a labyrinth!” Matt announces.

The group cheers. Then we discover that this labyrinth shares little with goblins or David Bowie: This labyrinth is a circular walking path for meditation.

“I’m not feeling too meditative,” I tell my girlfriend, sliding away to my ulterior motive: visiting thin-crust pizza shop Joe and Pat’s (1758 Victory Blvd. betw. Manor Rd. & Northrop Pl., Staten Island; 718-981-0887). Our tour craves pizza for lunch, so I accompany Matt to lend my expertise in ordering ’zas (about $20 apiece), including pesto, broccoli rabe, arugula and, umm…

“What’s scungilli?” Matt asks.

“Conch,” replies a chubby-cheeked counter boy.

“With garlic,” Matt says.

Twenty minutes later, our adventure posse attacks the crisply charred pies like fallen Slim-Fasters. In a cheesy tsunami, the pizzas—creamy pesto and crunchy broccoli rabe are clear winners, with briny scungilli far behind—are reduced to grease-stained cardboard.

“Sated,” I whisper to my girlfriend, rubbing my belly.

“I doubt that,” she says.

Fattened up, we mosey to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. We learn how a child actor from Cincinnati, Ohio, married a chemical industrialist and created this verdant center for Himalayan art in Staten Island, complete with Zen-calm terraced gardens. Now filled with knowledge, too, our motley crew departs to our final stop.

“Who’s ready for beer and meat?”

Matt asks.

“I am!” I shout.

“When are you not?” my girlfriend adds.

The bus disgorges us at 19th-century Killmeyer’s Old Bavarian Inn (4254 Arthur Kill Rd. at Sharrotts Rd., Staten Island; 718-984-1202). Though this is my second visit, I’m still in awe of the beer hall. Stuffed critters decorate ornately carved wood, while dirndl-wearing waitresses deliver half-liter mugs of wheaty, lemon-dunked Franziskaner Weiss ($6.50).

“Staten Island tastes good,” I say, sipping myself a beer mustache.

A perky blonde waitress saunters over. My meat-averse girlfriend orders a salad, but I go whole hog with a sausage platter ($15) and a “beer stick.”

“You eat it with beer,” the waitress instructs, delivering my thick, mild, chewy sausage. It’s lip-smacking with a liberal stripe of tangy mustard.

“Look, I’m smoking a meat cigar,” I tell my girlfriend, inserting a brown length into my mouth like Groucho Marx.

My girlfriend shakes her head, then she wisely averts her eyes when I receive my fat, nearly pornographic tubes of bratwurst, knackwurst and weisswurst. I knife clean juicy wheels, spin them in grainy mustard, chew and repeat, like I’m the hungriest, happiest worker on Staten Island’s heart-attack assembly line.