Posts Tagged ‘pizza’

Who’s Got New York’s Best Pizza? Chew On This

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

Ok, I admit – I am a pizzaholic, and I’ve been a pizzaholic since I was five years old. We were living in Staten Island back then, having made the then-upgrade from Brooklyn and a few years before we shuffled off to the leafy Jersey burbs. I remember my parents bringing home steaming-hot, whole cheese “pies” to feast at dinner with my baby brother and me. I also remember regular bouts of choking on the cheese, where my dad would drag me (or my brother) to the kitchen sink, put his hands inside my mouth and yank out the offending mozzarella cutting off air to my lungs. Then, as soon as I could breath easily again, I’d plead for another piece. Yes, somehow even the fear of death wasn’t as great as the worry of not having another taste of tomato-ey, chewy bliss.

If you’ve been following Gosstronomy for a while, you’ve probably noticed a disproportionate number of mentions about pizza. I am forever in search of the perfect pizza. Yet, somehow, the more I look and the more I taste, the further away my goal seems to get. Just when I’ve hit all of the legendary New Haven pizza haunts, made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s DiFara, devoured tasty slices at Joe’s, shlepped to Grimaldi’s (both the famed branch under the Brooklyn Bridge, plus the Hoboken off-shoot), and scoffed the terrific coal-oven meatball pizza at Arturo’s over and over again, a whole new wave of artisan pizzerias have come onto the scene and ruined it all. It’s like thinking you’ve nearly scaled Everest, only to climb to the top and see the real summit far off into the distance, rising high into the clouds. Hey, it’s the best analogy I can think of – work with me here.

Keste_pizzaoven

What brought extra attention to my pizza-quest affliction was last week’s article in the New York Post about the city’s school chancellor, Joel Klein, being another obsessive pizza type. Klein has spent a lifetime trying to best pizzas throughout the five boroughs and was prompted by the newspaper to supply his list of favourites. He chose Lucali, found in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, and Luzzo’s in the East Village. He then goes onto mention Keste in Greenwich Village, Anselmo’s and Roberta’s in repective Brooklyn neighbourhoods Red Hook and Bushwick. A sidebar also adds Staten Island’s Salvatore of Soho, the Bronx’s Zero Otto Nove and Queens’ Nicks Pizza.

Not to be outdone by Klein (which, to date, I regrettably have), I had already started my own research this summer, and begun to sink my teeth into the new pizza elite. I started off this summer at Una Pizza Napoletana, an artisan wood-fired maker creating much buzz in the East Village. Owner Anthony Mangieri is so strict in his pizza making – limiting the choices to four pizza types and zero substitutions – that he is the doughy equivalent to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. And on a wet and bleak summer’s day (we’ve had lots of those this summer), I went with a friend to check it out. What I found was a broad crust that was the lightest, fluffiest, freshest dough I have ever tasted. That acknowledge, I tried two of the pizzas – a classic Margherita and the white pizza – and while both were good and used quality ingredients, I was disappointed that neither stood out in terms of flavour. I love simplicity, but these were simple to the extent of being bland. It was obvious that both pies were cooked beautifully and with skill and focus, but someone seemed to have forgotten to actually take a bite and see what all of that passion had wrought.

Even so, I did feel a sense of loss when, a few weeks later, Una Pizza announced it was closing. Mangieri is apparently making a lifestyle change to the West Coast, and another – another! – top-ranked newcomer, Motorino, will be taking over the space, expanding from its original home in Williamsburg. Hell, I just got started, and already the pizza landscape is reforming under my feet. As Tony Soprano would say: “Muthaf–kas!” You gotta keep on your toes in this cheesy business.

Now, sadly, no, this isn’t going to be a review round-up of the best pizza places in New York City. Rather, I’m sharing my histlist, and all of us who are in New York (or planning to visit) should experiment in unison and compare notes. Doing my part, I made my latest pilgrimage last week to Keste, a newcomer to Greenwich Village, tucked into a narrow space on buzzing Bleeker Street. Time Out and New York magazines both recently awarded Keste as the best pizza maker in city, so I had to find out if the place holds up to the hype.

The low-down? Well, I was solo that day (a bonus, as I made it quickly through the line in 15 minutes, where others in larger groups likely waited up to an hour), so I merely ordered a defacto Margherita, my baseline criteria for a great pizzeria. My philosophy has always been that if you can’t make a decent Margherita, then what’s the use of trying to put lots of fancy ingredients on top of it? And Keste didn’t let me down. The crust was thick, puffy and light – like Una Pizza’s – but here I found that the pizza had more flavour, from its lively tomato sauce to its saltier cheese and dough. It was, indeed, delicious.

But is Keste the best pizza in New York? I was pleased with the pizza, but not exactly shock and awed. Still, I was impressed enough that I’m resolved to go back for more research. A couple next to me ordered the lardo pizza, and the pie smelled of an intriguing rich, buttery scent with a pungent whiff of something not unlike the bent aroma of aged cheese. I was told it was stellar, but best enjoyed in small doses. There are 18 types of pizza available at Keste, using quality ingredients like imported proscuitto (de Parma and grand cru), fresh buffalo mozzarella, Italian rapini, truffle spread and more. Next time I’m going to bring friends – you know, the ‘sharing is caring’ type – and we can sample across the menu together.

Mind you, I’m also trying to get a bit slimmer as I get ready for Australian spring and triathlon season, so I’m trying to moderate my pizzaholism a bit, regulating my pie intake to once a week. But with only six weeks left in New York, and dozens of great pizzerias still to try, that’s gonna be a challenge. So if you see me tucking into a drool-worthy artisan pizza on one of my days off, just look the other way.

Keste, 271 Bleecker St, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, NY, + 1 (212) 243-1500, http://www.kestepizzeria.com

Motorino, 319 Graham Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, +1 (718) 599-8899, www,motorinopizza.com

Blasphemy – What’s Your Favourite Fast Food Joint?

SanFran_InnOutBurger_small

I’ve got a bit of a split personality when it comes to fast food. Most times, I hate the stuff. It’s processed, homogenised, downright bad for you, and I blame it (and I’m not alone) for causing my dual home countries – America and Australia – to be the two fattest countries in the world. I stay away from fast food whenever I can.

And then there are those times when I’m in a rush. Suddenly, only fast will do. We’re talking those 10 minutes I have at the airport between connecting flights (and on a plane that I know will cook me even worse food), when I need a quick bite on the way to a meeting, or those inevitable road trips where gas, food and a pitstop is on the cards. That’s when I drop my fast-food loathing and give in to the creature comforts of the Golden Arches and other near-instant delicacies.

I only started thinking about fast food this morning because Esquire magazine came out with a poll of top US chefs about their go-to fast food, and the largest percentage selected California’s In-N-Out Burger chain. It even got the nod from Thomas Keller, chef of the country’s top-rated restaurants, Per Se and The French Laundry. Iron Chef America’s Alton Brown and TV celeb chef Tyler Florence were also among the In-N-Out faithful. What makes it even more impressive is that the California-born burger chain is only located in four states in the American Southwest. That is some serious regional burger patriotism. I have friends from LA, so I’ve seen the loyalty first-hand, and the photo above is from my sole Inn-N-Out experience in San Fransisco in May. It was, well, a good burger: a step up from Mickey D’s, a step down from Shake Shack.

The Esquire poll did get me thinking about my own preferred fast food joint. Or joints, at it may be. As I’ve got dual residency, I thought it appropriate to pick one for each of my ‘hometowns': New York and Sydney.

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

When I’m in New York, there’s no denying that my ultimate fast food is pizza, and it’s not fast unless you’re talking about by-the-slice operators, so we’ll leave the likes of Di Fara’s, Una Pizza Napoletana and Keste aside for slower-food mullings. As I live across the Hudson River in Hoboken, you’ll find me at Benny Tudino’s pizzeria (pictured above) more often than any other eatery in the metro area. I’ve been coming to Benny’s for 20 years now, and it’s always been a reliable spot for a quality, monster-sized slice (from a 26-inch pizza!) at a ridiculously low price – where else can I get a satisfying meal for $3.75? Even cheap Chinese costs more and takes longer. Benny’s is a veritable Hoboken instituion, and it gets my vote for being both a great product and for being geographically desirable. If you don’t know where it is, just ask the cops – they’re long-time regulars.

Joes_Pizza

When I’m in Manhattan, I don’t have as much loyalty when it comes to pizza slices, but the venue that probably scores the highest frequency is Joe’s Pizza in the West Village, located on the corner of Carmine Street and Bleeker. It’s got a choice of plain cheese or Sicilian slices, uses good-quality cheese and has a nicely flavoured, sweet-yet-simple tomato sauce. I never plan to go to Joe’s, I just usually wander there as a last-minute, late-night decision. That means I never look at the website, but I did today to research this post and discovered that they have expanded to three other locations: one in Brooklyn, and two in Los Angeles. And even though I only know Joe’s as a local joint, it’s apparently gained a level of superstar status since it got a cameo in the Spiderman 2 movie, with Peter Parker (in the guise of Tobey Maguire) working a delivery job there. Who knew?

Other pizzerias used to get my patronage: Famous Famiglia before it went for world franchise domination, and Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village – the true, original Ray’s on 6th Ave and 11th St that inspired all of the other imitators across Manhattan. I’ve been back to Famous Rays a couple of times, but I have to say I found the cheesy slices were pretty bland.

As for Australia, that’s an even easier choice. No fast food gets my cravings going more than a double Bondi Burger from the Sydney-born Portuguese chicken chain, Oporto. We’re talking two, thin, crispy-grilled chicken fillets with lettuce, tomato, mayo and just enough of a chilli hit make your cheeks go misty. I don’t know what’s in the “secret” chilli sauce, but Wikipedia says it’s a “piri-piri sauce made from chilli, ginger, lemon and garlic”. That’s probably close, but I reckon there’s also a dash of sugar in there and maybe something else to add that je ne sais quoi that makes it so damn good. Oporto’s thick-cut fries are also ever-pleasing and should be sent to Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) so the latter can see where they went wrong.

Fast-food longings aside, let’s all do ourselves a favour. Let’s not make fast food a regular habit. Save it for those rare, cherished moments when we’re running from work to a party, or driving hours up the highway to get to a beautiful beach or ski mountain. Let’s support those seldom, even special breaks from our usual dining patterns. Life’s all about balance, right?

So what about you? Do you have a fast-food craving? Fess up in the comments section below, and together we can spread the guilty pleasures around.

Benny Tudino’s, 622 Washington St, Hoboken, NJ, +1 (201) 792-4132
Benny Tudino's on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Pizza, 7 Carmine St, West Village, Manhattan, NY, +1 (212) 255-3946
Famous Joe's Pizza on Urbanspoon

To Di Fara, With Love – NYC’s must-make pizza pilgrimage

How do I love thee, Dom DeMarco.? Let me count the ways. I love it how you tenderly shred your whole pieces of fresh buffalo mozzarella and scatter them with care around the pizza base. I love the way you unselfishly take out a whole, large bunch of fresh basil and scissor large leaf-cuts over the pie with the utmost generosity. I love how you manhandle your Grana Padano by freshly grating it and scattering over your bubbling masterpieces. And I love how you drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over your precious pies, and how you take your time to produce your genius, so that all around you wait in eager anticipation.

DiFara_basil

Yes, I have a man-crush on Domenico “Dom” DeMarco, the 72-year-old Italian-born owner and pizza-maestro of Di Fara, the no-frills pizzeria on Avenue J, a stone’s throw from the M train in the deep, dark Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood – an Italian needle in a haystack of Orthodox Jewish enterprises.

DiFara_sauce

‘Real’ New York pizza is a dying breed in this pie-crazed city, and how much tradition we’ve lost is rarely apparent until you make a pilgrimage to the likes of this legendary NYC pizza joint, whose lore grows ever year. And as DeMarco widens an ever-growing gap from what should have been retirement age, his followers continually dread the day that he can no longer perform his solo act in front of his gas ovens.

DiFara_exterior

And yes, I said gas. As I discover over and over again, from Naples to Sydney to New York, you don’t have to have wood fires or coal ovens to make some of the world’s best pizza. As DeMarco illustrates, you just need a blazing hot heat source (reported to be 750F/400C), the willingness to use the freshest ingredients, and the know-how to make the most of both. And maybe a last ingredient – time – a rarity in today’s go-go-go culture.

According to plan, our car-full of six eataholics – foodie friend Alex, New York Slop blogger Laura, sommelier-in-training Mark, chauffeur Justine, and Aussie Mark, from music duo The Hipstones – got there on a Friday at 2.30pm with the hopes of avoiding the lunch crowds and being a day ahead of the weekend hordes that round the block. As anticipated, there was no line at Di Fara, but that still didn’t stop us from earnestly waiting an hour for our two pies (yes, this is New York, we call them pies, get over it): one round of New York thinnish-crust pizza, and the other a tray of square Sicilian. If we were here on a Saturday, we would likely be waiting up to three hours as Dom prepares his works, as he always does: one at a time. They take as long as they take.

DiFara_gang

There are toppings at Di Fara, but in my mind, they’re a waste of the experience. There is so much flavour in the mozzarella (Domenico combines buffalo mozzarella shreds with slices of cow’s milk mozzarella), the flame-singed crust, the parmesan, the housemade sauce with chunks from whole Salerno tomatoes, the olive oil, and especially the vibrant basil (from Israel, says Epicurious, but I’ve also read that he grows his own in window boxes), that anything else would distract from the pure expression of perfectionism. And to say that the thin-crust pizza is better than the Sicilian is true, but it’s a matter of degrees. The Sicilian is more unique – it’s harder find this style done right amid the over-thick, bready imitators. But why choose? The luxury of enjoying the flavors and textures of both pizza types makes for a better, more varied experience.

DiFara_sicilian

Dom wasn’t easy to engage, as he worked patiently but ever-diligently, but I finally managed to mention to him that some of us had come from Australia and that knew about him from the other side of the world. He flashed me a rare smile, pleased that his work was being appreciated from so very far.

Of course, the big question about Di Fara is obvious. Within hours I was already asked: Is Di Fara the best pizza in New York? (Or in the US, or the world?) Well I haven’t been to Totonno’s in Coney Island or the original Patsy’s in East Harlem. Or to all of the new breed of pizza-crazed makers that have popped up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or to every pizza-mad city on this planet.

DiFara_Michael_smelly

But I can say this: I’ve been to a disproportionate number of pizzerias in my time, from many edges of the world, and Dom DeMarco’s effort ranks among the very best, even if my recollections place him just a notch behind a mind-blowing pizza in Naples and my all-time favourites in New Haven, Connecticut. And Steven Shaw of eGullet might be right in saying the Di Fara’s may not be the best New York pizza, but rather the best example of what was once a common New York style that is now steadily becoming a lost art.

DiFara_sweeps

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never come across anyone who seems to care about their product as deeply, gives so much to his craft and has been maintaining that level of perfectionism for so long. Di Fara opened in 1964, the same year the Beatles broke it big in the US, “Dr Strangelove” appeared on movie screens, and Jackie O made her first public appearance after JFK’s assassination. I also don’t know anyone who continually defies the health department so that he can continue to use his bare hands to create… and has been shut down briefly a number of times for doing so. He was told to wear a hat, and gloves, but I saw neither on the day. DeMarco seems to suggest, “My art is my art and I won’t compromise for anything less.” And for that, Domenico DeMarco is deserving of his legendary status.

“I don’t intend to retire. But I want my kids to take over the place,” DeMarco told the New York Times in an interview a few years back. “Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast, it’s no good.”

Di Fara, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NYC, +1 (718) 258-1367
DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

Tasmania – The Agrarian Kitchen

agrariankitchen_dough1

Is The Agrarian Kitchen the best damned cooking school in Australia? I need to try a few more to make an ultimate call, but Rodney Dunn’s new-ish Agrarian Kitchen – about a 40-minute drive out of Hobart in the quaint Derwent Valley town of Lachlan – is certainly a top contender. I used to work with Rodney when he was the food editor of Gourmet Traveller magazine (and I a mercenary freelance editor), and he’s always been a great bloke and a terrific cook. As he should be, considering he learned his trade in the kitchen of Sydney’s world-renowned Tetsuya’s.

So when I heard Rodney had left the mag to open a cooking school, I couldn’t wait to check it out.

Sarah and I recently did a whirlwind trip to Tassie, including a gruelling climb up much of the fantastically beautiful Cradle Mountain and a picture-perfect dinner at Launceston’s Asian-infused Stillwater River Cafe, and I made sure to make a stop at The Agrarian Kitchen. Classes weren’t in session the day I was passing through, but Rodney invited me over anyway for a tour of the converted schoolyard and the surrounding grounds. Besides, Luke Burgess, a former top food photographer and much-missed owner/chef of the defunct Pecora café in Birches Bay, was coming over to cook pizza in the wood-fired oven.

agrariankitchen_pizza1

So what makes The Agrarian such an amazing place? Rodney’s incredible knowledge and skill would have been enough, but he has upped the ante by creating his own small farm, growing and raising all of his own produce. Not only does he grow a dizzying array of herbs, vegetables and fruit, he’s cultivating just about every different type of seed he can get his grubby hands on. I spotted a couple dozen types of tomatoes, from black Russian to heirloom varietals, some 14 types of raspberry, zucchini flowers, umpteen potatoes including a dazzling pink spud, and more fresh produce than I could explain without boring the hell out of Gosstronomy readers. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also raising two Jersey cows for milking, a few pigs for soil tilling and pork, geese for natural lawn-moving, and chooks for eggs and poultry.

agrariankitchen_proscuitto1

What this means for the fortunate eight people who get to sit at the kitchen’s huge stainless-steel benchtop is that they not only get to learn to cook an elaborate meal with a top chef and food personality, but they get to choose the freshest possible produce from the farm and take it from the paddock all the way to the plate. To give a sense of what we’re talking about, here’s a sample menu from their website: Warning – reading this when famished can cause severe hunger pains:

  • Prosciutto, ricotta and silverbeet rotolo: Hand-made pasta, hand-made ricotta and silverbeet from our garden, rolled into the pasta and slowly poached, then sliced and served with rosemary and garlic infused butter
  • Wessex saddleback pork neck braised in milk
  • Chickpea soffrito: sauteed garden vegetables and Macarena chickpeas
  • Forager’s salad: collection of ten different lettuces and chive flowers from our garden)
  • Blackcurrant leaf ice-cream: freshly gathered blackcurrant leaves infused into cream and churned ice-cream
  • Meyer lemon and wild elderflower cordial

Even though our day wasn’t a typical one, we still rummaged around the farm, and gathered fresh zucchini, potatoes, basil and other ingredients. We were also treated to housemade cheeses for toppings, and proscuitto cut from an artisan-smoked and one-year-aged leg, although I can’t remember whether it was Luke or Rodney’s creating, since both are experimenting at the moment. Either way, it was stellar. Wine was provided by yours truly: stellar bottles of Stefano Lubiana pinot grigio and estate pinot, one of Tasmania’s best, which we were able to conveniently pick up at their cellar door on the way. Noice.

The high-ceilinged, 35-square-metre kitchen, with its infinite toys, retro baby-blue Smeg fridge and sunny view of the farm, is painful to see – it is a foodie’s dream workspace. And add to that a wood-fired oven, built inside the kitchen and designed by Alan Scott, the legendary masonry-oven builder who recently passed away, and completed by his son.

agrariankitchen_kiddo1

The pizzas, of course, were picture-perfect, including passatta made from fresh summer tomatoes and lots of skill and a bit of sweat from a coal-faced Luke, who pull the pies from the red-hot oven. In the end, we sat down with Rodney, his wife Séverine and their young son, toasted Rodney to his success and tucked into some of the freshest pizzas you’ll find anywhere in Australia.

The Agrarian Kitchen, 650 Lachlan Road, Lachlan, Tasmania, +61 (0)3 6261 1099. For details, email info@theagrariankitchen.com or visit www.theagrariankitchen.com

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