Pizza envy, or the return of the New York casserole canard | Bleader

Pizza envy, or the return of the New York casserole canard

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Dom DeMarco and New York pizza at Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • Dom DeMarco and New York pizza at Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn

In the last week before school restarts, a New Yorker slamming Chicago pizza is barely enough to rouse me—I'm like a brown bear in the hot sun deciding whether it's worth swatting at an otter. It's not pizza, it's a casserole? Whatever, dude. Americans vote with their engorged bellies on the subject of whether Chicago deep-dish is any good. Still, with the precision of a mad scientist, Serious Eats' J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has zeroed in on what he considers the fundamental failing of Chicago pizza, so let me start winding up the big cannon on this subject and I'll fire it at the end.

Lopez-Alt started it Monday night on his Facebook page, then stepped up his attack the next morning. In the first post he opined that Chicago deep dish is hardly like pizza at all, rather it's lasagna in a pastry shell. To which I respond with the clever rejoinder: "So what?"

The second post made a more substantive point: that Chicago-style pizza's crust is unsalted and thus bland. Yeah, OK. It is kind of bland. But the better ones have a nice flaky-crunchy texture. And the pies have about four inches of flavorful stuff piled on top of them. That's what's kind of weird about this discussion—it's so weighted toward thin pizza as it exists in New York that it's incapable of accepting that other criteria may apply to a mutant-alternate-universe-version of the same dish. The brassy acidic chopped tomatoes and fennel-tinged balls of Italian sausage are good enough in their own right that if you're stuck on the dough, you've kind of missed the bigger picture.

Attacking New York pizza in return is not that effective a counter strategy, because most New York slice pizza—like at all those Original Ray's places—is kind of lousy, with its flavorless fiberboard crust supporting greasy commodity cheese. But that's just Sturgeon's law at work: most of everything is kind of lousy. The thing is, how many great pizza places in New York are we really talking about? A lot of them are doing straight-up Neapolitan pizza, like Spacca Napoli or others here, and I wouldn't really count those as New York pizza—I'd just say New York has some really excellent Neapolitan pizzas. It'd be like claiming there's such a thing as New York-style soup dumplings. No, there are just places in Chinatown you can go for good dumplings.

Real New York pizza at its peak is a rarer thing, a sturdier crust than Neapolitan, covered with more cheese. As one expert puts the difference: 

New York-style pizza dough is an offshoot of Neapolitan-style dough designed to be cooked in a slightly cooler-burning coal-fired (or as is more often the case in modern New York pizzerias, gas-fired) ovens... The crust has to be sturdy enough, but—and this is important—just sturdy enough. Crunchy, tough, or cracker-like are not adjectives that can ever accurately describe a great New York pizza. The slice must crackle and give gently as you fold it, never crack or split. When bent slightly down the center (A.K.A. the "New York Fold"), it should cantilever out straight under its own support.

As you may have guessed from the use of the word "cantilever," the expert who wrote that description is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. When you have a really good example of that type of pizza—I've had it at John's in Greenwich Village and Di Fara's in Brooklyn, among others—it is an admirable pizza, with a ratio of cheese to bread that's quite a bit higher than on a Neapolitan pizza (and note that it's rubbery American mozzarella, not fresh-made puffballs of mozz like on a Neapolitan), but where the bread still contributes significantly to the flavor, not just the texture.

A thicker sheet pizza at Di Fara - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • A thicker sheet pizza at Di Fara

But here's the thing. Di Fara's, which has been named the best pizza in New York about as often as anywhere, has two styles of pizza. They do a round pie that's very much a classic New York pizza. But they also do a Sicilian sheet pizza, with wonderfully burnt edges, that's by far the better of the two. It's, um, thicker than the other, with more acidic tomato sauce (you can see the cans around the room) and more goopy cheese floating on it. And as soon as I bit into it, the thing it reminded me of was Chicago pizza, in all its brassy gooey excess. (Specifically, and weirdly, it reminded me of La Gondola on the north side, which serves what isn't even one of the best deep-dishes in west Lakeview, though the pies don't have those magical burnt edges, either.) So in short, as much as New Yorkers may try to prove scientifically that our pizza sucks or isn't even pizza at all, their own preferences sell them out when they proclaim Di Fara's the best (Chicago) pizza in New York—loving it for its bravado, its excess, its existence as a living testament to the idea that more pizza is better pizza, always and forever. Quod erat difarastrandum.


Di Fara—it tasted better than it looks! - MICHAEL GEBERT
  • Michael Gebert
  • Di Fara—it tasted better than it looks!

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