What is it about New Yorkers and pizza? They seem to have the same fanatic devotion to the local pie that they do to the bagel and the pastrami sandwich: It’s never right unless it comes from the five boroughs.
According to John Mariani’s Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink, Neapolitans brought pizza to America, where it first became popular in the biggest Italian communities: New York and Chicago. New York’s first pizza parlor, Gennaro Lombardi’s, opened in 1905, spawning generation after generation of pizzerias.
These days, Neapolitans are reclaiming their place in world food history, attempting to pass quasilegal guidelines about what a true Neapolitan pizza is — baked in a wood-fired oven, topped with buffalo-milk mozzarella. The New York pie doesn’t fall too far from the tree — after immigration it got bigger, sure, but the crust stayed thin, ideally crisped in coal-fired ovens, and since water buffalo were in short supply the Americans switched to cow’s-milk cheese.
In the past couple of months, two new pizzerias claiming to serve New York-style pizza have opened. But would New York approve? This week I ran a series of taste tests, bringing New York expats face to face with slices from Berkeley’s Gioia Pizzeria, Oakland’s Sopranos Pizza, and Arinell in Berkeley. I hovered over my testers as they stuffed pieces in their mouths, staring at their grease-stained lips until they passed judgment on two criteria: First, was it authentic? Second, was it good?
Will Gioia was born in Brooklyn, but has cooked in the Bay Area for seven years — notably at Oliveto, Zuni Cafe, and Trattoria Mazzini. For his first restaurant, though, Gioia downscaled, opening Gioia Pizzeria half a block from Monterey Market. “I wanted to stick to simple, spiritual food, with really good ingredients, but approachable,” he says.
His pizzas have all the hallmarks of Berkeley, made with organic flour and seasonal organic veggies, but he’s still all about re-creating the pies he grew up with. Now open for two months, Gioia Pizzeria sells by the pie and by the slice, all displayed in a glass counter near the front of a closet-sized shop decorated with photos of famous NYC pizzerias. The restaurant carries the basics — cheese, pepperoni, and mushroom — and then veers off into lotus-land with green olive, vongole (clam and onions) and, in the most extreme fusion of East Coast and West Coast, arugula pesto and prosciutto.
All the native New Yorkers thought Gioia’s traditional pizzas looked right. “This is the thinnest crust I’ve ever eaten on the West Coast,” said Donna (Bronx). Cooked in a gas-fired “deck” oven, the crust, charred around the edges of the bottom, extended out from the sauced area by an inch, barely inflating into a lip. The cheese was spread equally thinly, and its fats and solids had separated so that the sauce poked through.
“It’s got the fold factor,” added Will (Long Island), who’d doubled his pizza lengthwise so it formed one long wedge. (Apparently, the folding thing separates the New Yorkers from everyone else.) “But the sauce is all wrong,” he said. “It’s not sweet enough.”
Not sweet, but bright with the acid of San Marzano tomatoes (Italian plum tomatoes that food gurus rate the best) and aromatically herbed. It shone through the two kinds of mozzarella thinly spread across the cheese pizza, and backed up the (real) mushrooms and wide-gauge pepperoni. Gioia omitted the sauce and most of the cheese from two pizza biancas: The clam pizza, which was heavily flecked with parsley, garlic, and pepper flakes, tasted a little bland without more clams, but Gioia got the balance right on the pairing of a spicy, bitter-edged arugula pesto and salty prosciutto. Three of my experts must have sucked up a little too much fog, because it turned out to be their favorite.
Next, I drove three former classmates from Hunter College High School to visit Sopranos. It’s owned by Stas Sarkis, who has been in the pizza business for nine years and in this pizza business for one. Unlike the other two places I visited, Sopranos delivers — “As far as Alameda and Berkeley,” he says.
Sarkis sells slices and whole pies in one of two styles: New York and “Portofino.” What’s the difference? I asked the owner. Both are thin crust, he claims, but Portofino has a bigger lip. “A lot of people from the East Coast love our pie. It’s the closest to New York in the Bay Area, they say,” he says.
Winston (Manhattan), Donna (Bronx), and JP (Bronx) disagreed, disqualifying Sopranos’ New York-style from the competition. The sausage and artichoke pizza that we ordered wasn’t bad — a roll in finely ground cornmeal gave the half-inch-thick crust nubbly, crisp edges, and one of the tasters especially liked the spiciness of the sauce.
Sopranos is making the same kind of pizza as local stalwarts Extreme Pizza and North Beach Pizza, and doing it just as well. But as with these other pizzerias, everything — dough, sauce, cheese, toppings — is spread too thickly to be anything but Californian. I’m not a fan of the style: You can’t taste anything through the deep lake of cheese unless you overwhelm the pizza with toppings. It’s pizza meant to be eaten with a fork. Besides, said JP, the Sopranos are from Jersey.
Last stop: Arinell, the granddaddy of the East Bay’s New York-style pizzerias. Born in Washington Heights and trained in the Bronx, Ronald Demirdjian opened Arinell in 1975. Since then expats have claimed Demirdjian’s thin-crust, foof-free pies are as close to the real thing as you can find. (He also sells a thick-crust, rectangular “Neapolitan” pizza.)
Though there’s a sign on the counter stating that Arinell doesn’t add sugar to any of its ingredients, the sauce has a mild sweetness that earned the nod from Will the purist. The mozzarella scored points, too, for just coating the top of the pie and blistering enough to caramelize.
The crust, however, started a fight. More flavorful than Gioia’s, Arinell’s is crispy all the way through and laced with bubbles. To fold it in half, in fact, you have to press hard to crack it. All wrong, said Will. All right, said Stefanie (Long Island), finishing the last bite. “In New York I never ate the crust.”
The panelists’ final ratings:
Authenticity: 4 with arugula, 8 without
Good taste: 9
Good taste: 8
Good taste: 6