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Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

A New York critic sizes up Seattle pizza

Seattle Times restaurant critic

When it comes to pizza, I pine for that mythical slice: the perfect pizza of my Philadelphia childhood. That yeasty crust was thin enough to fold over (not that I'd want to; that was a New York affectation), yet sturdy enough to hold the unconscionable amount of "extra cheese" I'd always order. Sure, the molten mozzarella wreaked havoc on the roof of my mouth, but who could wait till it cooled? Nothing — nothing! — was better than a hot slice of pizza from Joseph's Pizza on Oxford Avenue.

You, no doubt, would beg to differ, even if you grew up in Philadelphia. There, small independently owned pizzerias did business out of storefronts everywhere. Chains? Those were what we slipped out of the locks to answer the door when the delivery guy showed up.

Lucky me. Turns out I was raised in a town that had — and continues to have — a thriving "pizza culture." I was born in the "Pizza Belt," which runs from Philadelphia, moves through Trenton, travels through New York, Long Island and New Haven and ends in Boston. So says Ed Levine, author of "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" (Universe, $24.95).

And he should know. Levine makes his living telling New Yorkers where to get off — and eat. From hamburgers to hum bao, bagels to barbecue, he's spent years ferreting out food finds in New York's five boroughs. The author of "New York Eats," "New York Eats (More)" and a frequent contributor to The New York Times food section, this East Coast noshmeister recently lighted out for the territories, turning his attention to something we can all relate to.

Pizza is a $32-billion-per-year industry in the U.S., according to Levine, who likens that number to "one hundred acres of pizza every day, or about 350 slices of pizza per second." With more than 62,000 pizzerias in this country, he contends that "61,000 or so serve mediocre pizza at best." And despite what expat New Yorkers believe, he insists that many of those mediocre slices are served in NYC.

In the name of research, Levine spent 12 months eating pizza around the country (1,000 slices, and counting). He traveled to Naples to sample his subject at its historical source. Back in the U.S., he paid visits to the folks he calls "the keepers of the flame," among them Flo Consiglio of Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Conn., and Phoenix's Chris Bianco, the only pizzaiola to win a James Beard award for best chef.

Levine tapped other opinionated pizza lovers for contributions to "A Slice of Heaven." Chefs like Mario Batali, humorists like Nora Ephron and restaurant critics (including yours truly) who shared pizza memories and singled out great pizza joints in their respective cities. Which brings us to Piecora's New York Pizza in Capitol Hill (1401 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-322-9411) one of my longtime favorites and one of several local pizzerias where Levine and I hoisted a few slices late last month.

"The reason I wrote this book is that pizza culture is fascinating on so many levels," Levine told me while we waited for our sausage and mushroom pie. "Pizza cuts across class lines, racial lines and ethnic lines. In Flushing there's a guy serving pizza with kimchee. Working in a Korean neighborhood, he decided, 'Hey, I'd better adapt!' The neighborhood loves it."

Adaptation is what pizza is all about, though the perfect pie, regardless of what's on it, must begin with a great crust, one that's puffy, chewy and pliant, Levine says. "Think about it. What is pizza? It's bread. And you can't have good pizza without good bread."

Proving his point he lifts the outer edge of a slice, visually dissecting it, inspecting for hole-structure. "See? Bubbles. Bubbles are always good." Pulling off a piece, he takes a bite and renders a verdict. "This pizza would make you happy if you were from New York." On further inspection, Levine says he found Piecora's crust slightly "Wonderbready" for his tastes, and wanting for salt — a common affliction.

Last year, Levine holed up at home in New York ordering chain pizza every night for a week: his attempt to give the chains "a fair shake" in his book. They got their fair shake — of his fist. Some of the biggest national chains came out of the Midwest, says Levine. Pizza Hut's from Kansas. Domino's got its start in Michigan. Papa John's hails from Indiana — places where, as in Seattle and other points West, "there's not a mom 'n' pop culture of pizza."

The chains, says Levine, have taken the human quotient out of pizza-making. "Chains are all about price," he rails. " 'I'm gonna fill you as cheap as I can!' This denies the humanity inherent in making food, and pizza is the definitive handmade food. Unfortunately, for many people, their context for pizza-eating is chain pizza — because they don't know any better. To them, pizza is melted cheese on warm bread, and no matter how bad it is it's still damn good!"

Which brings us to Broadway — our Broadway — and Seattle's favorite homegrown chain, Pagliacci (426 Broadway E., 206-324-0730). Sampling a slice of pepperoni pie, Levine says the sauce could stand to lose some sweetness, but "this crust is much better than Piecora's." And while I agreed, I feel obligated to add that this fast-growing chain appears to be having consistency problems. Recent trips to the new Shoreline Pagliacci on Ballinger Way proved disheartening for this old fan of Pagliacci's "Philadelphia-style" pizzas.

Our next stop: Tutta Bella (4918 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-721-3501), one of a handful of U.S. pizzerias recognized by the Vera Pizza Napoletana — aka the "pizza police." VPN's strict adherence to the rigid rules of Neapolitan pizza-making are described in "A Slice of Heaven." At Tutta Bella, owner Joe Fugere personifies Levine's owner-occupied pizzeria theory: one that suggests that the best pizzerias are those run by people who "live and die with every pie."

"Look at the difference in style here," he says, of our thin-crusted Margherita, baked in less than two minutes in a searing wood-fueled oven — Levine's idea of the pizza ideal. He points out fresh basil and "discrete areas" of fresh mozzarella, and tomato sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes judiciously applied. He complains, mildly, that the "cornicione" — the pizza's lip — could use a bit of lift, but admires the char that adds its smoky flavor to the whole.

"In Seattle, we're seeing a burgeoning pizza culture," he says, tipping his hat to places like Tutta Bella, Via Tribunali (the new Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Capitol Hill), La Vita è Bella Pizzeria (in Belltown) and Café Lago (the Montlake trattoria where chef Jordi Viladas has been making great pizza for years). "If you've got a couple of guys using good ingredients, you'll eventually see more, and the end result is going to be good for Seattle.

"This is coming from the whole artisanal food movement here in Washington. You've got great cheeses, great local breads, and the same thing that's happened with cheese and bread is going to happen with pizza," Levine predicts. "You watch: In the next five years you're going to see an explosion of chefs opening pizza places. Seattle's such a good food town, I can't believe it can't be a great pizza town."

And pizza, says Levine, makes everybody happy. "Even bad pizza makes people happy. So why not eat good pizza? Think how happy that will make you!"

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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