I’m not sure fold-ability was the key quality for a New York pizza before comedian Jon Stewart famously chided Donald Trump for eating a slice with a knife and fork. (The offending incident happened when the billionaire was showing Sarah Palin around Manhattan.)
To me, New York pizza is the greasy slices from the place on Broadway around the corner from my upper West Side apartment. Cut from a pie the size of a wagon wheel, the slice, my 7-year-old niece sagely observed, was big enough to use as a blanket for my then-infant daughter. In our retelling of the story, though, we actually did use the slice to swaddle the baby.
New York pizza is highly subjective. To older natives of the city, it’s thin-crust and coal-fired from classic places like John’s, Lombardi’s and Patsy’s. To younger transplants, it’s the ubiquitous slice, ordered up at any one of the dozens of Ray’s Original storefronts, sprinkled liberally with oregano, red pepper flakes and garlic powder and eaten while strolling down the street. This is where the folding properties become essential.
Kelly Beckham will soon come out of hiding as the Pizza Blogger to open Paulie Gee’s. He’s managed to enlist the famous Greenpoint, Brooklyn joint of the same name as a partner in bringing their version of Neapolitan pizza to Hampden.
Beckham has studied pizza far and wide and has his favorites—in Baltimore, one is Johnny Rad’s—just north of Fells Point, where we met for this story), but he’s open-minded. Even bad pizza, he says, “is like bad sex: it’s still kinda good.”
Beckham, who travels to pizza places with a stopwatch to check cooking times, helped me to wrap my head—though not my now-teenage daughter—around all the pizza styles out there.
New York style
“New York is arguably the most ambiguous style,” says Beckham. It may be that, like the city itself, it’s different for everyone. I’ve noticed that anyone who has lived in New York, for any length of time, believes passionately that their take on the city is the only one possible. Even so, most would agree that New York pizza has thin (yet stiff) foldable crust, seasoned tomato sauce and a layer of mozzarella cheese that extends to the edges of the slice. Most grab-and-go New York pizzas are cooked on a gas-deck oven, says Beckham. These pies cook in 10 to 12 minutes—a long time compared to the standards of coal-baked and Neapolitan pies.
While most people equate the Windy City with deep-dish pie, there’s also a style with a crackery crust, says Beckham. “It’s usually cut into squares and called a tavern or party style pizza.” Contrary to popular belief, the deep-dish style doesn’t have a thick crust, just high edges. Chicago-style deep dish can be found at Pizzeria Uno in the Inner Harbor and at Barfly’s in Locust Point.
Thick-crusted Matthew’s pizza is more Greek than Chicago, says Beckham. Its crust is thick, but airy, and it cooks for more than 30 minutes.
Ideal characteristics of Neapolitan pies are laid down by the Vera Pizza Napolitan (VPN). Crusts are made with fine-ground, high-gluten double zero flour topped with sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes with a touch of salt, and fresh mozzarella cheese. Baltimore’s Neapolitan outfits include Verde, Hersh’s and the soon-to-open Paulie Gee’s (expected to arrive in Hampden this winter).
Pillowy crusts and often rectangular shape characterize the pies named for this southern Italian province, according to Beckham.
Roman-style pizza shares some characteristics with New York pizza, says Beckham. It has a thin crust, crispier than the Neapolitan, and is usually cooked in a wood-fired oven for six to eight minutes. The pizza at Birroteca, he says, resembles the Roman.
Beckham holds up a slice of Johnny Rad’s pie. It shares characteristics with our established definition of New York pie—mainly, it’s foldable. It’s layered with simple tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, along with slices of fatty, salty sopressata. Skateboards and skater memorabilia hang on the walls of the place, and the large windows on Eastern Avenue have been opened wide on this warm autumn day. We can hear the pings from vintage arcade games being played in the back of the restaurant as we sip Union Craft Brewery Co. Duckpin Pale Ale from cans. Yup, this is Baltimore.