Bread has been cooked in many ways, in many places and with many flavors. Pizza is essentially bread with toppings. As with most food, Americans received pizza from immigrants, Italian immigrants specifically. However, Italians owe their modern pizza to the New World. Tomatoes were shipped home with (the aptly named) Francisco Pizarro, that famous conquistador of the Incan Empire.
Europeans first thought those tomatoes were poisonous, but soon, that was debunked, and the pomodoro became popular throughout Europe and especially Italy. Then, in 1889, when the King and Queen of Italy were touring Naples, they wanted to try the local specialty. Raffaele Esposito, a master pizzaoli, made the royal family 3 pizzas: bianca, marinara con acciughe (anchovy), and the as of yet unnamed, red, white and green (for the Italian flag). As to be expected, the queen loved the latter pie; therefore, it was named after her: Margherita. Over a century later, those three toppings (mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil) remain the quintessential pizza.
I am not a pizza connoisseur; I am knowledgeable in pizza. I am not picky, but I am assured in my pizza palate. Korean “pizza” is known as “jeon=전.” It’s basically a flour and egg pancake with any variety of meat, vegetable or seafood inside it and fried. I think green onion, kimchi and squid are the most popular.
But there is also traditional pizza here in Korea also. Seoul has all the major outlets such as Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and some strange ones also like Pizza Maru, Pizza Etang and Mr. Pizza. Corn is ubiquitous. They love the sweet potato filled crust. And many will have a drizzle of BBQ sauce, mayo or a mysterious cheese sauce on top. It’s not bad pizza, just usually way overloaded with a predictably meek sauce. As with everything in Seoul, pizza is changing rapidly. Foreigners are bringing an international flair to all things gastronomical, pizza included. Now, I can find some very good pizza to satisfy my cravings.
Although pizza is becoming more than just tolerable and almost delicious here in Korea, back in U.S.A. pizza is a way of life. Slices are offered at walk up windows in any big city in America. Pies are visible at any backyard party, child’s birthday, graduation, Sunday football game, Friday poker night, or lonely, rainy Saturday with nothing to do. My family used to order a pizza or two every Sunday night, and it was a great night. When I visited Naples almost 7 years ago, I ate slices for all three meals and never at the same place twice.
This past winter, during my month break from Korea, I returned to America with a vision. It was a vision that many have seen before me, but few have the money, time, energy or intestinal fortitude to try. I wanted to get a pizza pie from all of the five boroughs of New York City. One of my best good friends, Michael, and our friend, Emily, embarked upon our mission at 11pm on the Saturday after the terrible shootings at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut. Although we, with the rest of America were grieving, life went on.
First stop was Staten Island. We had two rules—no quitting until we got to all five boroughs and order one cheese pizza but add nothing to it. We arrived before our first restaurant opened, so we killed time and I ate my first ever—56-cent White Castle cheeseburger—for an appetizer.
Nunzio’s [2155 Hylan Blvd.] in Staten Island is a calm, family style eatery with lots of tables and a big, brash picture of a portly gentleman rolling dough hanging above the fireplace. Michael’s friend, a nice girl from the Island who brought her son, accompanied us. Having their authentic accents made a nice accoutrement to the pizza. Its chunky, sweet sauce saturated the pizzas thicker rather than thin dough. There were some bubbles on the crust, and lots of black corn meal dust on the bottom. The crust was uneven in its density, but overall satisfying. 3.5 out of 5 stars***/
Next was Spumoni [2725 86th St] in Brooklyn. They had a large outdoor area and hot cramped interior. We ordered one slice of square Sicilian and ate outside. It had garlic-dusted crust, a warm, thin sauce and big bites of fresh Bufala mozzarella among the scattered Parmesan sprinkles. Every bite is soft until the bottom crunches away in a full, pleasing taste. I noticed that waiters AND customers were cocky here. They were both surprised to see anyone that was new. I did see some classic Brooklynites here, track suited Italians and hipsters clad in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses dining together, both judging each other as the poseur. 4 out of 5****
We stayed in Brooklyn and traveled to a famous place that even had YouTube videos of its owners. DiFara’s [1424 Ave. J] is a well-known establishment. It’s just a little brick building with a hand painted sign. Inside is four tables, a middle aged woman taking orders, a body crunching amount of hungry patrons, an old oven and an even older man dressed in baggy pants and plaid shirt meticulously hand painting pizzas with blocks of fresh grated Parmesan, fresh picked basil and an aromatic sauce.
Our order came with an hour wait, so we drove to a nearby pizzeria to eat a slice and kill time. Antonio’s [318 Flatbush Ave.] had a typically perfect N.Y. slice. We ordered one of each of their cheese slices: Ricotta, Sicilian, Margherita and the normal. Each one was very nice and satisfying.
But, opening the DiFara’s box on a quiet Brooklyn dead end street it was apparent that this was no normal pizza. Basil and olive oil scents quickly permeated my Honda. In a word—amazing! The basil smacks you with each bite. The oil somehow congealed into the cheese, which means nothing drips out the back of the blackened crust. It was an easily folded slice that doesn’t break. There was a slight aftertaste of a burnt crust, but it wasn’t distracting. It was everything I imagined a unique, perfected recipe could be. It was 28$, but I loved every expensive bite. 5 out of 5*****
Queens was our next stop. We went to Rizzo’s [30-13 Steinway St.]. It was a dumpy brick building on a shady side street. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving the car, so we just ordered a takeout, a Sicilian square. It was much thinner than Spumoni’s. There were islands of cheese melted into a thin hard crust. It had a zingy sauce with a peppery finish. I thought it was a wonderful combination allowing all flavors equal inspiration. This was a very good anytime, any occasion, sure to please pizza. 4.5 out of 5****/
Driving north across the water, we found the one-storied houses of the immigrant heavy Bronx. We went to Louie and Ernie’s [1300 Crosby Ave]. It felt like a New Jersey beach town pizzeria. The apartment above the basement pizza shop, young couples eating dinner together, walking Italian stereotypes talking about nothing important but using lots of accented words and classic Sopranos hand gestures with the employees. Since it was a quiet little neighborhood, and we were getting pretty stuffed, we sat and talked with the boss. He had huge hands and a heavy N.Y. accent. He told us people are always coming in and explaining to him that they are doing the pizza crawl around the five boroughs. He pointed us to the wall, where an assortment of famous newspapers had voted his eatery among the top five of the city’s pizzerias. After eating, I knew why. It was perfect comfort pizza. It was crunchy and had great cheese. It was completely symmetrical and perfectly cooked. Every bite was the same. I ordered a pepperoni slice to go and he just put the pepperoni on top of a cheese slice and heated it up. Everybody knows that’s like putting a sandwich in the microwave, it’s not going to work. So, that was disappointing. But this place wins lots of point for authenticity. I was glad to see the guidos in their natural habitat. The man ordering at the counter wore an Armani dress shirt with three buttons unbuttoned at the top exposing chest hair and a thin gold chain matched with sweatpants and sneakers. 4 out of 5****
Night had fallen, finding streets was getting harder, traffic was getting heavier, and the New York evening was upon us. We knew getting to the Village was not going to happen, so we went to Patsy’s near Harlem [2287 1st Ave.]. This place had a black décor with neon lights. There were no chairs and a walk up ordering wall that was up to my neck. The short Mexican man behind the wall barely spoke English, but knew the pizza words very well. We broke a rule and added some fresh basil here, but it felt right. The pizza slice was less than 2$. It had a soft, possibly undercooked bottom, but burnt crust. It had a tasty, subtle cheese flavor. It got better as I ate more. We took a few cheap slices to go. 3.5 out of 5***/
It’s hard to know exactly how many pieces we ate that day. We all ate the equivalent of a whole pizza for sure and possibly more in the space of 7 hours. We said our goodbyes to Emily and dropped her off north of Central Park. Michael and I made the lazy, cheese-gorged drive home among the magical lights of Manhattan, under the Hudson River in the Lincoln Tunnel, past the Gotham Cityscape of North Jersey, ignoring the dreadful nothingness of the N.J. Turnpike until we arrived in the familiar confines of Philadelphia. We split up the pizzas according to our favorites and I made the easy drive home to Phoenixville. I shared some of the pizza with my parents and family, but I breakfasted and lunched on those slices for the next gloriously cheesy week.