CUNY Pie is mired in rhetoric. Understood as a purely gastronomic endeavor, the language of CUNY Pie gravitates toward quasi-Italian phraseology and Brooklyn neighborhood names. As understood by those who tout the project as an extended experiment in academic social spaces, CUNY Pie bears a weight far greater than even the low-grade mozzarella heaped lovelessly on a Sbarro slice. Is pizza and beer the lubricant for an academic conversation of more significance? Are instructional technology and postulation on the future of university just excuses to go to Patsy’s? Or does the situation of CUNY Pie within the CUNY Academic Commons or even CUNY as a whole challenge the presumption that there is a justifiable distinction between social and academic behavior? In what can only be described as an instance of academia’s tragic instinct to overtheorize the beautiful, pie theory threatens to outshadow pie eating.
For this reason, it was a relief to actually eat some fricking pizza last weekend at THATCamp. While other attendees went to Hooters or something, an intrepid group of campers, led by our gracious host, took a trip to Tony’s NY Pizza. Jeremy was anxious for a verdict on what he called the best pizza around. And my verdict is: It was pretty good. The pizza was slicejointesque: big pies, sweet sauce, generous amounts of dried cheese. The vegetable pie was surprisingly good, notwithstanding the odd distribution of black olives. The sausage pie offered thick, cross-cut slices of a fennely sweet sausage, which I enjoyed more than the pleasantly fatty but sort of bland meatballs. The crust had the familiar rolling docker pock-marks on the bottom, and was, like many whole pies bought from slice joints apparently used to reheating slices, pulled from the oven about 90 seconds before it should have been. The dough could have used more salt, but the cornicione, especially on the more done sides of the pizzas, had a pleasant chewiness. In sum: an above average street slice type of pie, and really quite good for NY street pie outside of NYC.
There was a bit of Twitter chatter about whether a CUNY Pie event in Fairfax, with just two out of six attendees formally connected to CUNY, really counts. For one thing, a few of the attendees have already been assimilated. Second, if you really believe the ballyhoo about CUNY Pie as a harbinger of the university to come, surely you can’t in good faith fall back on the artifical institutional boundaries that dominate traditional academia. CUNY Pie is more than a bunch of people eating pizza. It’s a movement, an ethos, which could be summed up thus: Stop yammering and eat your damn pizza.
On Friday I had pizza from Giovanna’s for the third time. All three times were delivery, which I know is not the ideal way to enjoy good pizza–but all three times were certainly tasty. It’s a great addition to SpaHa’s restaurant row on Lexington between 100th and 101st Streets. If I had one criticism, it would be that the fresh mozzarella is a little too thick, but again, this might be tastier straight out of the brick oven rather than delivered. It’s no Totonno’s–and I’m still jealous of Boone–but keep it in mind if you’re going to one of the museums on upper-Museum Mile such as El Museo del Bario or the Museum of the City of New York. Next time I’ll include photos, especially since Giovanna’s doesn’t seem to have a website yet.
Last March, the great New York pizzeria Totonno’s shut down due to a severe fire. I was upset. After a dozen rumored opening days – including, most recently, one thwarted by Wednesday’s winter weather – today was Totonno’s first day back in almost a year.
Totonno’s has a special place in my heart, both as (arguably) the best pizzeria in New York, which is to say probably the entire world, and as one of my general favorite places to hang out and drink beer from a paper cup. I couldn’t resist getting one of the first pies out of the oven, so around noon I hopped an F train with a fewfriends and headed for Coney Island.
The place looked just like it did before the fire, including all the signed pictures of people I’d never heard of. There were a few people there taking pictures, but the tables were only half full. After about 20 minutes (they were doing some big takeout orders, unsurprisingly) we got our first pie, a plain:
Picking up the first slice, I was surprised by how crisp the crust was. I could grab the piece by the cornicione, and the entire slice, all the way to the tip, would support itself. Part of the issue is that the pie was a bit more well done than average, which is in my view a good thing. There was something a bit off about the dough, though, as if it had been dried out a little bit, making it a bit too dense. One of the things I love about Totonno’s is the jaw workout you get from the yeasty, chewy cornicione, but this pie’s outer ring had more structure than I expect, even from Totonno’s.
The second pizza was a pepperoni:
This pie was also on the well done side (maybe because Lawrence Ciminieri was making them, instead of the skinny guy who’s usually stretching when I go), but had just a bit less structure than the first one. It was only when I started eating this pizza that I really started to remember why I love Totonno’s so much. The close-up below shows, somewhat gratuitously I might add, just how their hours-old mozzarella blackens and their pepperoni fries in its own grease in their super hot oven:
Totonno's pepperoni closeup
A stroll down the snowy beach topped off a great lunch. I couldn’t be happier that Totonno’s is open again. CUNY Pie should get out there while the gettin’s good.
I just spent some time in Wisconsin, where I saw several menus boasting “gourmet” pizzas, where ‘gourmet’ seems to mean something like ‘has a lot of stuff on it’. There’s often a theme: buffalo chicken pizza, barbecue chicken pizza (seriously, what’s with the chicken pizzas?), taco pizza (a Midwestern delicacy if I ever saw one), cheeseburger pizza, etc.
Slice joints in NYC have a few standard topping combinations that seem a bit wacky when you take a step back. My local joint Francesco’s sells a pretty good chicken and broccoli slice. Slices with pasta (especially ziti or penne) are common throughout the city. Anna Maria in Williamsburg has a lasagna themed slice that eats like a meal.
Some pizza places, including a fair number that carry themselves as high-falootin sorts of restaurants, gussy their pizzas up with the fanciest possible toppings. Pizzas boast shavings of 24-month aged Parmagiano Reggiano and slices of prosciutto di Parma. The ever popular Quattro Funghi can read like the mushroom aisle at Whole Foods: cremini, shitake, hen-of-the-woods, oyster, morel, truffle. Lucali charges $8 to add artichokes to a pie, which I assume means that the artichokes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where they were watered by the tears of a thousand Italian virgins.
So I’m led to ask: What is the role of toppings on a pizza? What should the role be?
In the case of taco pizza and its ilk, I assume that toppings are, as a matter of fact, the raison d’etre of the pizza. When understood correctly (and when executed well) I have no problem whatsoever with this. Look: cheddar cheese, taco meat, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, etc are delicious together, and putting them on top of a pizza, if anything, makes the combination more delightful. I might be a pizza snob of a sort, but I’m not above taco pizza.
The problem with pizzas whose merits begin and end with a set of toppings is that it creates an anti-pizza mindset in regions where such pizzas are popular. If you have enough individual pies whose existence is justified by toppings, you begin to think that pizza in general is so justified. I developed just such a conception in my own Midwestern childhood, and it took a year or two of living in New York City to begin to appreciate the error of my ways.
Fancy-pants pizza restaurants foster a related misconception of the value of toppings. It’s not that I dislike highfalutin toppings. If I could hook myself up to an IV of cured pork and aged cheese, I probably would. But my sense is that the kind of person who gravitates towards this kind of pizza joint is the angsty foodie. The more exotic (or pure, or aged, or authentic, or rare, or humanely produced, or local) the ingredient, the better it is, or so the thinking goes. Ingredient fetishism is just the kind of phenomenon that the Slice Harvester rails against, and while I’m not so quick to put it down as nothing but status-seeking yuppieism, I do think that a focus on fancy ingredients can produce a myopia similar to that of the Midwestern theme pizza lover.
So what is the proper role of toppings on a pizza? To espouse some brand of purism (one topping only! Italian toppings only! traditional Neopolitan toppings only! cheese only!) is to oversimplify. Toppings have an important practical role to play in the pizza economy (remember the lasagna slice that eats like a meal? When’s the last time you said that about a plain slice?). And there’s something transcendent about the perfect topping or two on the right kind of pizza (I don’t know where Totonno’s gets its pepperoni, but I would like to live in a house made of it), such that I would never want to do recommend against toppings altogether.
Maybe I can recommend this: People who generally order the supreme, or the lasagna slice, or the artichoke guacamole tahini pizza on rice dough, might do well to cleanse their palates with a plain pie every now and again. It might turn out that the plain pie at their favorite place is truly terrible, in which case the supreme will have proven its worth. But there’s always the chance that you might discover there’s something underneath all that crap.
The CUNY Pie gang is planning a few pizza outings for WordCamp NYC. The details here, though tentative and subject to revision, should give you enough info to decide whether you’re interested in either or both of the events.
If you’re planning on attending either Delightful Evening Eating Pizza, please leave a comment on this post indicating your name and your intentions. Nothing is written in stone – if you decide at the last minute to back out because you are afraid of hanging out with such cool people, no one will hunt you down – but a rough number (with info about when you’re getting to the city, if you’re interested in the Friday outing) will help us to make any necessary reservations.
A note on the picks: Many of the most renowned pizza joints in NYC (a) are very far from the WordCamp venue, (b) are very small, (c) have very long lines, and/or (d) do not accept reservations. For those reasons, I’ve chosen joints that are a little less well known (though very good! And representative! I swear!) If you’ve got your heart set on one of the more famous joints, you’ll have to plan your own trip (though I’d be happy to give advice).
Because of various travel plans, we’re anticipating that fewer people will be available for pizza on Friday night. A smaller group means more flexibility, so we’re headed to Brooklyn, home of the greatest rappers, and arguably the greatest pizza. Our destination is Sam’s Restaurant in Cobble Hill, a few stops from Manhattan on the F train. Because there’s a WC speaker get-together at 8pm, we’ll shoot for an early dinner, around 6pm. For you out-of-towners, I’m sure someone from the CUNY Pie gang will lead an expedition from Manhattan.
Sam’s is a casual place with pretty reasonable prices. Your fill of pizza and a beer or two should be somewhere in the $25 range.
UPDATE: (Side note: when I write “update” I hear in my mind the voice of Robert Stack narrating Unsolved Mysteries. Awesome!) The plan is still to meet for a 6pm dinner at Sam’s. How to get there? You have two options:
Get there yourself – The closest stop is Bergen St on the F. Exit the station near the FRONT of the train. You’ll find yourself at the corner of Smith and Warren. Walk one block west (Rite Aid is on the SW corner of the intersection); when you get to Court St, turn left and walk about a block. Sam’s is on the west side of the street (238 Court St). Google map
<3 Be my date <3 – I’ll be coming from Manhattan, and would be happy to have company. Meet at the NE corner of 34th St and 6th Ave. I’ll be the tall, extremely handsome and charming blond guy standing in front of Victoria’s Secret (where else?). Leaving at 5:20 sharp.
For Saturday we’ve chosen Luzzo’s. It’s a pleasant 15-20 minute stroll from Baruch. The pizza here is more in the Neapolitan style than the Brooklyn pies at Sam’s. That afternoon’s festivities at WordCamp are set to wrap up around 6pm. In order to give people a chance to take a breather and perhaps acquire some liquid refreshment, the plan is to make an 8pm reservation. (If you object to this timing, please state your case in the comments!) I’ll be making reservations at Luzzo first thing Wednesday, so it’s especially important that if you’re interested in this outing, you leave a comment below.
Luzzo’s is a bit more expensive (like everything else in Manhattan, grumble grumble curmudgeon kidsthesedays). I estimate that, based on shared pizza and appetizers, a drink, and tip, a person can get out for around $35.
‘WordCamp’ and ‘pizza’ – hey, they even SOUND alike! Hope to see you at both!
I can’t top Luke’s tour de force account of last night’s CUNY Pie debut. But I do have some pointed commentary on a subject that is dear to my heart – the cornicione – which is prompted by the trip to Lombardi’s.
I am not a particularly sentimental man, but something about a chewy, crispy, charred crust brings the romance out of me. Indulge me: What could be more beautiful than the relationship between a hungry mouth and a hyperglutenous ring of dough? Like all great romances, this one is not without its tensions. Any decent cornicione puts up too much of a fight to simply be bitten off. You have to clench, you have to tear. The best ovens impart the flavor of their many years into those Maillard marks, bits of black that can taste bitter at first. Children might prefer an undercooked doughiness to a deep char, in the same way that they can’t appreciate the many layers of a great love story. Yet, for the initiated, the tensions of the fight make the end result that much more satisfying.
It’s tragic, then, when a place like Lombardi’s – with the benefit of a rich history, and, more importantly, of a fantastic oven – undercooks their pizzas. Compare the two pictures at the right: the first is of last night’s Lombardi’s plain pie, while the second is from Anselmo’s in Red Hook. Luke has already quoted me on this, but c’mon: thirty, even fifteen more seconds would have made all the difference. Is it that the kitchen is so crowded that the extra fifteen seconds would put them far behind? (Doesn’t seem to bother Dom DeMarco.) Or is it pandering to tourist taste? Is it that non-New Yorkers can’t handle char, and that Lombardi’s is caving?
I can’t blame Lombardi’s for wanting to pack the place with tourists. But c’mon.
That said, there’s something unquestionably special about the way that a Lombardi’s pie comes out of the oven: the crust is thinner and crisper than the average NY pie, and the cornicione is far chewier than you’d expect given its Booneish complexion. Which is why the picture at the left makes me so darn sad. If it weren’t for “decorum” and “manners” and “not being a gross slob”, I would totally have eaten my fellow diner’s tragically uneaten crusts.
Imagine a tall man, a shock of the blondest hair possible swept across his head, marching a large pie from one of the best joints in the Bronx across 20 or so rough blocks, destined for a park bench where he can munch while listening to opera. Or, a young Latvian immigrant, recently arrived in Southern California, listening excitedly as a friend talks about this amazing pie, “with MEAT on top.” Or a kid growing up in Mid-Michigan, amidst a pizza culture dominated by the local chains Domino’s and Little Caesars, finding that there’s something unique and special in the thick dough and delectable sausage of the pies made at DeLuca’s, the local family Italian restaurant. Or a transplant to Manhattan who is happy that he lives within delivery distance of the restaurant in which we sit, but who will not have a pie delivered because of what it loses in transit.
Our plain pie at Lombardi's. Photo by Matt Gold.
Last night at Lombardi‘s, while the San Gennaro Festival raged outside, I shared stories and two larges with the other charter members of CUNY Pie– Boone Gorges, Matt Gold, and Mikhail Gershovich. The pies–one plain, one sausage and spinach–were very good, though not great. I got the sense that there wasn’t much craft in them, that they were a product of practiced motion more than passion. That’s a totally understandable result from a place that’s been operating for more than 100 years, that serves locals, but also serves a lot of tourists. I was most impressed with the sauce, in both its sweetness and the nature of its spread. There was just the right quantity for it to gather when I folded my slice, which nicely concentrated its flavor. The crust– though Boone argued that it could use “another 30 seconds”– brought the right amount of crunch. The sausage was forgettable. Perhaps the plain could have used a touch more fresh basil. I won’t complain, it was satisfying.
So was the conversation. Beyond sharing our individual histories with pizza, we talked about parenthood, family, and future locations for our meetups. Tontonno’s in Coney Island? Yes. A spot to be named in Jersey? Perhaps. Neopolitan in New Haven? Not me. (Let the Yalies eat it, I say). Mostly, though, we talked about CUNY, the edtech universe, and our various projects. We criticized, confessed, and we praised. We stayed long after I finished that last slice (which happened to be the smallest of the plain pie… thanks, guys!), and the thought of ordering another pie to scarf down before departing probably crossed each of our minds. Perhaps we should have.
The CUNY Pie group will make its first foray into the wilds of NYC pizza tomorrow evening. And, no, you’re not seeing double: we had to reschedule our first July outing due to unforeseen circumstances.
After our visit, we’ll blog about our trip here. If you’re interested in joining us on this trip or on future ventures, please join our public group here on the Commons, CUNY Pie. Please feel free to bring friends and family members to any CUNY Pie event.