Sold by the slice, pizza is emblematic of New York City. It’s an inexpensive antidote to hunger pangs that can be ordered quickly, and eaten quickly, even on the go. Think of Tony Manero, the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever, double-decking a pair of slices while strutting through Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
At a less bouncy pace, we recently visited Astoria, Queens – home to what might be the densest concentration of pizza purveyors in the borough, including some that beckon customers from all across the city – in search of good slices. Some took the form of a triangle, cut from a circular pie; others were squarish, a shape that in recent years has become trendy in Manhattan but that for decades has been a staple in New York’s outer boroughs. With rare exception, we chose pies without fancy toppings. “Dessert pizza” – one pie seemed to omit sauce and cheese in favor of chocolate – we avoided entirely.
Rewarmed pizza, however, was well within bounds. Unlike whole pies that are cooked to order, pizza-by-the-slice is generally served from a pie that was baked beforehand, then set out on display. Too long on the counter, and the pizza can become visibly tired, congealed, beyond redemption; sometimes it’s worth waiting for a fresh pie from the oven.
We’ve never seen such a state of affairs at Rizzo’s Fine Pizza, dating back to our first visit some years ago. As at the carts of popular street vendors, where continual flows of customers prompt continually fresh food, the pies at Rizzo’s never seem to sit for too long. According to Tony Osorio – who tells us that he’s not only the business partner of current owner David Rizzo but was “best man at his wedding,” too – the pizzeria was opened in 1959 by David’s father, who moved from Manhattan to Astoria when he married. Many of the pizzeria’s contemporaries haven’t lasted so long; Tony laments the decline and closure of many 40- and 50-year-old family-run businesses in the neighborhood.
Rizzo’s longtime claim to fame, Tony acknowledges, is the “thin-crust Sicilian.” A standard Sicilian slice – as prepared in the United States, not in Sicily – has a bready base an inch thick or more, painted with tomato sauce and cheese, sometimes with toppings. The Rizzo’s version, which might be a mere quarter-inch thick, has a wonderful crunchy-crisp texture. It also sets the tangy tomato-based sauce – “proprietary” is all Tony will tell us – into high relief.
When Jimmy Stathopoulos, today the owner of Gyro Uno, left his native Agrinio, Greece, in his mid-teens, his first food job was as a Manhattan hotdog vendor, in Midtown and in Central Park. Later he worked in coffee shops, saving enough money to go into business himself; he owned the Olympic Flame Diner, on the Upper West Side, for two decades. In 2012, Jimmy and his wife bought Gyro Uno from its longtime owner, continuing in that comfort-food spirit with a broad menu that includes souvlaki, burgers and, for our purposes, pizza.
Jimmy’s cheese slice, a wedge cut from a round pie, provides a fine example of tip sag. The crust – to confirm, we mean not just the lip of each slice but the underside, too – is extra-thin and very supple. When held by the lip, which is bent into a V-shape, the pointy end of the slice droops downward. The best way to approach it, even when eating with two hands, is to get one’s mouth a little bit underneath the tip, at least for the first bite or two. In the moment, it’s an act of surrender that’s quickly rewarded.
The menu at Nonnas 1977, as at Rizzo’s, is focused on pizza, but rock-music videos, played (at modest volume) by an overhead projector, give off a different vibe. Leon Leandrou, the owner, moved with his family from Cyprus to Astoria when he was four years old. His father ran a deli in Manhattan, in Greenwich Village, for 40 years; Leon worked there, too. When his parents moved to the eastern Queens neighborhood of Whitestone, Leon moved to the Lower East Side, home to his first pizzeria, Nonnas LES (now closed). Although he moved to suburban Long Island when he had a family of his own, late last summer he opened Nonnas 1977 in Astoria.
In the spirit of the music videos and the pizzeria’s rock ‘n’ roll décor, many of the ebulliently topped rectangular pies on display bear the names of rock songs. Gloria, Proud Mary, and Angie are in heavy rotation. We choose a slice lightly scattered with arugula, the Stella (“my wife’s favorite,” Leon tells us, and named for her). Rewarmed, our slice is dressed with more arugula, as well as grated Parmesan and a balsamic reduction, cooked down in-house. It rocks.
“Is there any more pizza?” asks a young man as he entered Rosario’s, sidling between the deli display and several well-stocked shelves. “Yes, in about five minutes,” comes a calm reply from behind the counter. To be sure, Rosario DiMarco’s namesake market, which he opened in 1986, is not a pizzeria but what New Yorkers think of as a deli-grocery. Countermen assemble and apportion prepared foods (we envy one bespoke sandwich made with black-olive bread); customers linger over specialties imported from both sides of the Adriatic (Rosario hails from Italy, his wife, from Croatia).
We “start from good ingredients,” says Rosario of his pizza, a statement that seems overly matter-of-fact – except when surrounded by a captivating floor-to-ceiling grocery display. “If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for you.” Hand-pulled mozzarella (“made fresh this morning,” notes one counterman) is married to what we understand is a house-simmered tomato sauce; the crust is stiff, chewy, enticing to the teeth. Rosario’s brick oven is small, and although he makes pizza continually from late morning till early evening, the slices never last long. Ours disappeared promptly.
Giuseppe Porretto, an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily, opened the shop that bears his name, Joe, sometime in the 1970s, in partnership with a pastry chef named Rose. The lineage of Rose & Joe’s Italian Bakery, according to local lore, can be traced to Leonard’s, a pizzeria just up the block where schoolchildren could buy slices from a sidewalk-facing window. Rose and Joe left us many years ago, but the bakery is still owned by the Porretto family; kids still buy slices, but at a small counter all the way at the back of the shop.
We find the counter well-stocked, and ask how early in the day pizza-making begins. “Nine o’clock,” says the lady on duty as she pulls a rectangular pan pizza from the oven, its cheese still bubbling. We order a slice. Perhaps sizing us up, she serves us a corner (always our preference), and we eat it, standing, at a small shelf supplied with condiments and napkins. It’s a Sicilian slice, not thin and crispy, but not too puffy, hearty or filling. Just as well – immediately behind us, in the pastry display cases, are cannoli, sfogliatelle, and by-the-pound sprinkle cookies in all their splendor. We avoided dessert pizza, but we have no intention of avoiding dessert.
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