A new pizza joint opened in our neighborhood recently. It's called Marcello's and it advertises New York Style Pizza. My pizza-eating partner, a local writer named Marion who is frequently published in these pages, insisted that we call the place the same day the brochure was hung on her door. We are both East Coast exiles and the very words, New York Style, cause the two of us to breathe heavily. The guy on the phone sounded legit, he said Marcello was born in Italy, made pizza in New York for a while and now had his own place. We ordered one pie, half anchovy, half sausage. "Crispy crust, extra crispy crust, don't show up at the door unless the crust is crispy," I cajoled the guy on the phone.
photograph by John Anderson
"No problem," he answered.
"How's the crust going to stay crisp in a cardboard box?" Marion asked dismissively.
"Don't you remember the pizza we ate last winter in New York?" Marion's memory of this particular pizza was understandably fuzzy, so while we waited for Marcello's to deliver the goods, I recalled the scene for her.
It was last December, my first visit to New York in five years. Marion's plan for our first night in Manhattan was to proceed immediately to a bar called Marion's on Lower Broadway. No, she doesn't own the place, but she likes their martinis and she also loves to fill her purse with the eponymous matchbooks. We met her friend Sandye there and had a few cocktails while Marion stole matches.
Back on the street, mission accomplished, Marion asked me what my agenda was for the first night in New York. I said it was a toss-up between a good slice of pizza and a beer at McSorley's Old Ale House. Sandye volunteered that we could do both. McSorley's, the chapel of saltines and sawdust, is on Seventh at the Bowery, just a few blocks from where we were. Stromboli's, Sandye's favorite Manhattan pizzeria, is on St. Mark's and First, quite a walk away.
"You go to McSorley's and have a beer, I'll go get a pizza at Stromboli's and bring it back," Sandye offered kindly. The raw wind and cold drizzle had dampened my enthusiasm for hiking, so this deal was too good to refuse.
Marion and I staked out a spot at the short end of the ancient bar and ordered a couple of brown ales. I was worried that McSorley's wouldn't allow us to bring a pizza in. Marion asked the bartender if it would be okay. "Just eat it down here at the end of the bar," the kindly fellow winked. As we polished off our second beers, a group of patrons stomped in, shaking the rain off of themselves like dogs after a swim. "Poor Sandye," we said to each other peering out into the storm. If Woody Allen could have captioned the scene to show our real thoughts, à la Annie Hall, my text would have read, "My poor pizza."
Over by the pot-bellied stove, a couple of guys got up to leave, surrendering what must surely be the best table in McSorley's on a cold December night. Marion made a beeline for the empty seats and soon we were warming our hands by the crackling fire while considering our third beers and Sandye's plight. Just then, a sodden pizza box plopped onto the table in front of us.
"I'm sorry, I fell down and dropped the pizza in a puddle," Sandye apologized. After placing the soaking Sandye near the fire and expressing our concern for her health and swearing our eternal gratitude, we promptly got around to opening the lid and examining the pie. It looked picture perfect. The yeasty outer crust was pocked with crunchy bubbles and it was still warm. After a brief if-I-don't eat-soon-I'm-going-to-die speech, Marion extracted a long shimmering slice and bit in.
Her pennant of pizza caught the eye of a surly-looking member of the waiter's union who marched over from the adjacent dining room. "What do you think you're doing?" he boomed. "You can't bring food in here, this is a restaurant." Marion took another bite and explained with her mouth full, "The bartender said we could."
photograph by John Anderson
While she argued, I took the pizza back to the corner of the bar where we were supposed to be hiding it from the waiters. Marion looked around for the bartender to whom we'd spoken, but he had wisely chosen this moment to disappear. The other bartender shrugged innocently.
"I don't care what the bartender said, you're outta here," the irate service facilitator said as he closed in on me and the pizza. As a born New Yorker, Marion has always maintained her composure in these sorts of situations. Continuing to eat her slice of pizza in the face of a withering tirade of threats and insults she mumbled something like, "I'm putting my coat on, already," while she defiantly crammed the rest of the crunchy crust into her mouth. That's what I love about Marion. She always eats her crust.
Launched outside into the freezing rain and inebriated, we surveyed a block without awnings, alcoves, or taxicabs. While Marion speculated on the pedigree of the waiter's mother, I opened the still marginally warm cardboard box and selected a slice. And I swear to you, as I stood there in the downpour, chewing this lukewarm pizza which had been dropped in a puddle 30 minutes ago, my ears were filled with an audible crunching noise.
"Now that," I reminded Marion, "was a crispy pizza in a cardboard box." "Yeah, but that's New York," she sighed. Our pizza from Marcello's arrived and it looked pretty good, but it was soggy in the middle. "Aw, let's give them another chance," Marion said. "I bet the crust would be better if we ate it there." So a week or so later, we drove over to Marcello's at lunch time. Unfortunately, Marcello's is a delivery-only joint; it doesn't have any tables or chairs. It doesn't even have a stand-up counter. Hungry for a New York pizza, we decided to drive someplace else.
I wanted to go to Roppolo's.
"I hate Roppolo's," she said. "That crust is 3/4 of an inch thick." I have been taking this kind of abuse from Marion and other East Coat exiles about Roppolo's pizza for five years now because I did a New York pizza survey for the Chronicle half a decade ago and declared Roppolo's the best in town. Roppolo's has used a quote from me in their advertising ever since.
"At least Roppolo's is crispy," I said defensively. "Yeah, but whole wheat crust?" Marion mocked. We ended up at Tony's Vineyard on the Drag that afternoon where we had a good pizza, half sausage, half anchovy. The sausage was loaded with fennel and garlic which made up for the lack of garlic in the sauce. The crust was rolling pinned thin, but nicely crisp.
"No bubbles," complained Marion, examining the thin crust. This has always been the central dilemma of Austin pizza. You can get a thin, crispy crust, but this is achieved by putting the dough through a machine called a pizza sheeter or by flattening it with a rolling pin. The result is crispy, but dense, lacking in any of the air pockets that yeast normally produces. The lust for a yeasty pizza dough is how I ended up recommending Roppolo's five years ago. It may be too thick, it may be whole wheat, but at least their pizza has some yeast bubbles in it. Or at least it used to.
photograph by John Anderson
I finally persuaded Marion to join me at Roppolo's for a pizza one night. After a few bites, she recanted her hatred. The crust had mysteriously gotten thinner. I looked at the bottom of the pizza, and sure enough, there were the tracks of a pizza sheeter across the dough. The owner explained that he had a new cook who didn't like the thickness of the pizza either. Using a hand-held pizza roller, the new cook was flattening the dough in the center. The pizza was crispier, but the yeast bubbles were gone.
Determined to find a truly great pizza, Marion and I decided to keep on eating. Over the course of the next month, we visited several pizzerias we thought might have a chance. We had a hot, runny pizza at Milto's, a pretty good pie at Frank & Angie's, a cardboardy crust at Brick Oven on 35th, and one of those cracker-crisp numbers out at good old Nick's by the lake.
Then one day, browsing through a series of messages on a Usenet site called Austin Culinary Delights, I came across an exchange labeled: Pizza. In one of the postings a woman who was new to town complained that she couldn't find any good pizza here. She also wanted to know who in the hell was this Robb Walsh who was always quoted in the Roppolo Pizza ads. None of the respondents knew who Walsh was supposed to be, but they did recommend a New York style pizzeria called Reale's way out on Hwy183.
It was most of the way to Cedar Park, but we went there anyway. The shopping center location didn't inspire much trust, but the scene inside did. It looked like a little Italian joint on Long Island. We ordered a 14-inch pizza and hoped for the best. When it came to the table, I thought Marion was going to cry. Huge brown bubbles decorated the outside of the crust. It was chewy on the edges, crispy in the middle and the toppings were outstanding. It was a New York pie, pure and simple.
The owner, Bobby Reale, a former native of Long Island, came by the table to check on us. We asked him how he succeeded in making a New York pizza in Austin while so many others have failed. So he gave us his rant on what's-a-matta with Austin pizza. In Reale's opinion, the new state-of-the-art pizza ovens are the main problem. These conveyer belt convection ovens are designed to cook a pizza in six minutes, which is great if you have a delivery chain that promises to be there within a half-hour. But when Bobby Reale tried to cook his yeasty New York-style pizza dough in one of these ovens, "The pizza literally blew up," says Reale. The pizza dough that most restaurant suppliers sell nowadays is low in yeast to accommodate these ovens. "I make my own dough every morning," said Reale. "And it's so yeasty that I can't leave it out on the counter for more than a few minutes or it starts rising and bubbling." It is those air bubbles and that yeast that make the crust for which we have been searching in Austin all these years.
photograph by John Anderson
But before I made any rash statements with which I would have to live for another five years, I decided to drag all my Yankee friends out there to verify my opinion. These exiles from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Long Island, and Brooklyn each had their own gripes about Reale's. One berated Reale's antipasti (the salami was mediocre). Another trashed the sausage and peppers (the peppers were undercooked), and somebody else panned the eggplant parmesan (too mushy). But they all agreed about the pizza. When they were through with their nostalgic blubberings and childhood pizza stories every one of them swore that, without a doubt, Reale's is the best New York pizza they have ever eaten in Austin.
Now if we could only get Reale's to open a location downtown.