"A pizza moment." That's how former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni described a particularly prolific period of pizzeria openings in early 2009. It "isn't the city's first pizza moment, and it definitely won't be the last," he wrote, "but it's a definite pizza moment all the same."
Moment? Vampires, trilbys, and tattooed Swedish misanthropes are having a moment. Pizza in New York CIty, however, is—and has been—having an era. With more than a handful of new pizza joints opened in the last couple of months (and even more set to open in the next few weeks), our man Ed Levine, who's off SENY review duty this week, sent me out to a couple of the more promising-looking pizzerias to report back.
Neapolitan-style pizzerias Olio Pizza e Più and Zigolini's Pizza Bar both have hotshot, pedigreed pizza-makers at their wood-fired ovens, so the Serious Eaters and I put put them to the test.
Olio Pizza e Più
In business for barely two weeks, Greenwich Village pizzeria Olio Pizza e Più shows promise — if you know what order. Like most of the pizzerias that have opened with a splash in recent years, Olio serves the kind of small, individual-size, minimalist pizzas that you've come to expect from this genre.
Olio Pizza e Più
3 Greenwich Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map); 212-243-6546; olionyc.com
Service: Shaky, but it's early; they're still working the kinks out
Must-haves: Margherita, Diavolo, Marinara pizzas
Price: $9 to $19 for most pizzas; $30 for the pizza with edible silver leaf on it
Grade: Like last week's review, an optimistic "incomplete"
Fans of the style will appreciate the drive and attention to authenticity that Olio's head pizzaiolo, Giulio Adriani, having moved from Italy only three months ago to open the pizzeria, brings to his pies. An instructor for the Vera Pizza Napoletana association (a trade organization that certifies pizzerias as hewing to a set of quality and preparation guidelines), Adriani uses almost all Italian ingredients to make the pizzas at Olio, the exception being the Grande brand fior di latte cheese used on the pies — and, I'm guessing, the water. (And, because the pizza maniacs among you will ask, Adriani, who's been making pizzas since he was 13, is in the process of getting Olio certified by the VPN.)
About the authenticity thing. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it here. (If you're not a total pizza dork, feel free to skip down to the pizza photos below.) A little NYC pizza-world dust-up occurred last week when Grub Street talked to Adriani about Olio and quoted him trumpeting the virtues of his place as compared to some others. Adriani later clarified his statements in a comment on that same blog post, to the effect that his quote was taken out of context. When I first read the quote, I was put off by it and was prepared to enter a temple of Neapolitan pizza.
Thankfully, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed (too relaxed, sometimes, as when on second visit, we had to get up and go to the bar to summon our waiter — but we'll chalk that up to Olio's newness). The space, formerly Go Sushi (the transformation is amazing, by the way), is open, airy, and inviting. The only hint that you You Should Really Be Paying Attention to This Pizza is the fact that the menu lists certain pies as having won awards in various world pizza championships. It's a bit of a challenge from the pizzaiolo — that if you don't like the pizza, there might be something wrong with your taste buds.
In the end, though, it's not the certification or the awards that matter; it's how the pizza tastes. On the occasions we visited Olio, we had some hits and misses. I'll start with the hits.
The Margherita pizza (tomato sauce, fior di latte, and basil) is a contender. Adriani uses canned San Marzano DOP tomatoes that he says he simply crushes and adds salt to. The result is a bright, fresh-tasting sauce that steals the show and that may be my favorite part of this pizza. The crust, on hitting the table, is crisp at the edge, which is is puffy and tender — though not as puffy as, say, the end crust at Motorino or Paulie Gee's. Whether that's good or bad depends on how you prefer your pizzas.
Like many a Neapolitan pizza, the center of the pie is what pizza nerds call "wet." It's almost soupy, with the water from the tomatoes and cheese soaking the crust. This, though, is the eternal debate among ardent Neapolitan fans and people who like a crisp crust that you can pick up and that supports the weight of the toppings. Neapolitan adherents will say this soupiness is as it should be and, indeed, Nick Solares, who was with us on one visit, was happy with the resulting pie. I myself am a fan of a sturdier foundation, but I've given up fighting the issue and simply take Neapolitan crusts for what they are and am happy to eat them as they're intended and as they do in Naples — with a knife and fork.
That said, the first Margherita pizza I had at Olio was unforgivably sloppy, a product, perhaps of too much water in the cheese. It's an issue Adriani says he's aware of and has compensated for by squeezing out much of the water in the fior di latte before putting it on. In subsequent visits, the pies were still wet but not excessively so. I would also advise Neapolitan fans to ask for the pizza uncut. Unless otherwise directed, Olio slices the pizzas, which allows the moisture from the top to seep under the crust and sog it out quicker than it otherwise would.
The other pizza I enjoyed at Olio was the Diavolo — a Margherita with spicy salami on it. It's the closest you'll get on a Neapolitan pizza to the American classic pepperoni. Here, you've got all the goodness of the Margherita with some added texture from oven-crisped slices of slightly funky, earthy pork.
On two occasions, we ordered more elaborately topped pizzas and were not impressed. But I'm going to give Olio the benefit of the doubt here, since it's still getting its sea legs (or should I say p legs?).
The Freschezza, topped with cherry tomatoes, basil, and, usually, buffalo mozzarella, was an unwieldy mess. The pizzeria was out of buffalo mozzarella this day and substituted burrata, which appeared to have been haphazardly placed with too heavy a hand.
The same could be said about the Campagnola (burrata, Parma ham, arugula, and freshly shaved Parmesan) and the Amalfitana (mozzarella, arugula, lemon slices, and shaved Parmesan).
You could say that that's what you get for ordering what some folks would call "salad pizzas," but I've had similar toppings used to brilliant and restrained effect at places like Paulie Gee's.
As one serious pizza eater put it, "I don't want to have to take a knife and fork to the toppings before I start eating my pizza."
But Adriani seems to be taking feedback to heart — when we mentioned that the lemon slices on the Amalfitana were too thick, he started having his prep crew slice them razor thin, as was evidenced on a follow-up visit.
For those of you who have not tried Olio e Più yet (probably most of you), the closest thing I can compare it to is fellow Greenwich Village pizzeria Kesté — though it's much bigger and airier than the narrow and deep Kesté. Give Olio some more time, and Neapolitanistas may be singing its praises just as highly.
Zigolini's Pizza Bar
Zigolini's Pizza Bar
675A Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10036 (near 47th Street; map); 212-333-3900; pizzabarnyc.com
Service: Quick, courteous, attentive
Must-haves: Margherita pizza
Price: $10 to $18 for individual-size Neapolitan pizzas
Hopping on the nearby A/C/E train and zipping up to Zigolini's Pizza Bar, you'll encounter a much different atmosphere. Wedged into the seemingly endless strip of restaurants along Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, Zigolini's is long and narrow, with the wood-fired pizza oven nestled into the wall in the back — visible, to be sure, but not the center of attention that these ovens have become at a lot of the new pizzerias around town.
Zigolini's doesn't seem to demand of you a degree in pizzaiology or a reverence for pizza tradition. Like many of the restaurants in this area, it seems to be all about getting you in, getting you fed, and turning over the table for the next guest.
That's not a diss; in fact, sometimes that's exactly what I want. Service at Zigolini's on the three times I visited was attentive, quick, and courteous.
The pizza itself? Serviceable.
The best of the bunch we tried, in my opinion (and in the estimation of Ed's son, Will), was the Margherita. It hits the table crisp enough to begin with but soon becomes exceedingly chewy and tough. Eat it quickly, and you'll be happy — the sauce is thick and just salty enough. The dough has some flavor to it but it's not all that well developed. And there's maybe a squinch too little cheese.
Other pizzas we tried were the namesake Zigolini's (cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, Italian cured ham, olive oil), the Ai Carciofi e Tartufo (mozzarella, artichoke, truffle oil, shaved pecorino Romano), and the Salsiccia e Broccoli (mozzarella, sausage, and broccoli rabe). All were white pizzas and all could have benefited from the addition of the rather good tomato sauce.
Zigolini's is the only pizzeria of its type in the area and, as Ed pointed out, the closest of its type to the Upper West Side. Unfortunately, once you get on a train to travel from the UWS (or anywhere outside Hell's Kitchen), you've made the first step in a journey toward better pizza elsewhere.
Which is a shame, since the head pizzaiolo here is Luigi Olivella, who worked magic at the shooting star that was Isabella's Oven and who also did stints at No. 28 and L'Asso. That said, Olivella was nowhere to be seen on the occasions we visited, which led Ed to expound on his "owner-occupied pizzeria" theory — that the best pizzerias are those whose attentive owner (or head pizza-maker) is there to either make every pizza him- or herself or to whip the crew into shape.
If I lived in Hell's Kitchen, I'd put Zigolini's into my rotation, but as a Queenser, I'll probably only go out of my way for it if I can pinpoint when Olivella is there.