121 Dyckman Street
New York, NY 10034
230 9th Ave
New York, NY 10001
325 Church St
New York, NY 10013
192 Mott St
New York, NY 10012
349 E 12th St
New York, NY 10003
At the northernmost section of Manhattan, we came to. We took the A train to Dyckman. Only one stop ahead would be the end-station at 207th St. Most people don’t know the numbers get that high. Pizza Palace AKA Johnny’s in Inwood opened in 1945. This small shop is one of the ultimates in character and old school for New York City. It’s crooked green overhang ensconces their essential, real NY slice: A dying breed in Manhattan. There are at least 3 older gentlemen manning the ovens. One deserving of theater-fame in a red striped shirt and a mustache asking to be twirled with fingertips. My only regret for this tour is that I did not get a picture next to him.
But aesthetics and nostalgia aside, the pizza was remarkable. The cook who made our first pie put it into an apple shape, in honor of our city – The Big Apple. The other pie was generally round. Both had a full crust and were a bit sloppy. It was appreciated by all and a fitting start to the tour. Continuing on, we went south and into the present day.
We took the C to the A to get to Co. I normally don’t take the subway so I got a day pass. This only led me to a point after the tour where I wondered where I could go next to take advantage of this unlimited subway day. Unfortunately, as it would turn out, I just went home.
At Co(mpany), they shined in their crust execution. Which is what many of us expected with it’s formula created by the legendary Jim Lahey of no-knead dough fame. But the sauce and cheese were only good, sometimes even indiscernible from each other by taste and sight.
And the room was nicer than I anticipated. It helped that we were seated at one of the two large wooden picnic tables rather than the side seating, which for 2- and 4-tops are relegated to typical Manhattan hard square tables and mass produced artisan-inspired chairs. The room is airy and the staff was pleasant and casual. I liked that.
More should be said about the crust though. It’s by far the best part about this pie and inarguably the best crust of the Manhattan tour. This was one of the two places of the day I hadn’t been before. Would I go back? I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but there is much more to discover first.
The Saluggi’s pie is hard to pigeonhole. I wasn’t 100 percent on putting it on the tour, but when looking at my pizza map, it felt right among the others because of its variation in style and proximity to L’asso.
We arrived a bit early, they were scheduled to open in another 45 minutes. But the zesty cook alerted the waitress that he and the oven were ready to go, then turned to us and promised something special. About 15 minutes later, the waitress put down the metal, raised pie stand on one of the tables and the anticipation grew. What would come out?? Soon after, the cook plopped the huge house pie on the table, and out came waves of Woaaaahhhh. The bright cheese was swiming on top of the deep red sauce, sitting on top of a floured, crunchy crust with tons of character and an unevenness no machine could attain.
When we divyed up the slices, there was barely a shread of disappointment. Many had trouble handling theirs, too messy to grab without it falling out like a live octopus would. This, I attribute to being cut into 16ths, as we could not get a proper fold. Remarkably, every ingredient stood out on it’s own: homemade cheese, sauce, dough. They care and it shows. Easily one of the best pies of the day.
And when the tray was cleared of its slices, we weren’t done. Those with leftover crusts did not hesitate to sop up the remains. Every morsel of cheese and nearly every ounce of sauce was cleaned off the metal plate. So clean, they could have safely used it for the next group.
In the rain, we walked to L’asso. This was the winner of Manhattan from 2009, and nearly the winner overall. Last year, I was taken by it’s remarkable sauce and dough but put off by it’s ultimate hipster vibe. This year the vibe was subdued but the taste remained.
Again it ultimately impressed the crowd. We ordered the large Roman style pie which, as a rectangle of 27″ across, easily fed the 8 of us. I have concerns, though, that the Roman shape does not give the same impressions as a round one. This was verified when an intrepid member of our crew ordered a round specialty pie. For some reason, a circle just feels right to me. Better distribution and the coastline is more affected by the wet ingredients. If I were to do it again, I would get a series of rounds. Apart from my own shape bias, L’asso gained some new fans this year as many were remarking that the pies were only getting better and better as we went along.
Motorino, the final stop. The first location of Motorino broke in last year’s Brooklyn tour. This brand is largely thought of as the upper echelon of pizzerias, so I figured another spot on the tour would be justified. Also I hadn’t tasted a pie out of their oven and needed an excuse to go.
There’s seating for only around 35 and it can get busy, so we were lucky to be cramped into a corner table after just 10 minutes. That’s fine. The sound levels are upper din and the loud music would cause a small child to hold his ears. The walls feel like school bathrooms and I figure two people standing arms length to each other can span the residence. It’s small. And that’s fine too.
We ordered 3 pies for the 8 of us. Though Neopolitan style, the pies are not minuscule, allowing it to be cut into 8 safely. The crust in my opinion is the most remarkable piece of the pie with uncompromising rise and commendable texture and flavor. The other ingredients also feel right to the touch and taste, making it arguably one of the best in the city.
Although nice and accomodating, the waitstaff felt like they were there for a job. I found it to be a formulaic feel to the offerings. My main issue were the two chefs not ready for prime-time operating their superstar, fabled oven. Unlike Pizza Palace where one of the crusty dudes is making the pies special for you with a missing-tooth smile or Saluggi’s where the chef is not afraid to come out and talk to the guests, here your pie comes from a small, busy kitchen without a face.
For those familiar with the history of the shop, I wonder: Do we really want Motorino, or are we grasping at what was once UPN? The former owner is storied as much as Dom Di Fara or Patsy Grimaldi; his uncompromising ingredients and obsessive making of every pie himself is a modern day legend. I wasn’t the only member of this tour wondering what a pie would be like only a few years ago from the same room. Here, I question the motivation of the cooks whether it is to inspire love, follow their artform, or serve pies fast. If you have an oven like this, it is your obligation to make it the focus of the parlor. Like Paulie Gee’s and like Elegante, a pie is as much about the oven and ingredients as it is about the man putting it into the fire.
We weren’t rushed out and the pies were great, clearly one of the best of the new wave. But it felt like another Manhattan experience of paying to be in the scene. There is a lunch special: choice of 4 pies and dessert for 12 dollars. That’s more of a scene for me.
The favorites were unanimously Saluggi’s and L’asso. Overall, it was a great tour spanning the styles and neighborhoods of Manhattan all in an elite tier. Four of our stops opened within the last 5 years, which shows that NYC will only intensify it’s pizza hand in the near future. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
*Special thanks to Slice Harvester for his recommendation of Pizza Palace. His mission is to visit every pizzeria in NYC, so far he’s done everything above 42nd street. You can get one of his very cool magazines here.