A Man and His Camera Examine Pizza’s Most Common Denominator

One near pizza constant, no matter the menu or milieu? That would be mozzarella.

As a professional photographer, a lifetime pizza enthusiast and the author of a work in progress on the city’s pizza culture, I’ve eaten and photographed countless slices and pies at pizzerias old and new. What started as a fascination with a food has become a study of a scene: I love that at most pizzerias the cooking occurs on a live stage, there for anybody to observe. And I love listening to interactions between pie-makers and pie-eaters—sometimes I even chime in.

If you’re lucky, the guy—it’s usually a guy—behind the slice still owns the business. Check out his hands and forearms— those calluses and scars tell stories. He perfected the recipes over the years, he made the dough and sauce that morning or the day before, and he is the one who reaches into the 700 degree oven.

If you’re a regular, he knows your name, knows what you like, asks about your kids and tells you neighborhood tales. It’s not unlike the local tavern: The bar is the counter, your bartender is the pizzaiolo and instead of beer and booze and lemons and limes, it’s cheese and sauce and oregano and garlic.

These days a surge of new pizzerias plays loose with that historically simple recipe. Now pizzas thick, thin, round or rectangular are fired in ovens fueled by gas, wood or coal (or seared on griddles, charred on grills or sizzled in deep fryers) and topped with everything from industrial pepperoni to house-cured guanciale, from canned black olives to salt-packed capers.One near constant, no matter the menu or milieu? That would be mozzarella.

Di Fara Pizza. In 1997, when Domenico Demarco had quietly been making pizza in Midwood for over 30 years, a Brooklyn screenwriter named Barry Strugatz wrote an e-mail to Jim Leff, who would go on to found chowhound.com. It read, “Here’s Pizza. Old guy makes everything by hand; thin crust and good sauce. 1424 Avenue J.” A year later, Leff’s rave review in his book, The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City, inspired Di Fara owner Domenico Demarco to tinker with his already-killer formula in pursuit of perfection. The crowds have not let up since. Demarco’s fine tunings include the use of pricier cheeses, generous amounts of extra-virgin olive oil, fresh-snipped Israeli basil and an inverted ratio of aged to fresh cheese. Most pizzerias supplement a blanket of mozzarella with a sprinkle of Parmesan or pecorino. Di Fara turns the tables and— according to Demarco’s daughter Margie—loads each round pizza with about a quarter-pound of mozzarella and a full pound of grana padano. The square pie receives the same—plus an additional pound of buffalo mozzarella or fior di latte. The result is a pizza flavor that is well worth the ride on the Q to Avenue J and the hushed, half-hour lines out the door.

Established in 1964. Subway: Q to Avenue J. Closed Monday and Tuesday, but check their Facebook page for up-to-date hours. Whole pies and slices. 

Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano. Totonno’s is operated by the same family using the same coal-burning oven at the same Coney Island address as the day they opened in 1924, and is regarded by many as home to the best pizza in New York. In its 85-plus year history, there have only been five pizza makers and the restaurant has always sourced its ingrediente segreto—a fior di latte mozzarella that they layer below the sauce— from the same cheese-making family in Brooklyn. Owner Cookie Ciminieri says the mozz is custom-made for her: “No one else can get it.” The menu is succinct: only red sauce or white pizza, and a few toppings. Unlike most white pies in the New York area, Totonno’s uses no ricotta. Simply mozzarella, olive oil, fresh minced garlic and a grated aged cheese—I suspect pecorino Romano, but Cookie won’t say.

Established in 1924. Subway: D, F, N or Q to Stillwell Avenue. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Whole pies only.

Luigi’s Pizza. I called up Luigi’s owner Giovanni Lanzo, with whom I am well acquainted, to ask specific questions about his cheeses. I should have known better. His replies—mainly a mantra repeated over and over (“Mike, it’s dough, sauce and cheese. That’s all it is. Dough, sauce and cheese.”)—illuminated little. Giovanni does not subscribe to fancy talk about pizza or, for that matter, high prices. The “trick” to his excellent pizza, he told me, is that he loves making it. A standard pie (made with either part-skim low-moisture or fresh mozzarella) is built on a crust that crackles but offers the perfect chewy resistance of a classic New York slice. The sauce is sweet—thanks to good tomatoes, not sugar—and the cheese adds richness and chew without pools of oil.

Established in 1973. Subway: R train to either Prospect Avenue or 25th Street. Closed Sundays. Whole pies and slices.

Paulie Gee’s. Paul Giannone did not grow up in a pizzeria. A computer programmer and technology consultant by day, he built a pizza oven in his Warren, New Jersey, backyard years ago to entertain family and friends with homemade pie. After much prodding (from the same family and friends), he quit his job to go pro and in 2010, at age 56, opened his own pizzeria. I.T.’s loss was Brooklyn’s gain. Paulie Gee’s stands out as well-executed, carefully sourced and highly creative. The atmosphere—post-industrial horse stable meets tattoos, candlelight and a nightly classic rock soundtrack—is outdone only by Giannone’s palpable passion for pie.

He spends each night circulating among the tables and chatting. But it’s the pizzas—especially the more inventive ones—that stay in your memory long beyond the last bite. These are 12-inch pies that range from pristine tomato sauce and Brooklyn-sourced fior di latte to surprising combinations of nontraditional pizza ingredients, like “Anise and Anephew” (fior di latte, braised fennel, guanciale and a zingy anisette cream) and “The Greenpointer” (fior di latte, really fresh and peppery baby arugula, olive oil, lemon juice, shaved Parmigiano and optional-but-recommended prosciutto. The “Hellboy” combines fior di latte, Italian tomatoes, overlapping rounds of spicy Berkshire sopressata, Parmigiano Reggiano and a good drizzle of Brooklyn’s own Mike’s Hot Honey. The sweet heat from the chili-infused honey balances the sopressata’s complexity and together they make for an amped-up, high-end rendition of pepperoni pizza. The success lies in the versatility of mozzarella (fior di latte). Some of the pies deploy other cheeses—like Gouda, ricotta and fontina—but fresh mozzarella is the star.

Established in 2010. 60 Greenpoint Avenue, near West Street; 347.987.3747. Subway: G to Greenpoint Avenue. No lunches. Closed Monday. Plate-size pies.

Photo credit:  Michael Berman.

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