To address the chef who was dressing down me and other bloggers (I only speak for Augieland) for having unattainable expectations of ingenuity, creativity and uniqueness, I will simply say all I care about is authenticity. In Augieland there are two types of restaurants, those at which you want to be a regular and those where you don’t.
I have not figured out a simple way to explain it, the closest I have come is that regular places feel like they are opened by people for whom it is the only thing they could imagine doing, while the rest of the places are there because people think they can make money. Legitimacy lies in the belief that talent will be the driving force behind success and the money it brings. JGV, Hearth, Boqueria, Lil Owl, and Bleecker Street Pizza win my allegiance and attention over Per Se, Morandi, the Waverly Inn, and the various Ray’s.
It is a certain je ne sais quoi I have yet to capture in description, but I know it when I feel it and try to relay it on this site. Is the waiter reciting a script or does he comprehend what makes this dish unique? Is the chef aping current trends trying to capture parts of the “food dollar” or is he making the dish he has had a thousand ways the way he individually can?
I find value in a place so unique in some aspect – ambiance, food, service, attention – that it becomes part of the experience. My friends and I are very enthusiastic diners that can find fun in almost any situation, so allegiance boils down to places that contribute to a good time. Could we have had the same time at a handful of other places based solely on our enthusiasm and, if so, why come to this one again? Lupa has it, Centovini doesn’t.
Food need not be fine, new, fancy, complex, or even fussy; it needs be good and genuine. Which brings me to the Nonna Maria. A couple weeks ago, after a big and very pleasing round of appetizers with a group of friends at Employees Only, it occurred to me we were only a block or so from Bleecker Street Pizza which Flaviviridae had purported to be the best in New York, so we could easily stop in and sample it. We did and it was, by far the best pizza I have had in a long time.
1 the traditional slice pie (plain pie): seasoned tomato sauce, crispy crust, grated factory cheese, benefiting from a double cooking process (like Joe’s, most places in Brooklyn, and my secret dark horse Don Pepi in Penn Station)
2 the classic pie (Margherita pie): blazing hot ovens, far simpler sauce, sliced fresh mozzarella (like Grimaldi’s, Una Pizza Napoletana, and John’s)
3 the creative pie: people calling pies loosely based on these other two served on flat bread pizza (like Otto, Gonzo, and Two Boots)
* there is no such thing as a Chicago pizza, what they have is awesome but it is some long slow-baked bread product somewhere between foccacia, Sicilian pie, and lasagna which through some grievous error was branded as pizza.
** nothing that advertises on national television is a pizza. Pizza is regional, unique even by the block around here.
People often believe themselves smarter than the three types or fail by not realizing that the genius in all is the quality of the simple products used. Often you will hear people say “flour, water, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, and mozzarella is all it takes. The ingredients can be had as cheaply as $1.20 a pie and you can sell them for like twenty bucks; it’s a no brainer.” It never goes very well. An acceptance of this thinking of course has led to the general mediocrity that allows chain stores to flourish. No one who has ever had a Di Fara’s pie would acknowledge Papa John’s as a like food stuff.
I had largely accepted that, as there are two kinds of restaurants in my world, there were two types of pizza – great, and not worth my time – and that within the great category were many things for many reasons with no one potentially elbowing out the other as absolute best. Then I had the Nonna Maria.
It seems the Nonna can be all things to all people, or at least all people with a base enjoyment of tomatoes and salt. As a caveat, I see the marriage of salt and tomatoes as a given and a wonderful given. One seems to be an extension of the other. You can over-salt a tomato, but it happens after much more salt than just about any other food (char-grilled beef maybe being the other).
Good pizza starts with good crust, crust with a crunch on the outside and a chew to its center that deserves some great descriptor like pasta has in al dente. Sauce should be about the tang of ripe tomatoes in tune with its condiment. A pizza using mass produced mozzarella should bring more flavor with its sauce, a pizza using finer fresh cheese (which usually goes hand in hand with olive oils as a flavor source) should limit the complexity of its sauce so as not to overpower these more subtle ingredients. Over all other things it is about balance. There should not be so much sauce it dribbles off the crust, there should not be so much cheese that the crust cannot retain its integrity under the weight, there should not be so much topping that you know there is sauce because you feel it slapping against your chin or lap attached to falling bits. Great pizza is sublime harmony.
The Nonna has a thin and crunchy crust straight out of the oven the first time, topped with a seasoned sauce with a consistency more hand-crushed then pureed, rife with fresh herbs and fresh garlic, topped with parmesan and fresh mozzarella. The parmesan adds the depth to balance the herbs and fresh garlic in the sauce, allowing it to please at the slice pie level. The fresh mozzarella sits between thick swaths of pie with little more going on than perfectly ripe tomatoes that are slightly sweet (although this may be creditable to the sweet onion bits, I suspect they add a little sugar), very zippy, and properly and unapologetically salted, pleasing the classic pie types.
The Nonna is available by the slice, yet is somehow as good delivered (I have had a dozen since Flaviviridae first introduced me). There is none of the scorching on the crust that indicates crazy heat in the oven, yet it starts crunchy/chewy and gets more crunchy as it cools which leads to an awkward phase when warm that loosens back up when cold. All in all, the remembered sensation is of steamy tomato-y essence complimented as it is best with things like fresh basil, oregano leaves, olive oil, milky cheese, garlic, warm bread, salty parmesan, and salt. It is a unique and special dish.
We have all heard the old saying that pizza is like sex: great pizza is great, and bad pizza is still pretty good (accepting that whoever said that did not mean Domino’s). I think it nails the trouble I have in qualifying restaurants and I guess why this pie is so much better than the others I have had made in a similar manner. Why do I love Gramercy Tavern and Gotham and not Union Square Cafe and Blue Water Grill? On paper they are not that dissimilar, but go to all four as an enthusiastic diner and you will see what I mean.