“Wachoo wanna eat?”, the sweaty, swarthy guy barked at me - one of the crew of red-shirted fellas behind the counter, spinning crusts, working the ovens, taking care of business. I’m at NY Pizza Supremo, just across from Madison Square Garden. The crowd at the counter spills out the door and into the street making it nearly impossible to get in or out, but with their mix of English banter and Italian insults, the red shirts keep the line moving so nobody has to wait very long.
Warm and fuzzy relationships are not on the menu. We’re not here for love, we’re here for lunch, and lunch is a slice or two of the best damn pizza in Manhattan. They’ll serve a Sicilian if your heritage demands you eat that way, but most of us are here for the New York-style which Supremo does, not just authentically, but definitively. The thin crust crunches but doesn’t splinter (how do they do that?). The smooth sauce is slightly sweet and loaded with oregano and is in exactly the right proportion to the cheese, which keeps everything glued together. Sausage is what I wanna eat, and the meat is sliced about the thickness of a quarter so the edges will be crispy, but the centers moist and juicy. The slices are about an acre in size, but only about a centimeter thick. Crispy, crunchy, salty, oily, spicy, cheesy. It is thin crust perfection and there’s no need to question the great reviews this place gets from the local pizza snobs.
Across the street, under the Garden, is that hole of misery known as Penn Station, from where I’ll be departing shortly for Chicago, the other great pizza town. My layover there won’t be long enough to venture far from Union Station, but on my outbound trip last week I had enough time to indulge in Chicago’s version of the dish. It was a nice enough day for the half hour walk to Lou Malnati’s on State Street. It was crowded there, too - that’s what happens when you serve the good stuff.
Lou lays down a righteous pie in the best Chicago tradition. As in New York, it starts at the bottom. The crust here is thicker than the entire slice in New York, but amazingly, it doesn’t feel heavy. Crispy outside, soft in the middle, and buttery to taste, it is lighter than it looks. The weight comes in the upper layers. A quarter inch of melted mozzarella sits directly on the crust and ladled over the top is a chunky stew of crushed tomatoes, oregano and fresh basil. It would be an insult to call it “sauce”. After two slices I’m full, but it’s too good to stop, so I belch and have another.
In many areas of life, limits are something to be explored - boundaries something to be pushed - but there’s also something to be appreciated about tradition. I have enormous respect for those who keep their focus on doing one thing, and doing it right. To that end, Supremo and Lou both have a fairly traditional definition of what pizza is … crust, red sauce, cheese. Acceptable toppings are a smoky meat, mushrooms, and onions. Add olives if you have to. Sure, they’ll make a pizza with some other toppings if you want, but those are special orders. Be ready for ridicule if you ask for one of those alfredo things because, let’s face it, once you remove the red sauce and the cheese, it’s not really pizza anymore.
I referred to New York and Chicago as the pizza towns because they are the ones with the defined styles and traditions, but to be honest, most towns have a pie or two that they can be proud of. The local pizzas are somewhere on the spectrum between Chicago’s deep dish and New York’s paper-thin, but the chefs have spent just as much time developing their crust and their sauce, and local consensus will be “best in town”.
My favorite in my town, is a place called Doughy Joey’s. I don’t mean to slight The Brown Bottle, The OP, or Tony’s, - which all have been in the great pizza business long enough to be local institutions, but Joey’s gets my nod. Joey’s “New York Style” is thin, but not quite New York thin. The crust is a bit more cracker-y than Supremo, and Joey piles on waaay more cheese, which I like very much. It’s a round pie, but Joey cuts it into squares about four bites big, and puts a blob of spicy sausage right in the middle of each. Joey’s sauce is a just-right blend of herbed tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem to have that mysterious ingredient which makes me wake up in the middle of the night sweating and farting, so I appreciate that and so does my wife.
Joey’s really shines over Lou’s and Supremo with the ambiance of the restaurant. It’s busy and noisy like a good pizza place should be, but it’s spacious enough that you don’t feel rushed. You can almost always get a table and even if there’s a crowd waiting to sit, they aren’t standing right there watching you eat. There’s a bunch of beers on-tap, and a patio for when the weather’s nice. It’s all much more pleasant than the “get in - get out - we need your table” feel of the big city joints.
And that, right there in the example of pizza, is why I love where I live. New York, Chicago, and Cedar Falls are all great pizza towns. The density of characters and commerce make big cities exciting to visit, but here on the prairie, our pizza is just as tasty and we have the room and the time to savor it.