December 28th, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (3)
It was a warm summer night many years ago. The moon blazed down on southern Italy. My dad was lecturing in Naples and one of his Italian friends had taken us to an outdoor restaurant in a small nearby town. Now this guy was the first chowhound I’d ever met. He was rich and he drove a big fancy sports car. He would have been welcomed in the fanciest restaurants in Naples or Rome. But he preferred to seek out tiny trattorias in rustic villages, unknown places that served excellent food. Anyway, at this town, the street was so narrow his car got caught between two buildings. We walked to the restaurant. The pizza, as big as the table, came from an ancient, wood-burning oven. It might have been the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. But I don’t remember the taste. I remember the narrow street and our car getting caught and the outdoor tables and the centuries-old moonwashed walls around us.
Aside from that, and leaving out my time spent in New Haven, trekking across town to the fabled pizzerias of Wooster Street (and I’m leaving it out because all my friends liked the worst shop on the street, and I’d rather eat bad pizza with friends than great pizza alone), the best pizza I’ve ever had I got in a small 100 year old pizzeria on the rough edge of Coney Island. This too was many years ago. They too used a very old coal-burning oven. The oven is the key to good pizza. Those old coal-burners create a white-hot intense heat that’s different in different parts of the oven. The pizza-maker knows all the different zones of the oven — the hot spots, the cool spots, the sweet spots — like a violinist knows his violin, and he shifts the bubbling pizza from one spot to the other to crisp and blister the crust without drying the dough. I’d walked to the pizzeria from Park Slope. A ten mile walk but it was a warm summer night, and I drank beer as I went. So I was sloshed when I got there. This pizzeria was known for its rude service — they were especially unwelcoming to fancypants Manhattan rich types — but they were extra-friendly to me. Once (this was another night) it took a long time to be served and I asked what caused the delay and they said, we made your pizza and it wasn’t good enough so we threw it away and made you a new one. Now this pizza joint made only a certain amount of handmade dough and when the dough ran out they closed for the night. So by throwing away that imperfect pizza they were throwing away money. But they preferred to throw away money rather than serve a pizza that wasn’t perfect. Later, I paid them back by writing their ad slogan. They didn’t know it, I wrote it in a letter to a guidebook, which printed it anonymously and they got it from the guidebook. The slogan: Only God makes better pizza.
I was born in New York, and so it goes without saying that I was born with a love of the Yankees and pizza. Most of the U.S. hadn’t heard of pizza until about 1950 when a guy named Ike Sewell decided to open up a Mexican restaurant in Chicago, opened it, decided he hated Mexican food, didn’t know what to do until he thought… why not pizza? But in New York it’s been around for a lot longer. My dad grew up on pizza, and I think my grandparents did too. My dad went to Yankee games and then hit the tiny Bronx pizza shops nearby. He told me that pizzas were known as quarters… because a whole large pie cost a quarter of a dollar! One day he got a big shock when he went into his favorite pizzeria, said gimme a quarter, and was told it was now fifty cents.
As Proust learned a hundred years ago, taste recalled opens the floodgates for other memories. And there’s something mystical about pizza. (A lot like the Yankees and baseball, come to think of it.) You can’t just make it from a recipe. As I said above somewhere, a good pizzaiolo knows his oven and how to shuffle the baking pizza around to achieve the perfect crust. It’s a craft… or an art. You’re born with that craft, and you hone it during many years of apprenticeship. So I wasn’t expecting much last night when my friends and I went to the Pie Hole on 15th Street. From the outside it’s a dump, and indeed I’d passed it many many times without a thought of going in. Inside, it’s nicer, still a dump, but a deliberately retro dump with round tables and cool 1950s plastic chairs (and it’s definitely recommended that you eat the pizza there, right there on those chairs because it’s at the peak of its flavor and it won’t be after you get it home). We ordered the Pie Hole Classic, we asked for extra sauce, and we got the biggest pie they had ($17). 20 minute wait. A long wait and we were hungry. I watched the pizzaiolo and he was indeed moving the pies around in the oven. And then, the pizza came and here it is, the money shot, the photo that brought all those memories above flooding back.
Truly a work of art. “I’ve got to wait,” said Cathe, “I’m burning my mouth.” “I don’t care!!” I replied as I shoveled it down, unable to stop or even slow my pace. I don’t know why it was so good. The crust was thin, unlike the pizzas I normally like, and though it was a good crust it didn’t compare to the subtle artistry that comes out of a coal burning oven. The sauce was fine, and I’m glad we got extra, but it was only a subtle background element holding things together. Perhaps it was the toppings. You can see them gleaming in the photo. Pepperoni, sausage, red onion, mushroom, red and green bell peppers, black olives, and roasted garlic. Somehow it all blended together to create an unforgettable taste. The next time I have great pizza and the memories come pouring back, this will be one of them.
Pie Hole Pizza
2708 E 15 St
11 AM to 9 PM daily
(on Tuesday, there are bargains: many pizzas are $10)