Paul Giannone, the wonderfully-obsessive, always outspoken, former-IT-guy-turned-pizzaiolo of Paulie Gee's in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, makes one of the finest—if not the finest—pizzas in the city. So when he buzzes you up and says, "Hey, I'm going on a tour of my favorite pizzerias in each borough, wanna come?" your answer is not, "Sounds fun, let me check my calendar," or "I don't know if I can keep up with you this time." Your answer is "I will defy the laws of physics and perhaps my wife's will to go with you—when do we leave?"
So a couple weeks ago, my wife Adri and I joined Paulie, his wife Mary Ann, and his two sons Michael and Derek, along with Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours and Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine on a day-long, epic pizza crawl that spanned all five boroughs, stopping at Paulie's favorite pizzeria in each.
Here's the recap.
Staten Island: Plain Pie From Joe & Pat's
The Skinny: Seriously skinny thin-crust pizza available by the slice at a walk-up counter, or served family style in the next-door dining room. The thinly-sauced, sparsely cheesed pies cook up fast, with pools of moist, lightly browned fresh mozzarella mottling their surface.
Paulie says: "I haven't been going to Joe & Pat's for very long—maybe three years—but I kept on hearing about it, so I checked it out, and it was love at first bite. There's something unique about it. The crust is thin and really crackly, the sauce is sweet and really bright, the pizza's not overloaded with cheese, and there's a good balance. You can eat a whole bunch of slices."
On our particular visit, Adri fell victim to one of the classic pizzeria pranks. Somebody had carefully unscrewed the cap to the red pepper flakes the night before, laying the trap for us the next morning. Somewhere, a Staten Island kid is laughing at us.
Paulie downed three whole slices—a bold move for the first leg of a five pizzeria tour.
Brooklyn: Red Pie From Totonno's
The Skinny: The oldest pizzeria in Brooklyn has seen its share of ups and downs, with recent closings after an oven fire and flooding from Hurricane Sandy, but it's back and business and better than ever, churning out its signature fresh mozzarella-on-the-bottom, tomato-sauce-on-top charred coal oven pies. Some folks like the white pie, made with mozzarella, garlic, and Romano. Paulie goes for the red.
Paulie says: "Picking a favorite place in Brooklyn is a tough call because there are just so many I love. But when it comes down to it, Totonno's is my favorite place for coal oven. I don't know if it's the Romano or the muzz, but there's a bit of umami that I don't get from any other coal oven place.
"Until I came here, pizza was always just pizza. There was a New York slice and a New York square and that was it. Totonno's is where I had my big pizza epiphany. I started coming regularly and I would order a whole pie for myself, eat about 2/3rds of each slice, then bring the crusts home and eat them the next day with a little butter.
"I usually get the red pie, but the thing I like about the white pie is that there's no ricotta on it. I shy away from most white pies because they find any white ingredient they can. Here they keep it balanced."
Check out that charred underbelly!
"Paulie, I don't think we need to order three whole pi..." ah, too late. After polishing off a regular red pie and a white pie, Cookie Cimineri, the ever-present floor manager, made us an offer we couldn't refuse: a half-red half-white pie with fresh basil. It was glorious, though we were beginning to feel the pain from a morning's-worth of heavy eating.
Queens: Plain Pie From New Park Pizza
The Skinny: An ultra-clasic New york pie with one of the fastest bake times around. You can expect a whole pie to take under 5 minutes from the time it hits the salt-scattered oven deck (salting under the crust is their signature move) to the time it gets to your hands. The plain pies here can be a little...floppy, so if you like your pizza very crisp, make sure to ask for it well done.
Paulie says: "This is just my favorite slice in the city. I knew about the place through its infamy, but I'd never gone until the late 80's/early 90's. Ever since then, I've loved it and if I'm driving on the Belt Parkway, you can bet my car is gonna pull over for a slice.
"It's the quintessential New York slice. They can be inconsistent, and the day we were there, it was just a matter of who was making the pizza—a little heavy handed on the cheese. But when it's good, it's the best slice in the city."
We've had similar consistency issues, which can be a real bummer if you're traveling all the way out to Howard Beach, but when you strike it when its hot, the payout is huge. On this particular visit, not only did the cook forget to salt the underbelly of the crust, he was also pretty lax with his cheese application and distribution. The pizza wasn't bad, but it didn't reach the heights its been known to.
The Bronx: Sausage Pie Louie & Ernie's
The Skinny: Housed in the below-ground first floor on the corner of a Throggs Neck residential block, Louie & Ernie's puts out crisp, sturdy pies that focus on classic flavors, not fancy trends. The sausage pie, made with fresh chunks of sausage from S&D Pork Store a few blocks away is the pizza that Adam Kuban once called "hauntingly flavorful". A heavy sprinkle of black pepper in the center of the pie gives the tip of each slice an extra hit of flavor.
What Paulie says: "I don't know much about pizza in the Bronx, but I've tried a few, and I'm pretty sure this one is the best. It's an old school place. I love that it's in a house, and not your typical pizzeria. The owner is there seven days and just can't let go. Those are my favorite kinds of places. It reminds me a little of John's: greasy, salty, and very flavorful. The sausage pie is the one to get, but the Sicilian is great, too."
We hit it up on a warm day, so we took the pizza, a couple beers, and the dogs to the outdoor seating in the garden. Oh, and for the record, this is the one and only pizzeria where Scott broke down and ordered a root beer instead of a water. Wise move: root beer is what you want on the side of this guy.
My mother joined us for this leg of the tour, which was a good thing: the last slice probably would have gone unfinished if she hadn't. Even pizza gods like Paulie and Scott seem to have limits.
Square Slice From Prince Street Pizza
The Skinny: When Prince Street Pizza opened up in the former home of the one and only TRUE Original Ray's Pizza a couple years ago, it became an instant classic. It serves what are undoubtedly the best Sicilian square slices in the city, and the standard slices are nothing to scoff at either.
What Paulie says: "I never had a favorite place in Manhattan until Prince Street came along. The sauce and the lightness of the crust is what makes it for me. It's a thick pie, but the crust is still light. It's even great on a reheat—nice and crisp. It's almost like a totally different slice. The sauce is very special, and you get a lot of it on there.
"The owner, I call him Friday Night Frankie because he's open late on Friday night. I eat two slices every Friday night while I drive home. It keeps me awake. It's a good thing he's not open late on other nights, or I'd stop over every night of the week."
Parking in Manhattan ain't what it is in the outer boroughs, so we had to resort to some in-the-car eating. It requires some special skill to keep the sauce—which is applied over the cheese—from dripping as you take each crisp, pillowy, olive oil-soaked bite. Even tougher when you order the Spicy Spring (my personal favorite), which comes covered with crisp little grease-filled chalices of awesome pepperoni.
But no matter, shirt stains are a small price to pay for pizza perfection.