Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Wiseguy NY Pizza, Washington DC


On Saturday, October 27, EPBAC (Eats Pizza But Avoids Cheese) and I journeyed from Pennsylvania to Washington DC in order to be among the first “100 NY pizza snobs” who qualified to test the pie at Wiseguy NY Pizza (300 Massachusetts Ave NW) during a private party spanning two days.  It proved to be quite an instructional experience.


The Sicilian. Click any pic to enlarge.
As a pizza blogger, I’ve become increasingly aware of the various styles of pizza, even as some are hard to name or define and some styles overlap. To this point, I’ve found three broad categories. One is the Neapolitan, the soft and puffy, yet somehow dense and chewy, leopard-spotted Neapolitan pie; most newer “high end” pizza joints are attempting some version of the Neapolitan pie.  Of course, there are the ubiquitous soft, floppy, bready, cheesy, greasy pies churned out by a lot of mom-n-pop pizza shops, using low-end dough, sauce, and cheese from big commercial suppliers like Sysco. Finally, there is the type I’ve struggled to define – those with the thin and crisp crust, offered by “old-school” classic pizza joints like Frank Pepe in New Haven CT, DeLorenzo’s and Papa’s of Trenton NJ, and Arturo’s and Totonno’s in New York. Some call it New York style. Often, I’ve dubbed it Trenton style, and more recently I called it Trenton/New York/New Haven style.
The exterior
I resisted the tag “New York style” because, so often in places bragging to serve “New York style” pizza, it meant floppy greasy pie of absolutely no distinction, whether served in Manhattan or in Topeka.  However, pizza bloggers more knowing than me often speak of the “New York Slice,” which carries different expectations that the whole pie you get when ordering at DeLorenzo’s or Totonno’s. As defined by those who seem to know, the New York Slice is a triangle wedge from a round pizza, usually pretty basic dough, dry mozzarella, and sauce, with a thin  crust that has some crispness yet remains sufficiently pliable for folding. I’ve always found the New York Slice to be (occasionally) quite satisfying, but rarely distinctive.
Vintage wiseguys, circa 1980
A lot of New Yorkers feel differently, and it is because the corner pizza joint, selling by the slice, is the pie they grew up with. We all fall in love with our first pizza, and it often becomes the standard for our lives. Mine was the Trenton-style whole pies at Rosa’s in Riverside NJ. It set the standard I still pursue. I feel bad, truly, for folks who grow up on crappy chain pie.
At the counter
Behind the counter
The cozy interior
Pizzaiolo Tony Erol is a new York native who feels that you can’t get a good, real NY Slice in the DC area. He felt so strongly that he opened his own pizzeria, Wiseguy NY Pizza. On Facebook, he asked for 100 New York pizza snobs to come try the pizza, salads, and garlic knots before the official opening. To Tony, the “authentic” New York Slice has several distinct qualities, and he posted them outside his restaurant. He’s fussy! He filters the water to make it “New York” water. He wants the crust to be thin, crisp (but not cracker-like), charred, salty, yet foldable. He has a very specific notion of what makes a New York Slice.
Tony's specs, and promises
We arrived early for the private tasting event, slated for 5pm. So we walked around the upscale neighborhood on Massachusetts Avenue, including the nearby Chinatown. We saw a lot of attractive dining options, including the wood-fired pizza at Matchbox. It’s important to note that Tony doesn’t claim that there is no good pizza in DC, but rather that you can’t get an authentic NY Slice. He went on New York and national pizza tours, eating and tasting and chronicling it all on his FB page. We arrived with great anticipation.
Pizza snobs, including Lisa Bernstein (R)
The building looks new on the outside, and old on the inside, like a classic NY Slice joint. Lots of cool stuff on the walls, and flourishes of quality abound – even the soda fountain offers some gourmet varieties. It is open and airy with plenty of tables (not common for slice parlors) and the display counter you’d expect.
Need two hands to support the margherita slice
Once the doors were opened, we eagerly entered and were offered slices of plain, pepperoni, or Margherita.  Later, out came some Sicilian square slices and some buffalo chicken slices. He also had olive and feta salad, a cold angel hair salad, and garlic knots with pesto, spinach, or pepperoni. All gratis for the very lucky invitees!
Slices, knots, salads
To begin, EPBAC and I chose a Margherita slice and a pepperoni slice. The slices were exactly as promised – thin, crisp, yet foldable. They were not overloaded with toppings, but the pliant crust was not stiff enough to support the slice without folding.  The crust had a superb flavor that spoke of freshness and quality ingredients. The sauce was tame, neither sweet, spicy, or salty; it was not attempting to be anything other than a role player in the execution of the essential NY Slice. The cheese on the Margherita was delicious, but (as I typically find), fresh mozz is too wet for pizza. It floats, bloblike, on the sea of sauce, and never melds with the crust. Even on a top-flight Neapolitan pie, I have no use for a blob of white, wet cheese.  Now, that’s a personal preference, because there are plenty of people who embrace the wetness.  Hell, there are people who dunk a perfectly crisp cookie in milk, too. I can’t think of any soggy foods that I truly relish.
The pepperoni slice
The pepperoni slice was classic. All the elements – rendered expertly, with an eye only toward executing the basic elements of the NY Slice.  Nothing stood out – not the crust, the sauce, the cheese, the pepperoni. But each was delivered at a high level to produce a flawless NY Slice.

The Sicilian had a wonderful crust. Not ethereal like L&B Spumoni Gardens, but delicate with a wonderful bottom crunch. The staff was particularly proud of the buffalo chicken pie and persuaded me to take a slice for later. I did eat it later, and learned that a NY slice doesn't really travel well; the crust lost its magic. The buffalo sauce had a very nice tang, but I continue to feel that chicken, and especially boring white meat, has no place on pizza. Some will love it, but it ain't pizza to me.
Gourmet soda fountain
I learned that the NY slice is a category unto itself. Once, you could get a reliable NY Slice at lots of places in NY and neighboring areas. As the chains moved in and introduced some dramatic price competition, a lot of the classic Slice joints folded. Others changed to cheap, inferior, mass-produced ingredients. For cost purposes, others were compelled to hire inexperienced workers who churn out slices with little ability for cooking them properly.  “Dollar Slice” joints have sprung up all over. Many of New York’s current residents grew up in other places; they cannot distinguish a lousy slice from a great one; they choose pizza based on cost (and volume) alone.
Fuhgeddaboudit!
New York City needs men and women like Tony Erol, pizzaioli who care to make a high-quality New York Slice.  DC is lucky to have him. The only superior NY Slice I know is from Patsy’s, whose crust is a little thicker, a lot firmer, and simply magical. In fact, a fellow 100-Snobs patron gave Tony feedback that his slices would be improved with a bit more time in the oven, and I agreed.
Pepperoni, underside
Nice spots on the margherita
Sicilian browned and crisped below
I did not grow up on pizza by the slice, and by the time I discovered such a thing, Sysco-sourced pizzerias dominated, churning out floppy sloppy slices that were sometimes better than frozen pizza, but never epicurean fare. My first love remains the Trenton pie, and its close relations in New Haven, New York, and Rome. Next is the puffy Neapolitan pies. But I have now a brand-new appreciation for the NY Slice – simple pizza, expertly crafted. Tony Erol at Wiseguy NY Pizza is getting it done.  If Patsy’s NY Slice in East Harlem is a perfect 10, Tony is cranking out 9s in DC. On his first day! With some fine tuning, he can edge higher.
Pizza Quixote with pizzaiolo Tony Erol



Wiseguy NY Pizza on Urbanspoon

4 comments:

  1. So your looking and maybe found the quintessential NY slice and /or pie. In D.C. of all places. Might be good down there, but what I discovered here in Philly (I'm From West Chester by the way) is so magical and so delicious. I was thinking why bother with anybody else...my search is over. Let me clue you in a place I finally made to after months of knowing about and trying to make it here. 140 South 11th Street Philadelphia, PA 19107
    (215) 733-0651 . No web site available but it's in Center City across from Thomas Jefferson Hospital. And do note it's not open on Saturdays, Sunday thru Friday only. I bought the medium margherita,which was given a dusting of grated cheese,fresh and hot I ate it. It reminded me of Totonno's.While your in Philly, best to check out Marra's http://marrasone.com/
    had their margherita pie last Sunday. Their sauce is so awesome, their pie so good. But what do I know, try it yourself. Get your butt out locally, there is plenty of good stuff nearby and without the long drive.
    Lou

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  2. Lou,
    Great to hear from you. I trust your judgment... Of course I like the local pies too when I can find a good one. You have to go try the pie at La Porta in Edgemont, easy drive from West Chester. So this place in Philly -- is it NYPD? Your endorsement is good enough for me, I will get there to try it. PQ

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  3. La Porta? Puhleeze. Been there done that. Yes it is very good. But didn't you find it "greasy"? As in the whole crust, top and bottom, but not the toppings. Ok maybe not greasy but definitely oily.
    So yes,NYPD. sorry I left out the name. They have a small sit down area in the rear. It's mostly takeout for the folks across the street in the hospital. A friend of a friend clued me in, as she was from Brooklyn proper, so she gave it a ringing endorsement. They have thick, thin crusts and calzones etc...I got the margherita though. Waited @ 20 minutes. The other place I mentioned is Marra's. In South Philly, the web link should give all the info you need. Btw, wood fired brick oven, old school pizza (pasta, red gravy) sit down joint. Lots of tables. Not really Brooklyn style or the new wave style of artisan pizza makers. But it's been there forever. My 3rd time there last week. I have a friend who lives nearby so more visits to follow for sure.Happy pizza hunting! Enjoy!
    Lou

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  4. Next time you are in DC and want to try some good pizza try Pacci's in Silver Spring MD!

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