Patsy's vs Patsy's vs Rosie'sMost of my favorite pizzas come from conventional gas deck ovens, so I rarely get sentimental about wood-fired or "brick oven" or even coal-fired ovens.
|Inside Patsy's Pizzeria, East Harlem|
It's true, however, that all of my coal-oven pizzeria experiences have been good ones. If you're going to the trouble of operating a coal oven, I suppose, you're going to be serious about making good pie.
Coal burns at a very high temperature and low moisture level, both well-suited for pizza. Coal oven pies often inhabit a middle ground between the crisply rigid New York style pies that come from a gas deck oven and the softer puffier Neapolitan pizza baked in 90 seconds at 900+ degrees in a wood-fired oven. When everything goes right, a coal-fired pie sports a crisp yet chewy crust with an ideal texture.
|The take-out counter|
In 2008, three years before this blog was launched, we visited Patsy's in East Harlem en route to a Yankees game. We stopped in at the take-out counter just for a plain slice on a sleepy Sunday morning, and it was a revelation.
|The legacy coal-fired oven|
For the first time in decades, on that visit I ate pizza that brought back the magic of the pies I had loved so much in my formative years. Not only the flavors and textures, but the smell of the dough was distinctly a throwback experience for me.
|Neapolitan pie from Patsy's in New Rochelle|
Not long ago, we visited the the New Rochelle branch of Patsy's. It's a big, modern, and pretty waterfront space, teeming with happy suburbanites. The look and feel there is nearly opposite of the well-worn look at the East Harlem Patsy's, which has been serving pies for 80 years now.
And while I loved the pizza in New Rochelle, I felt it did not have much in common with the pie I recalled from our 2008 visit to East Harlem. We noted that "unlike Patsy's in Harlem, this pie is straight-up Neapolitan ... it cooks in 80 seconds with a classic pale crust and beautiful char marks."
|Our pie in East Harlem|
The comfortable long and deep dining room in East Harlem was almost half-full on this Saturday lunchtime visit. A large plain pie with conventional mozzarella is just $12 at Patsy's; we added pepperoni to bring it to $15. (We were disappointed to learn that the sausage topping is pre-cooked, hence our order of pepperoni).
The 16" pie that came to our table seemed thinner and softer than the slice I recall from 2008. Perhaps the reheat given to pizza-by-the-slice gives a bit more crispness. This 2016 pie was still in the hybrid zone, but much closer to a Neapolitan than the pies at Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza, the hugely successful chain.
The tip of each slice was soft and floppy as the sauce and cheese had too much weight and moisture for the crust to support. One bite in, though, and the rest of each slice was almost a study in the proper balance of flavors and textures.
The red sauce was simple, but memorable in its bright flavor that melded perfectly with the conventional mozzarella cheese. The star feature, though, was the crust.
The crust had a wonderful flavor and could stand alone as great bread. It was light, slightly crisp, and perfectly al dente. And like my visit in 2008, it recalled the aroma of the sublime pizza of my youth at Rosie's in Riverside, NJ. Each slice got better in every bite from the tip through the cornicione.
|A slice close up|
|The adjoining bar was vacant on our lunch visit|
Despite the soft and almost-wet center, this pie was expertly balanced in texture and flavors. The pepperoni was standard grade, but still added the right savory element. Unlike most pizza places, the red sauce and crust were so perfect that a marinara pie would work wonderfully, much like the one we inhaled in Rome at La Montecarlo.
|Marinara pizza at La Montecarlo in Rome|
Mrs. Quixote was my dining companion, and I typically eat about two slices for each one that she consumes. Here, however, she kept pace with me. We loved this pie and devoured the full pizza at a lunchtime setting. It was not the same as my 2008 visit, but it was spectacular pizza.
|A close up of the underside|
Much like Lombardi's at the southern end of Manhattan and Regina in Boston, you can't hang on for 75+ years simply as a tourist trap. You need to make superlative pizza, and that is happening every day at Patsy's. A pepperoni pizza is easily worth the $28 at Lombardi's, so this classic Patsy's pie at $15 is a terrific bargain.
Throw in un-metered street parking and you have an essential NYC pizza experience. It's easy to combine a visit to Patsy's with a trip to The Cloisters, the medieval museum housed in a castle overlooking the Palisades at the northern tip of Manhattan, where there is yet more free parking and you are walking distance from Innwood Park, the only natural forest in all of New York City.
|Innwood Park, at Spuyten Duyvil Creek|
Patsy's is a treasure, and unlike Lombardi's and Regina, you don't need to stand in line to experience this wonderful pizza. Patsy's fully merits the tag "destination pizza" and will no doubt qualify among our top 2016 pizza experiences.