Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: Conte's Pizza and Bar, Princeton NJ

1980 was the year I discovered the impeccable tomato pie at DeLorenzo's in Trenton (now Robbinsville). Later that same year, we went out for beers after a company softball game and landed at Conte's Pizza and Bar, just a few blocks away from the campus of Princeton University.
Conte's sausage pizza
I doubt that I even had the pizza on my first few visits - our meager funds were designated for pitchers of cheap domestic beer (probably Rolling Rock, which is still on tap at Conte's). The pizza, once I tried it, was the exact style that I prefer, with a thin and crisp crust. It remained a favorite of mine through 1987, when I moved away from the Trenton area to Pennsylvania.
Princeton U, 5 minutes away

I returned only once since then, probably around 2005. I was comforted by how little Conte's had changed - and by how the pizza was still excellent. Princeton is a long trip from home now, but we recently took some international visitors to tour the University, which provided the ideal chance to get back to Conte's for my first visit since starting this blog in 2011.

Note the glass block bar on left

What I loved about Conte's in 1980 was its authentically retro feel. A step inside Conte's is a step back in time, and I was delighted to discover in 2016 that the building remains the same, inside and out. Conte's history as a pizzeria goes back to 1950, per their website:
Conte's began in 1936, when Sebastiano Conte opened the Witherspoon Bar on the current site. Conte, born in 1895, came from the island of Ischia in 1920. Princeton’s first pizza was served at Conte's bar on October 13, 1950. Conte's traditional thin crust traces back to a NY baker who took the train to Princeton every day. Mr. Conte would pick him up every day and return him to the station around midnight. The decor of Conte's has remained consistent since the 1950s. The white top tables are original, the brown ones arrived in the 70s. Conte's pizza has remained true to its roots; red pies are the rule, neither green vegetables nor “gourmet” toppings are available. Most of the wait staff who work here are family, and the exceptions are usually longtime friends of the family.
We arrived at dinnertime on a sweltering Saturday. During September-May, I would expect to wait for a table, but with students mostly gone and so many locals away on vacation, we were seated right away. The waitress asked - en route to the table - if we knew what we wanted to order. We didn't, of course, but it's a nice way for regulars to get their pies into the oven ASAP.
Pepperoni pizza
The menu is very short - a few sandwiches and pasta dishes, and red sauce pies with a handful of topping choices: sausage, pepperoni, anchovies, mushrooms, olives, peppers, onions, or garlic. This is the kind of pizza to eat with a pitcher of beer; there is Bud, Miller Lite, Peroni, and Hefeweizen on tap.
Onion and garlic pie
We ordered a pitcher of the Hefeweizen and three pies: sausage, pepperoni, and a garlic/onion combo.

Each large pie was about 16" across, and featured a thin, crisp crust with ideal color and char underneath and on the cornicione. Although the sausage pie was little heavy on the cheese and sauce (while the others were ideally balanced), there was no tip sag. Every narrow slice was rigid and crisp.

Because my notion of the perfect pizza was formed in the 1960s, I have a deep appreciation for any pies that seem like the kind my parents would have eaten. Conte's pie fits that perfectly - both the ambiance and the pizza are in a wonderful time warp. It really could be 1980 - or 1960 - all over again inside Conte's.

There was very little hole structure to the crust - it was uniformly flat, even to the cornicione. There was some nice dense chewiness above the crisp bottom, and the crust sported its own excellent flavor. Shame on anyone who leaves the pizza bones here. We sure didn't.
Perfect color underneath
The red sauce had a nice tang, but it differed from the simple crushed tomato found on a Trenton pie. This was a bit more cooked, and it melded into the orange with the conventional cheese (dry mozzarella or mozz blend). Old school all the way.

As noted, the sausage pie had a bit too much cheese and sauce, but the uneven chunks of fresh Italian sausage were more than enough to compensate for that small flaw. Proper sausage pizza begins with uncooked chunks that release fat and flavor into the pie while it's cooking.

The pepperoni pie shared the same wonderful base, but had an ideal balance in the amount of sauce and cheese. The pepperoni was a nice version of the "spicy cup" variety that curled up into the ideal little grease chalices. I wouldn't change a thing about this pizza.

We loved the onion and garlic pie, too. Like the pepperoni pie, it was assembled with the right proportion of cheese and sauce to crust. The garlic was a little hard to distinguish, and the onion slices were just a tad too thick, but still a wonderful pie. The pitcher of German witbier was light and perfect with pizza.
Thin crust but great chewy texture
It's hard to go home again - so often, precious memories have been exaggerated in your mind. But Conte's pizza is just about identical to the pie I had in 2005 and in 1980. I can't say the same for the wonderful tomato pie at DeLorenzo's, even as it remains a favorite.

So many of the best places are making the same pies as when Italian immigrant artisans began crafting them from scratch after the second world war. Sally's and Pepe's in New Haven, Lombardi's and Totonno's in NYC, Tacconelli's in Philly, DeLorenzo's and Papa's in Trenton/Robbinsville. 
Our guests from Shenzen, China

If you like old style pizza, you can't do much better than this. Conte's - a legend in Princeton - is overlooked and underrated outside the immediate region. This destination pizza is worth the trip.

Conte's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

No comments:

Post a Comment