Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: Denino's Pizzeria and Tavern, Staten Island NY

For two years, I've been driving through Staten Island en route from PA through NJ with a Brooklyn destination. Mostly, I've regarded Staten Island as a traffic jam, a nuisance on Rt. 278. I'm astonished by the bridge toll on the Verrazano Bridge; who would pay $13 to get into Staten Island? But that's a narrow view. The highways may be miserable, but the neighborhoods are rich.

Over at Slice - Serious Eats (Click for Staten Island Pizza Map), they've reviewed several notable Staten Island pizza joints. Not long ago, we visited Lee's Tavern (Click for our review) and found it to be the best "bar pie" we ever had, better than even the excellent pie at The Ivy Tavern in Trenton NJ. This summer, at a party in a cozy upscale Staten Island neighborhood, I asked several guests (SI natives) where they find the best pizza. Uniformly, there was one answer: "Denino's."

Traveling through SI on a Friday night, I expected they would be busy so I phoned about an hour ahead of when I wanted to pick up the pie. They could have had it ready it 15 minutes, but I asked them to have it for me in an hour. You often get a hurried and brusque response when calling some pizzerias for pie, but the folks at Denino's were very friendly and helpful on the phone.

Denino's is in the Port Richmond section, just off Rt. 440 at the northern edge of the island. They have a tiny parking lot but I found a spot. It's not a tourist destination - it's a neighborhood tavern with lots of locals. I waited near a blaring jukebox by the bar (my pie was not ready on time, but no big deal). I could see a bar section and a fairly large adjacent dining room. I loved the feel of the place - a classic pizza and beer joint. I had ordered a large pie with half sausage, half pepperoni. With tax, it came to $15.80. That is cheap for legendary pizza. Would it live up to its reputation?

They did screw up my order; instead of half-pepperoni and half-sausage, the entire pie was covered in pepperoni. Then, sausage was added to half the pie. I really had no problem with that, but it was either an error that they didn't bother to fix, or a misinterpretation of my order.

About 20 minutes later, we sat down in Brooklyn to eat it (with a bottle of cheap red wine). Famished, my plan was to eat one slice warm, then put the rest into the oven for a quick re-heat. However (spoiler alert), it was so good that I never did. I blasted through three slices, paused, then ate a fourth. It was delicious.

The underside

Right on the box, it says "in crust we trust" so it seems they share my philosophy that the crust is the most important part of quality pie. The crust was bar-pie thin. Remarkably thin, and crisp, but not cracker-like. It was sturdy enough to support the well-proportioned amount of sauce and cheese and the meat toppings.

Like DeLorenzo's in Trenton, like Totonno's, like Lee's Tavern, the wonderful crust had both flavor and the right texture, and the ideal melding/fusion of crust, sauce, cheese, savory meat toppings. The cheese was fine, but it took a back seat to quality meat toppings (especially the sausage) and, most of all, the sauce.

I feel that I have figured out why Denino's is the favorite pizza of so many people. It is bursting with flavor. What is that flavor? Plenty of special things like good bread, tomatoes, cheese, meat. But one thing stood out -- the saltiness. Here, I must confess one bad habit that an older cousin taught me long ago -- I put salt on my pizza. Yes, all of the ingredients (even the crust) already have a lot of salt in them, but I like that added surface salt. I put it on even the very best pizza - DiFara, Forcella, DeLorenzo's, Frank Pepe. I usually add salt before I even taste it. I did take one unsalted bite of this Denino's pie and instantly realized that I did not need to add any. It was perfectly salty. So I think Denino's does for its customers what I do for my own pizza -- make it a little saltier. Works for me!

My trips through Staten Island are about over, and I'm really glad I made it to Denino's. I rate the ambiance a 10 - I sure wish I lived near a place like this, instead of the modern cookie-cutter pizza joints slinging up Sysco ubiquity. The crust gets a 9. The sauce gets a 9. The cheese is a 6; it was a role player, fittingly. The pepperoni gets a 7, the sausage a 9. In the end, Lee's Tavern makes a slightly better pie than Denino's, but both are gems to be treasured. I gave Lee's a 9 overall, so I guess it's 8.9 for Denino's. Bravissimo!

Denino's Pizzeria & Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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