Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Great New Jersey Pizza Crawl

As the impending arrival of Hurricane Hermine did its best to throw a wrench into our plans to participate in the “Second Annual Crab Cracking Fest” at Mud City down the Jersey Shore (yes, in my adopted state of New Jersey we say "down the shore"),  we came up with an alternate plan. 

To me, eating crabs, salad, and drinking beer sounded like an activity that would not prevent me from getting into a bathing suit, post-eating fest, but I knew the alternate plan of going on a pizza crawl and consuming copious amounts of dough, cheese, sausage and olive oil would have the exact opposite effect. Regardless, and since it was Labor Day weekend after all, and summer bathing suit season was as good as dead anyway, I acquiesced.

The drive from Jersey City down to the areas we were targeting, Robbinsville and Bordentown, all in the vicinity of Trenton, did not take nearly as long as I anticipated. The dark clouds could be seen above, but my hubby assured me that we were not in the path of the storm. We were on a mission to find the “best” version of “Tomato Pie,” that mysterious delicacy that the area was known for. (I say that lightly, since, I imagine there are other things the area is known for, but they were not on our itinerary.) Our first stop was Papa’s, a very homespun-looking place in Robbinsville, complete with Tiffany lighting and low-maintenance decor. They claim to be “oldest family-run pizza restaurant in the USA," but since we were on a tasting tour and not on a fact-checking tour, we couldn’t validate the accuracy of the claim…and we didn’t care to. We came for the pizza! 

We’d heard Papa’s made something called a Mustard Pie, and that was what we ordered, along with one called Italian Flag—ricotta, spinach, roasted peppers. Both came out of the oven piping hot: The Mustard Pie was a traditional plain pizza with a distinct bite of mustard hiding beneath the cheese. It was different, and while there might be a place for it in the annals of pizzadom, I think I’ll stick with mustard-less pies in the future. The ricotta on the Italian Flag was the creamiest ricotta I had ever tasted. Not spicy at all—probably could have used some hot pepper, but that was my fault, not Papa’s. Bottom Line: The crust on both varieties was excellent; crisp, not too thin. Had I lived closer, the Italian Flag, with a few sprinklings of hot pepper flakes, would be a regular favorite.

Our next stop was Palermo’s. It is off the side of the highway in Bordertown, and so nondescript that we overshot it and had to backtrack to get there. Their Tomato Pie had the thinnest (but not the crispiest) crust of all we'd tasted. The sauce was a bit sweet, and the cheese “layer” was barely discernible, but the combo worked. This was what I envisioned a “tomato pie” would be like. It was not your standard cheese-laden slice, and it was quite good.

De Lorenzo’s in Hamilton was our next stop. It came highly recommended and it was there that we encountered our first glitch. The place did not open until 4 pm and it was only 3 pm. It could be dangerous getting in the way of some die-hard pizza tasters, but in the interim we walked around Bordertown, and brushed up on some Revolutionary War history. When we returned to De Lorenzo's  a little after four, the place was jumping! As unslick as Papa’s atmosphere was, De Lorenzo’s was the exact opposite. We’d heard that they've been in business since 1947, but this was obviously a new location, trying to attract a different crowd. We took our pizza (half sausage and black olive and half plain) to go. 

 I read that De Lorenzo’s “burns” their crust if you don’t warn them, and since we didn’t, they did. I however, like my crust well done, so no worries. I am a fan of this type of pizza. The crust was closer to the Neapolitan-style pizzas you find in Italy; rough and bubbly and alternately flecked with burnt spots. This pizza was more artisanal than the old-school types. The sausage was tasty, but not well-done enough to my liking, which was so ironic since the crust was way past done.

As we toyed with the idea of venturing on, we decided to visit a place hubby had read about that was closer to home: Satillo’s in Elizabeth; known for its Sicilian—And while comparing Sicilian to thin crust is akin to comparing apples to oranges, we rationalized that this was a rather unscientific study anyway (and besides, it's the hubby's favorite). Around a corner, down something like a driveway, Satillo’s had a lot of, shall we say, “character.”  The pizza was huge, and well-done at our request. I am not a real fan of Sicilian—too doughy, but as Sicilian goes, this one was okay. Very saucy, very cheesy. The crust was not as crisp as I liked it, but the melted cheese was nice and stringy when you bit into it. and pulled away. (Pizza mavens will know just what I'm talkin' about.) 

As we headed home, the suggestion of trying just one more place was vetoed by one of us…guess which one. I felt I was supplied with enough ammunition with which to make my recs. And so, here they are:
Best crust: Papa’s 
Best sauce: Palermo’s 
Best all-around: De Lorenzo’s (They also get a star for atmosphere.)

Did I learn anything from this culinary crawl other than that my pants do get tight after eating slice after slice of pizza? Yes…Pizzeria owners are like mothers, they each claim their baby is the best. I've never met a pizza I didn't like, but I have met pizzas I did not love. I'm still partial to NYC pizza, and Motorino is my fave, but I do have to send a shout out to Otto in Harvard Square. Their Butternut Squash Pizza (probably a blasphemy here in NY) still calls my name to this day.

 I predict that I will be coerced into going on more pizza crawls in the future, but not before a few sessions at the gym. I hear they make a mean pizza in Tucson, so I'll add it to the bucket list.

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