The view from the Staten Island Ferry is pretty amazing, especially at sunset when the great golden ball retreats to the West, to be closer to you, dear Austin. The ferry is packed w/ commuters returning from Manhattan to the fifth borough. They sit on the benches, not staring at the beautiful vista, not looking out at the bay where Ellis Island still stands, haunted still by the thousands and thousands who passed through it, carrying paper packages tied with string. We lean over the railing, catching the breeze in our hair. We are headed to Denino’s, and we are hungry.
Addie, short for Adeline, greets us with a loud shout over the packed restaurant, over the tables crammed with regulars, each of whom would later tell us: “I grew up at this place”. The Homies in Staten Island are legit, Austin. Friendly and fearless, so totally at ease and at home in this family shop stacked w/ a century’s worth of tradition and comfort. We sit at two long tables in the back room and try to remember to pace ourselves as the salads are followed by the wings followed by pizza after pizza after pizza. Their dough is so good; each pizza is perfectly round and cooked just right. They use gas ovens like ours, cooking directly on stone: no screens, no short-cuts – and every time nothing but net. Denino’s is like that old man at the playground who schools every hotshot by hitting three-pointer after three-pointer. Practice, it is clear, makes perfect.
I walk outside to call my sweet wife back home. It’s maybe 10:30 on a Wednesday night and the ice cream shop across the street has three lines, four deep, that constantly stay that way by the cars pulling up and the families getting out. The New England houses are simple and practical two story buildings. The trees that line the street are thinning; Fall is close. When I go back into the shop they’ve put “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” on the juke box in our honor. A few of us move to the makeshift dance floor between the tables in the main dining room and two-step. Nano takes a middle-aged Staten Islander by her hand and dances with her. She is giddy, her ruddy cheeks blushing. We are not the first to dance in this way, impromptu and joyous, in this shop. I can tell it has happened a thousand times before, and will continue on forever. As this is that kind of place: where the neighborhood ties of family mean something, where the heart of that neighborhood is that shop. We, as a group, are honored in that moment for being recognized and named as family. I miss my wife, at home w/ you Austin, more and more. Being in the center of a family like that reminds you of the family you have, the neighborhood that is yours. I sure miss you, Austin.
We meet the next morning and walk uptown to Madison Square Park with Shake Shack and EATALY in our sites. We go into EATALY first. This is the huge, and I mean like big-as-a-city-block-and-some-five-stories-high, super market. And I mean SUPER. It is like an old school European Market w/ constellations of counters and mongers of every type and kind. I stand dumbfounded in their bakery where three guys are cutting down a huge piece of dough, folding it into loaves. One of the baker’s apprentices off-handedly picks up a handful of flour and tosses it against the glass, where I stand. He smiles at me with the kind of playful irreverence we love and value at Home Slice. I love this guy. I make my way to the drawers of dried mushrooms and smell each, thinking about the earth they came from, the people who picked them, the travel they made to come here in the middle of Manhattan, and the vision of the great Chef Mario Batali who is the genius who knew that EATALY was exactly the sort of thing New Yorkers needed: a place where artists could work, and where the community would benefit from that art. Each department of the store is like an old Roman City State, separate and independent brought together by Caesar’s Road. Batali is that kind of Caesar. Hail Batali!
The line at Shake Shack is already curving the South End of the Park, already a good 30 people deep before we double it w/ our crew. There are probably 30 employees inside of the tiny building, each moving fast and fluid. There is no room inside for any kind of loose elbow, no space for any slumping body. The woman at the counter is cheerful and kind, her Bronx accent thick and lush. She doesn’t blink twice at the size of our crew, or of disorganization. She smiles sweetly as we bumble through our order, making changes as we go. Minutes later we are sitting in the park, being harassed by the pigeons, eating burgers and fries, each one equally as beautiful as the next. There is nothing slapdash in what they are doing. We are inspired by their stamina, and their dedication to excellence.
That evening we went to Lombardi’s on Mulberry in Little Italy. It’s just a short walk from the hotel, Austin, just a few blocks. Lombardi’s is THE OLDEST pizza shop. The apprentices from that shop, way back at the beginning of the 20th century, went on to open Totonno’s in Coney Island, John’s in the Village, and Patsy’s uptown in Harlem. Lombardi’s oven is bigger than your car, Austin, and runs close to 900°. The guy working the oven wears safety goggles and heavy gloves. The peel he sticks into the oven to move the pizzas around is as big as a Viking Oar, and heavy to boot. These guys in the kitchen are moving fast but quiet. There is no room for error, there is no space for indolence. They open up the coal feed and I stare into the fire. I swear, Austin, time stopped for me when I got close to that fire. I got as close as I could, feeling the heat come off the coal, staring into the white hot void. Feeling the skin on my face tighten, I could hear only the fire in front of me, where the coals have been burning for the last 100 years. I was transported, Austin, as if I were staring into Vesuvius. They pulled me away from my trance, as I would not have moved any other way. I went upstairs to join the crew.
The pizzas that came out were crisp and charred, each burn a birthmark, a badge of honor. Their tiny pepperonis curl up like the Grinch’s smirk. Their ricotta, so beautiful and scalloped, is charred at its wispy tips. The flavor of that oven is undeniable. The coal’s accent lingers on the dough. I walk Jenna, one of our cooks, over to the chimney that is built into the wall that runs down to that huge oven below. We put our hands on the brick and feel the heat. It isn’t so great that we are repulsed by it but rather so comforting that we both find ourselves moving closer to the stone wall, embracing the heat that feels like a warm hug, that feels like the sun baking your body after you just get out of Barton Springs. We hold hands while holding on to that wall. It is amazing how current runs through us humans, transferring at the fingertips and palms. We are conductors, all of us. I feel it in each slice of pie I eat. I feel the work and pride of Lombardi’s Army. I feel the history and careful dedication to excellence. It comes through loud and clear, above the din of the other diners, beyond the cacophony of Little Italy on the precipice of the San Generro Feast.
The weather has turned on our last day, Austin. The thick humidity has fallen even heavier on the concrete. The storm clouds rolling in from the West are menacing and serious. The light in the city is dim even at mid-day. Traffic is thick. We march West to the Highline, a beautiful park along the West Side Highway, built on the skeletal remains of the El Train. It is planted w/ wildflowers and herbs. It is strange, Austin, to be standing three stories above Manhattan, with a nose full of Sage and Rosemary. We wait on a few pizzas from the new addition of a respected shop from the East Side. We are tired, Austin, and the pizzas can’t really come soon enough. Soon enough for our bellies, which still demand more pizza. Soon enough for the threatening sky, which will open up sooner rather than later. They quote us a ½ an hour for the pizzas, which is respectable. The guys behind the line kind of balk when they see the size of our order (4 pizzas), and grumble amongst themselves about this weird pop in the otherwise slow morning. One guy shrugs his shoulders while building a large salad into a pizza box. “It’ll be done when it’s done,” he said to no one. The order takes double the amount of time, a full hour after all is said an done. The sky opens up as if on cue when Terri & Jen step out onto 10th Avenue to head up the stairs to the highline. The rain comes down w/ the intensity of a Central Texas gulley-washer. The rain is thick and fat, cold and heavy. We scramble, along with everyone else (including Alec Baldwin) to cover under a building built above the highline. There are stalls along the side with people selling coffee, or juice, or prints, and now umbrellas. We’ve lost Jen and Terri to the rain. Nano goes off in search and returns shortly w/ Jen, Terri, and the pizzas that took too long.
My Goodness, Austin, those pizzas just weren’t that good. I could tell from the cuts on the pies alone that the cats working that shop just didn’t care. The cook quality on each pizza varied wildly. Even their signature Artichoke Pie was flawed and runny. In that moment I felt so sad for those cooks who don’t know the satisfaction of continually pressing past the line of excellence. They don’t know the joy that comes from making a stranger happy. They don’t know how a promise is a promise, and thirty minutes means thirty minutes. I thought about my small gang of cooks back home, tending those ovens and making the magic happen. I thought about how each cook works to maintain quality above quantity, and how deeply they respect the customer they can not see. Each pizza, after all, is a kind of gift. It is that thing you open on Christmas morning. Wrapping paper strewn, boxes ripped asunder, revealing either that thing that was given with love, or that thing that was simply a quo following someone else’s quid. Those guys, at that shop, on that day, did the bare minimum and gave what little they had to offer. So sad for them. So sad for those who will go unsuspecting and receive only what money can buy. I think again of our shop there on South Congress, and the staff that continues to delight themselves by exceeding what had been possible. I miss my cooks, dear Austin, almost as much as I miss you. But I am happy, here on the West Side Highway, that you have each other.
It is our final dinner, Austin, at Rubirosa in the heart of Little Italy, on the opening day of the San Gennero Feast. Rubirosa is small and intimate, a kind of warm rabbit warren of a shop w/ twisting turns of hallways that lead to the back room where our group sits. The courses come with Italian timing, perfectly lazy with plenty of space in between for conversation and more wine. We are chummy, Austin, there together in that space. The dishes are large, family style; it suits us perfectly. Each of us makes a plate for the other. We feed each other in this way, course after course. Though our service skills are sharp it is our love that really makes this happen. We are all so happy to be together in this way, sharing ourselves and our meal.
Nano gives the final speech of the trip, raising his glass to the group. He breaks down “enjoy” linguistically and gets to the thesis that it really means BRINGING JOY. As he looks around the room, from cook to host, from host to waiter, from waiter to concierge, from concierge to manager, from manager to owner, he sees that unifying trait: each brings joy wherever they go, like the tiny tinder Prometheus stole from the bottom of Vesuvius when Zeus wasn’t looking. I am surrounded, dear Austin, by this gang of lovers, this team of caretakers. We raise our glasses to the work we’ve done in the past. We raise our glasses to the work we will do in the future. We raise a final toast to you, Austin. We are ready to come home.
We landed at JFK tired, a little confused, and hungry. We were right on track following the steps of the Italian immigrant history of pizza, here in old New York City. It’s 28 of us, Austin. Some of us have gone every year for the last six; some of us have never been to New York before at all. Some of us worked until about three hours before the plane took off @7:00 AM yesterday. Some were too nervous too sleep. All of us, dear Austin, came here on our pilgrimage w/ a piece of Austin in our hearts. It is the graffiti we leave behind here in this concrete canyon, here is this tall city w/ small strips of sky. We come like the immigrants before us, with our native Texas soil in the crease of our shoes, to New York so that we can learn more than we know, test what we believe, and, unlike the immigrants, to return home to the soft and rolling hills, the clear and wide sky, the sweet and cool rivers and greenbelt, of the City that is our home, the place where our ovens burn.
We went straight to L&B Spumoni, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, just spitting distance from Bensonhurst. It is an aging Italian community and there, for 63 years, is this pizza shop: L&B. It has a wall of ovens, 3 triple stacks in a row, w/ a fourth in the corner, a pounding table between it and the long line of shiny, metal deck ovens. Out front there is a large patio, lined w/ long rows of bench tables. The locals outnumber the tourists 2:1, and tourists arrive in busses for the famous Sicilian Square pie. The accents are amazing, Austin. They are sharp, and lyrical, and hard nosed. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about “Dis Guy” or “Dat Guy”. Everyone was advising the other: “fuggehdaboutit”. We could not fugghedabout their pie, their famous Sicilian. Its lift is something else, Austin – like pound cake. The sauce is sweet, not quite like cake icing but somehow not quite not like cake icing. The pizza men carried pie after pie out of their kitchens into the patio, to the waiting groups of families, and strangers who had become friends. I can’t lie, I think our Sicilian is different – crisper, lighter, less saucy, but saucier in attitude. Confident and sexy. Just like you, Austin.
We later went to Lucali, in Carroll Gardens. This little shop is just over seven years old (remind you of any other pizza shops you might know?). The owner and pizza maker, Mark Ionoco, is a neighborhood guy who made good and took over a failing candy store and converted it into a shop which is, in its own way, an homage to Dom DiMarco @ DiFara’s Pizza. Mark is cooking in a 900° wood fired oven. He hangs his kitchen mandolin on the parmesan grinder mounted on the corner of the thick marble slab where he hunches and stretches his dough. His pies cook in just under three minutes, with minimalist but bona fide ingredients. Oh, Austin, I wish you could meet Mark. We’re trying to convince him to come visit. He’s dying to do so. He’s heard so much about you. Mark opened his shop to us, and talked pizza w/ us. He was kind of stunned at what we knew, and that there were so many of us. It is simply him and an apprentice, in his shop, with three very, very pretty women working the front of house and lavishing us w/ hospitality. We shook hands when we left, pleased to meet a brother in arms, and friend in a strange place.
Today we took pizzas from Ben’s, pizzas from Prince Street Pizza, Italian, Meatball, and Eggplant subs from Faccio’s (est. 1932) and carried the entire picnic across the island of Manhattan to the piers on the West Side, with the beautiful Statue of Liberty directly South of us, and New Jersey to the West. We stared West, past that industrial skyline, and knew you were past that horizon, Austin. We ate slices, sharing bites. We fed each other sandwiches, careful of the messy and downright sexy marinara sauce on the meatball and eggplant parms. Their Italian Assorted was brilliant in the contrast of the spices in the cured Italian meats, and the zing of the vinegar dressing the lettuce and tomatoes. The picked peppers are an amazing touch. The bread, so soft and deep in texture and flavor, is dusty w/ flour, and split up the side like a taco.
There are no Breakfast Tacos here, Austin. It is hard to believe. It’s most hard to believe in the morning, when you really want a taco.
We leave in a couple of hours for Staten Island, to Denino’s Pizzeria. It’s a home grown, family shop now run by ex-fireman Mike. Mike’s great grandfather John (American born and Sicilian Immigrant’s son) opened the shop in 1937Mike also has a room full of ovens, like L&B, satisfying the community that grew up eating that pie for special occasions of celebration, or simple occasions of families joining for food. Their pie is special, Austin. Crisp and perfectly cooked. Served w/ a kind of Staten Island sass that warms your heart, and tickles your ribs.
We are two days in, Austin, w/ two more to go. There is so much to see, so much to try to learn. So many great cooks and pizza makers. And, I have to tell the truth: the people here are really, really nice. New York has been kind and loving to us.
But we look forward to coming home, Austin. To be with you, day and night. To feed you the pie we make with love, in the town that is our home. We are immigrants no more, Austin. And in two days, we will be home.
Our week in the Big Apple was incredible, and once again the wonderful world of New York pizza has left us excited, inspired, motivated, and most of all, uncomfortably full. Although we almost certainly didn’t hit everyone’s favorite pizza joint, we hit as many as we could and had such a blast doing it. We are proud to be part of the rich culinary history that is New York style pizza, and are excited to be back in Austin with some new pages to add to the textbook.
As soon as we landed at JFK we hitched a ride to L&B Spumoni for some much needed Sicilian pies and adult beverages. This place is so rich in history and pride. Everywhere you go in this part of Brooklyn, cabbies, bodega attendants, and just about everyone else under the sun will tell you stories of going to L&B when they were kids. Its such a cool place, and is always dependable for some good conversation with some locals.
What else would we do after gorging ourselves with pizza and beer but ride roller coasters? This is not for the faint of heart, or body for that matter, kids. Coney Island is another place that immediately transports you to another time; A time when six fresh clams and a soda cost a dime, and the Cyclone was the eternal summer dream. Although the prices may have changed since the first carousel was opened in the park in 1876, the magic of Coney Island certainly hasn’t. If you’re in the area, don’t forget to go see our friends down at Totonno’s. This is the home to one of our favorite white pies in the entire universe, and they’ve been making it the same since 1924!
Dinner on our first evening came from the always incredible Lombardi’s Pizzeria. One of the (if not the) oldest pizzerias in the world, Lombardi’s continues to impress us every year. Their homemade ricotta cheese is out of this world, and they have been cooking their pies in the same oven since 1905! This place is the perfect end to a long day in the city.
Day two started with some INCREDIBLE sandwiches from Parm, formerly known as Torrisi, which has since branched out into dinner service. There are simply no words to describe the perfection of these sandwiches. The turkey roll continues to blow us away every year, and the chicken parm is not far behind.
After a day spent scouring the city for Sicilian slices and new clothes, the team was off to Staten Island and Denino’s Pizzeria and Tavern. This place holds a very dear place in the Home Slice family’s heart, and never ceases to be one of the most comfortable and welcoming places we visit. Denino’s has been family-owned since 1937, and they make sure you leave happy every time. If you go there, be sure to try the wings, you won’t be sorry you did!
Day three brought us to uncharted territory, venturing into New Haven, Connecticut for a visit to Pepe’s Pizzeria. This place has been doing it the same way since 1925, and it did not disappoint. If you make it to Pepe’s, don’t miss the clam pie (bacon optional), and the white pie with spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola. This was yet another place where we were treated to incredible service. A table for 19 in a place that holds roughly 40 is no small task, but they made it feel like it was nothing. If you ever happen to be in New Haven, don’t miss Pepe’s.
Our final day in the city took us to Harlem, and Patsy’s Pizzeria. Patsy’s is old school (est. 1933), and has a way of making you feel like you’re in the middle of a mafia movie. There are countless celebrity pictures hanging on the walls and they are able to cook their pies in a mind-blowing 2 minutes!! This is certainly a place to check out if you are in the neighborhood.
“The Last Supper” went down at the lovely Ristorante Rubirosa. They crafted a menu tailor-made just for us!! Our final dinners are our opportunity to wrap up our trip, relax, and really enjoy our last evening together. Rubirosa was the perfect host, never letting a wine glass go empty, being incredibly hospitable, and of course knocking our socks off with some incredible Italian cuisine. All hand-crafted pastas and sauces made to order make for an incredible dining experience. Everything on the table was awesome, but you can’t go wrong with the rigatoni or eggplant parmesan, both of which were incredible!
The week, as most do, went by much too fast. New York opened her big arms to us once again, and we gladly accepted the love. Home Slice group 2 will be headed back in just a couple of weeks, after which you can expect more exciting news and pictures. Till then, keep your parm shakers high and your wine glasses full!!
The time has come once again for the great Home Slice Pizza pilgrimage to the birth place of the slice. This will be our 6th annual trip, and as always we will be taking our most seasoned pizzavores. Two groups of 16 Home Slicers on two separate trips will be scouring the big city in search of new joints as well as some old school classics to remind us of just why we love pizza so much.
Don’t worry, we are going to make sure that we keep ourselves limber by hitting the rides at Coney Island. And as a reward for our hard work, we will be stuffing our faces at Totonno’s Pizzeria right down the street. These peeps have kept it in the family, and have been doing it the same since 1924!
Places like Totonno’s serve as a constant reminder of why this trip is so important to the Home Slice Family. “We make this trip to remember that we are part of a tradition” says Nano Whitman, General Manger. “Coming back here reminds us all that we are part of something much bigger than Home Slice, and that it is our responsibility to bring that tradition back to our home.”
Come on into the restaurant and we will tell you all about it. Just so you know, we’ll be closed at original Home Slice on Tuesday or Wednesday (Sept 4 & 5). (More Home Slice will be open every day as always.)
This year’s journey promises to be a great one! Stay tuned here for updates.