I moved away 26 years ago, but my family and friends back East still haven't come to terms with my departure. Whenever I go back, they ask me, incredulously: "Don't you miss New York?"
No, I don't. What's to miss? The Valley has affordable housing. We have opera. We have Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. We have major league baseball. We have parking spaces, good restaurants and mild winters. Yes, we have traffic jams, ozone alerts, Joe Arpaio and Fife Symington. But, then again, we don't have potholes the size of a Buick, mafia rubouts, George Steinbrenner and Al Sharpton.
But the Big Apple has always had one thing we haven't: New York pizzerias. If you come from the old neighborhood, you know exactly what I mean. They're small shops, usually manned by a dark-haired paisan named Vinnie or Tony. The pizza is set on the counter, carved into eight slices. Wood-fired ovens? Gourmet pizza? Fuggedaboudit. In my neighborhood, if you asked for pizza topped with yak cheese, ostrich sausage or Japanese eggplant, you'd be promptly carted off to Bellevue. To Vinnie and Tony, gourmet pizza meant any pizza they could keep the flies from landing on.
Naturally, you could order by the slice. And what a slice it was: a crisp, chewy crust; lots of mozzarella; homemade tomato sauce; the scent of oregano. And the slice was perfectly engineered, designed to be held in one hand, folded down the middle, with little pools of oil forming in the dip.
These days, sadly, the old-country, mom-and-pop, neighborhood pizzerias are slowly disappearing from New York, done in by time and changing demographics, and crowded out by chains and trendy, upscale pizza concepts.
New York's loss, however, seems to be Phoenix's gain. Fueled by an influx of Big Apple refugee entrepreneurs, the New York pizzeria is suddenly flourishing here in the land of saguaros and bola ties. On a recent pizzeria tour, most of the stuff I sampled--pizza, calzones, pasta, sandwiches--was so good, I wandered around in a happy daze, looking for a subway station and the BMT Canarsie line.
That was certainly the case after a visit to Santisi Brothers, whose pizza transported me to the past just as effectively as any time machine could.
Like most good pizzerias, there's nothing very compelling about the look of Santisi Brothers' operation. It's tucked in a sprawling shopping center, a few doors down from the $1.75 movie multiplex. Maybe that's why the principal decorating motif is old movie posters, along with beer pennants, a bit of greenery and two blaring televisions.
The brothers seem a little too friendly to be New Yorkers--my guess is they were booted out of town for violating New York's strict retail rudeness code. Their mama also pulls kitchen duty. The family has been quietly going about its business for about two years now. But the pizza is too good to be quiet about.
The slice of pizza here is as good as any I've had in the Mountain Time Zone, and better than most of the pizza I had on a recent New York visit. This is how I remember pizza once tasted.
(In the old days, a slice of pizza and large soda set me back 35 cents. Here, it's $1.75. Of course, back then I was making $1.25 an hour, so you won't hear any complaints from me.)
Sandwiches are also right out of the old neighborhood. The meatballs in the meatball parmigiana hero are just right: big, plump and meaty, and smothered with cheese and sauce. The thin-sliced sausage sandwich is bolstered by a heap of grilled onions and peppers, which adds an oily burst of flavor. In comparison, the eggplant parmigiana is somewhat routine.
One of the brothers told me Mama is in charge of the pasta dishes. She knows what she's doing. Lasagna is masterful, delicately scented with nutmeg. There's a fine balance between the meat and cheese, and mercifully it's not overpowered by a tomato-sauce drenching. Manicotti features two light crepes, filled with ricotta cheese. And the stuffed jumbo shells benefit from lots of cheese and a hard-hitting sauce.
The calzones and stromboli--both made from pizza dough, stuffed and baked--are two-fisted affairs. I like my calzones basic, and the mozzarella-and-ricotta-filled model suited me fine. The eggplant stromboli is also a treat.
Homemade cannoli will make you want to linger. The version here is very rich and very, very sweet.
Santisi Brothers brings a bit of the Big Apple to Phoenix. And it's nice to know you won't have to pay anyone to watch your hubcaps while you eat here, either.