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.
Pino's Pizza Al Centro, 139 West Thomas, Phoenix, 279-3237. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
It took about two seconds for me to feel at home in Pino's. That's because I heard Pino's wife, staffing the "Order Here" counter, calling a whole pizza a "pie," just like they do in New York pizzerias. A thick New York accent and uncommonly sweet manner during the height of a hectic lunch hour added to her charms.
Still, most of the charm here emanates from the kitchen, where Italian-born Pino puts together an exceptional variety of pizzas, pastas and sandwiches.
Set in a small, nondescript strip center, Pino's is not the kind of place you're likely to wheel into on the spur of the moment while whizzing along on Thomas. Inside, though, it's spiffier than you might expect. Italian tourist board posters hang on the walls, shelves hold obligatory cans of Italian tomatoes, and a colorful dried flower arrangement brightens the top of the garbage pail.
Pino's pizzas are first-rate. The crust is dead-on, and so are the toppings. The vegetarian model is heaped with roasted red and green peppers, black olives, mushrooms and onions. The meat eaters' pizza comes stacked with excellent homemade sausage, pepperoni and ham. And if it's simplicity you crave, the Margherita delivers--mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce and fresh basil. The price is also right. These 10-inch specialty pizzas, perfect for a one-person meal, are under six bucks.
The sandwiches and pastas are stunning, some of the best I've had in a while. Served on focaccia, the sandwiches are also as huge as they are tasty. The Italian cheesesteak is thick with beef, and loaded with grilled onions, mushrooms and melted provolone. The oversize meatball parmigiana is equally satisfying.
The pasta makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Pino's idiosyncratic take on penne boscaiola is ravishing: pasta tubes tossed with sauteed ham, fresh mushrooms and homemade sausage, moistened with a light, summery tomato sauce. An occasional special, fettuccine Alfredo, is special indeed. It's embellished with mushrooms and ham, and Pino wisely doesn't let the heavy cream sauce overwhelm the dish.
The only pedestrian item here is the calzone, which inexplicably lacks ricotta cheese filling.
Judging by the lunchtime crowds walking over from nearby Central Avenue office buildings, Pino's has developed a loyal neighborhood following during its two-year run. Once word about this place spreads, Pino's next order of business should be to enlarge his parking lot.
NYPD Pizza, 8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 451-6973. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Unlike Santisi Brothers and Pino's, which have a touch of urban edginess to them, NYPD has a more suburban feel. That's not surprising--its proprietors are two outgoing brothers, the Ziegler boys, from Long Island.
As befits the Scottsdale address, NYPD Pizza (the initials stand for "New York Pizza Department") has a snazzier look than the west-side Santisi Brothers' or fringe-of-downtown Pino's operations. One wall is painted with a mural of the Manhattan skyline. Another is filled with the scrawled testimonials of happy customers. Street signs indicating the corners of 42nd Street and Broadway furnish a Big Apple reminder. So does the reading rack, stacked with issues of New York magazine.
The Zieglers conclusively demonstrate that your name doesn't have to end in a vowel to run a good pizzeria. That is, as long as you steer away from the thick-crusted Sicilian pizza, which doesn't have much distinction. But the Zieglers get the thin-crust models exactly right.
They say it's the water, which is treated to have the same properties as the Big Apple's famous H2O. Maybe. I'd say the wonderful ingredients--cheese, sauce, toppings--also have something to do with it. The NYPD Blue pizza is especially arresting, gloriously decorated with mounds of ricotta, roasted red peppers and eggplant. The dazzling white pizza, tinged with garlic and olive oil, isn't far behind.
Sandwiches furnish old-neighborhood heft and taste. Sausage-and-peppers isn't for the faint of heart, and it's yummy. Skin-on eggplant parmigiana is a knockout. Of course, good Italian bread helps.
The made-to-order calzone is smashing. Unlike other local versions, whose principal ingredient often seems to be air, this baby is crammed with mozzarella and ricotta, just like you'd find in Little Italy.
Not quite as much effort goes into the ho-hum pasta dishes, which suffer from a certain Italian-American blandness. Neither the baked ziti nor the pasta primavera leaves a lasting impression.
NYPD Pizza proves Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again. And you don't have to pay a toll to get there, either.
16-inch cheese pizza
Pino's Pizza Al Centro:
Eggplant parmigiana sandwich
16-inch NYPD Blue pizza