I have always been vulnerable to fantasizing about trading places with some character from a television series or movie. Somebody who I wouldn’t mind being like since they possess the qualities I desire – some that I may have and some that I may lack. My latest one is the character of Harvey Specter, played by Gabriel Macht in the fabulous USA Network television series Suits.
Despite the still developing premise as to whether or not he may have the negative quality of being a womanizer, Harvey has it all. He’s handsome, always looks great in his $10,000 suits and is of course a top-notch attorney. But on top of all this, what Harvey has that I admire most is that he knows the important “man” things in life. Nearest and dearest to my heart is the wall full of vinyl records and the cool turntable he has in his office at work. And he also carries on geeky music conversations with his limo driver that shows he intelligently cares about his tunes. He also knows baseball and does so well enough that he even got Tracy Stallard to add his autograph to his signed Roger Maris ball. (Look it up if you have to.)
Contrast Harvey to his counterfoil in show – the character of Louis Litt, brilliantly played by Rick Hoffman. In fact, Louis is my latest recipient for the Frank Burns Award for best portrayal of a character that you love to hate. While Harvey “gets it,” Louis just doesn’t. Witness when he gets caught (and rightfully scolded) for touching Harvey’s records and criticizes Harvey for not having any Queen (“the greatest band in rock history”) in his collection. While so far on the show Harvey’s mostly delved into the Blues, it’s obvious that he ain’t a Queen guy. Yeah, he’d not necessarily dislike them, but rather you certainly find some Mott the Hoople, T. Rex and New York Dolls in his collection instead; bands much more hipper to like than Queen.
Suits is just getting started with its second season and Harvey’s coolness and manly ways are still continuing to get flushed out. And as for food, so far we have seen that he does know that the best hot dogs in New York City are those right there on the sidewalk at the nearby “umbrella club.” But I can guarantee you that we will soon find out that being the full man that he is; Harvey knows his pizza as well. Why? Because knowing your pizza is important man stuff!
Well, I know my music, used to know and wish I kept with my baseball, and I do aspire to know my pizza. It’s the one meal that I and many others could eat three times a day, seven days a week. It’s worth talking and writing about. And as I now have entered my later years in life, my banner line says: “Calories are just too precious to waste on bad pizza!” So yes, I will admit it, I am a pizza snob!
Let’s start off by defining what pizza is for purposes of this blog. I am talking about New York-style pizza or “pie” as we like to call it. A whole pie is round, gets cut into triangular slices and consists of nothing more than crust, cheese (mozzarella of course), tomato sauce and spices. For purists like me, that’s it, nothing more. I will however respect those fellow purists who add one topping but that would be limited only to a choice of either pepperoni or sausage.
My definition of pizza does not include Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I like it but it is so different that you might as well call it quiche instead of pizza. It is also not that foo-foo stuff that you get at a place like California Pizza Kitchen that has pineapples, chicken, artichokes, feta cheese or some other kind of unrelated ingredient on it. (A tear often comes to my eyes when I see some of the classic pizza establishments letting their tradition go by giving in to this “topping-abuse”.) Pizza is also not that cardboard crap sold by chains like Pizza Hut, Papa John’s or Dominos. I haven’t tried the later in years, but I chuckled when I heard how their new CEO came on board declaring that their pizza was lousy!
I was blessed in many ways to have grown up in the great state of New Jersey. Growing up in the Garden State not only gave me rights to boast about the New York Yankees and Bruce Springsteen, but it also has great New York-style pie to brag about. Until I left in 1980 at age 24, I lived in Bayonne where I grew up on a healthy diet of pie from the pizza parlors (yes that’s what we called them) that were on just about every corner. There was also a bar on just about every corner and believe it or not just about every one of them made pies as well. (Watch this space for a future feature on the art of the “bar pie.”) Bayonne is also just across the river from Manhattan, the true pizza capital of the world.
From 1980 to 1998 I lived in beautiful San Antonio, Texas where I saw my diet shift more towards Tex-Mex than pizza. I then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, the greatest city in America (tied for first with New York City). In both places I struggled to find good pie and on many occasions reluctantly settled for sub-par pie. My Mom and Dad still live in Bayonne so I continually have indulged heavily on my regular visits back home.
However in 2012, I fought and won a major battle with my waistline and decided to more carefully watch what I eat. That was when The Pizza Snob was born and I decided to stop eating bad pizza. It was this declaration that led me to starting this blog so that I can keep the world unnecessarily informed of my opinions and adventures as to all things pizza.
So what constitutes good pizza? This of course will be the topic of many future blog posts but at this point we can certainly establish some simple ground rules. Let’s start by identifying what to look for.
There is a magical taste and texture to the crust in classic New York pie. This is so key to the slice that it is said that many establishments outside of the New York Metropolitan area actually transport their water from New Jersey to use in the process. I have in fact confirmed this with at least one Nashville pizza joint and assuming that pizza makers won’t be protective of their trade secrets; this is a topic that I plan on further researching.
But despite the water, a pie needs to be cooked just right – a little black on the bottom with a slight crispness to the bite. Undercooked pizza is a crime and should be immediately sent back to the oven until its time has come.
The cheese of course is best when it’s pure “mootz;” just fuhgeddaboudit blending it with anything else. The biggest problem with cheese though is putting too much on the pie. Simply stated, excess cheese will fall off and make for a sloppy slice. The true test of a slice is that it will stand firm at attention if you hold it out in front of you. If it starts to sag at the front apex of its triangle, there’s too much cheese on it.
Be careful also in committing the sin of not letting your slice properly cool down before eating it. That will also cause the cheese to slide off. It doesn’t take long so just be patient. After a couple of minutes the cheese will settle just right for the eating. As for temperature, it should be just hot enough to slightly scald the roof of your mouth. Yes, you might shed a little skin up there if you have been out of action for awhile, but if you stay in shape by eating your regular share of slices you will build a tolerance.
The sauce doesn’t need much. I am ashamed to admit at this point I am not expert in the spices that the best sauces contain and that too will be an item to investigate. Some pies will have a noticeable taste of oregano or garlic but generally neither should stand out very much. As for adding the flavor on your own, I have dabbled in sprinkling both of these items on a slice from time to time but I generally like to leave it naked as designed by its creator. Adding red pizza peppers is of course an encouraged and accepted procedure. Again, I most often go with the naked approach, especially when I am in research mode, but do love adding a little fire to my slice on occasion.
Getting back to the cheese for a moment, there is an acceptable measure of extra cheese that can be added to a pie. In fact, slices can often be ordered that way while some joints make some that are just generally cheesier than others. The distinction I am making here is that while the extra cheese can work up to a limit whereby it clings to the slice, it may get to the point where it is disqualified as what I call a “travelling slice,” one that you can eat while you are walking without taking the risk of losing cheese or dripping oil as you go. And as for oil, a slice should have just enough so that you could taste it; but not too much that you have to drain the sucker before you eat it.
Remember that the best place to eat a slice is standing up at the counter. This enables you to say “Bring me another,” allowing you to continue eating your slices in succession. It should be noted that ordering a “whole pie” is something you do when you are out with your family or having it delivered or ordered to go. If it’s just you (or you and a bud) the proper thing to do is to stand at the counter.
And finally, as for how to eat a slice, you fold it length-wise, holding it in one hand. Anyone caught eating pizza with a knife and fork should be forever banished from ever entering a respectable pizza joint again. Doing this is kind of like drinking fine wine out of a paper cup. Believe me, it looks that bad.
Well I think that gives you an overview of my philosophy about pizza. In future writings I will ruminate more on The Pizza Snob lifestyle and document my slices as I travel. And since many of you reading this will be Nashvillians, first up will be my picks of the best pizza places in Music City. So watch this space, have a slice, and let’s hear from you.