So on a sunny Sunday morning we met at Columbus Circle, splitting up into groups for the drive to our first stop, the legendary bar pizza at Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey.
Star Tavern is essentially a sports bar, and despite it being empty at such an earlier hour, it was hard not to feel like we weren't somehow invading a neighborhood hangout. This was exacerbated once it became clear that our waitress was completely confused by us, and our pleas for recommendations and an opinion on local favorites were met with the rote, disappointing "I dunno, it's all good." (But with a much thicker NJ accent.)
Thanks for the help lady. We'll just get a large cheese pie... for now.
All pictures are Jeff's. Used with his gracious permission.
Exquisite. This is about as elemental a pizza craving as it gets for me. While the crust wasn't as crisp as I'd imagined, it still held up to the heavy coating of cheese. Of course I ate it too fast, searing the roof of my mouth, leaving me with a pizza brand and a dangling piece of charred gum that would last the rest of the day. Occupational hazard.
We craved more bar pizza after annihilating the first pie. Anticipating a lot of clams on the White clam pizza, it turned out that the bivalves were laced within the intensely garlicky sauce rather than atop the pie. Even still, we were not disappointed that we ignored Jeff's initial (and ultimately futile) commitment to pacing by ordering the second pie.
A strong start to the pizza tour.
400 High Street
Orange, NJ 07050
Though it was only a short drive from Star Tavern to Ah'Pizz, the stylistic differences couldn't have been more pronounced. Here they are proudly Neapolitan, with stickers and official looking diplomas promoting their VPN certification affixed to nearly every exposed service (ok, I exaggerate). Ah'Pizz has only been open about a year, but their pies taste like they were made by an old hand. Jeff and Annie went over to talk to the head pizzaiolo, Robert, while I relaxed at the table with the rest of the group. After only a few thin slices at Star Tavern, I was not yet in the mood for chit-chat.
Still I was impressed with the oven. Though it was definitely not the only oven we would see on this Sunday, it may have been the prettiest, and I was soon excited to see how it would stack up against NYC Neapolitan powerhouses.
Below is the traditional Margerhita. We also got the Ah'Pizz, which is the higher end version of the Margherita, with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella di Buffala added. Both pizzas were sufficiently blistered, with a chewy, slightly salty crust. The tomato sauce was stellar-- light and acidic, while complementing the creamy cheese. Everything about the pie exuded balance.
These pizzas were both excellent, with some in our group proclaiming it better than anything in the City, but it was the mezzaluna that floored me. The Margherita half was topped with kalamata olives, while the calzone portion was filled with ricotta, sausage and a large piece of roasted red peper. I think it was impossible to take a bad photo of the mezzaluna. This is Jeff's picture, but even my weak cell phone shots were drool inducing.
I will be back.
7 North Willow Street
Montclair, NJ 07042
Our third stop was supposed to be La Sicilia, but it was inexplicably closed despite an earlier confirmation call. Strike one New Jersey.
Thus, Spirito's in Elizabeth moved up in the batting order. It was the weakest pie of the day, but an interesting joint nonetheless. Actually, it was much more than just a pizza joint and more of an old school Italian American red sauce spot. We acted like complete newbies, first taking seats in a tiny booth in the small, front bar area before realizing that the largest room was through the kitchen (I banged the soft spot on my knee getting out of the booth and limped weakly through the kitchen).
The regulars come in this side, but the scenic route was pretty damn fun, passing by the old cooks making meatballs and pizzas.
For reasons lost to time they don't serve butter, and you can only get parmesan cheese with your bread.
The crust was surprisingly dense, with almost no sag and a pronounced crunch. The downfall may have been the overly herby tomato sauce-- which had a slight taste of burnt oregano. We also got a sausage pizza (sausage made in-house) and an order of the above-pictured meatballs on cheese ravioli. Maybe it just suffered in comparison to the others, but the meatballs were the best part about Spirito's (apart from the overwhelmingly New Jersey character).
714 3rd Avenue
Elizabeth, NJ 07202
After a string of great pizza, I didn't expect another unique joint (credit again to Annie and Jeff). Yet we soon found ourselves at Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza. To enter Santillo's, you must go around the back of the building and enter a small waiting area. Inside, the walls are lined with newspaper articles proclaiming Santillo's legendary status and a signed photo of Elizabeth native Tom Colicchio, among others. This tiny waiting area (no seating) was overwhelmed by the kitchen and the imposing brick oven, roaring with heat. But dominating even the oven was Al Santillo himself, who I'm sure has been the highlight of so many other NJ pizza hounds.
I love this picture. Just imagine a guy with a thick NJ accent saying "how'bout I put diss in ya piehole?"
Al was more than willing to give his opinion on the state of NJ pizza and took great pleasure in critiquing our itinerary. From his answers, it was obvious he had a pretty high opinion of his pizza (which I was even more excited to try after we were given a sesame seed studded pepperoni roll to snack on while we waited).
He likes to blister the cheese.
Al Santillo recommended DiCosmo's Italian Ice for dessert. So part of our group took him at his word, and picked up strawberry, lemonade and orange ices. I stayed behind to supervise Al, of course.
The pizza on the bottom left, with half eggplant and just a heavy dusting of parmesan over the thick, herbaceous tomato sauce is the 1948 style. On the top, with a layer of brown blistered cheese is the 1964 pizza. Finally, a half meatball Sicilian pizza showed off Al's versatility with dough (actually, he makes so many styles that his entire operation is a paean to his versatility).
We finished the day in Warinanco Park (again, at Al Santillo's recommendation) eating pizza and Italian ice against the backdrop of a boisterous cricket match on the lawn. As the sun began to set and the temperature started to drop, I suddenly felt an unfamiliar sensation-- I was happy to have spent a day in New Jersey.
Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza
639 South Broad Street
Elizabeth, NJ 07202