Long Island's best pizza: 10 pies worth the drive
It's been three years since I first put together a list of my Top 10 pizzas on Long Island. Or, to put it another way, it's been three years since I antagonized scores of pizza partisans in Nassau and Suffolk. When the list was published, there were calls and emails questioning my judgment and sanity, and online comments whose number and tenor are usually reserved for articles about Obamacare.
Most Long Islanders, I've discovered, have a favorite local pizzeria whose honor they are prepared to defend to the death. In fact, there is not a slice of Long Island that is more than a short drive from a fine pizza. Every town has its own favorite dispensary of Neapolitan, Sicilian and grandma pies, and no one needs to tell you that if you live in New Hyde Park you should be patronizing Umberto's -- or Emilio's if you live in Commack, Gino's in Williston Park, Mamma Lombardi's in Holbrook.
But this list is composed of what I'll call "destination pies." I am focusing on artisanal pizzas made with small-batch dough, fresh mozzarella (not "pizza cheese"), carefully sourced toppings. These pies are made to be ordered whole, not by the slice. Many hark back to the traditions of old New York (large, blistered pies baked in coal-burning ovens) or, further back, to the puffy, wood-fired pies of the Neapolitan pizzaioli who came up with the idea of pizza in the first place.
To me, the soul of a pizza is its crust. The crust is not merely a vehicle for the toppings, it is the most crucial element of the pie. Otherwise, you might as well have your tomatoes and cheese and what-have-you on an English muffin, a flour tortilla or a chicken breast for that matter. A good crust is the product of good flour, long fermentation and little else. It has tender-chewy texture and a distinct flavor and is good enough to be enjoyed on its own.
The corollary to the crust-is-king rule is that, where toppings are concerned, less is more. It takes a pizza-maker of real skill to make a pie that's better than a simple Margherita; in doing so, restraint is the key ingredient.
All right then, I've argued my case. Here are my rankings for this year's top 10.
10. Pizza No. 3 at Massa's Pizzeria(Credit: Bruce Gilbert)
Pizza No. 3 at Massa's Pizzeria, Huntington: The nephew of Brooklyn's Patsy Grimaldi, Bill Massa is one of Long Island's coal-oven purists (no slices!), but it's the inventive Pizza No. 3 that's the star of his Huntington pizzeria. It's topped with fresh mozzarella, scallions, pancetta, scamorza, cheese and truffle oil -- though we prefer it without the truffle oil.
9. Margherita pizza at The Pie(Credit: John Griffin)
Margherita pizza at The Pie, Port Jefferson: Here's a crust with real integrity -- puffy but substantial, and not too tender. You can see from the big air holes that the dough is treated with respect. There are some complicated pies on the menu at Port Jefferson's The Pie -- including Buffalo and barbecue chicken(?!) -- but you'd be advised to stick to the simplest, the textbook Margherita.
8. Caprino at San Marzano(Credit: Alessandro Vecchi)
Caprino at San Marzano, Merrick: This resolutely nontraditional pie pays less homage to Italy than it does to French and California cuisines. The surprisingly harmonious assemblage brings together fontina, goat cheese, caramelized onions, shiitake and button mushrooms, garlic and truffle oil. What really puts it over the top is the excellent crust, tender but toothsome and full of good, wheaty flavor.
7. Breakfast pie at St. Rocco's Bakery(Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus)
Breakfast pie at St. Rocco's Bakery, Glen Cove: St. Rocco's Bakery in Glen Cove is a Nassau destination for rustic breads and refined cakes and pastries, but the bakery also has a wood-fired oven just for making pizza. For the breakfast pizza, the pizzaiolo pulls it out of the oven when it is about half-baked, cracks two eggs onto it, and puts it back so the crust starts to blister, the cheese becomes molten and the eggs are perfectly sunny-side up.
6. Margherita pizza at Grimaldi's(Credit: Alessandro Vecchi)
Margherita pizza at Grimaldi's, Garden City: When Frank Ciolli bought Grimaldi's coal-fired pizzeria in Brooklyn in 2001, a dynasty was born. Ciolli and his partners have gone on to open Grimaldi's all over the country, but the one in Garden City, opened by Ciolli's late son Russell and now owned by his widow Jennifer Ciolli, was the first East Coast location opened outside of New York City. As befits its parentage, the Margherita pizza here is classic New York, almost lavishly topped with chopped tomato and fresh mozzarella that would sink a lesser crust. But Grimaldi's rises to the challenge.
5. Rosa Bianca at Grana(Credit: Randee Daddona)
Rosa Bianca at Grana, Jamesport: In the summer of 2010, the North Fork finally got the artisanal, wood-fired pizzeria it deserved. It's the custom out here to use as many local ingredients as possible, and Grana in Jamesport does not disappoint. The supernal rosa bianca is made with thinly sliced local potatoes, local red onions and rosemary (when they're in season) and Parmesan cheese. A locavore-pizzavore dream.
4. Mom's pizza at Saverio's(Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus)
Mom's pizza at Saverio's, Massapequa: There's no bad pie at wood-fired pizzeria Saverio's in Massapequa, thanks to pizzaiolo Sam Cataldo's skill and commitment. But the simpler pizzas put the spotlight where it belongs: on an elegant crust that has the well-developed flavor of rustic bread. "Mom's pizza" has no cheese, only a thin layer of sweet, onion-rich tomato sauce, made according to the recipe of Cataldo's late mother-in-law, Enza Giammarino.
3. Margherita Napoletana at La Pala(Credit: Ryan C. Jones)
Margherita Napoletana at La Pala, Glen Cove: When New Yorkers travel to Naples, they invariably find fault with the pizza there: the crust is too floppy and soft, they say, the topping is too soupy. For that reason, true Neapolitan-style pizzas are a rarity in these parts. But at La Pala in Glen Cove, Sal Apetino makes pizza the way it's made in Naples. The crust is puffy and light, the mozzarella and tomatoes meld beautifully -- if a bit soupily. Go ahead, eat it with a knife and fork.
2. Vongole Bianca at Pizzetteria Brunetti(Credit: Daniel Gonzalez)
Vongole Bianca at Pizzetteria Brunetti, Westhampton Beach: Little more than a wood-burning oven and two counters, Westhampton's Pizzetteria Brunetti may be the most modest pizzeria on Long Island. The pies are anything but. Lofty toppings abound, but simplest tend to be the best. The absolute pinnacle is the Vongole Bianca, "white clam," pie, topped with nothing more than fresh-shucked local clams, garlic butter and herbs. Ocean, meet pizza.
1. Sausage pizza at Salvatore's(Credit: Michael Falco)
Sausage pizza at Salvatore's, Port Washington: When it opened in 1996, Salvatore's was Long Island's first coal-fired pizzeria. Founding brothers Fred and Marco Lacagnina are descended from New York pizza royalty -- the family tree includes both Patsy Lancieri (the original Patsy's pizzeria in East Harlem) and Patsy Grimaldi (the original Grimaldi's in Brooklyn Heights). In 2007, Fred opened The Pie at Salvatore's in Bay Shore to spread the gospel of coal to the South Shore. (Marco now operates two coal-oven pizzerias in Asheville, North Carolina.) At both the Port Washington and Bay Shore locations, the pizzaioli use an unorthodox technique for stretching the dough -- rolling pins instead of hand-spinning -- but what comes out of the 900-degree oven is my idea of a perfect pie. The crust is a dream, crisp but pliant, the topping is a balanced meld of fresh, milky mozzarella and chunky chopped tomatoes punctuated with blobs of crumbled sausage. Grains, dairy, vegetables, meat. Is there a more delicious balanced meal?