If you’re an LI pizza maker right now, it’s hip to be square.
Two new styles of rectangular pies are taking on the round in Nassau and Suffolk, and they are from two widely disparate locales: Rome and Detroit.
To be sure, rectangular pan pizzas have a long and distinguished history here: Long Island is the birthplace of grandma pizza, which, 30 years ago, began to take its place next to the granddaddy of all square-cut pies, Sicilian. But Roman- and Detroit-style pizza are distinct from both of them — and from one another.
The former, pioneered and popularized by the cult Roman Pizzarium Bonci, is distinguished by its dough. Regular pizza dough is on the stiff side, containing about 55 percent water (“hydration” in pizza-speak), whereas Roman-style has up to 85 percent hydration, resulting in a wet dough that’s hard to handle. There’s also a much longer fermentation period — the time between making the dough and baking the pizza — during which the yeast acts upon the sugars and protein in the flour, resulting in a crust that is light, full of holes and richly flavorful. Roman-style toppings tend to be high-end, harmonious arrangements of prosciutto or mortadella, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, arugula.
The dough for Detroit-style pizza is wetter than standard New York-style, but not as wet as Roman — about 65 percent hydration. The pies are baked in oiled, heavy-duty, “blue steel” pans (originally made, the legend goes, to hold automotive tools), and, before any other toppings are applied, they are thickly covered with cheese, traditionally Wisconsin brick cheese. During the initial baking, the cheese seeps down into the sides of the pan, caramelizing, perhaps even burning a little, to create lots of crunchy, pleasantly greasy crust. Tomato sauce is applied after the cheese has done its thing. Pepperoni is the classic topping for Detroit pizza.
Long Island pizzaioli who have been bitten by the square bug are plying their trade at Gaetano’s Flour & Fire in Garden City, King Umberto in Elmont, Taglio in Mineola and Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Cafe in Patchogue. Some have traveled to Italy and/or Michigan, but most of their inspiration has come from attending pizza “expos” in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and sampling the burgeoning square-pie scene in New York City, where Roman-style purveyors include PQR (Upper West Side) and Mani in Pasta (midtown and Gramercy), Detroit-style includes Emily (West Village) and Emmy Squared (East Village and Williamsburg).
Each of these men is forging his own path, experimenting with different flours, hydration, fermentation, oven types and temperatures. And all of them are hedging their bets: Not one of these pizzerias focuses exclusively on rectangles; you’ll find them sharing the counter with an assortment of round pies.
Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Cafe
BEHIND THE PIE: John Peragine had already been dreaming about pizza when he opened PeraBell Food Bar in Patchogue in 2006. Nine years later, when the Riverhead location opened, he installed a Naples-style wood-burning oven. For Donatina, which debuted in late 2018, he’s gone full-on pizza. In addition to a wood-burning oven, he has a wall of deck ovens for both traditional New York- and Detroit-style pies. “Let’s face it, pizza on Long Island gets boring.” He’d first seen Detroit pizza at a pizza expo in Las Vegas and started playing around at home. “I’m from New York and at first I snubbed my nose at Detroit pizza,” he said, “but the lightness of the crust, the crunch from the cheese — it’s just delicious.” He hopes to add Roman- and even St. Louis-style pies (unleavened, cut into squares) to the menu. SQUARE MENU: Donatina has a rotating menu of about 10 Detroit-style pies (plus wood-burning Naples-style and classic New York pies). You’ll always find plain cheese with sauce spooned on after the cheese is bubbling (in the Detroit style), plus pepperoni, sausage and mushroom (a white pie). Whole pies are $17 to $24 (a gluten-free version is $14) and slices are $3.25 to $5. PIZZA SPECS: Donatina’s Detroit pizza uses the same 75-percent hydration dough as its Sicilian. Both proof in the refrigerator for 24 to 36 hours, but once the dough has been transferred to the pan, the Detroit proofs for another 12 hours, as opposed to the Sicilian’s six. The Detroit dough is then covered with a thick coat of cheese, a mixture of mozzarella, Cheddar and Wisconsin brick cheese. MORE INFO: Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Cafe is located at 18 West Ave., Patchogue; 631-730-7002, donatinapizza.com
Pepperoni is the classic topping for Detroit-style pizza, a specialty of Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Cafe in Patchogue.
Gaetano's Flour & Fire
BEHIND THE PIE: Gaetano Corteo is a scion of Long Island’s most famous pizza dynasty, Umberto’s of New Hyde Park, and his embrace of Detroit-style pizza is a bid to forge his own path. He persuaded his father, Umberto Corteo, to let him “convert” the Garden City location, where, since February, he practices not only Detroit and New York styles but also a neo-Neapolitan “brick oven” pizza baked in a gas- and wood-fired oven with an adjustable floor. Corteo the younger has thick-pan pizza in his DNA — he considers Umberto’s Sicilian his father’s “signature slice” — and considers Detroit pie, with its light, airy crust, “the next level.” It’s also a perfect companion for the elaborate toppings that Long Islanders prefer. “After more than three toppings,” he said, “the New York slice flops.” Whereas his Detroit, with its supple crust veiled with a layer of Asiago, “can handle whatever I give it.” SQUARE MENU: The eight regular Detroit pies include the "baroque nuts & bolts" (pepperoni, mozzarella, capocollo, mushroom, marinara and more), the vaguely ladylike Juliet (mozzarella, Gorgonzola, prosciutto, fig jam, balsamic glaze), the comparatively restrained "mellow mushroom" (mozzarella, mushrooms, pancetta, lemon) and the way-out-there American pie with fresh blueberries pancetta, Fontina, mozzarella, honey and blueberry drizzle. $17 to $22 for a whole 10-by-14-inch pie, $4.25 for a square slice. PIZZA SPECS: The 48-hour fermentation starts with a “biga” starter. In Gaetano’s state-of-the-art kitchen, the dough (65 percent hydration) is portioned by a mechanical “volumetric divider” and rolled into balls by a “conical rounder.” Once in the pan, the surface is covered with Asiago cheese and par baked. Once the cheese has set, more toppings are added and the pie goes back in the oven. MORE INFO: Gaetano's Flour & Fire is located at 361 Nassau Blvd., Garden City; 516-344-5457, gaetanosgardencity.com
At Gatetano's Flour & Fire in Garden City, a Detroit-style pizza topped with arugula, shaved Parmesan, prosciutto and fennel.
BEHIND THE PIE: Giovanni Cesarano grew up at King Umberto, the iconic Elmont pizzeria established in 1976 by his father, Ciro Cesarano, and his partner Rosario Fuschetto. But young Cesarano was determined to create something on his own. His first idea was to add a wood-burning oven to the lineup of gas-fired ovens at King Umberto so that he could make individual Naples-style pizzas. But last year, he settled on a variation of Roman-style pizza that is baked not in a pan but directly on the floor of the oven. His “metro” pie is a puffy, crusty pizza that’s about 10 inches wide and 3 feet long (metro is Italian for “meter”). The metro is all about the crust, chewy yet filled with pockets of air. “I wanted to make a pizza that was not about the toppings but was about the dough,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything gimmicky, not another penne alla vodka pie or another Buffalo chicken.” (Though, he allowed, “I owe a lot to Buffalo chicken.”) It’s a new style on Long Island, but Cesarano relishes the chance to get back to the roots of pizza. “This is how bakers have been doing it for centuries,” he said, “and I want to introduce it to my customers.” SQUARE MENU: Sharing the counter with King Umberto’s regular pies, the metro is a pan-less variation on the Roman classic. There’s always a margherita; wild cards might include prosciutto and arugula, pepperoni with stracciatella cheese and Mike’s Hot Honey, fried zucchini flowers in season. Squares are $4.40; full pies are $30, half (mezza) pies are $20. PIZZA SPECS: The three-day process starts with a very wet dough (80-percent hydration) that is kneaded gently by a spiral mixer for 10 to 20 minutes before relaxing into a sticky mass that bubbles away in the walk-in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. After being portioned into individual plastic bins, it ferments for another 24 hours. A skilled pizzaiolo must transfer the unwieldy dough from bin to bench (counter) to peel (paddle), stretching it into a long rectangle without deflating the air. MORE INFO: King Umberto is located at 1343 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont; 516-352-8391, kingumberto.com
Sausage and broccoli rabe top a crusty metro pizza at King Umberto in Elmont.
BEHIND THE PIE: Rob Cervoni had owned a 16 Handles franchise, but when the frozen yogurt craze died down, he was looking for “the next fad wave to ride.” He encountered Roman-style pizza at a pizza expo in 2016, but once he started experimenting, he realized that he’d found his passion. “I thought it could be a new franchise operation,” he said, “but the truth is it takes so much skill to make this right, you can’t really establish a chain.” Since he opened in October 2018, Cervoni has had his work cut out for him, introducing his customers to Roman-style pies. Many of his customers, expecting nothing more than a regular slice, have trouble wrapping their heads around these plate-filling, elaborately conceived squares. “We are always telling our story, always offering samples. Some people walk in and walk right back out,” he said. “Others sit down, try something new and tell us, ‘That was the best pizza I ever had.’ ” SQUARE MENU: In addition to the regular New York pizzas and calzones at Taglio, situated between the Mineola LIRR station and NYU Winthrop Hospital, there are more than a dozen Roman-style pan pies every day, with toppings that range from the familiar "chicken bacon ranch" and eggplant Parm, to more elevated combinations such as prosciutto with arugula, potato with rosemary, and mortadella with artichokes. Whole pies range from $19 to $25, slices from $3.50 to $4.50. PIZZA SPECS: Taglio’s dough varies in hydration from 80 to 86 percent, depending on the humidity and barometric pressure. To handle the dough over its three-day fermentation process, the pizzaiolo dons a pair of vinyl gloves over latex gloves — otherwise the dough will stick to his hands. Pies are baked in a super-smart Italian-made electric oven that automatically reduces the heat once the dough gets its initial “lift.” MORE INFO: Taglio is located at 85 Mineola Blvd., Mineola; 516-741-0379, tagliopizzany.com
Prosciutto and arugula top a Roman-style pizza at Taglio in Mineola.