This is the sixth year I’ve waded into the perilous waters of pizza partisanship by eating through, then ranking a list of 10 artisanal Long Island Pizzas Worth the Drive.
Before you throw your paper (or phone, or laptop) across the room, please consider what “worth the drive” means. This is not a referendum on Long Island’s hundreds of great slice joints. I daresay there’s nowhere in the country with such a density of great neighborhood pizzerias, and I am not attempting to encourage Ronkonkomites to abandon Little Vincent’s nor dissuade Massapequans from patronizing Phil’s Pizza II.
Instead, I am shining a light on pizzas made with fresh mozzarella (not the cheaper, shredded “low-moisture” variety that is designed for maximum goo), and 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.
I’ll confess a bias right up front: I am not a fan of elaborate toppings. (You can call them creative; I call them crazy.) The soul of a pizza is the crust, and the true pizzaiolo is not trying to distract from it by smothering it with cheese and sauce — not to mention Buffalo chicken, fried calamari or baked ziti. I have come to believe that the pursuit of over-the-top toppings has distracted many local pizzerias from what should be their number-one priority: the integrity of the dough. In a pizza-eating, fact-finding tour that lasted weeks, I had more than my share of pallid, tasteless and cardboard-textured crusts. Bottom line: If you are leaving the crusts on the plate, they are not great.
Of the 10 pizzerias on my initial 2012 list, only two, Brunetti in Westhampton Beach and Salvatore’s in Port Washington, remain. As for the other eight, one has closed; some are still making great pies but have been bested by newcomers. A few have let their standards slip.
Enough stalling. Here’s my list, ranked:
10. Margherita at La Margherita
Margherita at La Margherita (1231 Station Rd., Medford): When he opened La Margherita on a bucolic stretch of road in 1991, Giuseppe Illiano recalled that neither the Town of Brookhaven Building Division nor the Suffolk Department of Health had ever seen a restaurant with a wood-burning pizza oven. But he was a proud son of Naples and was determined to make proper pizza Napoletana in his second restaurant. (The first, Tony's, had opened in Medford a decade earlier.) La Margherita also makes traditional American-style pies in a deck oven, but it's the 12-inch pizzas, crafted with house-made mozzarella and canned Italian tomatoes that are closest to Illiano's heart. Obviously, the pie to get at La Margherita is the Margherita. Price: $11.50 for a personal pie. More info: 631-924-0048, lamargheritapizza.com
9. Pizza No. 3 at Massa’s Pizzeria
Pizza No. 3 at Massa's Pizzeria (345 Main St., Huntington): The nephew of coal-oven evangelist Patsy Grimaldi, Bill Massa has been preaching the gospel since he opened his first pizzeria on Jericho Turnpike in 2004. He sold that store in 2009 and reopened in 2014 in a Huntington Village spot whose address is on Main Street but which actually faces the municipal parking lot south of Gerard Street. Massa is a coal-oven purist (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 I prefer it without the truffle oil. Price: $28 for a large pie. More info: 631-923-3473, massaspizzeria.com
8. Margherita Napoletana at La Pala
Margherita Napoletana at La Pala (246 Glen St., 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. But at La Pala in Glen Cove, Giovanni Pacilio 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. La Pala takes its name from the paddle used to get pizza in and out of the oven. You can see a lovely old pala hanging next to the wood-burning oven. Price: $11.95 for a personal pie. More info: 516-399-2255, lapalany.com
7. Cafona at Umberto’s Manhasset
Cafona at Umberto's Manhasset (429 Plandome Rd., Manhasset): At the newest pizzeria in the Umberto's chain, chef-general manager Mike Di Santolo has tweaked the menu with dishes he learned in his native Naples. Among his innovations are the 10-inch pizzettas, made to order from such contemporary combinations as porcini with caramelized walnuts and truffle oil, and prosciutto with arugula and mozzarella. The simple Margherita highlights Umberto's chewy-but-delicate crust, vibrant marinara and mozzarella that's made on the premises, but the sexiest of the seven pizzettas is unquestionably the cafona, which features slices of bronzed, rosemary-roasted potatoes, slices of capocollo (cured pork shoulder), dollops of mascarpone and grape tomatoes. Price: $12.50 for a personal pie. More info: 516-472-7801, umbertosmanhasset.com
6. Mom’s Pizza at Saverio’s
Mom's Pizza at Saverio's (929 Broadway, Massapequa): Saverio's is a tiny pizzeria carved out of A&S Pork Store in Massapequa, where Sam Cataldo, one of the store's owners, started making pizzas in 2015 and hasn't stopped since. You'd never know from his pies that he's a relative latecomer to the pizzaiolo's art. All the pies are recommended, 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. Price: $12 for a personal pie. More info: 516-799-0091, saveriospizza.com
5. Margherita at Vulcano 081
Margherita at Vulcano 081 (43 N. Village Ave., Rockville Centre): Vulcano 081's original pizza-maker, Michael Vigliotti, departed earlier this year, but he left the Italy-made, gold-tiled oven in the capable hands of his deputy pizzaiolo, Alex Escobar. The pizza remains as good as ever. The restaurant is named after Naples' area code and the pies have the city's best, with puffy rim and floppy crust. Unlike a lot of wood-burning ovens on Long Island, it has no "gas assist" and runs solely on wood. From a roster of almost 20 pies whose toppings range from spicy salami to bacon marmalade, my favorite is the classic Margherita. Price: $13 for a personal pie. More info: 516-442-5858, vulcano081.com
4. Marinara at Wild Side Organic Bistro
Marinara at Wild Side Organic Bistro (1551 Montauk Hwy., Oakdale): When Jay Jadeja and Raquel Wolf moved their restaurant from Hicksville to Oakdale, they installed a wood-burning brick oven in the new space. Jadeja spent the first few months mastering the Neapolitan art of pizza making; now Wolf has assumed the mantle of chief pizzaiola. Wild Side is a haven for restricted diets, and the vegan pizza here is one of the best, topped only with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano, olive oil and crushed red pepper. Price: $14 for a personal pie. More info: 631-791-1800, wildsidebistro.com
3. Vongole Bianca at Brunetti
Vongole Bianca at Brunetti (103 Main St., Westhampton Beach): Little more than a wood-burning oven and two counters, Westhampton Beach's 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, or white clam, pie, topped with nothing more than fresh-shucked local clams, garlic butter and herbs. Ocean, meet pizza. Price: $19 for a personal pie. More info: 631-288-3003, brunettipizza.com
2. Sausage pizza at Salvatore’s
Sausage pizza at Salvatore's (124 Shore Rd., Port Washington): Fear struck my heart when I learned that Salvatore's had changed owners. In July, brothers Pat and Dom DeSimone bought Long Island's first coal-oven pizzeria from Fred Lacagnina, who, along with his brother Marco, founded it in 1996. But, thankfully, nothing seems to have changed -- not the Sinatra-inspired décor, and not the pizza. The pizzaioli here use an unorthodox technique for stretching the dough -- rolling pins instead of hand-spinning -- but what comes out of the 900-degree oven is the classic New York coal-fired 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 little nubbins of sausage, laboriously crumbled and strewn to order. Grains, dairy, vegetables, meat. Is there a more delicious balanced meal? Price: $26.56 for a large pie. More info: 516-883-8457, salvatorescoalfiredpizza.com
1. The DOC at Naples Street Food
The DOC at Naples Street Food (970 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square): You wouldn't expect to find authentic Neapolitan pizza in a tiny storefront on Hempstead Turnpike in Franklin Square, but Naples Street Food specializes in confounding expectations. Gianluca Chiarolanza, born and trained as a pizzaiolo in Italy, managed to ship his wood-burning oven from Naples to Franklin Square, and it assumes pride of place at the front of the store he owns with his wife, Aurora Pagnozzi. Take that oven, add laboriously sourced ingredients and, most critically, Chiarolanza's skill, and you have Long Island's best artisanal pizza. Naples Street Food's pie is unapologetically Neapolitan. It is bordered by a puffy rim (cornicone in Italian) whose texture, pillowy but chewy, is the result of a long, cold fermentation and Caputo Tipo 00 flour. There's not a bad (or even merely good) pie to be had here, but we're honoring the most authentic, the DOC. The letters connote Denominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin), the appellation accorded to Italian products that best reflect their provenance and heritage. At Naples Street Food, the DOC is made with crushed tomatoes, imported buffalo mozzarella and basil, with a few cherry tomatoes for added freshness. Price: $15 for a personal pie. More info: 516-673-4630