Want to start a debate? Tell someone your list of Long Island’s top 10 pizzas. Want to start an argument? Publish that list in the paper, on the web and via social media.
I herewith don my flak jacket to bring you my seventh annual list of Long Island’s top 10 Pizzas Worth the Drive.
Warning: Your favorite pizzeria may not be on the list, but before you object, 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 choosing among them would be a fool’s errand.
In fact, I’m not including any pies sold by the slice. 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. 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 artisans 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 over-the-top toppings. (You can call them creative; I call them crazy.) The soul of a pizza is the crust, and the true pizzaiolo (pizza maker) is not trying to distract from it by smothering it with cheese and sauce — not to mention Buffalo chicken, macaroni and cheese or fried calamari.
I have come to believe that the pursuit of such toppings has distracted many local pizzerias from what should be their No. 1 priority: the integrity of the dough. Over the past year, I have had more than my share of pallid, tasteless and cardboard-textured crusts. Bottom line: If you are leaving the crust on the plate, it’s not a great crust.
Of the 10 pizzerias on my initial 2012 list, only two, Salvatore’s in Port Washington and Brunetti in Westhampton Beach, remain. Others are still making fine pies but have been bested by newcomers. Some have let their standards slip.
One more disclaimer: All of these pies are worth the drive — from anywhere on Long Island. When it came to ranking the ones in the middle, I struggled to choose among three very fine Margheritas (at The Gristmill, Pomodorino Rosso and Vulcano 081); the margin was about the breadth of a strand of spaghetti.
Here’s my list:
10. Margherita at La Margherita
Margherita at La Margherita (1229 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 ($11.50). More info: 631-924-0048, lamargheritapizza.com
9. Broccoli-rabe sausage pie at Pazzo
Broccoli-rabe sausage pie at Pazzo (6278 Rte. 25A, Wading River): At first glance, Pazzo looks like your average Long Island pizzeria-trattoria -- until you see the domed wood-burning oven next to the gas-fired deck oven. Pizzaiolo Dean Sackos is the master of both, turning out both standard-issue, eight-slice pies and smoky, wood-fired individual ones. Sackos' wood-fired creations range from simple Margheritas to a pie topped with short ribs and portobellos in a Cognac cream sauce, but I was wowed by the relatively tame broccoli rabe with crumbled sausage ($16.99). The greens are perfectly cooked and cut small; even the garlic was been roasted beforehand to keep it sweet and mild. More info: 631-929-3939, pazzorestaurantwadingriver.com
8. 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 ($12) 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. More info: 516-799-0091, saveriospizza.com
7. Margherita at Vulcano 081
Margherita at Vulcano 081 (43 N. Village Ave., Rockville Centre): Vulcano 081's original pizza-maker, Michael Vigliotti, is now making terrific pies at Avelino Pizza, the food truck usually parked at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, but he left the Italian-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 signature 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 ($13), honorable mention to the Diavola ($16), ignited with spicy salami and Calabrian chili oil. More info: 516-442-5858, vulcano081.com
6. Margherita at Pomodorino Rosso
Margherita at Pomodorino Rosso (47 Franklin Ave., Valley Stream): Sal Apetino has plied his pizza skills all over Queens and Long Island; he's now settled in at Pomodorino Rosso, which opened in June. Switching from a traditional wood-fired oven to a state-of-the-art gas oven hasn't slowed him down. His pies at Pomodorino Rosso are a sort of Neapolitan-American hybrid, crisper than the former, sparer than the latter. The Margherita ($12.50) is made with house-made mozzarella and a sweet puree of imported San Marzano tomatoes seasoned with nothing but olive oil and salt. The golden crust, with just a hint of char, is a reflection of 35 years of pizza artistry. More info: 516-812-6171, pomodorinorosso.com
5. Margherita at The Gristmill
Margherita at The Gristmill (144 Main St., East Rockaway): Co-owner and pizzaiolo Jerry Miele builds his Margherita ($12) in a slightly unorthodox way: first cheese, then basil, then sauce. Once the pie is cooked, they merge into what he refers to as a "marbled" topping surrounded by a high, puffy, cornicone (rim) dotted with leopard spots of char. The Gristmill opened in June, and Miele, formerly of Milan's Brick Oven in Hewlett, makes his first appearance on this list, vaulting into the top echelon of Long Island pizza makers. The restaurant's bar faces Miele's workshop (sushi bar-style), providing the ultimate dinner and a show for pizza lovers. More info: 516-792-6104; thegristmillbob.com
4. 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 ($19), topped with nothing more than fresh-shucked local clams, garlic butter and herbs. Ocean, meet pizza. More info: 631-288-3003, brunettipizza.com
3. Marinara at Wild Side Organic Bistro & Bar
Marinara at Wild Side Organic Bistro & Bar (1551 Montauk Hwy., Oakdale): When Jay Jadeja and Raquel Wolf moved their restaurant from Hicksville to Oakdale in 2016, 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 marinara pizza ($14) here is one of the best, topped only with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano, olive oil and crushed red pepper. For adventurous diners looking for a little Indian-Italian fusion, try the chicken tikka masala pie ($20), silky, mild chicken curry garnished with coriander and cumin seeds, fried green chilies and curry leaves. More info: 631-791-1800, wildsidebistro.com
2. The DOC at Naples Street Food
The DOC at Naples Street Food (970 Hempstead Tpke., Franklin Square): 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. 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 ($15). 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 San Marzano tomatoes, imported buffalo mozzarella and basil, with a few cherry tomatoes for added freshness. More info: 516-673-4630, naplesstreetfoodmenu.com
1. Sausage pie at Salvatore’s
Sausage pie at Salvatore's (124 Shore Rd., Port Washington): When Salvatore's opened in 1996, it was Long Island's first coal-oven pizzeria. Last year, it was bought by brothers Pat and Dom DeSimone 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 strewed to order. Grains, dairy, vegetables, meat. Is there a more delicious balanced meal? A large sausage pie is $24.45. More info: 516-883-8457, salvatorescoalfiredpizza.com