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Long Island's best pizza: The criteria

One of our 10 best pizzas, the proscuitto

One of our 10 best pizzas, the proscuitto pie at Centro Cucina. (Oct. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus

We are truly blessed.

There is not a slice of Long Island that is more than a short drive from a fine pizza. Indeed, 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 Mineola you should be patronizing Cugini -- or Emilio's if you live in Commack, Aegean in Holbrook, Umberto's in New Hyde Park, Little Vincent's in Huntington.

Yes, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of terrific local pizzerias in Nassau and Suffolk counties. I am not concerning myself with them. Instead, I am focusing on what I'll call Long Island's destination pies: great artisanal pizzas made with small-batch dough, fresh mozzarella (not "pizza cheese"), carefully chosen 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.

Let me state my preferences at the outset: 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 pizza crust has toothsome 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.

Path to Perfect Pies

No one ever said it was going to be easy. Six months ago, I started eating my way around in search of Long Island's 10 best pizzas.

At first I followed every suggestion -- be it from a friend, colleague, reader or guy I struck up a conversation with on line at the supermarket. I soon discovered that Nassau and Suffolk counties are overflowing with two things: good pizza by the slice, and people with unshakable pizza convictions.

This trend was echoed in the 300-plus responses we've gotten in the past few days since we asked readers to nominate their favorite pizzas for our exploreLI Hall of Fame.

One thoughtful reader singled out both the regular slice at Ciro's in Smithtown ("great sauce, great crust") and the Sicilian slice at Colosseo in Port Jefferson Station ("terrific consistency of dough, ultra saucy and cheesy"). Another praised the grandma pie at Gino's in Lindenhurst: "As you eat it you want more, more."

But here's the thing: Most of those good pizzas are pretty similar. Some have thicker crusts, some thinner. Some sauces are sweeter, some chunkier, some garlickier. Toppings vary widely, yes, but ranking pizzas based on their toppings is like picking Miss America based on her swimsuit.

I finally realized that I was going to have to focus my efforts on what I'm calling artisanal pies, ones designed to be eaten fresh, not by the reheated slice, pies that succeed or fail based on the quality of their ingredients and craftsmanship of their makers.

What qualifies me for this sacred task? I've been eating professionally on Long Island for nearly 15 years, but I was not brought up here, so I harbor no deep-seated pizza partisanship. In fact, I was raised in New Haven, Conn., generally regarded as the cradle of the American pizza tradition. I have eaten pizza widely in both Italy and in each of the five boroughs of New York City. (Driving through Staten Island? Give Joe & Pat's a try.)

Call me out of touch, call me a poser, call me a snob. Just don't call me late for the sausage pie at Salvatore's in Port Washington.

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