Why is it that New York pizza remains the pinnacle, the acme, the very standard of a pie? Of course, it's easy to say things like, "New York is the spiritual home of pizza." But where other foods, like the deli sandwich, have had strong New York associations yet have broken free and found perfectly respectable regional expressions away from the five boroughs, pizza remains a New York icon. Outside of New York, only Chicago has truly claimed a name for pizza (please, don't bring up California), and it's far outpaced by its neighbor to the east. So what is it that makes a New York-style pizza so New Yorky?
Gavin Loyer is perhaps the most prototypical of New York Pizza makers that Knoxville has ever known. From his seemingly gruff disposition to his clearly defined ideas about food, he's precisely what polite Southerners call a "character" if they don't want to say damn Yankee. And yet, if you look at his eyes, you'll see that while he seems to be yelling, he's also clearly smiling. In fact when you ask him about his demeanor, he smiles and admits, "Sure, I yell, but where I come from that's called communication." Whatever the noise, this guy is clearly happy doing what he does.
Loyer grew up in Long Island and started in the business at 12 years old. He wasn't driven by an early epiphany about pizza—he says it was a practical matter: "I needed a job. I wanted to work, so they paid me 50 cents an hour to wash dishes." But that job led him into a lifetime of cooking. Almost 35 years later, Gavin is the undisputed master of his kitchen where he turns out some of the most authentic and by-god delicious New York-style pizza you'll find in East Tennessee—or anywhere else for that matter.
What makes a New York pizza the thing of beauty that it is? Loyer responds without hesitation: "It's quality ingredients. That's what makes the taste. It's hard to explain." Still, he's particularly insistent on the quality of his red sauce: "Anybody can go out and buy some sauce. I make my own, and I use Italian tomatoes—they taste a little more like the earth than other kinds, and other tomatoes can be too sweet. And I get the stems and seeds out of the sauce—nobody else here does that."
Another element that Gavin emphasizes is topping restraint. "Everybody wants to put on 10 toppings—there's no point in doing that. You should sauté all those toppings and serve them like a primavera. In New York, if you want something like that, you just order the special pie—it might have five toppings on it, whatever. But that's what's you order."
But there's no restraint in the serving size, "It's big slices, there's no tiny stuff. And you don't go to New York and get a small, medium, or large. You just get the pie." As Gavin gets wound up, he gets a little louder and offers opinions about olives, other restaurants, and lots of other subjects. But then he checks himself and says, "Maybe you shouldn't write that down. Make sure you tell people that it's more bark than bite. I'm from New York. It's not yelling, it's just talking."
John Wright recently relocated this business to West Knoxville from its longtime home on Chapman Highway, where it was founded by Ted Cioffi. Wright calls the move "a painful but necessary decision. It was hard to leave good friends and loyal customers, but it was the right thing to do for the business." Folks on the west side agree, and this much-loved pie is more popular than ever.
Wright hasn't had a very long professional association with pizza, but he and his pizza succeed because he—and his staff—literally follow Cioffi's every instruction. Wright says, "When Ted sold us the place, he let us record everything that he did, and we shot video of it. And we use those videos as a part of our training program. We haven't changed a single thing or strayed from a single recipe."
The result is a thin, crispy crust that's made in-house daily, Forget romantic notions of cornmeal, Wright says they use a little flour and cook the pizzas on screens because it helps them get crisp and New Yorkish: "For us it's the crust. A thin crust that you can crack in the middle and eat on the go, with one hand if need be."
Wright's also cautious about toppings: "You can have too many. I always think about Famous Ray's in New York—there you just get a slice of pepperoni, a slice of sausage. You have to think about the shape of the slice and people eating it as they walk to wherever they're headed. That said, we do offer and make pizza with a lot of toppings—but the classic way to have a slice is really just with one or two additions."
Another secret of this joint is their blend of cheese; Cioffi left them with the practice of using a mix of mozzarella and provolone. Wright says, "It's not a lot of provolone, but it helps keeps the mozzarella from browning too quickly."
Martha Boggs' history with pizza started in a box. It was a Chef Boyardee Pizza Kit that she just couldn't leave alone. She says, "Of course I had to doctor it up a little. I just love pizza—it's a favorite food."
She, too, inherited a long tradition when she bought Dazzo's a few years ago (from none other than Gavin Loyer). For her, the authentic nature of a New York pie starts and ends with the crust, "You want a thin, Neapolitan style crust—but we also serve a thicker Sicilian crust too, but I think of that as being more like New Jersey."
You can hear a little romance in Bogg's voice when she talks about her first pizza lessons with Chef Boyardee. Of course, her own standards for fresh, natural, and real food keep her from revisiting those days of sauce in a can and cheese in a packet. You can also see her eyes change and take on the fierce quality of a real-food warrior when she describes what makes a good pie: "You have to start with the best quality possible: San Marzano tomatoes, whole milk mozzarella—you know, a lot of people use part skim. And, sometimes, you have to make your own cheese. We make our own mozzarella for the Margherita Pizza."
Duane Carleo doesn't carry his New Jersey upbringing on his cuff. Sure, you can hear it in his voice, but otherwise he's a mildly spoken fellow. However, his opinions about pizza are bold and unequivocating. From his point of view, pizza from New York and New Jersey are similarly definitive: "The two are synonymous. You will hear that when people say they want some New York-style pizza, they really mean New Jersey-style pizza—and I absolutely agree with this."
"What makes pizza from this area so special, so iconic, is that this is where pizza in the United States started," he says. "The families that started making pizza in America still have descendants making the same pizza, using the same recipes, and running the same pizza parlors since pizza started in America."
Dough and crust are important of course; DaVinci's makes their own in-house, and, in addition to the pizza itself, diners like to see the show as the dough gets tossed and spun mid-air before landing for a dramatic swirl of sauce. That sauce is what Carleo identifies as the key to a great pie: "It's all about the sauce, baby. It's a recipe I was taught and proudly use on each pizza. People have referenced the sauce as being addictive. I don't know about that, but I do know I take pride in serving an authentic New Jersey-style pizza with fresh ingredients."
And that's all Carleo is giving away—so don't even ask for the recipe because, as he says, "I'm Italian, we know pizza and we also know to never give away the secrets of a recipe."
And one Chicagoan (sort of)...
For many Knoxvillians, Stefano's Pizza represents the finest Chicago-style pizza available. The thick crust, the rich and tasty sauce followed by tons and tons of cheese, pepperoni, sausage, green peppers—the list goes on. But, if the truth be told—and Sandra Hobbs, the manager of the place, will tell the truth whether you like it or not—Stefano's isn't really offering an authentic Chicago pie. But it's close!
Hobbs, who has been making, selling, and eating Stefano's pizzas since 1982, says, "A Chicago is really a stuffed crust—there are two crusts. We don't use the top crust anymore. Our pizza is really a pan-style."
For a lot of people, the 35-minute cook time for what is effectively a pizza casserole was a little too much. According to Hobbs, "People weren't buying the wait. But what we have now is good, and people—even visitors—recognize some of the Chicago style. And the sauce is authentic. It's thick and spicy, with lots of flavor and just a little heat; it's spicy but it's not so much red pepper—it's more like black pepper."
And while the pie isn't quite as thick as you might find it in Wrigleyville, it's certainly got the same kind of dense, chewy crust action that makes the Windy City's pizza so distinctive.