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A Regional Guide To America's Greatest Pizzas: Northeast Edition

By: Dave Infante

A Regional Guide To America's Greatest Pizzas: Northeast Edition

Credit: Grant Condon

Ask 10 people to tell you which region can lay rightful claim to pizza — that illustrious, oozing, Italian-American disc over which we all obsess — and you’ll get 10 different answers. But we’re not here to argue; we’re here to educate! So we teamed up with World Champion Pizza Maker Tony Gemignani* to create the official Thrillist Regional Pizza Index, a multi-part series exploring the proud provincial pie persuasions that are found across the country (and the world.) We start with the Northeast!

The region that gave us WASPs & “what exit?” jokes has plenty of storied ‘za styles — the New York slice! The New Haven apizza! — but it also boasts under-the-radar specialties from Trenton & Providence. This is your field guide to all the important ones.

More: These Are The 33 Best Pizzas In America

Credit: Grant Condon

Back-of-the-napkin report
Oven: Gas/brick
Cheese(s): Whole milk mozzarella, preferably Grande from Wisconsin
Notable practitioners: Generally speaking, pretty much anyone — this is the people’s pizza. But Original Ray’s, Ray’s, Ben’s, Prince Street Pizza, too.

Tony’s take
New York City is arguably (very, very arguably) the nation’s pizza capital, and its vox populi pizza yell is the individual cheese slice. “When you think of a true New York slice, you’re thinking of a 20-22in pizza.” says Gemignani, “It’s cooked in a gas/brick oven and cut into eighths.” The pies are hand-stretched by the dozens each day and can be found, ready & waiting, beneath a glass display case at any hour, day or night.

Ingredients of greatness:

Credit: Grant Condon

1. ACCOUTREMENT: Red pepper flakes & granular Parmesan are both staples of the NYC slice experience. Ask for ranch at your own risk.

2. MODERATE THICKNESS: Somewhere between the fractious coal-fired and the spongy Detroit crusts, the NYC slice’s elasticity derives from its high-hydration dough. Go ahead and fold it — a river of grease & cheese will remain trapped in the narrow canyon.

3. GREASE: The whole milk mozz mixes with the tomato sauce and kicks off a vibrant orange discharge infamous amongst health-conscious dweebs, who sacrilegiously sop it up with napkins. Don’t do that.

4. ROBUST OUTER CRUST: The New York slice’s circumference is a sturdy, slightly raised rim that’s often pockmarked with soaring bubble-domes. It’s your only handle on the hand-held goodness — so get a grip.

The reheating routine
Grab-and-go convenience is nothing without a resilient taste profile, which is why the NY slice is designed to get even tastier when it’s reheated (within a reasonable amount of time, obviously). “New York slices are all about that reheating process,” explains Gemignani. It locks in flavor and gets coagulated orange grease flowing off the cheese again.

Whole milk mozzarella enables the benchmark heat-after-order move, while Gotham’s legendary H20 keeps the dough elastic even after it’s been sitting under the glass. “New York water is just awesome,” he says. A real New York slice has “gotta have that high-hydration dough.”

More: Ranking The Best Frozen Pizzas

Credit: Grant Condon

Back-of-the-napkin report
Oven: Coal, running up to 1000ºF
Cheese(s): ”Caprese loaf”, a dry mozzarella specifically made for coal ovens; scamorza; grated pecorino; Parmesan
Key practitioners: Grimaldi’s, Lombardi’sTotonno’s (NYC); Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, Sally’s Apizza (New Haven)

Tony’s take
“This pizza kinda goes down the Grimaldi’s/Lombardi’s road — that sliced mozzarella, that dry mozz that’s made for coal ovens.” According to Gemignani, “there are only a few guys that make that type [of cheese]. It’s called a ‘dry mozz’, or a ‘Caprese loaf.’” Traditionally, slices of cheese (that dry mozz, plus pecorino, Parmesan, and maybe even scamorza, which Pepe’s disciples call "sca-mootz") lurk beneath a layer of tomato sauce up top. “I like my coal-fired pie a little on the charred side,” he says. You should probably listen to him.

Ingredients of greatness:

Credit: Grant Condon

1. SLIGHTLY CHARRED CRUST: The coal ovens that fire these née-Neapolitan pies run hot. Like, 1000ºF. Skilled pizzaolos will aim for just a bit of char to add smoky, earthy flavor.

2. CHEEEEEEEEESE: The melty goodness atop a NY pie kicks off less grease than its by-the-slice brethren. That’s because the pie’s ingredients are (usually) higher quality, and the whole thing is made-to-order instead of reheated.

3. FROM NAPLES, WITH A TWIST: A true NY/New Haven pie bears resemblance to purebred Neapolitan pies (the southern Italian city produced most of America’s immigrants, after all), but on this side of the Atlantic, the form often features more cheese and sweeter sauce.
Then, of course, there’s the Moby Dick of coal-fired New England ‘za — the white clam pie. This coveted coal-fired subspecies was born in New Haven, and has a language all its own.

Ingredients of greatness:

Credit: Grant Condon

1. CLAMS FROM CONNECTICUT: "As far as I know, the clam pizza really started at Pepe’s," says Tony. The clams, though, Pepe’s sources from Rhode Island. They’re also usually served fresh-shucked, not in-shell.

2. GRATED FOR GREATNESS: The white clam pie is a sauceless creation, so the cheese — usually grated Pecorino Romano, never “mootz” — is front-and-center, ready to take on your taste buds.

3. SECRET INGREDIENT: WATER: Much has been made of New Haven dough, which is a slightly bread-ier cousin of the classic Neapolitan. Gemignani explains New Haven’s “moderately hard” water is responsible for its ah-beets' unique texture & quality — the minerals help the dough bind to itself during kneading.

More: Breaking Down The Single Best Item At Every Major Fast-Food Chain

Credit: Grant Condon

Back-of-the-napkin report
Oven: Gas/brick
Cheese(s): Sliced or shredded whole-milk mozzarella, NOT dry
Key practitioners: DeLorenzo’sPapa’s

Tony’s take
New Jersey’s capital is often omitted from the conversation about this country’s pizza capitals, but its tradition is strong… and covered in tomatoes. “It’s a very robust sauce” that covers the Trentonian “tomato pie”, Gemignani reports, and it usually scales just 14-16in in diameter. Its early proponents hailed from Naples.

Cooked in a gas/brick oven, the varietal leans lighter on the cheese than its New York brethren, and all toppings go beneath the sauce, not on top of it. On that note, South Jersey’s sauce itself is a little different — instead of the pourable, semi-liquid tomato with which you’re likely familiar, legit spots like Papa’s & DeLorenzo’s use crushed plum tomatoes, which’re meant to retain a chunky shape through the cooking process.

Ingredients of greatness:

Credit: Grant Condon

1. SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING: Trenton’s signature usually runs between 14”-16” — smaller than most of its neighbors.

2. UP IS DOWN. DOWN IS UP.: South Jersey’s biggest defining factor is the order in which they layer their ‘za: it’s cheese (and any toppings) first, then a chunky sauce made of crushed tomatoes.

3. KEEP IT SIMPLE: "Sometimes you’ll see sausage on [a Trenton tomato] pie," says Gemignani, but not much else. This savory saucer is a tomato showcase first & foremost.

IMPORTANT: “tomato pie” doesn’t mean “pizza”
It’s all about the tomatoes, man. But seriously, that’s basically the difference — more focus on the red stuff, less on the cheese than a normal Neapolitan pie. For a vastly more thorough explainer — plus improbably detailed breakdowns on a slew of greater-Philly-area tomato variations — hit Pizza Quixote.

You won’t get run out of Trenton for ordering “pizza”, though. As Nick Azzaro (an heir to the Papa’s pie throne) told NJ Monthly, the terms are freely interchanged for convenience sake. “Everyone had neon signs that vertically spelled out T-O-M-A-T-O-P-I-E-S,” says Azzaro. “Then neon got expensive, so to be more economical, they started calling it pizza.”

Credit: Grant Condon

Back-of-the-napkin report
Oven: Wood-fired grill
Cheese: Thinly sliced mozzarella
Key practitioners: Al Forno, Bob & Timmy’s Grilled Pizza

Tony’s take
“When you think of grilled pizzas,” opines Gemignani, it’s all about Al Forno. Burning since 1980, the Providence eatery is widely credited with introducing American stomachs to this wood-fired pie, an irregularly shaped thin-crust creation that shares some visual cues with California’s ‘za. Both sides of the standard white-flour dough are grilled before toppings are applied. “Sometimes they’ll put olive oil on the dough, while others will come out on the drier side.” A true grilled pie will boast grate marks not unlike a steak might.

Ingredients of greatness:

Credit: Grant Condon

1. LIKE A FINE STEAK: An actual, real-deal wood-fired grill is the heat source on record in Rhode Island. Look for those “steak”-style grill marks on your lovingly misshapen pie — that’s where the smoky flavor lies.

2. CHEESE YOU ON THE FLIPSIDE: In a full-blown oven, a pizza gets cooked from all angles, but on the grill, the dough’s gotta get flipped (like a burger or pancake might.) To accommodate, Rhode Island pizzaiolos wait until one side is cooked before adding any toppings.

3. MESS WITH THE BEST, DOWN WITH THE REST: When it comes down to it, Al Forno is Tony’s first and only pick. “There’s no one better.”

Conclusion

The Northeast takes a lot of flack from the rest of the country. New England? Too cold & abrasive. New York? Too dirty and effete. New Jersey? Too… too damn easy to make fun of. But when it comes to America’s pizza tune, the country’s upper-righthand corner is like a blues chord progression: a rock-solid framework that invites additional innovation, but works just fine on its own.

Is it the best? You’ll have to decide for yourselves, friends. Come correct in the comments, and stay tuned for our next region: the Midwest.

More from Thrillist:

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