The waiter: "So where you guys from?" ('Cause you're not from around here.)
Welcome to the Bronx.
A couple of weeks ago I headed up there with some old friends, the brothers C. and J., in search of some good pizza. J., who was in town from CA for only a few days, deserves special accolades for his willingness to come along. What a sport! Surely New York City possesses more tempting things to do than to trek nearly an hour to its northernmost borough for pizza.
In order to get the most from our effort, we endeavored to visit three pizza places for our extended Friday lunch.
First stop was Schuylerville for a visit to Louie & Ernie's a beloved pizzeria that originally opened in 1947. Located on the ground floor of a cute little house in a clean, apparently-working class area -we felt like we'd stumbled into another world.
Louie & Ernie's pizza packs a bigger crunch than the average New York pie. The bottom was dusted, not heavily, with cornmeal (or possibly semolina). The tomato sauce was a little watery, but in a good way: the sensation was not unlike eating fresh tomatoes. The sausage, for which Louie and Ernie's is known, was very good: rather large crumbles that elegantly floated atop the rest.
The above photos (#2 viewable with mouseover) are from Louie and Ernie's.
The next stop was Coal's, a restaurant specializing in grilled pizza, which opened in 2004. Located near a hospital in an otherwise sparsely populated neighborhood, we had the unfortunate experience of noticing a dead cat on the roadside after our meal.
The pizza, however was very good. C., who has been to Al Forno (famous grilled pizza in Providence, RI) thought that the thin crust was perfectly cooked. It was crispy, not crunchy. We wondered if the sauce, which tasted like a gourmet jarred sauce (picture Rao's or similar) was actually homemade, but the bartender/server said that it absolutely was.
Our final stop was Mario's, an Italian restaurant on Arthur Avenue - an historic Italian street very worth visiting. At this point C. and J. were both done with pizza (was it the cat?!). Mario's serves whole pies only, and while I waited for my order (small plain, to-go), they each had a couple lemon ices.
I discovered, while visiting Mario's, something far more interesting than its pizza: that Mario's may be the oldest NYC restaurant that has offered pizza from the start. Lombardi's, which claims to be the oldest, was closed from 1986-1994, and it is not at the original address. Totonno's opened in 1924. But Mario's opened its doors in 1919.
Today, the place is an old school Italian restaurant with a whole menu of dishes -- but pizza has been deemphasized since the 1960s. It does not even appear on the dinner menu. The restaurant will, however, serve it to sit-down customers if they also order (much pricier) entreées.
The Bronx really seems a world apart from NYC. In Brooklyn -- or at least Brooklyn near the river crossings -- life unfolds in the shadow of Manhattan and in many regards is an extension of the same high rents and cool people. (Or is it the other way around?!)
When asked his overall impressions of the Bronx, C. noted that there was nothing at all trendy about the place. No doubt he meant that as a high compliment!