They used to say it’s the water -- why bread and bagels and pizza were supposedly better in New York. I don’t know if anyone has debunked this myth but I’ve found no good proof ― neither scientific nor anecdotal ― to convince me it’s true.
Perhaps it's that the skill of bread-making is not easily transferrable. I’ve seen bread master Jim Lahey sweat from frustration whilst prodding an employee to get the stretch right. The guy may have made bread but, pre-bake, it didn’t look like Jim’s bread.
I’ve had Pizza of Great Dough in New Haven and New Jersey and I’ve heard that great dough exists in SF, AZ, LA, and Chicago. I assume the owners of older spots mastered the art years ago and passed the trick along to next generations when the time came. I imagine that when it comes to the newer good spots, success of dough has come via a long journey of trial and error.
I love the story Giovanni Lanzo told me about how when he was making dough in the back of his dad’s shop, Luigi’s, many years ago, his father would yell from the front ― without ever peeking ― feedback along the lines of, “It needs more water!” He knew from the sound.
Similar is the story of Luciano Gaudosi, who now runs Sal and Carmine with his Great Uncle Carmine and his brother George. A few years ago, when Grandpa Sal ― the heart and brains behind S & C's pizza ― was on the verge of dying, heir apparent Luciano confessed his insecurity about taking over the business and, in particular, how he would get the dough right. He figured it out.
Sal and Carmine is in the vein of the many pizzerias that once dominated the streets of New York. At these places, it was a guy or two in there working, at least one of whom was the owner. Consistency of product was also important: homemade dough with a minimum one day rise, no preservatives ― unprocessed cheese.
Romantic, huh? I’ve observed that today ― in particular in Mahattan, where rents have become prohibitive for mom & pop shops like pizzerias ― many have either declined in quality, chainified, or shut down. People, thank the heavens, still appreciate homemade stuff. Even the Sbarro chain is banking on that (read this story to see what it has planned for its locations).
Luciano at Sal & Carmine told me of his concern about how much the rent could increase come 2016. If it crosses above $10,000/month, he doesn't know whether it will be worth it to stay (the place seems to have about 750 square feet). Of course that’s the case: it's pizza, a low cost (and, I would argue, essential) New York food item. To state the obvious: you gotta sell a lot of slices and pies to make big rent. Let’s hope that when the time comes, it gets worked out.
In the meantime, watch the video (click photo above) to catch a glimpse of how valuable a multi-generational pizzeria can be. Topic of the day: dough. Then, head up to 102nd Street for a slice. A damned good slice at that!
Sal & Carmine Pizza in New York, NY. 2671 Broadway (between 101 and 102 Streets). Tel. 212-663-7651. #1 train to 103rd Street. Map Sal & Carmine. Hours: 7 days, 11:30 am - 10 pm. Sal and Carmine website.