Discussions of the virtues of the artisanal pies at places like Mozza, Antica Pizzeria and Caioti are often conducted with the sort of donnish decorum you might associate with cheese plates and tiny little glasses of sherry; the best slice joints, which are by definition in New York City, Philadelphia or the rougher parts of New Jersey, may be defended at knifepoint. It is not an accident that John’s, often considered the best pizza restaurant in Greenwich Village, has a prominent “No Slices” sign posted on its façade.
When we lived in Greenwich Village, my daughter and I stopped at least a couple of times a week by Joe’s Pizza on our walks home from school. Isabel would get a cheese slice, and I would spring the extra few bits for a slice made with fresh mozzarella instead of the traditional aged stuff. If it was nice out, we’d eat our slices outside on Father Demo Square; if not, we’d balance our paper plates on a trash can in the crowded storefront. Then we’d wander up Bleecker Street toward our apartment, buying cardoons from the Portuguese grocery next door, a skein of rapini sausages at Faicco’s, a ring of lard bread from Zito’s, cannoli from Bruno’s, maybe a hunk of red cow Parmesan from Murray’s Cheese. Those afternoons on Bleecker were as close to Sesame Street as either of us is likely to get again, and the slices from Joe’s had a lot to do with it. Joe’s may not have served the best slices in New York City — those came from the original Patsy’s up in Spanish Harlem and Di Fara out in farthest Brooklyn — but they were vastly better than the goopy abominations from all the joints called Ray’s.
Slice pizza, you understand, is as different from regular pizza as toast is from bread, a thinner, broader creature, made with slightly wetter dough, that is completed only when it is plucked from behind its shield of greasy glass and popped back into the oven for a couple of minutes to recrisp the crust. With the best classic pizza, excellence is generally measured in fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and exquisitely risen dough. Slice pizza is almost always made with ordinary canned tomatoes and cheese that could charitably be termed industrial. (The onetime connection between New York pizzerias and the middling Wisconsin cheese plant controlled by Al Capone has been well established.)
When regular pizza cools, it tends to turn soggy. When slice pizza cools, it turns into something like rock.
Los Angeles, far from a pizza desert, has long been a center of great pie. Sinatra crony Patsy D’Amore, whose influence still rules at the Farmers Market stall run by his family, was among the earliest pizzaiolos in the United States. The La Barbera pie spawned a national cult in the 1960s. The Spago-style California pie kicked off a revolution in taste, and the more-Italian-than-the-Italians Mozza pie may well ignite another. Casa Bianca’s pizza is undeniable. What we haven’t had was a great slice, no matter how hard places like Mulberry Street, Lamonica’s and Nicky D’s may have tried.
Now there is a brand-new branch of Joe’s Pizza in downtown Santa Monica, wedged in next to a yogurt stand, looking as if it has been holding down the location since Taxi Driver was in first run. A half dozen sliced pizzas are on display, the breadth of truck tires but almost microscopically thin, and the movement of slice to deck oven is a smooth one, a balletic display of grace. A minute or two later the formerly limp slice is flipped out onto a paper plate, reborn in the flames, a structural miracle ready to be folded — crack! — and devoured before it turns to plywood. (A Joe’s slice will not survive the half-block walk to the palisades overlooking the sea.) Joe’s basic cheese slice, ballasted with sweetish tomato sauce and annealed with a microthin cincture of cheese, is as authentically New York City as the smell of the West Fourth subway station in mid-August. When it’s available, the slice with juicy, fresh mozzarella is actually better than it is at the Village original, where the cheese is blasted into flat, white ovals, and the Sicilian slice, like oily foccacia glazed with tomato sauce and cheese, is first rate. I probably wouldn’t drive to Joe’s from Van Nuys or Tujunga, but it’s a logical place to stop on the way to the beach.
If there is such a thing as an artisanal slice in Los Angeles, it probably comes from Vito’s, an East Hollywood institution that recently relocated to a West Hollywood mini-mall. Vito’s pizzas are as wide as Joe’s, as thin as Joe’s and as crisp as Joe’s. It is as easy to lose yourself in a reverie over a cheese slice, well done. (Some aficionados linger around slice counters waiting for something just out of the oven; they are misguided.) But Vito’s crust has a spring, a bounciness under the crunch that is just a tick more interesting than the texture of the slice across town, and the toppings are a bit more involved. Does it blow my credibility if I admit my affection for the slice with pesto and gobs of fresh ricotta? Perhaps so. But I will defend that affection to my death.
Joe’s Pizza, 111 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 395-9222 or www.joespizza.com. Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout and delivery. Street parking and nearby public lot. Cheese slice, $2.50.
Vito’s Pizza, 846 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 652-6859 or www.vitopizza.com. Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout and delivery. Cheese slice, $2.50.