If you follow ELV religiously — and let’s face it who doesn’t? — then you know he’s been on a pizza jag recently. Las Vegas is in the midst of a pizza renaissance, and eating this Italian-American staple has never been tastier in our humble burg. While Due Forni and Settebello remain kings of apizza (pronounced “abeets” — the way they do on Wooster Street in New Haven), a couple of newcomers are threatening their tomato and cheese hegemony. So, we thought we’d take two of the biggest food nerds we know on a quick tour of these challengers to the throne.
Slipping into the comfy chairs at Dom DeMarco’s, ELV was anticipating an argument over ordering, but luckily, great minds (and pizza palates) think alike.
“Let’s get the New York-style cheese,” said the Pizza Geek. “That way there’s no place to hide.”
“Fine with me,” replied the Burger Maven.
“And one without cheese, perhaps the Bianca (whipped ricotta, mozz, Grana Padano cheese, chopped garlic and basil),” we begged (thinking we’d be in for a fight).
“Let’s do it,” came the chorus, and within minutes, we were discussing the minutiae of what makes a great pie.
“Isn’t tossing the dough in the air a bad thing?” asked the Burger Maven.
“It depends,” was Pizza Geek’s lawyerly reply. “What you’re looking to do is extend the dough, not flatten it. You want it gently stretched. Settebello, for example, uses a very delicate dough that needs to be very carefully handled.”
Not to be outdone in overt food nerdiness, ELV felt compelled to chime in: “It’s that beautiful, long-fermented, dough with its charred crust that makes Settebello’s pies so addictive. Why, just the other day I was discussing the merits of Tipo OO Italian flour with…”
“Hold on,” interrupted the Pizza Geek, “don’t hold an un-charred crust against a pizza around here. Until a few years, on the West Coast, if customers saw any color or char on their crust, they’d have a fit.”
True enough that. Just then, as ELV was all set to start expounding on acidity in heirloom tomatoes, and the plight of migrant farm workers, our pies arrived. We all agreed the qualities of a great cheese and tomato pizza start with a beautiful texture to the cooked dough, sweet, freshness in the tomatoes (yes, canned San Marzano’s can be “fresh,” as long as the sauce tastes newly made), and finally, a nice, high butterfat content in the cheese. None of us was overwhelmed by the crust of the New York-style, but (again) agreed a couple of more minutes in the oven might have made it spectacular.
“They’re hedging their bets,” was the way he put it, implying you could always get a crisper, more complex crust by asking them to leave it in the oven a little longer. “That would make it a whole other (better) experience…char gives the crust a caramelized dimension that everyone’s looking for these days.” ELV and the Burger Maven nodded our heads in somber approval…no doubt looking like a couple of pizza priests blessing the corniccione catechism.
The Burger Maven wanted to know if it was anything like the original Di Fara’s in Brooklyn. “Not even close,” came the Geek’s quick reply. “In Brooklyn, the old man (Dom DeMarco — the real one) makes everything by hand. It is an excruciating process to watch and one of the reason’s there’s always a hour wait for your pizza. He even shreds the cheese individually for each order.”
Now the Geek was on a roll: “There’s a reason all the iconic pizzerias on the East Coast are named after an individual…because each one was made the way Frank Pepe, or Sal or John on Bleecker Street wanted it made,” he continued. “Once you start mass producing them, all of that is lost.”
More somber head nodding….along with muffled groans of disapproval.
The Bianca tended to lift our spirits, however, it being crunchier of crust and perfectly balanced between the tang of the dough, the bite of the garlic, and the umami kick of the good Grana Padano.
“Nice pie,” said the Burger Maven.
More head shaking….this time in unison and with sly smiles on our faces as we licked our chops.
Then it was on to Grimaldi’s.
For those who haven’t been, Grimaldi’s was once the toast of Brooklyn, located right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and known for its coal oven pies. After a corporate buy-out (and expansion), it now has multiple locations in the Northeast and Florida, as well as stores throughout Arizona, Texas and Las Vegas. It still bakes in coal-fired, brick ovens, and is, in the Pizza Geek’s words: “…a good, entry-level, coal oven pizza for those wanting something better than the big chains.”
Unfortunately, most of the praise stopped there. All of us found the mozzarella bland and rubbery, the tomato sauce not as sweet or balanced as DeMarco’s, and the corniccione smashed by fingerprints (see the picture above) and burnt rather than nicely charred.
“This white cheese has been formulated for the way it looks, and for the uniform way it melts,” is how the PG put it. “It’s unnaturally white and purchased because it will melt in a predictable way on pizzas designed to be replicated for the mass market.”
A final sin included placing fresh basil on top of the cheese while the pie is cooking where “…it withers and becomes bitter; it should be sprinkled on top after it comes out of the oven or placed beneath the cheese.” So sayeth the Pizza Geek and it’s mighty hard to argue with him.
On the plus side, the tiny blisters on the corniccione demonstrated that the dough had undergone cold fermentation “for probably a couple of days,” according to the Geek-ster, and the service was every bit as cracker jack there (where they had no idea who we were), as it was at DeMarco’s, where they did. The outdoor patio at Grimaldi’s is also quite a pleasant place to nosh on your pie, no matter how mass produced it happens to be.
No matter how you slice it, the Pizza Geek is right: the best pizzas are handmade in small operations where the individual pies (and the dough) get serious attention. Once a pizza business expands to the point they’re hiring teenagers to make these things according to some mass-produced formula, quality will always suffer. Grimaldi’s is good enough, but with another minute or so in the oven, DeMarco’s can be great.
Our tab at DeMarco’s came to $58, including drinks and a $10 tip, with the ones at Grimaldi’s being a bit more (the Burger Maven picked up that tab).
9785 West Charleston Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89117
750 South Rampart Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89145