Pedigree Pies

Though all county residents have their neighborhood favorites, in truth—to pizza snobs, anyway—Westchester was once a flyover county between the two titan pie capitals of New Haven, Connecticut, and New York City. After all, which of the county’s slice joints could compete with the magnificent yeastiness of Frank Pepe’s crust? Which of our local, gas-fuelled Blodgetts could compete with Totonno’s 900°F brick beehive oven? That’s right, none—not even the local favorite, Sal’s in Mamaroneck.

Then something strange happened. As the New York City and Connecticut titans expanded their realms, Westchester became the locus of overlap: nowhere else can you taste both Connecticut and New York City’s iconic American pies within a short drive. And it only gets better: with the arrival of Port Chester’s Tarry Lodge, Westchester is seriously on the slice map. We perused the Big Three, and here’s what we found.

Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana
1955 Central Ave, Yonkers
Year Established: 1925
Original Location: New Haven, CT
Fuel: Coal
Signature Pie: White Clam Pie
Also Great: Original Tomato Pie (no mozzarella)

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We couldn’t be happier that this pie has come to Yonkers, because we have spent many hours on I-95, helpless against the lure of Pepe’s original on Wooster Street in New Haven. We breathed a sigh of relief when the new Fairfield branch cut 25 minutes off our trip, and now a Yonkers branch brings the heavenly pies to our door.

Pepe’s oddball white-clam pie is the pizza pilgrim’s standard of perfection; sans watery tomatoes or gloppy cheese, it’s the showcase for a textbook three-layered crust. With a well-developed yeasty flavor, the crust, naked and pure, could stand alone as bread. But dressed with big, juicy, freshly shucked, locally dug top-neck clams, robust garlic slices, salty Pecorino Romano cheese, and olive oil, it’s pretty much divine. The amoeboid oval arrives haphazardly sliced and slapped on an ancient half-sheet pan (right alongside knives, forks, and paper napkins), and the whole is dumped on the table (preferably joined by liter bottles of locally made Foxon Park birch beer and plastic cups). Just that briny, garlicky, yeasty smell makes us forget the agonies of table waits.

Though we’re divided, Pepe’s original tomato pie, on which a coating of simple, raw San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano hearken to pizza’s pure Neapolitan roots, is another draw. Without cheese (though for the original tomato pie with mozzarella, Pepe’s uses only fresh, handmade orbs), this pie is yeasty, sweetly tomatoey, and fragrant with smoky oregano. It’s the pie scholar’s pick.

Tarry Lodge
18 Mill St, Port Chester
(914) 939-3111
Year Established: 2008
Original Location: Port Chester
Fuel: Wood (oak and cherry)
Signature Pie: Guanciale with Black Truffles and Sunny Side Egg
Also Great: Tomato, Anchovy, and Garlic

While Pepe’s and Totonno’s rely on apprenticeships to learn the hotspots of their coal-burning ovens (which they load and sweep out themselves), ex-engineer Chef Andy Nusser prefers to go high-tech. This culinary celebrity—straight from teary-eyed ovations at New York City’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamon—strode into Tarry Lodge (co-owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastinanich, Nancy Selzer, and Nusser) strapped with a radar temperature gun, which he can shoot into any nook of his custom Mugnaini wood-burning oven and gauge its temperature with pinpoint accuracy.

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Tarry Lodge is the only one in our triumvirate to cook with wood, which creates a faintly wood-smoke-scented dough. According to Nusser, he’d planned to use almond wood, which the Batali/Bastianich group used with success at LA’s pizzeria/trattoria Mozza. But Nusser discovered that, while California is packed with almond groves, the Northeast is not. Instead, Nusser’s burning white oak and cherry—which he can get up to temperatures of 700°F, high enough to produce Tarry’s tender, fragrant, lightly-charred crust.

As befits the group that was too European-ish for The Food Network, the folks at Tarry Lodge are loading their pies with class. The breakout star is a guanciale, black truffle, and sunny side egg, on which nude, milky, domestic Bel Aria mozzarella is tastefully gilded by a running egg yolk. It’s an interactive pleasure—diners slice across the egg to release its molten treasure—while its richness is cut by porky chunks of guanciale and the heavenly funk of black truffles.

But, at Tarry Lodge, it pays to look beyond the obvious. We loved Nusser’s anchovy, fresh tomato, and garlic pie, on which the chef reveals his Spanish soul. Here, per the usual anchovy pie, the thin, salty, dark-gray Italian fillets are baked in the pie along with uncooked San Marzano tomatoes and garlic slices. After the pie is cooked, it’s garlanded with large, white-fleshed Spanish anchovies, lightly cured in vinegar and lemon, whose taste evokes seaside vacations and tapas bars. The result is delectable, both classic and on-trend—which about sums up the experience of Tarry Lodge. Plus, Tarry Lodge’s pies are matched by Joe Bastianich’s wine list—and he’s the man who brought you Vino Italiano, his book, and Italian Wine Merchants, a wine shop in New York City. We loved Emidio Pepe’s perfumed Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2001.

Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano
125 Tuckahoe Rd, Yonkers
(914) 476-4446
Year Established: 1924
Original Location: Coney Island, NY
Fuel: Coal
Signature Pie: Pizza Bianca
Also Great: Margherita (mozzarella, tomato, fresh garlic, oregano, olive oil)

While the Yonkers branch of this New York pizza aristocrat is plagued by inconsistency, when Totonno’s is on—it’s on. It’s also a direct link to the origin of pizza in America. Anthony “Totonno” Pero slung pies at America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, in Manhattan’s Little Italy (founded in 1905). Taking what he’d learned, Totonno opened his own Coney Island pizzeria in 1924, where his pies attained cult status, pulling devoted fans from Manhattan out to Neptune Avenue.

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Sadly, even the Neptune Avenue Subway station has more charm than the Yonkers branch of Totonno’s, which is located in the dreary bar of a Ramada Inn. Yet pie groupies know that ambience isn’t everything; despite America’s genteel idiom, “parlor,” pizzerias always have been humble joints.

One glance at Totonno’s signature pizza bianca and you’ll see why it’s famous. The crust is charred, black-spotted and bubbling, covered with opaque white, daily-made Aiello’s mozzarella from Brooklyn. Its austere whiteness is liberally dotted with brown, toasty spots and sharp yellow garlic slices, and the whole is showered with the salty sparkle of sheep’s-milk Romano cheese. Split your pie with Totonno’s pizza Margherita—named for Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy from 1879 to 1900—which lacks the traditional fresh basil that contributes the green stripe of Italy’s “tricolore” flag. The red comes from Totonno’s imported San Marzano tomatoes, which are ladled straight from the can—uncooked when dotted on, they’re orangey-red on the finished pie, and sweetly acidic in the mouth. Their palate-refreshing, clean taste is the ideal balance for the white melted pools of milky fior de latte cheese. And, best of all, Totonno’s chewy, charred crust has a faintly smoky scent from its rocket-hot coal oven.

Burn, Baby, Burn

As any pizza fan knows, its all about the oven. Here’s a quick rundown of your options:

Coal: Burns hotter than other fuels, with oven-floor temps running over 800°F. Coal is the purist’s fuel, with advocates claiming that its super-high temperatures create the classic American-Neapolitan crust. It’s characterized by a three-part structure: crisp, charred base; middle, bready layer; and under-baked, gooey top stratum that is in contact with the toppings. But don’t expect coal-appreciation to spread. This 19th-century technology is highly polluting and becoming increasingly rare.

Wood: Burns hot, but not as hot as coal, with average temperatures running 100° cooler, in the 650° to 700° range. Purists claim that wood-fired pies require more oven time, which is drying, and sacrifices the classic three-layered structure. Yet wood ovens add a smoky, woodsy note that coal-firing won’t—and it’s becoming the choice of elite chefs like Andy Nusser of Tarry Lodge and Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napolitana in Manhattan.

Gas: This is the standard, slot-mouthed Blodgett or Baker’s Pride found at everyone’s local slice joint. It’s short, drop-down doors conceal a relatively cool-burning floor (around 600°F), which yields fairly characterless pies—to compensate for this, gas pizzaiolos resort to elaborate toppings.

Brick Oven: Like the word “natural” in food packaging, this is a meaningless term. Although it alludes to the beauty of coal- or wood-oven pizzas, what you’ll often find is an oven faced with a veneer of brick and fuelled by characterless gas.

Westchester Magazine’s restaurant reviewer Julia Sexton is an ardent pizza lover. In fact, the best meal of her life was a pizza, eaten al fresco in the hills outside of Florence, with locally produced olive oil and cheeses. An avid pizzaiola, she uses a two-day dough-raising process, and lusts for a Mugnaini oven.

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