Sensational Slices, the Universal Crowd: The Best Pizza in Westchester
By Charlotte Kaiser Photography by Iko
IT’S HARD FOR ME NOT TO BE RHAPSODIC about pizza. After all, what food is more practical? A slice’s triangle sustains the magical balance of cheese, sauce and crust—offering complex flavors and simple goodness—all for usually less than $2. Not only is pizza portable, it’s also a universal crowd pleaser, welcome at kids’ birthday parties and office gatherings alike.
Pizza is a wonderfully inexact science with endless variations. Some fans favor charred, cracker-thin crusts, while others prefer puffy, doughy foundations. Some insist on just the tiniest amount of sauce—“for color,” they explain—while others can’t do without an almost soupy layer underneath the cheese, of which some desire a thick, bubbled layer of salty chewiness, while others care for but a sprinkling. And on and onâ€¦
According to John F. Mariani’s Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, pizza as we know it—with tomato sauce, mozzarella and herbs—was created in Naples in 1889 in honor of a visit by Queen Margherita I (hence the name pizza margherita). It actually wasn’t until the wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. that began in the early 20th century that pizza started to grow into the phenomenon it is today. Cities along the northeast coast like Providence, New Haven and, of course, New York became pizza hubs. A number of pizzerias popped up along the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue and, in turn, Westchester, as the Italian population migrated northward. Several of the county’s earliest pizzerias still exist, including La Manda’s in White Plains, which opened in 1947, and Johnny’s, which opened on East 3rd Street in Mt. Vernon in 1942.
These days, there’s a pizzeria in nearly every town, village and hamlet in the county. After visiting 17 of them, I’ve come up with a list of the five I deem to be worth the schlep (to borrow a Yiddishism for an Italian story). I used the plain slice as my common denominator (except at those places that only sell whole pies), carefully considering three key components—crust, sauce and cheese—and the ratio thereof. This isn’t about service or ambience but one essential element: flavor.
Abatino’s Pizza & Pasta
670 North Broadway, North White Plains
ROSEANNE MACARI WON’T STAND FOR MEDIOCRE pizza. The Tarrytown resident and self-proclaimed pizza maven has sampled the best pizza the county has to offer and Abatino’s always comes out on the top of her list. “I love the garlic pan pizza with fresh tomatoes, tons of garlic and cheese,” she says. “The only thing is you have to make sure that everyone around you is eating it, too.” The plain pie’s pretty darn good, too, with a thin crust, a hefty helping of sauce, and a generous layer of whole milk mozzarella. So what is owner Ralph Pisani’s secret?
“It’s all about customer satisfaction,” he says. “We give them a quality product and use only the freshest ingredients.” Abatino’s down-at-the-heels White Plains branch across the street from The Westchester closed earlier this year, leaving fans to dine in the more sumptuous surroundings of their North White Plains restaurant (right next to Super Stop & Shop). Price: $1.75/slice.
316 Mamaroneck Avenue
JIM LEFF’S GOT IT RIGHT IN HIS ASSESSMENT OF Sal’s. “It’s not fancy pizza—just an excellent rendition of old-fashioned shopping mall pizzeria slices,” he writes in a posting on his Web site, Chowhound.com. With its golden crust, tangy sauce and top-notch mozzarella, it’s no surprise that it has garnered legions of fans since it opened 40 years ago. Just ask my friend Daniel Salzman, who resided briefly in Mamaroneck as a kid and still makes a pilgrimage to Mamaroneck every time he’s visiting New York from Los Angeles.
“The plain slices are pretty good, but the Sicilian is the best anywhere, bar none,” says Salzman. “The dough isn’t heavy and it has an awesome crisp bottom crust that looks as cool as it tastes. They use a different sauce on the Sicilian as well, and their mozzarella is very fresh.” Salzman’s so devoted that he and 40 of his guy friends even took over the restaurant for the groom’s luncheon before his wedding a few years ago. (Salzman’s not the only fanatic. Apparently, he has a friend who has the pizzas put on dry ice and shipped to him via FedEx!) To get the most out of the Sal’s experience, snag a booth at the front of the restaurant where you can watch the pizza men work their magic. Price: $1.75/slice.
30 West Lincoln Avenue, Mt. Vernon
JOHN MARIANI SPENDS MOST OF HIS TIME on the road, writing about restaurants for Esquire and other publications. However, when he’s home in Tuckahoe and has a hankering for pizza, he inevitably heads to Johnny’s. Mariani says that he and his wife Galina have been going to the Mt. Vernon institution for almost 30 years. “When you find something that’s pretty near perfect, you stick with it,” he says. Johnny’s tops my list too. It’s a no-slices place, which is fine, since one person can easily polish off a small pie. The pizza’s crust is slightly charred, lending a pleasantly bitter flavor and the tomato sauce slightly sweet, dappled with blistered mozzarella. In my mind, it’s as close as Westchester’s gonna get to Frank Pepe’s beloved spot in New Haven. Price: $9.25/small pizza.
Dom & Vinnie’s Italian
Restaurant & Pizzeria
351 Saw Mill River Road, Yonkers
TUCKED AWAY ON AN INDUSTRIAL STREET in Yonkers, Dom & Vinnie’s is an easy detour off the Saw Mill River Parkway. Although the neighborhood is lacking, the stellar pizza’s thin crust, high-quality cheese and homemade sauce has made the restaurant a destination since it opened in 1971. The all-important crust-sauce-cheese ratio is dead-on, and the tomato sauce is laden with fresh herbs that are grown in a small garden out back. In fact, the sauce is so good that co-owner Mike Dolcetta started selling it by the jar about a year ago. If a slice or two of the plain pie hasn’t done you in, it’s also worth trying the Sicilian and bruschetta pizzas. The latter is piled high with fresh diced tomatoes, onions and herbs, and although obviously thicker than the regular pizza, the golden crust on both remains light.
PS: They recently opened a branch on Pleasantville Road in Briarcliff; (914) 945-7200. Price: $1.90/slice.
North Salem Cuisine
60 June Road, North Salem
NESTLED IN A SMALL CLUSTER OF SHOPS in up-county’s horse country, North Salem Cuisine is a sleeper contender. Pizza is not a big seller here—the bulk of the business is in gourmet prepared foods and catering—but owner Maki Stamboulidis says he makes it simply for the “fun of eating pizza.” Stamboulidis, a Greek, learned the art of pizza making at Ridgefield Pizza in Connecticut while working to put himself through school. Every day he makes his own earthy tomato sauce and dough, using a seven-year-old starter that adds a depth of flavor. The resulting crust is soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside, with an irresistible homemade quality lacking in most other pizzas. In addition to the standards, Stamboulidis offers five gourmet pies including the Cuisine’s Special with onions, peppers, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, tomato sauce and two kinds of mozzarella, and the shrimp scampi with baby shrimp, garlic, fresh plum tomatoes, oregano, Pecorino Romano and mozzarella.
PS: The slices are more expensive than in most places, but they’re larger too—about one-quarter of a large pie. (If you can eat a whole pie in front of Stamboulidis, he’ll give it to you for the price of a slice.) Price: $3/slice.
Charlotte Kaiser often writes about food for Westchester Magazine. She would like to thank Ari Weinberg for his excellent chauffeur skills for this story.