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A Slice of Ernie Ottuso Square

29 Nov

Louie & Ernie’s Pizza
1300 Crosby Avenue
The Bronx

The day after dining at Louie & Ernie’s pizza in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, I saw a man wearing a John’s Pizza t-shirt that proudly and in quotes stated “No Slices.”  I’ve been to John’s on Bleecker Street several times. It’s one of just a few remaining of the city’s original Italian-American, coal-fired, brick oven places. And they make a decent pie, though now, with a branch in Times Square, on the Upper East Side, and in Jersey City, they have slipped a bit into tourist trap mode. And, no, they don’t serve slices. You have to wait for a table (and sometimes the waits are interminable) and order a whole pie. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but the proclamation on the t shirt was, after sampling Louie & Ernie’s where they, refreshingly, do serve slices, took, in my opinion, pizza arrogance to a level it should never go to. Maybe John’s really doesn’t mean it, but the “no slices” policy implies that because  they don’t serve slices, their pizza is better than those who do. Or maybe I’m just a little oversensitive.

Yeah, yeah, we know.

With our group in full attendance for this, Zio’s pick, we immediately found out that there was no such pretension at Louie & Ernie’s. Located below a typical Bronx 1950’s row house, on a stretch of Crosby Avenue renamed Ernie Ottuso Square after one of the original owners, and with the constant roar of arriving planes into LaGuardia above, this was old school New York pizza, slices and all.

The six of us squeezed into one of the small pizzeria’s largest tables and glanced at the menu. There were no surprises; pizza and calzones was all they served. Anchovies, meatballs, sausage, and all the other usual toppings were available. But, according to the accolades on the walls from various publications, it was the white pizza and the calzones, including a broccoli rabe calzone, that were the standouts at Louie & Ernie’s.

A slice of white.

We ordered three pizzas: a fresh garlic, sausage and onion, and a white pizza along with a few broccoli rabe calzones; the greens a little something to offset the starch onslaught.

All the pizzas had thin, nicely charred crusts from a conventional pizza oven. The combination of sauce to cheese was balanced properly and both ingredients fresh and flavorful. Oozing with creamy fresh ricotta and mozzarella was the white pie and it was as good as advertised.

The calzone

The sausage, out of its casing and crumbled in clumps, made in house was tangy with bits of fennel but unfortunately was paired with onion which overwhelmed both the sausage and the sauce. The pie with the addition of fresh garlic was a mistake and unnecessary. Good pizza really should be eaten with as little adornments as possible. Despite these very minor shortcomings, we devoured the pies, and the outstanding calzones, oblivious of the ongoing football game that was broadcast on the television in the front of the restaurant. Even our chatter was kept to a minimum, so intent were we on our mission.

Not even football could distract us from our mission.

With just a few bites remaining of the multiple pies, Zio turned to me and in a soft tone said, “Did you think the sausage was a bit undercooked?”

I replied that I did not and went back to finishing the pizza but was distracted when I noticed Zio’s finger in his mouth, probing for something.

Does the sausage look undercooked?

“I think I chipped a tooth,” he hissed.

On what, we wondered? The creamy mozzarella? The broccoli rabe? He opened his mouth displaying a tiny gap in his front teeth that wasn’t there before. He now bore an eerie resemblance to the British actor from the 1950’s Terry Thomas, but with a Sonny Bono haircut and smile. He had indeed chipped a tooth. But he shrugged it off, not holding it against Louie & Ernie’s, even ordering two broccoli rabe calzones to go.

Did Terry Thomas lose a tooth eating Louie & Ernie’s Pizza?

To add to our starch intake, Theresa’s Bakery next door offered freshly made cannolis. It was a mild night and we ate ours standing outside Louie & Ernie’s while children played, dogs were walked, and the planes above continued to make their descent into LaGuardia.

The Many Pizzas of Sal’s

11 Nov

Here in New York there was an overblown controversy about who retained the rights to be known as Ray’s Pizza. The original Ray’s, at least I think it was original, was in Greenwich Village on 11th Street and wildly popular for the excessive amounts of cheese piled onto each slice rather than for its overall quality. So says I, the pizza snob.

Ray’s popularity spurred a flurry of Ray’s imitators, or so “Original Ray” claimed. Lawsuits were threatened and to avoid them, the numerous Ray’s throughout the city slightly tweaked their names.  “Famous Ray’s,” “World Famous Ray’s,” “Original Ray’s” “Ray Bari” were some of them. There was even one called “Not Ray’s Pizza.” Soon the controversy fizzled and recently the Original Ray’s closed ending “Ray’s” pizza(name) dominance in the city.

You know it’s over for Ray’s when the name is blocked out and no longer “of Greenwich Village.”

On a smaller scale, but higher in the pizza royalty chain, was the battle over the use of Patsy’s in connection to pizza. There was the original Patsy’s on First Avenue in East Harlem that still remains. And then there was Patsy Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, just over the Brooklyn Bridge who was legally forced to drop the “Patsy’s” part of his actual name and became known as Grimaldi’s.  Patsy’s revival and the ensuing controversy led to a chain of Patsy’s designed to emulate the original, but none had that pizzeria’s magical ancient coal oven and, as a result, the pizza just wasn’t of the same quality.

The original Patsy’s.

It is now my pleasure to report that probably the most prolific pizza name of all has not sparked any controversy or legal action that I know of. That name is Sal’s.

Still, though, many Sal’s have found it necessary to inject something else to their name to differentiate themselves from the other Sal’s out there instead of just relying on their location and the distinction of their pizza.

There are many Sal’s in New York, but obviously only one New York Sal’s.

If Sal were to have a pizza making partner, Carmine is a natural.

Sal’s of Little Italy is no ordinary pizzeria, it’s a cafe.

Now why did they have to go and make Sal fat?

I’ve often wondered why a man named Sal would allow himself to be known as Sally.

Sal’s even made it into the movies.


I make no judgement on any of the other Sal’s pizzerias, but for me, there is only one Sal’s Pizzeria.

Bronx Broccoli Rabe From a Brother From Corona

11 Oct

Fratelli Pizza Café
404 Hunts Point Ave

It was a clear Tuesday evening as I, accompanied by Zio, headed toward the Hunts Point Market where the Fratelli Pizza Café, our destination for the night, was located.  Traffic was backed up on the Willets Avenue Bridge, most heading north towards the Major Deegan and Yankee Stadium where the Yankees were about to begin their game. We were heading east and once we found ourselves under Bruckner Boulevard, the traffic completely vanished leaving us, literally, the lone vehicle on the road. The spooky feeling became almost post-apocalyptic as we turned onto Leggett Avenue, passing chop shops and auto glass and tire repair shops, the road still practically barren.

Turning onto Hunts Point Avenue, there was a bit of activity around an adult entertainment establishment called Mr. Wedge and soon after Hunts Point Avenue became a one way street, we located our destination. We could hear a pounding bass beat coming from the Hunts Point Triangle, another adult entertainment establishment located right next to the Fratelli Pizza Café.*  A few of the “entertainers” and their clients were sitting in a make-shift café outside of the club sipping beers from a bottle and eying Zio and I curiously.

Pre or post pizza entertainment at Mr. Wedge.

The pizzeria was small, just a few tables and, since it was part of the “triangle” at the end of Hunts Point Ave, narrow with an entrance on the other side of the building. There were a variety of pizzas on display behind the counter that looked old and tired, including one, to my horror, with pineapple. Despite my best efforts to disguise it, there was no doubt that my disappointment was obvious. The proprietor, noting the look on my face asked if he could help us. I told him we were waiting for others.

The pineapple and bacon slice

I chose Fratelli’s because I had heard that they were famous for their broccoli rabe pizza as well as their sautéed version, made fresh and supplied by the nearby Hunts Point Market. Scanning the drab offerings behind the counter, there was no sign of what I and many Italian-Americans consider absolutely essential comfort food. Broccoli rabe’s appeal, with its bittersweet flavor, especially combined with garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper, goes directly to my nerve center immediately stirring a rare combination of feelings including but not limited to pure pleasure, child-like happiness and a primal sense of contentment.

I asked the proprietor, who introduced himself as “Joe,” if broccoli rabe was available. He assured me that it was. I inquired how he prepared it on the pizza. He showed me a square pie, adorned only with tomato sauce where cheese and broccoli rabe would be added he called a “Grandma.”

While we were conversing, one of the tightly-clothed “entertainers” entered from next door, and ordered a hero. I noticed a picture of Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack taped onto the plastic counter along with a small photograph of  writer,  television personality, and former chef, Anthony Bourdain.

“Bourdain says we have the best garlic knots he’s ever had,” Joe proclaimed proudly adding that a segment on Fratelli’s broccoli rabe was filmed by Bourdain and his crew for his Travel Channel program, No Reservations.

Tony and two of the “brothers.” Joe on his far left.

Rick arrived soon after, and giving the high-heeled entertainer wide berth, also examined the pies on display, taking time, I noticed, to dwell on the unfortunate pineapple slice.

Our group, collectively, could be considered pizza snobs. We had been to many of the Tri-State area’s greats; Patsy’s in Harlem, Totonno’s in Coney Island, Grimaldi’s near the Brooklyn Bridge, Sal’s in Mamaroneck, and, of course, the remarkable DiFara, so our standards were high. Maybe we were expecting too much from a 24-hour pizzeria situated next to a strip joint.

Joe took me around to the other entrance to show me the accolades Fratelli’s received from the Village Voice including “Best Broccoli Rabe.” Eugene and Gerry, Mike from Yonkers being conspicuously absent, arrived and we told Joe to go ahead with making a Grandma pie with broccoli rabe.

“Are you connected with the Fratelli’s on Eastchester Road,” Eugene asked Joe.

Joe shook his head.

“The Fratelli’s in New Rochelle?”

Again, Joe responded in the negative. “There are a lot of Fratelli’s around. I’m from Corona.”

We told Joe from Corona to go ahead and make us a Grandma pie with broccoli rabe, a plate of sautéed broccoli rabe, and some of those Bourdain-praised garlic knots. While we waited, Joe brought us out the Fratelli’s version of an amuse bouche of what he called a “Christina” pie.

“This is also one of my most popular,” he said. The “Christina” was a square pie with tomato sauce, fresh tomatoes and topped with fresh mozzarella. The display version he showed me was not impressive, but after reheating was, remarkably, brought back to delicious life; the crust nicely charred, the tomatoes flavorful and the cheese still fresh. Maybe our first visual impressions were wrong.

The Grandma pie minus the broccoli rabe.

The Grandma pie came out, steam flowing from the huge square pie overflowing with broccoli rabe. A few moments later, Joe brought out a aluminum take-out dish with the sautéed broccoli rabe and a plate of garlic knots.

“What you do,” Joe from Corona explained. “is slit open the garlic knots and slather some of that broccoli rabe inside making a kinda garlic knots broccoli rabe sandwich.”

We took his advice and the tender, perfectly sautéed broccoli rabe worked magnificently with the “best garlic knots ever.” Our enthusiasm was evident in the way we were devouring mounds of the greens with absolutely no worries about potential next day consequences from all that roughage.

“When the woman from Channel 7 was here,” Joe said, casually dropping another television plug for his establishment, “she asked how I made the broccoli rabe. I said that’ if I told her, I would have to kill her.’ I can’t believe she actually used that.”

After a few forced chuckles, we resumed eating, Two slices of the Grandma pie remained along with a few of the dregs of the sautéed broccoli rabe and a couple of garlic knots. “I’m done,” Zio groaned.

Bronx broccoli rabe

I couldn’t eat anymore nor could Rick. Gerry and Eugene, sitting at another table shrugged, their eyes on the remains.

“Well if they’re not gonna eat it. . . .”  Eugene said as he and Gerry scooped up the last two Grandma slices without any hesitation.

From behind the counter, Joe lifted up a tray that held a  Sicilian pie and showed it to us. “I make my Sicilian differently than other places. I put the cheese under the sauce. People come from all over for it.”

We nodded. He no longer had to work us. We were convinced.

*The “Hunt’s Point Triangle” has since our last visit, closed and Fratelli’s has expanded, taking over the entertainers dance space.

One Man’s Pizza

14 Jun

I consider myself a pizza aficionado (or should I say snob) and have sampled many of the legends. For old school, brick oven, coal fired style I’ve been to original John’s on Bleecker Street, Grimaldi’s just over the Brooklyn Bridge, Patsy’s in East Harlem, Lombardi’s in SoHo, and the original Totonno’s in Coney Island. I’ve experienced the pleasures of the perfect New York “regular” slice at Joe’s on Bleecker. For Sicilian slices, there wasn’t much better than Sal’s in Mamaroneck. Back in my college days, I often ditched dorm dinner to drive over an hour for the clam pie at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven or a meatball “apizza” from Zuppardi’s in nearby West Haven. But I had never been to the much celebrated Di Fara’s Pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn.

The crowds waiting to eat at Di Fara’s were as legendary as the pizza. Di Fara’s definitely took planning; open for lunch from 12 until 4:30 and then closed until 6 made the timing tough.  Do you get there before 6 and hang out outside waiting for it to open? Do you time it so you arrive after the first wave has ordered? Or do you make Di Fara’s an afternoon- long lunch break?  It all seemed too complicated until, finally, Gerry and I ventured to Midwood 2007; leaving in the late afternoon hoping to arrive just as Di Fara’s opened for dinner. It just so happened that our group was scheduled to convene the following night at a traditional, not so celebrated place.  What follows below is part one of what turned out to be an eating doubleheader.

Di Fara Pizza
1424 Avenue J
Midwood, Brooklyn

Gerry and I knew it would be a challenge. Zio couldn’t do it; the termites were beginning their early spring spawn and his talents were needed elsewhere. Mike from Yonkers claimed other commitments such as a job. Eugene claimed other commitments such as working out, if that can possibly be believed. Rick was a Di Fara veteran and a hard working executive; consecutive eating orgies might appear to be frivolous. That left only Gerry and I. We were braced for back to back expeditions to the outer boroughs and the culinary pleasures they promised starting with a long anticipated trip to the much hyped Di Fara Pizza followed by a trip to Queens and a Japanese place picked by Eugene called Yamakaze.

Normally we wouldn’t consider a food destination if we classified it “much hyped,” but for Di Fara’s we were willing to make an exception. Yes, the pizzeria had been ballyhooed in all the local publications, many claiming it to be the best pizza in the city. And after making the trek, finding it surrounded by Kosher bakeries and grocery stores on Avenue J in the heart of Jewish-orthodox Midwood, Brooklyn; the exterior non-descript, the interior cramped, the few tables either occupied or empty but with bits of  congealed cheese, olive oil, sauce, and crust from possibly a generation of diners still on the tables, the walls, where the paint wasn’t peeling or crumbling, covered with accolades from all the usual suspects: New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Newsday, the Daily News, the Times, along with a photo of Di Fara proprietor and master pizza maker Dominic DeMarco and his daughter with Rob Reiner, and a framed, and very apt quote credited to Mohandas Gandhi: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Gerry and I both were prepared for a wait. We knew Dominic DeMarco took pride in making every pizza himself and his way, which was, so we heard, painstakingly methodical. There is no defined ordering system at Di Fara. When we walked in there were a number of people scattered around the counter. Was there a line to order? I asked but all I got in return were bemused smiles and shrugs. I took that to mean that there wasn’t. But when Dominic’s daughter, who was the old man’s only help that evening, actually asked us what we wanted, we knew we had to be ready with a quick answer. That didn’t leave any time to peruse the options so Gerry and I went with the easiest; a regular “round” pie and two slices of “square.” And to our surprise, there were actually two hot square slices available as well as a just vacated, oil-streaked, tomato sauce-stained table. The slices would work as the perfect appetizer as we waited for our pie.

Square Pie

A stack of empty boxes that held cans of San Marzano tomatoes was piled next to the counter which I quickly attributed to the robust sauce on our “square” slices. When lifting the slice the olive oil slid gracefully over the cheese while the crust, cooked not in a wood burning brick oven and despite being saturated by the oil, retained a crunchy, almost fried-like texture. Before even tasting the slice, Gerry, reflexively, added granulated garlic which he almost immediately regretted; the addition totally superfluous.

  So we devoured our slices and then began to wait. We had no idea who might have ordered before or after us. People began to fill the small confines, gathering around the counter. DeMarco’s daughter had disappeared into the back; presumably to prepare additional ingredients like sausage, pepperoni, onions, and mushrooms. When she returned, she didn’t immediately go to the counter to take orders but went about her business oblivious of the hordes that were forming. I went out and bought a few beers for the wait and bagels from one of the kosher bakeries for the next morning’s breakfast. A half hour went by. A group of high school students who were there before us were still waiting for their pie. A man sitting and staring at the counter expectantly, also ahead of us, would occasionally get up, take a look at what was going on behind the counter only to return to his seat and resume his staring. The area around the counter was now three deep. Some were waiting for orders, others waiting to put in an order whenever the daughter got around to asking.

 Our appetizer, the square slices, instead of holding off our appetites, increased it. We were ravenous. The daughter noticed us and checked her pad; she confirmed that our order had been placed. “Just a few more ahead of you,” she said. That was reassuring.

Forty five minutes had passed. Our beers were gone. I was contemplating the bag of bagels. The high school kids finally got their pizza; we watched as Dominic, a bit stooped, accompanied the pie to the counter, hand grated parmesan cheese from a huge wedge and sprinkled it on the pie, added a slather of olive oil from an old fashioned spouted tin and then brought over a bunch of basil and using scissors, clipped a few leaves onto the pie. Gerry and I eyed the pizza as the kids began to eat. The man waiting next to us got up, made his way to the counter and tried to peer over it. Dominic noticed and nodded. The man acknowledged the nod. Progress. The next pizza out was his.

The hands of DeMarco at work.

 We were close. We had been waiting just over an hour when we got the nod from Dominic. Gerry got up and let Dominic prepare the pie the Di Fara way; a sprinkling of grated cheese, a few swirls of olive oil, and then the freshly scissor-cut basil. Gerry brought the pie to the table. We waited just a few moments for it to cool down while admiring its aesthetic perfection and then, despite hungry, envious eyes upon us, began to deliberately consume it, slice by slice, finishing in less than a quarter of the time of our wait for it to arrive.

 It was large pie and despite its somewhat delicate crust, still heartier than the thin, coal-fueled oven pies from say, Patsy’s in Harlem or Totonno’s in Coney Island. which made finishing it in its entirety an accomplishment or a blatant display of gluttony, depending on your point of view. Gerry and I certainly believed it was the former. What was the point in taking a slice or two home? We could have been generous and shared a last slice with one of the many now waiting anxiously for DeMarco to make their pizza. But then who knew when we would ever return to Midwood and subject ourselves to the bitter and the sweet of Di Fara Pizza? The pizza was extraordinary, but was it worth the long, confusing wait within Di Fara’s dingy, cramped confines. Di Fara’s requires work; you have to plan your visit, trying your best to avoid prime times, but, in a strange way, maybe the extra effort enhances the flavor and overall dining experience. Maybe Di Fara’s pizza would not taste so special if it were more accessible? If nothing else, it was something to think about on the long ride home.

Where the man works.

Since our visit in 2007, Gerry has returned to Di Fara’s several times, but I’ve never been back. Again, it’s the planning thing; I just haven’t cleared the afternoon/evening to make the trek.  And Di Fara’s is seemingly recession-proof; in 2009 they upped their slice to a whopping $5. But Di Fara’s is unique; the pizza cannot really be replicated. Or so I thought?  According to Di Fara’s website;, there is the sobering news that there will be a Di Fara’s debuting this summer in, where else, Las Vegas. The only good news about that is that the time it takes to get to Midwood from where I live in Manhattan along with the requisite hour plus wait for a pie,  it actually might be faster to  get a Vegas Di Fara slice into my mouth than a Brooklyn slice.

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