Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Heart New York Pizza, If Only Elsewhere, And In the Deep American South

Heartbreak in life is inevitable.  As is the fact that everything you ever believed in or thought was true will eventually be debunked, shat on, and revealed as the sham it always was.  Evidence Santa Claus.  The Easter bunny.  The sparkling promise of the Obama presidency.  Lies, all of it.  And all of it, the opposite of true.  So how did I ever make it this far in life with the silly belief that Italians made the best pizza?  I've lived in Chicago.  I've stalked New York like a jealous ex-boyfriend.  I've eaten hundreds, nay thousands, of slices of the greasy stuff in that dark and often drunken and inevitable 3AM of the soul, and believed with soul-shuddering conviction that all the truly great pizza I had put in my mouth was made by some fresh-off-the-boat paisan who wore a gold St. Christopher medallion around his neck and loved his elderly Turino-born mother just a little too much.  So imagine my astonishment when I discovered what was some of the best pizza of my life in a Wilmington, North Carolina, pizzeria named I Heart New York Pizza (owned by a Greek named Yani, no less) and made by a Salvadoran cook named Herbert.  Yes, Herbert.  You would have likely had a better chance at reviving my belief in the Tooth Fairy than convince me guys with names like Yani and Herbert could be producing some of the best pizza in North America.  And yet, that's precisely what they are doing at I Heart New York Pizza, and doing it daily, and oh-so very, very well.

The sad truth is that before my recent encounter with I Heart New York Pizza, I did not heart pizza at all.  In fact, I kind of hated the stuff.  Not because pizza ever failed to be delicious, or even, if more rarely, something that approximated culinary salvation for an intemperate soul.  It was that pizza seemed a simpleton's food.  The proverbial white flag of culinary surrender.  What is pizza, after all?  Red sauce.  Dough.  Cheese.  Some combination of vegetable or protein topping.  And something you ate when too drunk or tired to seek the truly transcendental.  It was kid food.  It was food for the despondent.  The bored.  The cerebrally impaired.  Or so I thought until a winter's late-afternoon need for a snack brought me off Wilmington's Front Street and into the culinary wheelhouse of Herbert and Yani, and their magic dough.

It was not love at first sight.  I Heart New York Pizza requires the eater to choose from an ever-changing variety of pizzas cooked at some point in the recent (or not so) past, left to sit at room temperature and under glass for god-knows-how-long, then returned to a thousand-degree pizza oven for a reheat just prior to eating.  In New York, this is the gig, par for the course, but in the American South it was strangely vexing.  And then there's the matter of Yani himself.  He's clearly calling the shots here, the swinging dick, and he will finish whatever task he's set out to dispatch before acknowledging your presence in any way, let alone taking your order.  I stood in front of the pizza case a good two-to-three minutes, feeling stupid every second of it, before Yani could be bothered to take my order.  But when he did turn and face me, when he did look into my eyes and favor me with that fleeting, Greek smile, it was if the sun had suddenly appeared from behind a cloud and the world was golden again and a place where possibilities did indeed abound.

I ordered three slices.  The Rio Rancho.  The Lasagna.  The Sausage and Pepperoni.  Each slice was somehow better than the last.  The Rio Rancho was a strange fusion of ricotta, bacon, and ranch dressing.  The lasagna also boasted ricotta, but with the welcome addition of meatballs and mozzarella.  As for the sausage and pepperoni, it was a straight-forward, no frills, in-your-face amalgam of mozzarella and pepperoni, but the sausage was akin to gyro meat and delightfully strange when paired with the pepperoni.  Nothing in these ingredients suggests anything approaching culinary greatness, I know, but somehow each slice was far, far greater than the sum of its parts.  So I finished all three enormous slices and returned to the counter to order two slices more.  Yani had evidently just left for the day, so I ordered from the delightful Herbert, who informed me my Buffalo Chicken pizza was good to go, but that he had no White pizza at present and would make me one on the spot.

So I watched Herbert roll out the dough, then toss it into the air with all the breezy, if masterful, nonchalance you'd expect from some expert pizza maker from Naples, not El Salvador.  Herbert told me he had been making pizza, professionally, since arriving from Salvador, several years before, and that he now believed he had finally discovered what people wanted in pizza, the acidity of the red sauce, the bite of the cheese, and which combination of ingredients made his pizza truly delicious, even surprising, and always popular with the Wilmington locals.

I told Herbert the fact I was about to consume five colossal slices of some food I previously hated might very well suggest that his pizza was more than simply delicious; it was remarkable, even special.  A gift from the culinary gods.  Herbert accepted the compliment with laughter and a smile.  But he grew serious, downright contemplative, when asked what, in his opinion, made his pizza so goddamned good.  Herbert raised his chin.  He narrowed his eyes.  He put his forefinger on his lips and nodded.

"It's the water," he said, finally.  "The water in the dough.  It comes from the river.  The river is magic."

An hour before, I had seen two alligators swimming in the same river of which Herbert now spoke.  So magic the river must be.  I returned to my booth, already full from my previous slices, and managed to take down my pizza with the finger-licking ferocity of a man who hadn't eaten in a week.  And yes, I even ate the crust.  But as I was leaving, a panhandler came into the store.  He was the same dread-wearing, hippy-love-shit kind of a guy, whom I had seen earlier begging for spare change on his all-too-dubious mastery of the African finger-piano.  He came into I Heart New York Pizza and laid down three dollars worth of small change for a single slice of Herbert's amazing pizza.  And as I watched him spill his dirty money across Yani's counter, asked myself this:  would I lay down my last three dollars on a single slice of Herbert's cheesy deliciousness?  That's a no-brainer.  The answer arrived in a nano-second:  Yes, emphatically, yes.

Yani and Herbert can likely be found most days at 28 North Front Street in Wilmington, North Carolina.  I will likely be found there most Federal holidays when I've ventured to visit the bizzaro Carolina low-country and my not-Italian mother.  You should know me on sight.  I'll be the guy hating myself for loving this pizza so much.  And I'll be sitting in the back booth with pizza grease on my chin, licking my fingers, yearning for more.

1 comment:

  1. I just heard about this place. Planning a visit to NC soon, and a friend recommended this pizza. Thanks for the glowing review - now I'm even more excited to go! (And YES - so often I've learned that the magic ingredient, the one issue that separates the greats from the nearly-greats is - the WATER. I hear that again and again.) Thanks for a fun and funny and smart read!