The older I get, the more I think New York pizza is, like fine wine, a product of its own terroir. I’m not just talking about Gotham’s famed water, that minerally and nearly pH neutral nectar said to produce bagels and pizzas of unholy deliciousness. Some, after all, have cast doubt on a mere mortal’s ability to detect water-quality differences in pizza.
No, I’m talking about walking the streets of the Lower East Side, slice in hand, and experiencing that heady combination of dough, cheese and tomato sauce on your tongue, taxi horns in your ears (fines be damned!) and the faint whiff of human decay and garbage in your nostrils. It’s the Manhattan equivalent of eating freshly foraged ramson leaves outside Copenhagen, the damp soil underfoot and the salty Baltic mist hanging in the air.
However you define New York pizza — many have tackled the thankless task, generating as much confusion as clarity — you simply can’t re-create this crusty Big Apple contact high in another locale, no matter how many photos of Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra and Vito Corleone that a proprietor hangs on the walls. Context is everything with New York pizza.
Well, almost everything.
Like many before him, Wiseguy NY Pizza owner Tony Erol has invested a ton of time and money researching this branch of the pie family. The Turkey native focuses on a several qualities that he believes define true New York pizza: thin, crispy slices, firm at the tip but still foldable; light charring along the exterior crust, far less than the standard leopard spotting of Neapolitan pies; the use of gas-powered deck ovens to spread heat evenly under those thin crusts; and a well-developed dough to provide the right amount of flavor and oven spring.
But Erol also believes a New York pizza is a homemade pizza, with almost everything made from scratch, which may be his own one-man rebellion to the dumbed-down $1 slices proliferating in the boroughs. Wiseguy’s team ferments and proofs its dough for at least 24 hours. It stretches fresh mozzarella curds daily. It even filters the local water so it better matches the stuff flowing from NYC taps, like so much Rocky Mountain runoff in late spring.
The man is clearly doing something right at his almost two-year-old operation near Union Station. The lines waiting to reach the counter regularly snake to the front door, which can be a blessing. The wait gives you time to review the pies lounging on metal racks, their sauces slowly staining and penetrating the crusts. The choices venture well beyond the standards found at your typical walk-up in the Village: Buffalo chicken, chicken ranch melt, mushroom truffle, honey barbecue chicken. It’s as if Erol forced his New York pizzeria to sit through training courses at California Pizza Kitchen.
Some folks order full, 18-inch pies to go. I prefer to mix-and-match singles cut from larger, 20-inch pies, which lets me graze widely, one of the chief benefits of a by-the-slice joint. A tip for the slice crowd: When Wiseguy’s line makes a U-turn and starts winding around the pantry supplies piled on the floor, you can actually relax. When the place gets that busy, the pies barely get out of the oven before they’re gobbled up, all crisp and hot. If you hit Wiseguy at off-hours, though, monitor the guys loading slices into the ovens for reheating. They may pull your pizza before its time.
Several times, as I sat on one of the mismatched chairs, surrounded by celebrity portraits and movie stills of sometimes dubious New York connection (“Pulp Fiction”?), I lifted slices from their overlapping paper plates and found them . . . limp and lukewarm. Other times, the slices delivered a pleasurable resistance, at once supple and crisp. Whether they snapped or sagged, though, the slices frequently tripped all the right flavor receptors, save for specialties like the honey barbecue, which favored the sweet over the tangy.
For the most part, I preferred the leaner slices, those topped with a minimal number of ingredients, perhaps exposing my own bias toward the Italian pizza model. The margherita was a crispy, saucy all-American deck-oven take on the wet Neapolitan staple, this one dappled with fresh mozzarella and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I traced some of its charm to a generous application of herb-laced sauce, which had wormed its way into the crust, boosting the flavor profile of what could be a wan, crackery base. The same held true for the pepperoni slice, its crust dyed red with sauce for maximum flavor.
By contrast, the sauceless mushroom-truffle slice had to rely on its high-wire balancing act of salty-sharp-creamy cheeses, given that its crust tasted as if it had been built from undeveloped dough. Other specialty slices fared better, notably the namesake Wiseguy with its lightly spiced house-made meatballs sealed under a thin coating of marinara and cheese. The Buffalo slice, sprinkled with the juiciest chicken I’ve tasted on a pizza, came drizzled with concentric circles of hot sauce and a light blue-cheese sauce. I wanted to hate this over-concepted mashup of football snacks, but couldn’t. Not even close.
I’ve saved the cheese pie for last, not because it’s the best slice at Wiseguy, but because it should be. My triangle was undercooked, over-cheesed and still perfectly acceptable. Perfectly acceptable. I suspect those words will ring hollow to Erol, a man who, much like the Chairman himself, is chasing the impossible dream: a great New York pizzeria set in a city not fit to host it. (His next location in Rosslyn may be an even worse match.) But I must admit, he’s close.
300 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-408-7800.
Hours: Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to a.m.; Thursday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Judiciary Square, with a 0.3-mile walk to the pizzeria.
Pizza prices: By the slice, $2.99-$3.99; 18-inch pizzas, $18.59-$25.99.