Friday, March 29, 2013

Why "Scott's Pizza Tour" in NYC is a TOP Attraction!

My husband and I love to travel so we make a point of working in places where we want to be, familiar and new. We find that doing food tours is a great way to really experience a place. It's a treat to have a food expert take you around to the best restaurants. It saves time especially if you're only in town for a few days and minimizes frustration with a language barrier in a foreign land.  What better way than to learn about a city's history and culture than by tasting its culinary delights. We've taken food tours in Manhattan, Portland, Seattle, Istanbul (in the European side and Asian side), and more recently, pizza tours both in Chicago and New York City. Since it was our first experience this year, I will talk about Scott's Pizza Tour first.  You never forget your first.

We pulled the kids out of school for a week for a trip to NYC. Kevin wrote a book on iOS App Development for Non-Programmers, and earned a Publishing Innovation Award, and of course, we had to make a trip to the Big Apple. I was really excited about this trip since I also had pizza in my brain. What better place than this city to eat a pizza, whether it be NY style, or Neopolitan. It's going to be authentic, that's for sure.  Needless to say, it would be better than the pizzerias here in central Virginia. After all, the birthplace of pizza in this country is in NYC.

I found out about Scott's Pizza Tour on my go-to website for hotels and attractions: TripAdvisor. Having read the reviews which were mostly over the top, it was a tour not to be missed, especially with my obsession for pizza.  Even better that this would be the kids' first food tour. They love pizza. Needless to say, I also stressed the fact that we would only be walking several blocks, since it would 32 degrees. All the reviewers who had families raved about Scott's tour as being super kid-friendly, great for all ages, and for all pizza lovers, enthusiasts, fanatics, nerds, and beyond.

I emailed Scott the week before, telling him that I was just another pizza enthusiast and hoping that he would be the tour guide on our particular day. If my memory serves me correctly, Scott lived in NJ while spending most of his free time in NY enjoying the best pizzas in the city.  During one of his birthdays, he rented a bus, invited all his friends and toured around the city.  That is how his business began. Passion. How cool is that story!

We met Scott and four other couples in front of Keste Pizzeria e Vino on Bleecker Street. For several weeks, I had been doing research on Neopolitan pizzas and found several videos on YouTube of Roberto Caporuscio making pizzas. Well, as some of you know Roberto Caporuscio is the owner of Keste, so I was in heaven to know that it was our first stop.  I honestly don't remember his introduction of the tour since I was cold, giddy and happy to be in NY with my family and entering Keste.

Bleecker and Morton St

Roberto and Scott commiserate over the pie
One of the perks of being in a food tour is the special treatment you get. You feel like you're "in" with the owner, host, and wait staff since the establishment acknowledges the tour guide and tour's presence, making way for us. We entered Keste at 11:30 am, thirty minutes before they opened.  It was an intimate place with a rather refined, rustic feel.

Mozzarella maker

So we had the entire place to ourselves. We all sat close to the wood fire oven, and the gospel continued. We each got a goodie bag, stuffed with a pad/pencil for note taking and gummy candy shaped like a pizza. I was oohhing about that and then I heard Scott's news.  Apparently, Eduardo (the main pizza maker) was stuck in traffic, and as result, Roberto was on his way in.  I think I was the only one who was thrilled at the news! My husband was as excited for me since I made him watch the same videos in the previous weeks. So glad he's supportive of my craziness!

Much the same way I was excited to meet Gabriel Bonci, the "Michelangelo of Pizza", while in Pizzarium buying his cookbook and Marino Mulino flour, I was thrilled to see Roberto at Keste. It's rare to see owners in their own establishment. Luck would have it that he would be making our pizzas to taste!

Dough is opened & stretched 80 % on counter

What makes Neopolitan pizza unique?  It is a tradition that dates back 200 years to Naples. Today, pizzerias specializing in Neopolitan pies are recreating an old tradition while maintaining guidelines put forth by an Italian governing body (Associazone della Vera Pizza Napoletana) that ensures the authenticity of ingredients and procedures. It is defined by using the freshest ingredients, without oil or sugar.  These include imported Italian (00) flour, San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella cheese (imported bufala or fior di latte, whole milk).  There are two types of Neopolitan toppings: Margherita, named after Queen Margherita, made by Raphael Esposito, to celebrate the national colors of the Italian flag. He used mozzarella (white), tomatoes (red) and basil (green). The other topping is Marinara, which is simply tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and oregano.  Neopolitan sailors brought the tomatoes to Italy from the New World, who enjoyed topping their bread with tomatoes and herbs, hence the name marinari (sailors).  It is pizzerias like Keste that maintain the tradition and move your senses into the culinary world of Naples once you take that first bite.

Dough is stretched to 100% on the peel

Scott let us take a peek inside the wood-fire oven. A beautiful beast spewing fire. Needless to say, the warmth was welcoming us from the cold air outside. After the group sat down waiting to be served, and with Scott's permission, I went behind the prep counter and watched Roberto with dough in hand.  As many of the members in the Pizza Making Forum claimed, Roberto was very generous and hospitable in my inquiries and curiosity.

The Volcano

Requirement for a Neopolitan Pie

Roberto made a couple of margheritas - simply made with fresh tomato sauce, Keste's house-made mozzarella cheese, basil and olive oil-
and a couple of pizzas with lard. I had a wonderful bite of the pizza margherita and returned to watching Roberto. The crust was tender with a slight crisp on the exterior. The rim or edge (known as the cornicione) was puffy and soft. Nicely charred. The spots (or leoparding) on the crust can only be achieved in a HOT oven, say 900 degrees F.  The charred appearance provides a smoky flavor in the crust. Cheese was wonderfully fresh. Roberto, a former cheese maker back in Naples, makes his own cheese daily.

It was my first taste of a true Neopolitan pizza. Simple, yet divine. We chatted briefly about the dough, oven management and my wood fire oven as I watched him stretch out the soft dough with his bear-claw hands. I returned to the table and my daughter had eaten my share of the pies! I left Keste thinking how cool it would be to take his intense 10-day pizza making course and learn to make mozzarella too. More on this idea later!

Roberto & his wingman, Eduardo

Neopolitan Pizza @ Keste Pizzeria e Vino

Next stop was across the street  to John's Pizza, a New York style pizza. Scott's intention was to let us experience how pizzas were made back in the early 1900s. Coal was readily available, so most pizzas were cooked in coal-fired brick ovens like John's, founded by John Sasso in 1929. The ambiance was that of a sports bar. A bit loud for my taste, but it was the lunch crowd after all. John's Pizzeria screams quintessential NYC with signs indicating Cash Only, No Reservations, and No Slices, which means only whole pizzas are available.

Compared to the Neopolitan slice, the classic New York slice has a thicker crust, yet the edge or rim remains thinner and crispier.  The dough is made thicker to allow more toppings.  It is stretched out wider, therefore, there is some oil added to the dough to allow extensibility.  This type of dough can be tossed in the air as part of the stretch method which certainly adds entertainment value. The tomato sauce in John's pizza was sweeter than Keste's simple tomato sauce, which is simply crushed in a food mill and sprinkled with a little salt. I should have been more thoughtful when tasting the pie, but I was still in a trance from my Neopolitan experience. After savoring a puffy dough with a tender crispiness of the Neopolitan crust, I found the NY slice nondescript and with a crunchy crust. It was like eating a cracker! I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more, had it been our first stop of the tour.

Coal Fired Oven

850 degree temperature

New York Style  @ John's Pizzeria

Palermo Pie
Off we went to Joe's Pizza, at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine, also known as the "Greenwich Village Institution", to taste their their Sicilian-style pizzas. Founded in 1975 by Joe Pozzuoli, they remain a family-owned business. Although they are known for their classic NY pies, we came to our last stop to try their famous Sicilian Square Pie.  The hallmark of a Sicilian pizza is the thickness of the crust. It is soft and bread-like.  The bottom of the crust is wonderfully crunchy and caramel in color, from the many sticks of butter I saw on the counter top. The volume of the crust allows more toppings of meat, vegetables, or cheeses. These types of pizzas are baked in a deck oven.  Scott brought out a pizza tray of Palermo Pie which was topped with breadcrumbs, of all things!  My husband really enjoyed it, saying that it felt like it was a meal. After many, many years, they just opened their second location on 14th Street.

I think that's Joe, himself

Sicilian Pie @ Joe's Pizzeria
All in all, it was a great day! Scott definitely knew his topic.  He was very knowledgeable about pizza and its history with NYC. His enthusiasm was infectious  and kept everyone entertained with fun facts and anecdotes! When Scott realized that one of the couples were already familiar with a pizzeria in California that was similar to a pizzeria he had scheduled for the tour, he changed the itinerary to a different pizzeria so that they could experience a new pizza concept. Now that's a sign of customer service!

Our kids got their first food tour under their belt, and we all got to experience tasting the different styles of pizza - Neopolitan, Sicilian and New York, while walking the streets of Greenwich Village. The 3 hour tour gave us a glimpse of how pizza evolved as the Italian immigrants settled in the boroughs of New York City. All from a passionate pizza fanatic. I truly have met my match!

Spreading the word to his disciples

The magic touch

Sharing his passion

Serving his knowledge 

On a side note, it was great catching up with Scott Weiner at the Pizza Expo last week. He was quite busy judging the pizza-making competitions.  A prolific writer, he has a column in Pizza Today magazine, a Facebook page, and blog. We are looking forward to riding the Pizza Bus Tour  with Scott next time we're in the Big Apple!

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