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Pizza reviews: Lombardis/Di Fara/Sally's/Pepe's

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I recently decided to take it upon myself to figure which pizza place in the NY/CT area had the “best” pizza. In order to judge them properly one must be able to eat them all within a fairly short time period. I tasted a plain pie and when available, 1 clam (white only) pie. I was afforded that opportunity this past weekend and must pass along my findings. On Friday I ate @ Lombardi’s in NYC. I had always thought that Lombardi’s served a good pie but seemed to be over rated. And my findings did not disappoint me. The pie was good, nothing great. Over the past several visits I have noticed that no particular care is given to the cooking pies. It seems that the business has gotten in the way of properly cooking the pizzas. Get them in and get them out, which is too bad given the quality of the ingredients. The sauce and cheese all seem to be in good proportions. The same problems plague the clam pizza. The crust was unevenly/undercooked. The toppings were true to form, very fresh but very poorly arranged (there was actually a piece that didn’t have ANY clam on it whatsoever!) I will say that Lombardi’s is at the bottom of my small survey. On Saturday we did back to back Sally’s/Pepe’s of New Haven CT tasting (my babysitter Friday night provided me with the “secret” # to Sally’s to “reserve” a table). Again we ordered 1 plain pie and 1 clam pie. After a 1 hr and 15 min wait our pies were delivered to our table. Upon 1st inspection both seemed perfect for our liking. My 1st bite into the crispy garlicky clam pizza provided me with nothing but disappointment. The clams seemed to lack any real flavor and my wife went so far to say they tasted “canned”. I had to agree. The pizza itself was perfectly cooked and had it not been for the offtasting clams this could have been very close to perfection. Next slice came from the cheese pie. This to me was as close as you get to a perfect plain pie. Perfect balance of sauce to cheese. The crust was perfectly charred and crisp. I think the dough could have had a little more salt but it was delicious. My only gripe would have been the temperature. I do not know if they waited for the clam pie to come out of the oven or if it was put on a cold tray, the pizza should have been piping hot and it was not. It was closer to tepid than hot. Be that as it may, it was a stunning pizza. I have always thought that Pepe’s was the be all and end all of pizzas. On occasion (as rare as that may be) the pie will be a little thick and uneven in the crust. That was not the case on Saturday. Again we ordered 1 clam and 1 plain cheese. The interesting thing to note was when we left the sign on the door indicated that they were not serving clam pies. During our visit they ran out and therefore were no long available. I wonder if Sallys ran out of fresh clams and just substituted canned clams? Anyway, both pies came to the table piping hot and full of flavor. 1st bite was out of the clam pie and I was in heaven! Crisp, clam/garlic/olive oil flavors abound! That clam pie is to die for. The cheese pie was also delicious. Although a little thicker than Sally’s, it did not suffer from the same Lombardi-like undercooking. It was perfectly charred with the right amount of chewy/crisp crust that I like. All in all, a better experience than Sally’s but the plain pies were very close (I’d give the nod to Sally’s on this visit to the plain pie). Last and by NO means last was Di Fara in Brooklyn on Sunday. I have read and read about Di Fara for quite some time but have never found myself on or near Ave. J in Brooklyn. That is probably my single biggest mistake…not getting here sooner. Although Di Fara does not have a clam pizza, this, IN MY OPINION is the greatest singular expression of pizza I have EVER eaten. Those looking for atmosphere look elsewhere! Dominic De Marco has been making pizza here for over four decades and by the looks of things, NOTHING has changed. He makes (at least the day I was there) all the pizzas himself. He uses genuine buffalo mozzarella that he slices in his hand. All ingredients are genuine top quality and each pie he makes he takes his time. He also tends to the pizza oven which insures that each pie is cooked to perfection. When the pie comes out of the oven it is piping hot and perfectly cooked. Dominic then hand grates romano cheese that you can sprinkle on top. WOW, what a pizza. The perfect balance of flavors, heat and texture. Without question the best of the tasting. I will say that it has ZERO atmosphere and can be slow. But it is worth the wait. To truly experience this pizza do not be tempted to take out. It MUST be savored as soon as it comes out of the oven. Those trying to judge this pizza after putting it into a cardboard box will not experience this slice of heaven properly.
Please understand that I judge pizza by MY tastes. I grew up in CT and believe real pizza is thin crusted and crispy. I spent 15 years in Chicago. To me Chicago deep dish pizza is the antithesis of what pizza should be. But yet people there seem to love it and HATE NY style pizza. So this just goes to show you: it is all subjective and all comments should be taken as such!

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  1. LVI, good god, this could be published as a book you know. Do you have any suggestions east of New Haven?

    2 Replies
    1. re: Gregory

      Sorry, live closer to NYC.

      1. re: LVI

        Can't give up the waterfront spread in Madison to taste pizza in NYC

    2. I was always a Modern man myself when I lived in New Haven. Sally's and Pepe's (esp. Sally's) were always too soggy for my taste. That said, I agree with you that DiFara's in Brooklyn takes the cake. Or the pie, as it were.

      2 Replies
      1. re: a&w

        I ate at Modern a while back (3-4 months) and found it average with too thick of a crust.

        1. re: LVI

          Modern usually has a thinner crust than Pepe's or Sally's (neither of which has an especially thin crust compared to other New Haven places). It's not as thin as some of the New York, especially Brooklyn, places, but I've always found it thinner than the average New York style pizza. Whether or not it's average quality aside from that is another thing entirely, but I would consider it anomalous to get a pizza at Modern that wasn't very thin.

      2. LVI,

        Great review! My hobby is sampling hot dogs from all over, and I wish I could write a hot dog review as good as your pizza review. I've never sampled any of the pizzas mentioned, but I do enjoy reading the posts here and elsewhere about the many pizza places in New York, N.J. and Conn. I see the Conn. places mentioned often, as well as DiFara's, Lombardi's, and Grimaldi's in N.Y. From the passion and number of posts about Pepe's and Sally's, I've always assumed these places make the best pizza. Living in N.J., much closer to Brooklyn, I think I'll check out DiFara's. Thanks.

        1 Reply
        1. re: John Fox

          Hotdogs - In and around Providence, RI there are place that serve "New York System Hot Weiners". Some places are dinners, others pizza joints and still others just the "Gaggers" as the locals call them. Next time you pass through, try Harry's Hot Weiners in Warwick. Ask for at least 4 (they're small) with everything (mustard, wiener sauce, onion and celery salt).

        2. You need to try Roseland in Derby,CT the next time you come up. About 30 minutes west have New Haven right off rte 34 on Hawthorne Avenue. Just as good as all those places you mentioned.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Richie

            I second Roseland - I've wooed women with their shrimp oreganato pizza with bacon (leave off the fresh tomato).
            Their other pizza choices are also excellent.

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              Tell me more about the Roseland pizza please. Thick crust, thin??? Crispy? Burnt?
              Thanks!

              1. re: Bunny

                As a Brooklynite, now transplanted in CT, I really like Modern Pizza, when I need some decent pizza. Pepe's/Sally's OK too, but NOTHING comes close to DiFara!

                As for Roseland, I went there years ago, and it's OK, nothing special. Never went back because they were lacking soap in the Ladies Room, and that turned me off to the place.

                1. re: Bunny

                  Thin crust - a little burnt I suppose - I think they may put a little bit of cornmeal or bread crumbs on the bottom of the pie.

                  I have never had a bad meal there - of course, I can't speak of the amount of soap in the ladies' room.

                  It's a family-run place that's always been kept well - I am reasonably certain the lack of soap was a mere oversight that could have been corrected with a mention to the staff.

            2. Thanks for the informative reviews. Based on years of pizza eating in the NY area I agree with your rankings - DiFara's on top (pizza heaven, a place I enter with reverence), but I give a close 2nd to Pepe's for their clam pie.

              You should try Una Pizza Napoletana on East 12th St. in Manhattan (I think near 1st Ave, but check before you go). This place is more like "artisinal" pizza, with much care and high quality ingredients for every component of the pie. They have a limited menu and close when they run out of dough each day, and there is often a line to get in. While it is not my absolute favorite, it ranks way up there and I respect the owner's dedication to his craft.