Now admittedly, I had grand designs to sample a bunch of pizza places being deemed as “the best” in NY and it’s boroughs, and do a comparison. This did not happen. There’s only so much heartburn and loose stools one man can take. Besides, in a city as large as New York, with all the hipster, ironic niche food shops opening up everywhere, I couldn’t limit myself to that much pizza: I passed a place called Pom Frites that only does French fries (with a ton of different toppings), right next to a place that only does crepes, right next to a place that only does bizarre ice cream, next to a place… you get the idea. First thing I MUST say is that New York pizza kinda sucks. Now, I’m not saying it’s AWFUL pizza across the board, but I’ve never had any that’s really blown me away. Obviously it’s impossible to try ALL the pizza places in NYC (half of them would shut down, and new ones open up, before you even got through the list). And I’m sure there’s someone reading this (fuming) going “Then you just haven’t gone to the right spots…” Perhaps you’re right. It is probably very likely that I’ve only been maneuvered towards mediocre pizza in NYC, and probably missed out on something amazing. But this isn’t meant to be a review of specialty pizza (special cooking process, artisan, bourgeois), I mean real, blue-collar, greasy pizza. Now if someone came to Boston, I’d have them try Regina Pizzeria or Pinocchio’s , and it’s very possible that if they went anywhere else, they could leave Boston with a (dare I say it) bad taste in their mouth (I did say it). Truth be told, in my opinion, the best pizza might be in New Haven, CT at Frank Pepe’s, at least for thin crust.
I was excited to try Ben’s Pizza because I heard Louie CK talk about it (and it’s where he’s eating pizza during the opening of his hit FX show)… and celebrities know more than us commoners, right? Plus, he’s originally from Boston-ish, so it’s possible he grew up with a similar pizza experience to myself. No, not at all. My first impression of Ben’s Pizza was positive, it was nearly open-air, greasy little pizzeria (in a good way!). I liked that Ben’s is between a bunch of the comedy clubs, and lots of foot traffic around. They had a big selection of different pies out for slices to be sold, a couple tables. My favorite part was when this girl came in and asked what kind of salads they had. “No salads, just pizza.” Was the response. I’m not sure why that made me so happy. *They also do calzones, I feel is worth mentioning.
Being me, I grabbed a traditional NY Slice of pepperoni. I was not blown away. It’s good pizza, I don’t have a ton of criticism, but it all kind of is the same. Every place I’ve been to in NY, or purports as “NY Pizza” in other cities, it’s all the same. Pretty good, but forgettable. It’s just pizza. Why do New Yorkers always go on and on about this pizza like it’s special? I don’t buy that “this is what I grew up with, it’s the best” nonsense. I grew up with plenty of pizza in my small hometown that is absolute garbage compared to pizza I’ve had in other places. If your taste buds are that out of whack, blow your brains out. But, Ben’s does offer a lot in the way of variety. They have typical stuff, like veggie, buffalo chicken, curry chicken?, and even a pizza that had pasta on top. So maybe my first impression is based upon poor choice of slice to represent?
HOWEVER, (this is the triumphant redemption of NY Pizza), New York City has one thing that does make them unique: the grandma slice.For those who don’t know, the Grandma Slice is square and thick like Sicilian style pizza (which I love more than traditional thin crust). It’s got that old-country look where the sauce and cheese aren’t necessarily in the same places, and it’s got a crispy yet doughy, buttery-garlicy crust. NOW THIS, I’ll get behind. In my travels, I’ve never come across any other region that does slices this way, and I can’t think of many Sicilian pies I’ve had that measure up to a Ben’s Grandma slice (one or two maybe). I think the Grandma slice is the slice to get at Ben’s (personally), and it was better than other Grandma slices I’d had. I liked it so much, I got 2 more slices the next night when I came back into the area for a comedy show.
The Bagel Store
NY does bagels better than anywhere else. 100%, there is no denying this. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but this is a fact. I can’t even think of EVER having a bad bagel anywhere. Not once. There may not be such thing as a bad bagel. But they’re just better in NY. Legend has it, it’s something about NY water. I’m not sure I believe that the rat-bath known as Brooklyn tap water has anything to do with it, but we’ll let them have their fun. In doing research for “the best bagels”, the Bagel Store didn’t even come up. Pretty crazy, considering that’s pretty much all they do. However, this place IS famous for it’s Rainbow Bagels. Hand-colored and spun, the rainbow bagels will make even the burliest man prance around with joy. They’re a spectacle. Luckily I went in when they were having a few minutes of a lull in the rush, so the helpful staff gave me some extra attention to answer all my questions (mostly “what’s that? Ooh what’s that?!”). What I didn’t expect was the crazy amount of cream cheeses they had… I mean stuff I didn’t even know existed. Sweet AND savory. Not to mention other things like real COTTON CANDY.
I knew I had to get something wild here. I got the rainbow bagel with the oreo cream cheese. Yes. OREO cream cheese. Even to me, it felt a little too much. I thought “this is going to taste gross, too sweet.” God I was so wrong. It was incredibly complimentary, and I would eat it again in a heartbeat. The only thing disappointing here, was that their toaster was broken. Call me boring, I really can’t eat a bagel that isn’t toasted (and well toasted, at that). But I had to try this thing. And this is where greatness comes in. A good bagel would’ve caused me to say “Eh, it was okay, would’ve been better if it was toasted.” But this bagel was amazing, perfect taste, consistency everything… and then loaded with oreo cream cheese.
Just in case, as a back-up, I had also ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel with plain cream cheese (told you I’m boring, and set in my ways). This was also probably the best bagel I’ve ever had. They know what they’re doing, and the options/combinations are endless. Honestly, this is a sugarholics heaven. Cotton candy, funfetti cream cheese w/ extra cake sprinkles, and edible fairy dust? On a bagel? What, do they also own an insulin company? I was not bold enough to go all out, nor did I get to try a breakfast sandwich (no toaster), or one of their cragles (half bagel, half croissant). Next time, for sure I will.
Thank the sweet lord baby jesus I found this place. Most of the time donuts are somewhat disappointing, am I right? Sure if you get to Dunkin Donuts at a reasonable time (before 1pm?) they’re still pretty soft and fresh tasting, or at a supermarket you kind of get what you get. Krispee Crème (except for original glazed) are basically like the opposite of diabetic medication… overkill on that glaze, and Honey Dew donuts stink, I’d rather get supermarket donuts. And you Tim Horton’s people, don’t even start with me. So often I think to my fat-little-self that I miss that one bakery in my hometown that made fresh donuts every morning, big and sugary and delicious. Well, apparently the hipster’s are monitoring our hopes and dreams because there are plenty of these ironic, half-vegan, donut shoppes sprouting across our great nation.
I got to Dough about 2 minutes before closing time (9pm). They reluctantly let me in, and I could sense the silent mantra of “make this quick, asshole” broadcasting from the staff’s minds. This is not a criticism. What kind of IDIOT goes to spend good money on end-of-the-day donuts? I mean, they’ve got to be dry and crumbly by then, all the sugar will clump and flake off… it’s kind of pathetic to be that closing time donut customer. Well, until this night. I told them quickly the 3 types I wanted (to-go) to try. They hooked me up with 2 of each, I left grinning like an idiot mumbling “these are the nicest people I’ve ever met…”
The donuts are about $3 a piece, which sounds like a lot, until you hold one. Plus, that measly little croissant-donut at Dunkin’ is $2.50. At Dough, the donuts are huge, they are rich, they are unique. The first one I tried was a plain glazed. Perfection, even at closing time it was soft and doughy and the glaze was sticky and sweet as just out of the fryer. I couldn’t believe it. And I could only eat one. That’s never happened. Ever. I sort of have a 2 donut minimum. So I took the rest of my donuts back to my hotel room. Nothing sordid happened, but I did eat them out… of the box… in bed. Even the next day they were better than any day-old donut in existence. These were like perfectly preserved alien donuts. LITERALLY the best I’ve ever had, and I stand by this statement. So much so, that just before leaving NYC, I popped in for another $19 half dozen to take home with me. Best thing about being a fat guy? No one wanted to sit next to me, so my buddy (the box of donuts) and I got real comfy.
All the ones I tried were perfection: Plain Glazed, Cinnamon-Sugar, Dulce de Leche, and Nutella. The Nutella-filled donut is a work of art, eating it makes you feel like a French aristocrat having tea with high society… even if you’re headed home on a 5 hour bus ride, sucking the filling off your fat fingers. Which like a savage, I was. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the Boston Cream donut, but that’s not to say it wasn’t good. It was. But it was very unique to Dough, and not what I grew up with in New England.
Rocco’s Pasticceria (Honorable Mention)
Review by Dave James, who currently lives in Cambridge, MA not practicing his clarinet.
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