Pizza wars ramp up in New York City

“Pizza is like sex — even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” I wrote that in 1995 for a piece entitled, “The Ten Best Pizzas of South Beach.” The story ran in The Wire, an underground newspaper on the billion dollar sand bar that is Miami Beach.

None of those ten places have survived, but pizza is enjoying a renaissance, and in no place more so than New York City, where an intense pizza war has broken out.

Major league restaurateurs and chefs are trying to compete with the old, established champions like John’s Pizzeria on 278 Bleecker Street in Manhattan or Totonnos at 462 2nd Avenue in the East Village, or even Grimaldi’s at 19 Old Fulton Street under the bridge in Brooklyn. Frank Sinatra had Patsy Grimaldi’s pizza’s flown to him in Vegas. It’s that good. These are the three standards to which all other pizza pies must measure up.

The pizza of my youth was from a place called Phil Baker’s, in Norwalk, Connecticut. Baker was a retired prize fighter and his full service Italian restaurant turned out an extraordinary and distinctive pizza pie. I have spent my life trying to find its replica in flavor and aroma. The restaurant was ultimately torn down so that Route 7 could be extended from Norwalk to Danbury, Connecticut. So the search for perfect pizza continues.

Keste at 271 Bleeker had the brass to open virtually across the street from John’s. Foodies and people who’ve read the rave reviews wait for hours for pizzas I found leaden in weight and soupy in texture. On a second try the margarita was still too heavy and the pizza too soupy. On the other hand, my friend Scott Caruso, sommelier at Café Martarano in Fort Lauderdale, thinks Keste is some of the best he’s had, so see for yourself. Caruso knows pizza.

Across the street at John’s, they apply the perfectly sweet tomato sauce only after the pizza is half-cooked. The crust is nicely charred and the fennel in the sausage has bite and fragrance. Yuppies go to Keste, locals to John’s.

Motorino 349 E 12 St between First and Second Avenues is the pizza mecca that Keste is not, with a perfectly charred crust, sweet tomato sauce, and islands of Buffalo-milk mozzarella and basil. The pies are light and perfect. A serious challenge to Tontonno’s.

At Waldy’s, at 800 Sixth Avenue, chef Woody Malouf fires up a wafer-thin pizza that is tangy with the finest toppings. Try their white clam and Ricotta cheese pie. Light, fresh, excellent.

Naples 45 at 200 Park Avenue, but actually on 45 Street, turns out an enormous square pizza which, while a bit doughy, still nicely represents the best of Neapolitan tradition. At cocktail time enormous trays of free pizza  is rolled out for bar- stool revelers.

Company at 230 Ninth Avenue, New York is an unlikely name for a pizza place but owner Jim Sullivan turns out some of the best bread in the city at Sullivan bakery. Early reviews are good. Ours is coming soon.

Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria at 282 Bowery delayed its opening twice but might as well not bothered. The pizza was akin to flavorless cardboard. Frozen pizza from the grocery store is tastier. Brian McNally doesn’t challenge the old standards or the up and coming.

Roger Stone is a bon-vivant, raconteur and sometime political consultant residing in Miami Beach and New York City.