After saying arrivederci to my friends and boyfriend, the hardest thing about leaving Italy was parting ways with the food. Goodbye chicken liver crostini. So long burrata. See you later frittelle di riso. Until we meet again, dear friends.
Well, at least going to New York I’ll have good pizza, I reassured myself. Pizza is universal but New York’s is supposed to be great, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
To say that I was disappointed the first time I encountered this so-called “great pizza” would be putting it nicely. My roommate took me to a pizzeria around the corner from our Murray Hill apartment and while it smelled mildly enticing from outside, the second I walked in I knew it would never work out between us.
Glass countertop cases were filled with pizzas: flimsy, sad ones, covered in beige layers of cheese, and crumbly looking bits of sausage, and red pepperoni slices whose orange grease bled through the off-white cheese in unappetizing swirls of nastiness.
Ohmygod. Is that a heat lamp? How long has this depressing specimen of a pizza been sitting here? Is it too late to make a run for the door?
It was only my first or second week in the city, so I cut it a break and wrote off the bad experience as just that: one bad experience at one of a million pizza places in New York. It’s not like every single pizza made in Italy was perfect either.
Time passed and I had slices at other places, in other neighborhoods, with other toppings, and still nothing. If I passed a pizza parlor, I looked in the window and quickly inspected their product. Always the same sad pizzas, sitting under heat lamps like iguanas at the pet shop.
Some places weren’t horrible. They were just ok. But it was only the beer that went with them that got them even that far. Numbing my senses and probably my tastebuds, the beer helped me forget.
I was sad. Losing pizza made me nostalgic and whiney. I didn’t want to be a pizza snob but how could I not be? Il Pizzaiuolo, my favorite in Florence, had been directly below my apartment. Caffé Italiano, just down the street, had made heart-shaped pizzas when I went with girlfriends. Gusta Pizza, across the river, had been a regular gathering place for friends. Each offered pizzas from dough that had been kneaded right there in front of me, with bright white chunks of fresh mozzarella and other delicious ingredients, all before being slid into a giant wood-fired brick oven. Not a heat lamp in sight.
But I wasn’t giving up that easily.
Good pizza has to be around here somewhere! New York is crawling with Italians, real Italian-speaking, born-in-Italy Italians. I hear them everywhere I go and can pick them out in crowds. I doubt they’re settling for this cheapy, iguana pizza, so where are they eating, dammit??
I polled friends and coworkers, pored over blogs and reviews, scrutinized menus and inspected photos. And then I found it.
Motorino, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in the East Village. Their menu had just a few pizzas, featuring classic ingredients like buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, and even toppings reminiscent of my Italy days like soppressata and scamorza.
This was going to be good. I could feel it in my bones.
Flaneur and I showed up late on a Friday night and the small restaurant was packed. After a 30-minute wait, we were squeezed into a small table for two. I scanned the room and besides amazing looking pizza remains on people’s plates, I saw another sign that put me at ease: a table of Italians, chatting away and lounging around at the table where they had probably finished eating some two hours earlier. These were real Italians.
We ordered and thankfully not long after, our pizzas arrived.
Flaneur, ever the traditionalist Italian, ordered a margherita, which of course I tried. It was perfect, like it had somehow magically been teleported from a pizzeria in Napoli somewhere. Bright red tomato sauce, creamy white splotches of mozzarella and bright green basil leaves. And it wasn’t just good looking. This pizza was the real deal. It. Was. Awesome. Soft, doughy crust. Not too thick, not to thin. None of that weird, even coating of artificial cheese. No orange, acidic tomato gunk. Just simple, delicious perfection.
I, on the other hand, ordered the cremini and spicy sausage pizza. Same soft, wonderful crust as the margherita but topped with scamorza (a Southern Italian cheese similar to mozzarella) AND pecorino, cremini (small, brown mushrooms), spicy little chunks of sausage, and swirls of olive oil (the good stuff), with just a few black olives, some garlic, and a bit of thyme.
After just the first bite, Motorino and its pizzas quickly won a place on my hands-down-all-time-favorite-insanely-delicious-pizzerias list. Anyone watching me wolf down that pizza might have thought I was having some sort of religious experience.
At the end of the night, as I walked home with my New York-transplanted Italian boyfriend and a belly full of authentic Italian pizza, I thought, ah, now this is la dolce vita. Thanks for pulling through, New York.