New York pizza done right – On Tuesday night I tagged along with Kevin and John as they headed to Gino’s New York Pizza, by Noksapyeong Station, where John knows the chef-owner, Eugene. This was originally going to be an outing with just John and Kevin, but John made the mistake of commenting in public that he wanted to take Kevin to a New York pizza place. I brazenly invited myself along—I was willing to be a bit of a social pariah for the chance of getting some real NY pizza.
Gino’s is located on that curved, elevated section of road at the eastern end of Itaewon’s main drag, reached by a pedestrian overpass from Noksapyeong Station. A number of places have sprung up there recently, including the excellent barbecue house Manimal (Gino’s is actually a few meters down the road and across the street from Manimal). We arrived shortly after seven o’ clock, and fortunately there was plenty of room for us; we took a seat in the back in a semi-booth (booth seats on the wall side, chairs on the other side).
John introduced us to Eugene, who turned out to not only be originally from Long Island (like myself), but to also have studied for two years at my alma mater, SUNY Binghamton (now going by the more upscale moniker of Binghamton University), before heading on to greener pastures. He also seems to be quite a cool guy with a passion for what he’s doing, and I was looking forward to seeing what he could do with NY pizza.
Even though it will probably be obvious, I want to clarify what I mean by “NY Pizza” before I continue, because that phrase can mean two different things. One might be referring to pizza in New York, or one might be referring to pizza of a particular style that originated in New York. Since we’re not in New York, it should be obvious that I’m talking about the latter here, but it is still an important distinction to make. There is a certain mystique surrounding the first kind of NY pizza, and I’ve heard various explanations for why the pizza is so much better in New York City than elsewhere. The most popular theory, I think, is that the secret is in NYC water—the hardness of the water is perfect for pizza dough, so the pizza in New York tastes the best.
Maybe... but I’m afraid that I disagree with the premise. I’ve had really good pizzas in places other than New York, and I’ve had some pizzas in NYC that have left me feeling decidedly ambivalent about their merits. I’m not saying that the water theory doesn’t... well, hold water, but I don’t think that the water is a magic bullet that automatically makes all NY pizza awesome. (All that being said, the majority of pizzas I’ve had in New York have been at least pretty good.)
Anyway, I just wanted to explicitly state that I am talking about a particular style of pizza that can be made anywhere, as long as you have the proper ingredients, equipment, and experience. The crust should be thin and properly charred, and it should strike the right balance in terms of rigidity—in other words, it should be rigid enough so that you can pick it up, but it shouldn’t be so rigid that you can’t fold it. There should also be sufficient sauce, and it should be fresh and bright-tasting. As I was discussing with Kevin, this is one big area where I think most Korean pizzas fail: You have the crust (which is usually too thick), and then you have a ton of cheese, and between the two you get a thin red line of sauce that can barely be perceived under the avalanche of melted cheese. Finally, as you might have guessed from the previous sentence, I am not a huge fan of mounds of cheese on a pizza. There should be enough, but it should not overpower everything else. Toppings vary from pie to pie, but you generally don’t want to go overboard with them.
So, back to our evening. After some discussion amongst ourselves and consultation with the staff, we decided to go with an appetizer, a regular pizza, and a large pizza (Gino’s has two sizes: regular and large). For the appetizer we decided to go with the Parmesan garlic wings—we had eyed the honey sriracha wings, but John is not a big fan of spicy stuff, and my stomach was a bit frail after having had way too much to drink the night before. Our large pie was the Butcher—a “meat lover’s” pie with pepperoni, Italian sausage, and bacon—and the regular pie was the Woodstock, which was a combination of both John and my favorite toppings: pepperoni and button mushrooms.
As Eugene got to work on our pies, I got up to snap some photos. Here you can see the chef at work, taking the ball of dough and forming it into a disk. Once this disk is large enough, it is then picked up and shaped with the help of gravity, as seen in the next photo.
Both fists are used to rotate the circle of dough on the vertical axis, allowing gravity to pull it and stretch it into a larger circle. When he had reached the desired circumference, Eugene then tossed the dough in the air once. This is the motion that people generally associate with hand-tossed dough, but I’ve seen a lot of handmade pies and rarely does a pizza maker toss the dough in the air more than once. Most of the stretching is done flat on the work surface and then with the dough held vertically—the spin in the air is just using centripetal force to ensure a perfectly round pie. Any more than one toss would be overkill.
I make pizza at home, and I have to admit that, despite my knowledge of the techniques, I’m not very good at the practice. I have tried picking up the dough and allowing gravity to do the stretching, and I can generally get an OK result, but I actually find it a lot easier to get a consistent crust by rolling out the dough using a rolling pin. I’m not ashamed of this, since I don’t claim to have any expertise in pizza making, but I do watching longingly whenever I see professionals do their thing.
Here we are, back at the table, waiting for our food. Kevin, on the right, is wide-eyed and vibrating in anticipation, while John, artfully captured here in romantic soft focus, blissfully contemplates the gustatory delights to come. (Actually, the focus is a product of the lens I used—I went with my 30 mm pancake, which is better for low-light situations but also has a very shallow depth-of-field. This will be a theme in most of the photos to come.)
We didn’t have to wait too long for our wings, which gave us something tasty to gnosh on while we waited for the pies to bake. Although these were not the main attraction, I was still quite impressed. I was expecting them to be quite on the greasy side without the heat to cut through all the fat, but they turned out to be very good. We polished them off in short order.
Not long after we finished the wings, our first pie—the large Butcher—emerged and was placed lovingly on its pedestal. First impressions were very good; even before tasting it, the evidence provided by our eyes and noses told us that something special had been brought to the table. You can see—as Kevin pointed out—that real Italian sausage was used, and you can also see that the crust is brown and crispy. What you can’t get from this photo, though, is the smell, and I think that was the clincher—it just smelled like a real NY pizza. To make up for the lack of smell-o-vision, here is a close-up shot of the pie.
Here you can see all three toppings, the cheese, the sauce, and the crust. Notice how the crust looks a little shiny. When I picked up a piece, I noticed that it was crispy and blistered on the surface, which made me wonder if the edges had been brushed with olive oil before baking. But enough with how it looked. The proof, of course, is in the tasting, and it tasted as good as it looks. The savory and saltiness of the meats against the brightness of the sauce was art, and the crust struck just the right balance in terms of thickness, texture, and rigidity.
Here I demonstrate the proper way to eat a slice of pizza—the “fold and hold” method, as Eugene calls it. Depending on where you’re from, you might think this is obvious, in which case you might also be surprised to learn that Koreans (and, actually, a lot of people around the world) eat their pizza with a fork and knife. Gino’s does supply forks and knives to its patrons, but John, Kevin, and I treated these utensils with the disdain they deserve. (As a bonus, this photo also shows you a little of the bottom of the crust.)
Our second pie, the Woodstock, came out not long after, and we alternated back and forth between the two. It wasn’t until the Woodstock was almost gone that Kevin realized we hadn’t taken a photo of it, so we both pulled out our cameras and captured the last two pieces.
Although the piece in the foreground is mostly out of focus (thanks to that narrow depth-of-field), you can probably tell that the crust on this pie has more charring than we saw on the Butcher. I actually prefer my pizza with spots of charring. I’m not sure what the difference was between the two pies—if the Butcher was indeed brushed with olive oil, I wonder if that might have prevented or at least retarded charring. Truth be told, though, I didn’t notice this until later; I was too busy scarfing down the Butcher to notice the lack of black spots.
Each pie had its own charms. The Butcher was a blast of savory, salty, and fatty meat flavors, while the pepperoni on the Woodstock was complemented by the mushrooms (whose flavor appeared to become more dominant as the pie cooled). Both John and Kevin chose the Butcher as their favorite, but I was torn. In retrospect, I would probably choose the Woodstock, but I would also order both pies again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’ll be heading back to Gino’s tomorrow with some TAs and formers TAs from our department, so it’s very likely that I will be ordering both again.
I’ll close with this photo, which Kevin took when Eugene came by to see how we liked the pies. We all gave the pizza two thumbs up, and naturally the positive feedback was appreciated. Eugene had said earlier that he thought he was 85% to where he wanted to be—one thing he mentioned was getting a low-moisture cheese, but apparently the logistics have made it difficult so far—so I’m looking forward to seeing what that remaining 15% brings in terms of improvements. At the end of his review, which he posted late last night (technically, very early this morning), Kevin noted that restaurants in Korea often seem to have the lifespans of mayflies, and I will join him in wishing Gino’s the best of luck in beating that trend. I’m pretty confident in Eugene’s chances—he has a very solid product, and he has enthusiasm and passion for what he does. The pizza is not cheap (our two pies cost a combined 54,000 won), but measured against the prices in the neighborhood it’s also not that expensive.
Oh, and before I wrap this up, I should mention that I was meeting John for the first time, which is what made my insertion of myself into the evening brazen. But John turned out to be a very affable, laid-back fellow, and a lot of fun to hang out with. Good food with good people?what more could you ask for?
As I mentioned above, I’ll be going back tomorrow, but this time I will be with a Korean group. I’ve told them good things about the place, but I am curious to see how they react. I’m also looking forward to trying some of the Sixpoint beer (a Brooklyn brewery, of course) they have there. I had water on Tuesday because, as I mentioned above, I was still recovering from a session of excessive, Korean-style drinking the night before. I’ve been dry since then, so I’m looking forward to having a nice, relaxed beer along with my pizza—the way God intended it. I may post a brief update at the end here after that visit.