The Best Pizza in the World


Pizza Land PizzaAs an Italian American, I can tell you, that when the family has a problem, it can really get out of hand. In fact, I believe that the real reason Tony Soprano was at odds with Johnny Sack, had nothing to do with business. The question they were trying to settle is the same one that I recently traveled 3000 miles to answer: Who makes the best pizza in the world?

The ultimate answer to this question will probably not surprise anyone: Mama’s Cooking is always best. All pizza lover’s have their reasons why a particular chef, or style, or thickness of crust or topping make their local slice the best in the world. They arrive at these conclusions with the same enthusiasm and in much the same manner that most of us pick a Super Bowl favorite. In other words, even those who don’t particularly like football have an opinion.

I was recently asked to fly back east to settle a family dispute, because I have reviewed cooking in a few restaurants in the U.S. and Mexico and because I am a well-known lover of pizza.

It was really an impossible task, because everyone has a different point of reference. My son-in-law (born and raised outside of Chicago) has pizza flown into Orange County, bathed in dry-ice through special delivery arrangements he’s made with one of his partners who flies his own jet. He says that he cannot find a pizza worth eating that compares with the one he gets from an establishment in Chicago. Now, that I think of it, I have seen him enjoying pizzas at a few restaurants around Orange County. I mean, he didn’t look like he was in distress.

But, I digress. My wife is also a second generation Italian American who grew up in Kearny, New Jersey along with a brother and sister and lots of cousin, aunts, uncles and extended family members (many of whom were in the culinary business). My brother-in-law (Pat, AKA Pasqual—who never left the old neighborhood) bleeds Garden-State green. So, naturally he has always contended that, “New Jersey’s pizza is the best in the world!”

Statue of Liberty Jersey Side

Statue of Liberty Jersey Side

However, one of his daughter’s, Nicole moved into “Thee City,” New York at a young age and become a successful event planner. She routinely works with the finest chefs that New York has to offer and—not wanting to argue with her dad—has always silently believed New York is not called The Greatest City in the World for nothing. “New Jersey pizza is excellent, I have to agree,” she says. “But, of all the places that I’ve eaten pizza, the best I’ve found is not in New Jersey, or even Manhattan, but in Brooklyn.”

This family battle has never grown to the Soprano/Sack level of conflict, thank goodness but I decided to fly to the east coast and settle this feud once and for all. For some reason, no one tried to stop me, and again thank goodness.

Pat came up with a locally owned family restaurant in Kearny, NJ called JOE’S. Ironically this storefront is one of hundreds on the same street as Pizzaland, the pizzeria featured weekly on the Soprano’s T.V. show. Nicole chose Vesuvio’s, a little shop with a big reputation, literally at the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We flew into Newark; right in time for dinner (the plan was coming together) so I didn’t have to wait too long to get the decision-making under way. Just onto the Turnpike, we ordered as we drove and had Joe’s deliver. Ordering, unto itself was a true Jersey experience for me. The woman who answered the phone and took my order was the matriarch of the family and though they had been in business in this country for many decades, the Italian accent was thick. No matter how many times I asked about the PIZZA, she kept correcting me by telling me that what I was ordering was PIE. Several family friends joined in the first round of competition.

Obviously, the first pie had the distinct advantage, in that the anticipation, the buildup and the setting for the meal all certainly added to the experience. The home of a mutual friend was the neutral territory, but it was a home that had been occupied by my wife’s family friend since they were children. She had set the table with a classic red and white-checkered tablecloth and everyone was anxious to see how much I enjoyed the local fare. Joe’s pie did not disappoint. The salami and long-wise sausage slices were obviously from homemade sources, and the freshness of the sauce, cheese and obvious taste of olive oil were perfectly presented on the thinnest of crust I’d ever witnessed. It was ever-so-slightly crispy, but still foldable. “I just flew 3000 miles to taste this pizza,” I said. “Believe me. It was worth the trip.”


Pizza Land and Grodon Richiusa

Pizza Land and Grodon Richiusa

A family friend, Tom smiled and waited for everyone to leave the room before offering me this bit of wisdom. “I am a chef, myself,” he said, by way of substantiating his expertise. “And let me tell you a story about pizza,” he added, explaining that he prepared the food at a local college for the banquets and related a tale of the campus pizzeria. “Since I’ve worked at the college, there have been three different people who make nothing but pizza on campus. The first guy had a pretty good pie, but then he sold the family business and his predecessor was not that great. He had it only for one year and then sold the business again to a third guy who now makes the best pizza of the bunch.”

“What is the difference between the three?” I asked.

“That’s the point,” Tom said. “They all used the same equipment, the same recipes and even the same ingredients. I know, because I do the ordering. But, each pizza tasted a little different. The guy who has the concession now seems to really care about what he does. Maybe he takes a little more time, changes things slightly or makes the crust a little thinner or crispier. I don’t really know. I just know that I’ve eaten all three pizzas and today’s version is the best of the three.”

I took this wisdom with me the next day and headed for Brooklyn. To make this contest as fair as possible, I ordered another salami and sausage pie with the usual explanation from Nicole, “The water makes the difference.”

If I may return to the Superbowl analogy one more time, let’s say that this Pizza was like the Pro-Bowl game that used to take place AFTER the Super Bowl—something I could never understand. In the Pro-Bowl, the all stars from all the teams got together from the two conferences. People watched, but it’s just not the Superbowl. I don’t think ANY pizza could have compared with the first one I’d tasted after a long flight!

Here’s where things get interesting. After this, I decided to play tourist and ride a double-decker tour bus. With all of the architecture and history and entertainment that was available, one of the most asked questions of the guide was, “Where can we get the best pizza in New York?” He mentioned Vesuvio’s (by the way, there’s a Vesuvio’s in Paris) and several others that were more to his liking, but after the fiftieth enquiry he got philosophical. “You know, there is really no bad pizza, anywhere in New York. They’ve spent a lot of time perfecting ONE PRODUCT. Sure some say it’s the water or the crust or whatever, but the bottom line is that New Yorkers love their pizza. If it ain’t great, then you’ve got plenty of other places to go that are. So you know, if a place is in business for a while, they’re going to be doing a wonderful job.”

Then, I flew home to Orange County and sure enough, two days later my wife and I got a craving for…you guessed it, pizza! We had just come from the Great Pizza Contest so we called up local relatives and asked where we could get a pie that wasn’t horrible. They sent us to a restaurant that their parents used to go to in (of all places) Little Saigon, called RENATO’S at 15383 Brookhurst Street, in Westminster. Boy, am I glad they did. It was like fate, when we walked through the entrance and saw the miniature version of Lady Liberty, leading the way to the dining room. The Chef had a diploma from Italy on the wall, and the owner’s mother was formerly a restaurant operator in New York, specializing in Italian food. The Renato’s Pizza was…superb! Maybe it’s the water. Maybe it’s the care the Chef takes in the preparation, and maybe it’s mama’s secret recipe, but I learned a valuable lesson: When it comes to pizza, there’s no taste like home.

By the way I have eaten pizza in Italy AND also tried that Chicago pizza that my son-in-law has flown out bathed in dry ice. I do not even know the name of the restaurant where it originates, but what can I say? They make a good pie.

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Gordon Richiusa About Gordon Richiusa

Gordon Richiusa is an Italian American who has been a martial artist for some 50 years. He teaches the Five Bird System. Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in English and has written numerous articles, stories, books and scripts under his own name and his pen-name, Gordon Rich. He has been a teacher of English Composition, Film as Literature, Creative Writing, and Scriptwriting and He holds two teaching credentials.