Restaurant Review: Sal & Carmine’s Pizza

100226-demian-sal-carmine-pizza-1I moved into the neighborhood early last year.  It was then not long before I found Sal & Carmine’s pizza.  Tucked away in a nondescript storefront on the West side of Broadway between 101st and 102nd Streets, and no more than ten feet wide, it is easy to miss.  And miss it I did.  Until our doorman and the super told me about it.  Evidently they felt sorry for me always bringing slices of run-of-the-mill pizza into the building for lunch.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am a pizza addict.  A promiscuous pizza floozy.  If it was socially acceptable I would eat pizza every day.  Along with sushi every day.  Pizza and sushi every day.  While listening to the Smiths.  O.k… that’s a step too far.  But suffice to say that I love pizza.  Of course upon hearing this you might think that my pizza bar is set pretty low.  “He will eat any ol’ pizza and be happy with it,”  you’re thinking.  And this is pretty close to the truth.  BUT, just because I have a vast breadth of pizza experience does not mean that my pizza discernment lacks depth.  On the contrary.  I have a great love for pizza.  And because of that love I am an expert at knowing what constitutes a great pizza.

In terms of Sal & Carmine’s, they had me with the first slice.  And hundreds of slices since. 

Now let me just say that Sal & Carmine’s is a bit different than, say, Lombardi’s, Grimaldi’s or Patsy’s.  There is no 100 year old coal fired oven to lend its aged flinty smoke to the taste complexity of the crust.  Sure they have been in business for a long time, since 1959 if I am not mistaken, but there is nothing sacred or storied in their space or their equipment I don’t think.  Heck, they even moved a while back.  Maybe I am wrong.  But from what I can tell Sal & Carmine’s space seems pretty typical of New York’s many pizza joints.  It is small.  Only a few tables.  It sells whole pies but mainly slices.  It’s menu and its range are limited in that it has only a pizza oven, a counter and fridge to make and hold the dough and a cooler for drinks.  That’s pretty much it.

But the pizza that comes out of Sal & Carmine’s oven is quite frankly some of the best in New York city.  Easily within the top ten.  Possibly within the top five.  I am not sure what their secret is but Sal & Carmine’s crust has a character all its own that subtly sets it apart from other pizzas.  The dough of every pizza is multi-dimensional.  Thin and flexible in the center.  Then bubbling up into pillowy heaps toward the outer edge.  As if driving across the Great Plains the fields on either side of the road were covered in cheese with the Rocky Mountain foothills and muscular peaks of crust rising before it.  The crust itself, instead of charring to a hard dark outer shell, somehow maintains a light coloring of flour, slicked here and there with some of the cheesy oil that has found its way through a ‘mountain pass’.  When bitten into the crust has a slight bready give to it and then a satisfying toothsome chew.  With just enough salt in the dough to keep the taste buds dancing.  Thick in places, yet airy and pliable, a real pleasure to eat.  This is not crust that will get left behind by a picky pizza eater.

Sal & Carmine’s toppings are all fairly straight forward.  There is nothing fussy here like fresh basil or buffalo mozzarella.  But everything from the aged cheese to the pepperoni is good.  Really, though, it is the dough that takes all of the ingredients and toppings and elevates them to something very special.  I usually eat only the simple plain cheese slices so that I can savor the crust all the more clearly.  But whatever you order you can be certain that it will be good.  The one detail that Sal & Carmine’s does add to the diner’s experience is that they tie each pick-up order pizza box with a few wraps of red and white kitchen string.  Which I love.  I carefully untie the string and save each one I get.  Not only is it pretty but I have also then gone on to use it to tie the odd roast or bird. 

So what makes Sal & Carmine’s pizza so good?  The quality and taste of their pizza is simply astounding considering its humble home.  Pizza this good should be served to hundreds every day in a large restaurant.  But maybe that is the point.  Sal & Carmine’s is a family operation.  Brothers Sal and Carmine Malanga have been making pizza together for a long time.  Unfortunately Sal passed away last year.  But Carmine and grandson Luciano Gaudiosi (with the help of a couple other family members) continue to carry on Sal’s tradition and make the pizza every day.  So maybe it’s that family understanding, the familiarness of shared experience and values, that gives Sal & Carmine’s its outstanding flavor and character.  Its pizza dough mojo.  Sal & Carmine’s is run by a family that is not so concerned with growing the business, making lots of money or opening a second restaurant.  They just want to make seriously good pizza.  Which they do very well.
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