I stepped into the Nanuet Hotel in New York’s Rockland County because I hadn’t had a real pizza in 15 years.
I’m not un-American: I’ve eaten my share of Super Bowl delivery pizzas and to this day, when both my wife and I have had tiring days at work, we phone in pizza from one of the standard brands.
But they aren’t real pizza. Like most people, I grew up in a region of America with an identifiable cuisine. Philadelphia has its scrapple and cheese steaks; North Carolina has its barbecue; Texas has its chili. New Jersey’s cuisine is pizza.
I know there are Chicagoans who say they know what real pizza is, but they are misguided. I grant they know something about kielbasa, but real pizza can only be found in New Jersey and portions of New York. It is different from the populist menu item in that it is almost Calvinist. It has no frills. There is no such thing as a real pizza with ham and pineapple, for instance, to say nothing of the crime against nature advertised as a “taco pizza.”
The real item has a thin, biscuity crust, lots of spicy, garlicky tomato sauce and a thin covering of mozzarella that bakes into a papery crust over a stretchy, palate-burning stratus. It can be dusted with some grated Parmesan and sprinkled with some ground hot pepper. And if you are in a daring mood, it can come with pepperoni. But that’s the limit.
It also takes 30 minutes from order to table — unless you are buying it by the slice, that is.
Well, the Nanuet Hotel is a seedy bar and grill in a tiny, decaying town just north of the New York/New Jersey boundary. The narrow street is lined with cars along both curbs, some sit with two wheels up on the sidewalk. The storefronts are bars, laundromats, video stores and the occasional Korean grocery. There are no Starbucks on this street; no sushi bars; no upscale sandwich shops with outdoor tables under awnings.
The hotel has tilting white clapboard walls and a door whose sill is worn down to a hollow of splinters. Inside, it is dark and — unfortunately — smoky. Along one wall are shelves of Johnny Walker and Jim Beam; along the other are tables with paper place mats and paper napkins.
The man behind the counter is in his late 50s with a serviceable gut and balding head: He could be Peter Boyle’s brother.
There are two TVs playing with their sound down. One carries a soap opera, the other a Yankee game, but with a twist: it is a game the Yankees played against the Detroit Tigers in June of 1976. Ron LeFlore and Mark “The Bird” Fydrich on one side, Oscar Gamble and Graig Nettles on the other.
“This is great,” Peter Boyle tells another aging customer. “I found this channel the other day and they were showing that Roberto Duran fight, you know, ‘No mas, no mas.’ ”
There is a Keno board with flashing numbers on one wall and a tumbler full of entry forms at each table: You pick numbers and give the card to the barkeep and wait for your numbers to show up and win big bucks. Your number never shows. Glasses clank and the spritz of beer bottles being twisted open gives the place the feel an old Jerseyite like me can call nostalgic.
The pizza is thin, hot and scarifying and I drink a brew along with it. I tell the barkeep that I have come all the way from Arizona to taste the real pizza once again. He knows what I mean.
“It’s the water, I found out. My nephew tried to open a pizza place in Denver, but he couldn’t make a go of it. It wasn’t the sauce, you can import that from here if you need to. But the dough won’t come out right. It’s the crust.
“Now when he comes home, he buys a load of bread and rolls and packs them up with dry ice to take back with him. Bottom line is, it’s the water.”
Everyone has a theory, but none of them has proved sufficient to export the Tri-State national pizza. You gotta go to New Jersey, New York, or southern Connecticut.