Learning to Crawl
Pizza expert Craig "Lapp" Agranoff sits across from me at La Fontana Pizzeria in Coral Springs, inspecting a warm cheese-only slice. He lifts the thin triangle by its crunchy lip with one hand and pokes at the underside of the crust with the other. It sags in the middle like a dog's ear. Lapp shakes his head in disappointment. "See that?" he says, prodding the limp area of the slice. "It's underdone."
The boyish 37-year-old with a mop of hair resembles filmmaker Spike Jonze. He takes a bite. His wheels turn for a bit before he speaks. "The sauce is too bland, and there's too much flour on it," he determines. "But it is nice and thin, and it's better than a lot of pizza out there. I'd probably give it five slices."
The five slices Lapp refers to is the rating system for his website worstpizza.com. (The number maxes out at eight slices, because that's how many come in a typical pie.) As a native of Long Island, Lapp has had a passion for pizza all his life. Ten years ago, he moved to South Florida to escape the cold and quickly found he'd also escaped the amazing pies of New York. He was initially disgusted by the cardboard crusts and plastic cheeses he'd encountered in his new home, so he started Worst Pizza last year with the intention of inciting a doughy rebellion (the site jibed with his day job at Vois.com, a social media network for creatives). He was set on continuing to pan South Florida's 'za until a funny thing happened: Lapp — or "pizzaexpert," as he's known on the site — started finding pizza joints good enough to survive on any corner of Long Beach. Now, the site isn't so much about the worst pizza as the best: He and his crusty band of contributors have reviewed more than 300 restaurants in Florida, New York, California, and Illinois.
So I could get their opinion on local pizza, I invited Lapp and a few of his regular contributors to meet me at La Fontana, a 10-month-old wood-oven pizzeria and restaurant in Coral Springs. We planned to eat a few of the personal-sized pies made there before heading off to sample two of Lapp's favorite places, Nino's Restaurant & Pizzeria and Tucci's Fire N Coal Pizza, both in Boca Raton. It was going to be a good, old-fashioned pizza crawl — not unlike the crawls and tweetups recently organized by groups of intrepid eaters through sites like Chowhound and Twitter. Although the internet may be the best way to organize a pizza crawl nowadays, the philosophy of having a group of people trek from joint to joint, sampling slices at each, is something Lapp's been doing since his days in New York. "If you can get four or five people together and just order slices and cut them into little wedges so everyone gets a piece, you can knock out like seven places in a night," says Lapp. I'll be happy if we get through these three.
Joining Lapp and me at our outdoor table at La Fontana is Mallory Colliflower, a contributor to Worst Pizza and a pizza lover in her own right. When the waiter comes around, Colliflower orders hers Hawaiian-style with ham and pineapple ($8.50). I decide on the buongustaio, which the menu describes as having tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage, Gorgonzola, potato, and onions ($8.95). Lapp gets what he always does: plain cheese, hold the basil ($5.75).
La Fontana is a small trattoria run by brothers Spartak and Tony Tare of Ferrara, Italy. The interior of the shop is fairly plain, except for the central wood oven and a few glass cases displaying cheeses, pasta, and gelato. Out front, cooing couples sip Italian wine beside the cascading fountain while whole families with their dogs in tow dine on homemade spinach ravioli ($10.95) and fresh-baked focaccia studded with goat cheese and pesto ($5.50). As modest as the prices are, the setting is equally romantic — if you discount the din of the Quizno's looming next door.
The quality of the pizza has a wide variance. Lapp passed me one of the cheese slices he had called underdone. The crust was no thicker than two flour tortillas yet exhibited the sort of satisfying crackle necessary in a good pie only near its edges. I also agreed with him on the bland sauce, a thin brush stroke of orange/red that was unfortunately artless.
My pizza was a conundrum too. The Gorgonzola had thoroughly melted, giving it the unctuous texture of a white pizza. But the "potatoes" that came on top were actually French fries. They tasted OK, but it seemed like a waste of that beautiful wood oven not to roast some fresh potatoes. Mallory's Hawaiian was completely off-base, with huge chunks of pineapple and undercooked, cheap-tasting ham. (The later surprised me because I had previously enjoyed La Fontana's salumi, including speck, a smoked, cured Italian ham.)
After finishing at La Fontana, we rushed over to Nino's in Boca, where our next pie awaited. I'd heard claim that Nino's served the best New York-style slice in Boca Raton, a bold statement when you consider that the city is a hotbed for pizza, especially of the coal-fired variety.
Nino's, however, remains traditional. The "red sauce" Italian joint has sat in a hidden strip mall off of Palmetto Park and Powerline roads for 24 years. Walking in, you get the feeling that not much has changed since the day it opened: A wall of comforting smells — fresh Parmesan, bubbling marinara, doughy garlic knots — greets you just inside the tinted glass door. The lights are dim, the servers young and olive-skinned and dressed in black. Acoustic tile clings to the ceiling, and a dozen or so red vinyl booths line the walls. And then there's the menu: Scungili Marinara. Snapper Livornese. Trippa alla Romana. Somebody's grandmother cooked these dishes, and their grandmother before that.
The fortunate grandson is owner Marco Tornabene, who emerges from the kitchen to greet us as we sit down. Lapp is a regular at Nino's, and Tornabene has prepared a special pizza for him: an upside-down Sicilian pie with tomato sauce above the cheese. It's a specialty that Tornabene doesn't usually offer because the dough takes 45 minutes to proof. In addition to the Sicilian, I order a thin-crust Neapolitan pizza ($10).
By now, another Worst Pizza contributor, Big G (short for Gary), has met us inside. Gary is an inveterate pizza fanatic — he had recently planned to build a brick oven in his backyard until his contractor convinced him it was impractical. He and Lapp met in New York City in the '90s, when Gary drove a delivery truck for seven years. The route afforded Big G a lot of time for his true love. "Every spare second I had, I stopped for pizza," he says longingly.
Because both Big G and Lapp are Big Apple boys at heart, I ask them what makes a great slice of New York pizza. "There are different reasons for different pizzas," Gary says. "It could be the dough or the toppings. It's the whole package."
Lapp is more definitive in his answer. "It's the crust," he says. "It has to be thin and very crisp." Gary immediately nods in approval. Lapp adds that he likes a sweet, smooth sauce and quality cheese.
Our pizzas show up just in time to illustrate his point. I grab a slice of the Neapolitan, and right away I see what Lapp was saying about the crust. Nino's is thin but dense, and it's cooked to such a satisfying crisp as to emit a plaintive snap when folded. There's a slick of sweet tomato sauce that would probably be too much if not for the flow of buttery cheese on top. It's a fine slice but not one to toss out superlatives over — I prefer a simple sauce of fresh crushed tomatoes to the ubiquitous pasty variety Lapp likes. The upside-down Sicilian, however, is worth any wait. The crust is a dreamy, semithick bed that yields to the teeth until you reach the brusque bottom. And the cheese, carefully hidden under a layer of sweet sauce, is gooey and hot without burning your mouth. A drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil elevates it to pure bliss.
Emboldened by the great slice and looking to score some points for my hometown, I ask the experts if they think Florida pizza can compare to the New York stuff they grew up on. Gary's face wrinkles with contemplation. After a pause, he says, "It's as simple as the difference between getting a slice or a whole pie. The slice has to be reheated, so it's never quite as good as the fresh pie. That, to me, is like trying to mimic New York pizza."
I'm feeling a little less sure of things until Lapp disagrees. "I've had pizza here that could definitely stand with pizza in New York. There's good and bad pizza everywhere."
At this point, we're nearly too stuffed to continue, and the roof of my mouth has the contour of a minefield. Two of our flock, Big G and Colliflower, have had enough, but Lapp and I aren't done yet. We soldier on to Tucci's.
Tucci's is a relative baby compared to Nino's. The 3-month-old coal-oven pizzeria settled into the spot vacated by Red Rock on First Avenue near Mizner Park. It's a standalone building punctuated by a large brick oven and a few rows of brightly colored industrial tables. The single-page menu nearly looks ripped from the one proffered by Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza: chicken wings, Italian salad, a handful of appetizers, and a few specialty pizzas (eggplant, broccoli rabe and sausage, margherita). Hoping for some levity, we order a small cheese pizza ($16.95) and clutch our bellies.
When the pizza arrives, I start to wish I'd saved more room. It looks downright painterly: deep-red sauce interspersed with swatches of bright-white fresh mozzarella. Caramelized bubbles dot its surface, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese clings to the top. I take a bite. The crust crackles under my teeth with a snappish crunch, and the sauce — the smooth, sweet style Lapp likes — is garlicky and rich. Even better is the capricious nature of the cheese, which randomly finds its way into every other bite without ever getting rubbery. Thanks to the high heat of the oven (Tuccis uses both coal and wood), there's a fair amount of char but not enough to make it taste burnt. And with the marriage of New York-style sauce, crisp crust, and coal-oven char, it makes a decisive intersection between old and new. Unfortunately, Lapp and I can eat only one piece each.
As I drive home, I decide on my own list of pizza preferences: (1) Crisp crust is key. (2) Fresh crushed tomatoes make the best sauce. (3) It doesn't matter where a pie hails from if it's made with passion. The next day, I send Lapp a tweet: "More pizza tomorrow?" That should be plenty of time for my mouth to recover.
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