Restaurant Reviews

Learning to Crawl

Page 2 of 3

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.

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John Linn