I’m not an expert on every ethnic food, but I know pizza.
I’ve tried all the major American pizza styles – New York, Chicago, New Haven, California – and the ancestral Italian versions in Naples and Rome. New Jersey’s best stands up well against all comers.
Here’s what I look for:
The most important element. First, there needs to be one. The edge of the pie should have a rounded crust higher than the middle of the pie. The edge of the pie shouldn’t have sauce on it, and – please – nothing stuffed into it.
“Fold and hold” – The crust should be crisp enough to fold and pick up a slice without the tip flopping down and dumping toppings on the table. (Folding is the proper way to eat a slice, by the way.) No pizza should require a fork and knife. (Sorry Chicago.)
The inside of the crust, especially around the edge, should be chewy. Thickness can vary but the “fold and hold” test is key. A slice shouldn’t flop and it shouldn’t break apart. Proper pizza crust isn’t a cracker and it isn’t a biscuit.
The dough and the oven give the crust its flavor. I prefer crust to be on the salty side and to be cooked in a well-aged oven.
I’m a traditionalist. Tomato sauce (not too watery) and good mozzarella. After that, nothing too crazy (except anchovies, my personal weakness). Pizza should not have chicken or pineapple. (Sorry, California.) A little oil on top is necessary, but not so much you have to mop it up with a napkin. And please, olive oil, not that weird orange grease that runs off of fake cheese.
The beauty of the “fold and hold” test is that it also applies to toppings. Too much cheese, sauce, or other stuff and that point will flop.
Perfect pizza is a mystical balance of crust and toppings. Or maybe just the pizza you ate as a kid.
You’ll find five main styles of pizza in New Jersey:
1) New Jersey-Style
What most Jersey pizzerias serve – a straightforward round pie with a flavorful, chewy crust, thick at the edges, that holds its shape under traditional toppings. Fold a slice and the tip keeps its point. An excellent example can be found at Cranbury Pizza.
Neapolitan pies, cooked quickly at high temperatures in wood or coal-burning ovens, usually emerge with a bubbly, randomly charred crust. They can be oblong instead of round and are usually smaller than the standard Jersey pie. Fresh San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil (the “Margherita”) are common toppings, but you’ll also find creative interpretations with honey, fried eggs, etc. Try some of Jersey’s best at Razza or Talula’s.
3) Brick oven
Also cooked at high temperatures in wood or coal-burning ovens, New Jersey’s brick oven pizzas are larger and thinner than a traditional Neapolitan pie. The crust has a similar char. On the chewy-crispy spectrum, brick oven pies lean toward crispy. Slices of the best ones can be folded. My all-time favorite: DeLucia’s in Raritan.
4) Thin crust
Thin crust, or “bar pies,” are exactly that. The edge of the pie is barely thicker than the bottom. The best thin crust pizzas, however, can still pass the “fold and hold” test. These are usually made in gas ovens at your local watering hole. My current favorite: Orange’s Star Tavern.
4) Tomato Pies (Trenton)
Tomato pies (not “pizzas”) are uniquely New Jersey and specific to Trenton and its environs. De Lorenzo’s and Papa’s are the originals. The cheese and toppings go on the dough first, with the tomato sauce on top.
The Star Ledger’s Peter Genovese and his “Pizza Patrol” completed a monumental state-wide tour searching out the best Jersey pizza, county by county, visiting 330 NJ pizza joints and eating 3000 slices. I’m happy to see my top three among his top six.