Enter Bear’s Lair

In food on 03/29/2009 at 11:43 am

We’re gluttons for punishment. Last week we were meandering along Lenox Ave and happened upon a wine store in the first floor of a newly constructed apartment building. Their selection was small, and the two tastings of rosé and geverztraminer were subpar. The employee told us the trattoria next door was the same owner, and that they deliver from both places. We were fiending for some pizza last night so we ordered the Meatza Meatza pie and waited.

Our Jersey friend had mentioned to us that she always walked by that place on her way home, and last month it was called Pizza Party, but was consistently empty. Now, it’s called Trattoria Amici, but it probably sells the same pizza. When we had gone by, it was also empty, but we were desperate for some pie, any pie that would actually deliver as promised. We waited almost an hour, anxious, but it finally arrived, a steaming pile of cheese and sausage on a cracker.

There are really two types of New York pizza, both galaxies beyond national chains. The difference is in the crust, not pillowy like Papa John’s, but hardscrabble, like its inhabitants. One type is the reliably foldable slice from local chains like Ray’s Famous where the crust is thin, but still gives a satisfying chew. A slice is usually between $2.50-$3 plain, more for toppings. These places put the toppings on after you order the slice, and melt everything together in a gas oven for a minute. I haven’t tried the newer places that sell slices for 99¢, but I’d imagine it’s of this variety. The ratio of crust to sauce to cheese is 1:1:1, balanced and gut-filling. The epitome of this ma-and-pa type is Koronet Pizza, near Columbia University. They sell jumbo triple slices for ~$4. Now that’s a meal. I usually sprinkle mine liberally with red chili flakes and parmesan cheese.

The other type of New York pizza is the gourmet wood or brick-oven fired, where the crust is bubbly and blackened, and the cheese is either fresh buffalo mozzarella or fresh grated when you order, and the sauce is a house-made secret. It’s the American version of the Italian original, uneven pies with bits of fresh veg on top, namely basil. Here the crust is much thinner, less than 1/3″, and you usually order by the pie. The waiters bring it to you on an aluminum pedestal. This type does not travel well, or taste as good cold as the other type. These are the ones tourists flock to, thinking it’s what New Yorkers eat on a regular basis. The pies here cost around 20 bucks for a large plain. Our favorites of this type is John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street (even though they use canned sauce and pre-grated cheese), Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, and Joe and Pat’s in Staten Island. Lombardi’s in Soho, even though it’s the oldest, was disappointing, too touristy, with a long wait time, and rather impersonal. We have yet to try Totonno’s in Coney Island (recently burned down, but rebuilding), and DiFara’s in Midwood (the piemaker recently recovered from surgery during which the place was closed).

There is an additional hybrid New York style to be found at Two Boots, a chain that reliably makes a floppy crust but is known for their topping combos, named after eccentric New Yorkers, real or fictional. The sauce is generally spicier (the New Orleans Creole influence) and they use a patented cornmeal-crusted dough that I tried to buy once, but was denied. You don’t go to Two Boots for the plain; the other half’s order is always the Tony Clifton, which is topped with mushrooms and has criss-crosses of roasted red pepper sauce on top. Two Boots is more gourmet in price, $4 and up per slice, so that makes it more of a treat than an everyday slice.

Back to the pie from Trattoria Amici. It really was as if the crust were a crispy cracker. The overflowing load of cheese overwhelmed and took up the majority of the pizza. It was almost a white pie given the lack of sauce. The only redeeming part was the sausage, which was seasoned, compared to the lackluster taste of the rest of the pie. And we had only gotten the Meatza Meatza because there was a $15 minimum for delivery, even though the girl at the wine store said there was no minimum for bottle delivery. Weird. I’m sure if we were able to get the plain pie, it would have been awful, maybe nuked cheese on a saltine at best.

To accompany the pizza, we opened a bottle of Bear’s Lair Cabernet Sauvignon the other half procured from a school event. It’s been awhile since we scoped out the wines at Trader Joe’s, so we were pleasantly surprised of this newish offering, a step above two-buck-chuck (three bucks in NYC only). Usually I find cabs distasteful, too oak-y and bitter. But this had a pleasant heartiness, and almost a sweet, fruit finish. Incredible taste for only $4 (Don’t tell the other half, but I think it’s comparable to $25 and up premium reserves from our favorite Wisconsin-bottled winery, Stonesthrow’s ). Our resident sommelier explains:

Q: How can Trader Joe’s make wine so cheap?

A: It’s their proprietary blend made by Bronco Wine Company. No one else can sell it. It’s better than two-buck-chuck because it’s a better grade grape. Besides the cab, they have Bear’s Lair Viognier, Chardonnay and Merlot. Two-buck-chuck is made with a poor quality grape, (rumor has it they’ve been pressed once already, so you’re getting the dregs), their storage is probably not as meticulous, and the taste between bottles is inconsistent. Two more dollars goes a long way in the wine world.

Trader Joe’s uses the bulk method to reduce prices, using one company to produce multiple labels to make it seem like they are selling micro-vineyard wines. They are the Wal-mart of wine.

Q: How can most vineyards get away with $10 minimum bottles for the same grapes?

A: If you’re making smaller quantities, the wine is going to be better. There’s more craftsmanship involved by the winemaker, and you can control more variables in the processing. Premium vineyards are in places where the grapes struggle to survive – in rocky, well-drained soil where the grapevines have to grow really long roots to find a water source. Since all its energy is spent growing roots, the few grapes that sprout are necessarily the best and tastiest. Then the growers still prune back the grapes so the yield is even smaller. This produces really concentrated, juicy, yummy, grapey grapes. But then you need to charge more to cover the labor to make any money.

Then again, the quality of the grape really depends on the mineral components of the soil, and weather conditions. That’s why the same grape grown in California and Italy taste different. It’s easy to grow grapes in California, but quantity doesn’t equal quality. Anyone would rather drink an Italian-bottled wine than a Italian-transplanted vine, California-bottled wine.

Q: How ’bout that pizza?

A: It’s the two-buck-chuck equivalent of pizza.

a ho for joe

  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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