Some chefs, no matter how great and wide-ranging their talent, can't escape association with a particular dish; when it's something universally adored like pizza, the label sticks like Polly-O mozzarella to the lid of a takeout box. What comes to mind when you think of Wolfgang Puck? Beverly Hills "designer" 'za luxed up with smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and caviar. The mere mention of Todd English conjures up (to us, at least) a rustic prosciutto, fig, and Gorgonzola pie. And how about George Germon, the idiosyncratic co-chef and co-owner of Providence's highly acclaimed Al Forno? Whether he likes it or not, the man is forever and inextricably linked to the sublime grilled pizza he so ingeniously invented over twenty years ago.
When Germon draped that first raw pizza dough over a hot grill, half-expecting the thing to melt through the grates like a rogue campfire marshmallow, he made modern pizza history. And ever since, the competition has been trying to mimic the free-form Al Forno model -- impossibly light, delectably crisp, wafer-thin, with a deeply flavorful, smoky crust sparingly topped usually with Bel Paese and Romano cheeses instead of the standard high-moisture mozzarella.
Although almost everyone cites Al Forno as the birthplace of grilled pizza, its arrival in New York is clouded with controversy. Some say the recipe was hijacked by an errant employee; others, that it was developed independently by a singularly gifted local chef using trial and error. And every so often, like a Sasquatch sighting, a claim is made to having seen grilled pizza in the foothills of some remote Italian village, from whence it was brought to our shores. As for Germon and his wife and partner, Johanne Killeen, they stand by the conviction that any grilled pizza sold off the Al Forno premises is derivative of theirs, and should come with a disclaimer.
However it's come to pass, the grilled-dough diaspora has had the gratifying effect of expanding the pizza horizons of a town that's coasted too long on reheated slices and brick-oven bastions that have seen better days. In our citywide taste test, we slogged through a few uninspired clunkers and many impostors, but we also encountered some of the best pizza we've had anywhere (including Rhode Island).
Without a doubt, New York grilled pizza reaches its apotheosis at Gonzo, the terrific new Greenwich Village trattoria where chef-owner Vincent Scotto, a onetime Al Forno sous-chef, took the ball of dough and ran with it. He's been blazing a great grilled-pizza trail ever since, first at Fresco by Scotto and then at Scopa, both of which still use the recipe, left behind like a generous divorce settlement.
Scotto's spacious, if spartan, reincarnation of the restaurant formerly known as Antonio's has already become New York's grilled-pizza mecca, with a repertoire of 50 or so inventive versions, at least twelve of which are on the menu at any given time ($12–$13). Even though we'd happily patronize the casual neighborhood joint for its grilled-onion salad, the Venetian tapas called cicchetti, and braised short ribs, we haven't got the willpower to cross Gonzo's threshold without ordering at least one pie. But which one? The seasonal summer special of corn and mashed potato, with flecks of fluffy spuds and shards of conjoined kernels? Or the Siciliano, its glorious crust brushed with tomato paste seasoned with anchovy and olives and adorned with dollops of tangy sweet-and-sour caponata and cumin-scented ricotta? From exquisite toppings as seemingly outlandish as watermelon, prosciutto, and arugula to a char-flavored crust so good it almost tastes fried, Scotto's grilled pizzas are utterly, irresistibly brilliant.
The pies at Fresco by Scotto are scrumptious -- appropriately thin, crispy, and resounding with that telltale slightly caramelized crunch that comes from a dough made from a combination of flours including whole wheat and, oddly, a touch of molasses. According to matriarch Marion Scotto (no relation to Vincent), when Fresco opened nine years ago, eating pizza at upscale midtown restaurants just wasn't done. She literally had to give them away, passing slices like hors d'oeuvre as customers came through the door. Now, at $18 for the margherita and $19 for the daily special, they're the biggest sellers. And they're just as good (and cheaper: $4.95–$5.95 for a small, $9–$10 for a large) next door, at the bustling cafeteria-style Fresco on the Go, where par-grilled, untopped rounds of dough are stacked up, with no discernible adverse effects, like oversized buckwheat blini in preparation for the lunchtime crowd.
Scopa, the next stop on Vincent Scotto's résumé and our itinerary, also does major takeout-lunch business. Save a few bucks and order your grilled margherita ($9) in the quick-service annex to the main restaurant, Scopa to Go. Another Scopa scoop: They let you mix and match toppings in the main dining room, which is what we did one night after braving our way through some thunderously loud dance music playing in the nearly empty bar. Aside from the tunes, Vincent would be proud: The Scopa team has upheld his standards. Our half-margherita, half-mashed-potato-asparagus-and-caramelized-onion pie was well balanced and topped with almost superhuman restraint, so that each bite conveyed a slightly different flavor than the one before. And the crust was crisp and tender, if not as perfectly charred as Gonzo's.
Not every good grilled pizza in town bears the mark of Vincent Scotto. Frank Crispo serves his own rendition as an occasional appetizer special at Crispo, his cozy quarters around the block from Gonzo. Made from standard dough, his pizzas ($8–$10) are rounder, thicker, and more pliant than the rest, but also a touch smokier thanks to a gas grill enhanced with cherry- and apple-wood chips. Show up on the right night, and you might score one of his white clam pies, or a traditional margherita with fresh homemade mozzarella, basil, and a lively tomato sauce. Was Al Forno an inspiration? "You kidding me?" asks Crispo. "Believe it or not, everyone in the Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia where I grew up made it in their backyard."
As the crust gets thinner, the plot thickens.