In American Pie, My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Peter Reinhart explores Rome, Liguria, Naples and Florence, New York, Chicago, Phoenix and New Haven, Conn., mining for a slice of heaven. He even checks out California, where so-called gourmet pizza is said to have originated at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.
Reinhart declares that among the world’s best are Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza in New Haven —a locale legendary not only for housing Yale University but for its mouthwatering pizza. Lucky for us in Southeast Michigan, Mike Weinstein, owner of Tomatoes Apizza (pronounced ah-BEETZ) in Farmington Hills, studied the art of pizza making under a New Haven pizza vet — Lou Abate of Abate’s Pizza. Abate’s father learned to make pizza at Sally’s, so, by three degrees of separation, Weinstein is plying the craft handed down by the New Haven masters.
After Weinstein graduated from New York’s Culinary Institute of America, he decided to become a pizzaiolo, a true pizza maker. He makes what I consider to be the perfect pizza, a pizza napoletana, with thin crust, light on the cheese, with a well-seasoned sauce and fresh basil. The style originated in its namesake city of Naples in the late 1700s, when the tomato made its way from the Americas through Spain to Italy. At Tomatoes, the crust is superb — crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside — no small feat for a crust this thin. When the dough is stretched, it’s nearly transparent.
Tomatoes’ red pie is my favorite. Once laid out, the pie is topped with hand-crushed tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and as much fresh garlic as you want at no extra charge.
The white pie, which has no sauce, is covered with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil. Try a half red and half white for a sampling of the best, or a delectable crab pizza.
Each pie is baked directly on a brick hearth, which maintains the heat and finishes the crust and the toppings perfectly. My one complaint is the pizzas at Tomatoes are sometimes more well-done than I like.
Last week, while on a pizza foray to Windsor, I ate for the first time at Terra Cotta, located only a couple of blocks from the tunnel. Just inside the door of the restaurant a pizza maker is ensconced behind the front window, building pies with freshly chopped and sliced toppings, such as prosciutto and garden-fresh veggies. He slides the pies into a wood-burning oven containing a pile of smoldering hardwood logs that cooks the pies quickly and crisps the cornichone — the ring of crust that forms along the edge.
I love the food at Terra Cotta. My pizza had more mushrooms than any I’ve had before, mixed with just the right amount of full-fat, creamy mozzarella.
The store is owned by a brother-sister team who’ve capitalized on the old-world Italian pizza recipes handed down by the restaurant’s former owners. The pair works as waiters. They’ve created a culinary home for themselves, providing a level of care and service that separates them from so many chain-operated businesses.
When I went, Greg, the brother, was my waiter. He is friendly, a bit irreverent and mighty proud of the business he and his sister have built. He points out that the greens for the salad were picked that morning and that in the summer, most of the vegetables served at the restaurant are grown in his garden at home. The Terra Cotta salad, a mixture of romaine, red onions, mushrooms and dressing “with an attitude” was exceptional.
The menu consists of soup and a few appetizers and salads, mostly pizza, with a few sandwiches and calzoni. Beer and wine are served.
Another Windsor spot that I have frequented for years is La Zingara, located in Little Italy. The small restaurant has a full menu with everything from soup and sandwiches to meats and seafood, much of which is roasted in a wood-burning oven that dominates the rear wall of the room. The pastas are very good, but the pizza … how do I find the words?
Gavino, the pizzaiolo, makes it look so easy. The staff here is so friendly that you would think that they were owners. Zingara also has a full bar.
To me, these pizzas from Tomatoes Apizza, Terra Cotta and La Zingara are the best around. Of course, I’d welcome the opportunity to try others that might stand up to them. Feel free to send me your tips.
And, of course, these pizzas are quite different from the ones that put Detroit pizza on the map, namely, the huge national chains of Domino’s and Little Caesars, as well as Jet’s and Hungry Howie’s. But the pie responsible for the name “Detroit Pizza” is Buddy’s. Although I am partial to Neapolitan style pizza, I find an occasional deep dish from Buddy’s a real treat. The crust is thick and crunchy with a bit of the cheese browned and crisped at the edges, where it cooks directly on the inside of the pan. The sauce is thick, with a bit of sweetness. It sits on top of abundant flavorful cheese. Altogether it is a rich, crunchy, cheesy treat.
Founded in 1936, the original store still operates at Six Mile and Conant, and there are now nine stores throughout metro Detroit. I still go, for despite many attempts at home, I have been unable to duplicate that crust.
Tomatoes Apizza, 29275 14 Mile Road at the southeast corner of 14 Mile and Middlebelt, Farmington Hills. Call 248-855-3555.
Tomatoes Apizza, 24369 Halstead, just north of Grand River, Farmington Hills. Call 248-888-4888.
Terra Cotta, 318 Pelissier St., Windsor, Ontario. Call 519-971-0223.
La Zingara, 555 Erie St., Windsor, Ontario. Call 519-258-7555.
Buddy’s 17125 Conant, corner of East McNichols (Six Mile Road), Detroit. Call 313-892-9001.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org