A Slice of Heaven

New York Pizzeria bakes up a pie that's the stuff of dreams

Recently, I spent three weeks working on an archaeological dig in Central America. In camp, we subsisted on a diet of rice and beans, beans and rice and -- on special occasions -- plantains, beans and rice. Small wonder that our favorite entertainment was the "What I'm Gonna Eat When I Get Home" game. We'd lounge around camp in the long tropical evenings and dream of American food. Sweet little Katy from Mississippi would describe her mama's fried chicken, real mashed potatoes and fried okra. New Yorker Shaya said he planned to buy a gallon of ice cream on the way home from the airport and eat it all the way down to the bottom of the carton before his car pulled into the driveway. I had my own plan: I was going to go home and eat pizza. Not just any pizza, mind you. What kept me going was the memory of one specific baked wheel: the Greek pizza made by New York Pizzeria, loaded with spinach, garlic, feta and mozzarella cheese, onions and black olives. "Gross," said one of my companions. "Yum," I replied wistfully.

When I got home I went directly to the New York Pizzeria that earlier this year made my Medical Center neighborhood just that much more pleasant (it has one other branch, out F.M. 1960 way). Tucked away in an anonymous strip shopping center, with a handful of tables on the sidewalk and another half-dozen inside, the Medical Center New York Pizzeria is plain and unprepossessing, just as a good pizzeria should be. I took along some friends almost as hungry as I was, and we feasted. We ordered the Greek pizza I'd been lusting after, of course, but also calzones and stromboli and meatball sandwiches and even a muffaletta. The countergirl stared, open-mouthed. We dragged our plates to a table outside and set to with gusto.

What makes a pizza to dream about a thousand miles from home? The crust is crucial, of course. New York Pizzeria makes their own pizza dough on the premises, and the resulting New York-style crust is thin and crunchy on the bottom, chewy and elastic and golden brown on the perimeter. (They also offer a Sicilian deep-dish crust that's thick and pillowy as a sofa cushion, but I prefer mine crisp, thank you.)

Then consider the toppings. I like New York Pizzeria's Greek pizza because I'm not overly fond of tomato sauce; it has fresh sliced Roma tomatoes instead. Two kinds of cheese are a plus, because first of all, you can never have too much cheese on a pizza, and second, the feta and mozzarella form a delightful counterpoint in texture and taste. The mozzarella underneath is thick and mild and satisfyingly stretchy; the feta on top is sharp and crumbly. Then New York Pizzeria adds fresh spinach, onions, black olives, fresh basil and a liberal sprinkling of fresh garlic chunks. (In my dream pizzas, a healthy dose of good strong garlic is mandatory.)

The counterman came out to survey our table piled high with food. "Let me guess. David Letterman is coming by," he said. I knew just what he meant. The last time I saw one of Letterman's attacks on a restaurant, he filled a convertible with 2,000 tacos. Looking at our littered table, I could understand the comparison. We just grinned and kept eating.

Apparently New York Pizzeria's owner, Anthony Russo, was as homesick for New York-style pizza in Houston as I was in Belize. Though Russo is from New Jersey, he waxed sentimental for the pizzas of the Big Apple, with their thin, crispy crusts and excellent cheeses. When he arrived in town almost a decade ago, Russo found "you just couldn't get this kind of pizza in Houston." Though his signature Houston restaurant, Russo's Cafe Anthony, didn't solve that problem, he never forgot about it, and early this year Russo finally got around to satisfying his pizza cravings. He opened his own pizzeria in the Medical Center, then helped his sister get started in a second New York Pizzeria on F.M. 1960. Russo is now busy preparing a third New York Pizzeria, on Beechnut near Meyerland, for an October debut.

He's proud of the 80-quart dough mixer, used to create all the doughs and breads from scratch, that's installed in each of his stores; his perfectionism extends to cooking up fresh tomato sauces in-house and special-ordering his mozzarellas from a company in Wisconsin. "That's how I know it's 100 percent pure mozzarella," he says. "The quality of ingredients makes all the difference in a pizza, you know."

I originally discovered New York Pizzeria from a coupon flyer stuffed in my mailbox. The ingredients sounded good, so I called them up and had a pizza delivered. That was six months ago, when Russo was still ironing out the wrinkles. It took the delivery driver an hour to cover the five blocks to my house, and when he arrived he wasn't carrying any change. And I learned I had to watch the coupons. The first version offered one calzone for $4.95, or two for $9.95. Huh? Fortunately, the food was worth the initial hassles, and I've relied on Russo's pizzas ever since.

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