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Pizza Like Patsy Used to Make at Grimaldi's

The crispy, thin-crusted pizza at Grimaldi's in Sugar Land is covered with bright-white fresh mozzarella and zesty red sauce and baked in a coal-fired oven. On my first visit, I sampled a spectacular regular pizza studded with excellent ­fennel-scented Italian sausage and decorated with a few whole basil leaves. It didn't take more than one slice to convince me that the new Grimaldi's has knocked Russo's off the Houston pizza throne.

A couple of years ago, the title of "Best Pizza in Houston" was a bad joke. Today we have two coal oven pizza chains with New York pedigrees. If you think that coal ovens produce the best pizzas, an opinion shared by many pizza experts, then the irony of the situation may have already occurred to you. Thanks to our lax enforcement of air quality standards, Houston could soon have more great pizzerias than Manhattan.

The Grimaldi's in Sugar Land is descended from the original New York Grimaldi's that is located on Old Fulton Street under the Brooklyn Bridge. Granted, the Grimaldi's in Houston is serving a great pizza and it has a coal oven. But is it really as good as the Grimaldi's in Brooklyn? Or is this just some kind of licensing deal?

The fresh cheese, imported olive oil, homemade Italian sausage and outstanding red sauce at Grimaldi's in Sugar Land are the same as in Brooklyn. Not so the crust.
Daniel Kramer
The fresh cheese, imported olive oil, homemade Italian sausage and outstanding red sauce at Grimaldi's in Sugar Land are the same as in Brooklyn. Not so the crust.

Location Info

Map

Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria

16535 SW Freeway .
Sugar Land, TX 77479

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Outside Houston

Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria

20 Waterway Ave.
Spring, TX 77380

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Outside Houston

Details

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. (temporary).

Individual pizza: $9

Small pizza: $13

Large pizza: $15

Add Italian sausage: $2

Small house salad: $5

16535 Southwest Fwy. in Sugar Land, 281-265-2280.

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Last week I took a trip to New York. While I was there, I had a pizza at the Brooklyn Grimaldi's so I could make a fair comparison.

It was a beautiful day, so I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan and sat down at Grimaldi's with a New York food writer friend. We ordered a small Italian sausage pizza. I got up and walked over to the oven to watch the pizzaiolo punch a ball of dough out and then toss it in the air. The coal fire was located just inside the door of the oven and to the right. It was burning on top of the brick oven floor. The design of the oven and the location of the coal fire at the Grimaldi's in Sugar Land were exactly the same.

Our pizza was done in less than ten minutes. There were several large black bubbles in the top crust where the gases from the yeast had expanded and the thin dough had burnt. The bottom of the crust had mottled black areas of char. The New York food writer pointed out that the crust had thick, bready areas along with thin crispy areas and that it was these "thick and thin" variations that made a New York pizza great.

Along with the coal oven char, the yeast bubbles and the thick and thin crust, what makes Grimaldi's pizza unique is the fresh mozzarella, which is applied under the red sauce. Unfortunately, the cheese contains a lot of moisture. If you don't eat a Grimaldi's pizza when it is piping hot, it develops a wet, gloppy condensation layer that eventually makes the crust soggy.

So was the pizza I ate at Grimaldi's in Sugar Land just like the one I ate at Grimaldi's in Brooklyn?

Sorry, it wasn't even close.

Grimaldi's in Sugar Land makes a nice crispy pizza that is going to do well in Houston. But it doesn't have any big yeast bubbles, the crust is not "thick and thin" and it has practically zero char on the crust.
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Grimaldi's is one of New York's most highly rated pizzas. Its history goes something like this: At the age of ten, Patsy Grimaldi went to work at his uncle Patsy Lancieri's pizzeria in East Harlem. (Patsy is short for the Italian name Pasquale.) Patsy Grimaldi and his uncle both believed that coal-fired brick ovens produced the best pizzas. But Manhattan had made it illegal to build new coal ovens, so when Grimaldi went out on his own, he located in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Grimaldi's was called Patsy's when it opened in 1990, but there were several pizzerias in New York named Patsy's, and the name became part of a legal battle. The restaurant was renamed Grimaldi's and sold to the Ciolli family in 1996. The seven Grimaldi's pizzerias out west were opened by Joe Ciolli, who came to the Sunbelt to attend Arizona State University. The difference between the Brooklyn Grimaldi's pizza and the Sugar Land Grimaldi's pizza is no accident, nor is it a part of a learning curve. Joe ­Ciolli knew very well that an authentically blackened New York coal oven pizza would never sell in Houston.

Joe Ciolli worked for several years at the Brooklyn Grimaldi's. He told Pizza Marketplace magazine that when he first opened Grimaldi's in Scottsdale, Arizona, customers there "didn't get the attraction" of a New York coal oven pie. They thought the black char and smoky flavor from the extremely hot oven meant that their pizza was burnt. So in their Southwestern locations, Grimaldi's came up with a compromised pizza-baking technique to suit local tastes.
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While I was in the city, I was reminded that New Yorkers are hardly unanimous in their praise of Grimaldi's. During an appearance on the Joey Reynolds late-night talk radio show, I told the host I had been to Brooklyn to compare the Grimaldi's there with the one in Houston. That prompted a long harangue from the loquacious Mr. Reynolds about my failure to visit Patsy's in Harlem — the best pizzeria in New York.

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