A Slice of Heaven

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.

Though the Greek is my favorite, others I know swear by the basic Margarita, the purist's pizza. This one incorporates even more sliced Romas than the Greek, resting on a firm, springy bed of low-fat mozzarella. Granted, you can find Margarita (a.k.a. Margherita) pizzas anywhere from Rome to Los Angeles; what makes Russo's version shine is his pungent garlic sauce and fresh organic basil.

Then, too, there are adherents of the create-your-own school, folks who go wild choosing from a generous list of five different meats, 13 vegetables and herbs, three cheeses and one fruit (pineapple). My husband, like Russo a homesick Yankee, loves New York Pizzeria's Sicilian pizza, which he says is the closest thing to Boston's Sicilian pies he's found in Houston. The Sicilian pizzas are monstrous 16-inch squares with crusts almost half an inch deep, slathered with Russo's sweet tomato sauce and loaded with cheese. My husband requests his with fresh spinach and garlic chunks.

On my return from south of the border, though, my preference for thin crusts was the one being satisfied. After gorging myself on flat pizza, I turned my attention to the stuffed renditions -- calzones and strombolis made with the same heavenly crust folded over a variety of fillings. My personal favorite is the New York calzone, distinguished by its creamy ricotta cheese stuffing, underlain with gooey mozzarella and fortified with Canadian bacon. My meat-loving friends liked the stromboli, which in addition to mozzarella contains sausage and pepperoni, plus bell peppers, mushrooms and black olives. I sniffed. As far as I'm concerned, a stromboli is too close to a pizza that has just messily been squashed over. If that's what you're after, then just get the pizza.

As we plowed through the sandwich course, a heated discussion of bread erupted. New York Pizzeria's sandwiches are served on thick white rolls baked in-house. They're fine rolls, but not really suitable for the sandwiches they contain. My husband argued that the Soho, a meatball sandwich, should only be served on a hoagie roll. I rather agreed. I also thought the sauce was a little too sweet; another of our group thought it a little too bland; but one, a meatball fan, thought the chunky meatballs were just right.

I was also disappointed in the muffaletta, a commendable stack of deli meats and cheese piled high and slathered with olive dressing but, alas, not served on the sturdy, chewy bread it deserves. Too, while the bread was warm, the stack of cold cuts and cheese was unfortunately cool in the middle.

The counterman cautiously poked his head out the door, checking to see if we'd exploded. "What's for dessert?" we asked him brightly.

Shaking his head, he ducked back into the shop and soon returned bearing cannoli and cheesecake, both off-the-menu items imported from Russo's Cafe Anthony. The cheesecake was perfect: a towering wedge of creamy cake, rich with ricotta, on a thin crust of graham cracker crumbs, topped with a layer of sweet icing. The cannoli were everything cannoli should be: delicate pastry shells made with a splash of wine, oozing sweet ricotta and packed with chocolate chips.

We patted our lips and trundled off into the soft summer evening. The staff waved good-bye. I should be embarrassed to show my face here again, I thought. Next time, maybe I'll call and ask for home delivery. Under an assumed name, of course ...

New York Pizzeria, 2250 West Holcombe, 432-1121, and F.M. 1960 at S.H. 249, (281) 469-5669.

New York Pizzeria: specialty pizzas, $12.95 (12-inch), $16.95 (16-inch); Sicilian pizzas, $12.95; New York calzone, $6.95; stromboli, $6.95; Soho meatball sandwich, $4.95; muffaletta, $4.95; cheesecake, $3; cannoli, $2.25.


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