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?
Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria
16535 Southwest Fwy. in Sugar Land, 281-265-2280.
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
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.
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.
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.
The cab driver who dropped me off at the studio was eating a slice when he picked me up. I asked him where he got it. He told me it was from Sal and Carmine's, the best pizzeria in New York. In his not so humble opinion, coal oven pizzerias like Patsy's and Grimaldi's were overrated.
The cabbie insisted that Sal and Carmine's whole cream mozzarella, which was applied in pieces the size of Styrofoam packing peanuts, was vastly superior to the thin glaze of fresh mozzarella at Grimaldi's. And, in truth, he had a point. Grimaldi's fresh mozzarella is hard to get used to. It doesn't melt seductively or pull away in long strings like regular mozzarella; instead, it adheres firmly to the crust like a shiny white plastic coating.
On my first visit to the Sugar Land Grimaldi's, I also sampled a disappointing white pizza with nothing but fresh mozzarella and garlic. I grew up eating the white pizza with clams at Pepe's in New Haven, which is probably the best white pie in the world. It's made with olive oil, garlic, herbs and fresh-shucked clams — and no cheese. So call me spoiled.
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It seems strange to say that while Grimaldi's in Brooklyn isn't my favorite East Coast pizza (I remain a Pepe's loyalist), Grimaldi's in Sugar Land is my favorite Houston pizza. Sure, I wish they made it with a yeastier thick-and-thin crust and left it in the oven until it got nice and black on the bottom, but it is nice and crispy, and at least they aren't cutting any corners on the ingredients.
At Grimaldi's in Sugar Land, the fresh cheese and imported olive oil, the homemade Italian sausage and the outstanding red sauce are all from the same sources that supply the pizzeria in Brooklyn. And right now, the stellar quality of these toppings gives Grimaldi's the edge over its Houston coal oven competition.
Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria has already opened a convenient location on I-10 near Bunker Hill. Grimaldi's Web site promises a location in The Woodlands is coming soon. It looks like Space City can look forward to a long and tasty coal oven pizza war this year.
Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria