410 Tenth Avenue, East Village
I swear. That's what East Village is becoming.
It hit me the other night. I was bouncing down 10th in the Number 11 bus, at about 11:00, heading for 12th and Imperial. That's when I noticed the party. You could see through the big industrial windows: the place was hopping. People chowing down at tables and bars. This was one happy old brick warehouse.
The only sign I could see was a little yellow vertical banner on a pole. "Pizza," it said, and above that, "Basic."
Fast-forward to this evening, near the ballpark. I'm walking east on J when I come across an old brick building near Tenth.
This has to be it. Gotta take a mosey. Wow. Big hangar doors are slid wide open, so half the inside is open to the street. And the interior is like an old warehouse, with a naked, arched timber ceiling; girders; steel reinforcements to hold up those brick walls; and a long bar against the western wall. In the middle is a lounge area separated off by what looks like hanging curtains of chain mail. And to the right, there's the corner section I saw from the bus.
This evening it's busy, but not crazy -- yet. Good to see it's not only freshly tattooed twentysomething urbanistas but some middle-aged folks and a few oldies too. Gives it a neighborhood feel. I go, natch, to the long counter-bar, a second one they have over at the east end. Trent comes up to take my order. I ask for a coffee. I see -- too late -- that they're three bucks. What can you do? I check the menu after he leaves. It's basic, all right. Like, you have a choice: pizza or salad. The "base pies" are either red or white. Red means you get the tomato paste (for $8 small, $13 large), white means you've got olive oil, garlic, and Parmesan cheese (also $8 small, $13 large). Pay an extra buck to add mozzarella to the small, two for the large. Then add toppings, the usual suspects, from onion to pepperoni to meatballs and anchovies, and two interesting ones at the end of the list, mashed potato and littleneck clams. 'Course I'm counting my shekels, so I just go for the red pie with mozzarella and pepperoni.
What they don't tout on the menu, or what even Trent doesn't mention, is that we're talking pioneering pizzas here. Turns out these guys make the only true-blue Connecticut pizzas in San Diego. Why such a deal about pizzas from New Haven, apart from the fact that that's where the movie Mystic Pizza was shot?
It turns out New Haven is nothing less than the birthplace of American pizza. New Haven was where one Frank Pepe immigrated to from Italy and in the early 1900s started putting tomato on top of old bake-shop bread. People loved it, and the first American pizza was born. In 1925 he opened his first real pizzeria, and the rest, as they say, is pizza-ry.
Oh man. When my pie arrives I realize how big the "small" is, an 18-inch oval, and it comes on this way-big aluminum tray. The other thing is how incredibly thin the crust is.
"That's the Connecticut difference," says this guy who's chatting with Trent. Jon Mangini. Young guy. Whoa. He's the owner, from New Haven. "We invented it," he says. "We make the thinnest pizza in the country. And we still bake them in brick ovens back there. Plus, we have less crust, and they're always delivered on big rectangular baking pans."
Mmm. The crust's extreme thinness allows the taste of the toppings to come through really rich and unadulterated.
Jon's an interesting guy. When he found this old warehouse in 2004, he gutted it and hauled all the detritus out, but he didn't strip it. It dates back to 1912, according to Jon (others say 1918, but what the heck, it's old either way), and used to be a horse carriage repair shop. Jon and the building's owner resisted the temptation to "modernize" the place. Instead, it's been allowed to revert beautifully to its original look. It's come back to life, and, because of Jon, life has come back to it.
He has made a kind of "relaxing room" between the two bars by hanging a metal "cascade coil curtain," like loose, swaying chain mail. The fixtures above the big bar are glass tubes with motor oil in them so they give off a golden light. The "rugs" in the seating area are actually old bike tire flakes. The oversize purple-felted pool table is an antique Brunswick. It all feels original. It's cool just to stand around staring, listening for the whinnies of horses past.
Maybe that's why people flock here. Because they do. These guys are so crowded weekends, and when the Padres are at home, fuggedaboudit. But I've got to come back. I see some folks eating a white pizza with, hey -- is this Connecticut, too? -- a layer of mashed potatoes with cheese melted on top, bacon, and red peppers. Who ever heard of a mashed-potato pizza? Gotta come and try it. And maybe next time it'll be happy hour, when they pass around pizza samples.
I officially admit defeat after knocking off only four slices. These suckers are deceptive. Trent gives me a box to put the rest in.
One thing I know: With what I bring home, I'll be scoring high with Carla. This could keep us going for days. Foodwise, relationshipwise.