The Inaugural Tinsel and Rot Staten Island Pizza Tour

We all have our dreams in life. Some dream of a home in the country, with a loving spouse and children. Some have visions of reaching the top of their field. Some hope for fame, wealth, or a combination of the two.

I dream of a Staten Island pizza tour, sampling some of the best pizza in the much-maligned borough of my birth.

And on July 11, that dream came true. It went like this:

First stop: Salvatore of Soho

The first two stops on the tour were new to me, because it didn't seem right to devote the entire tour to places I'd already visited. So it was off to Hylan Boulevard, just a little past Rab's Country Lanes, the long-gone and much-missed Ribs & More (now Pasticceria Bruno), and two other fine pizzerias (Il Pomodoro and Goodfellas) to Salvatore of Soho. This pizzeria, nestled into one of the many strip malls of Hylan Boulevard, is the new kid on the block, but it's been racking up some good press since opening. So it seemed worth a shot.

When we (two other pizza lovers came along for the gluttony, thus preventing me from having to eat a whole pie at each place) entered SoS a little after 1 p.m., we were the only three in the checkered-tableclothed place. We were quickly greeted by one of the yellow-uniformed waitresses (who nearly outnumbered us) and given some bread, which we ate, because, you know, why not more carbs? Our pie soon made its way out of the coal oven, and the tour was officially under way, with Sinatra as the soundtrack.

But enough writing. Here's the real star of the show: the pizza.

We decided to keep it simple on the day, ordering a plain pie at each stop. The star of the pie at SoS was the cheese, with the fresh basil coming in a close second. I'm not crazy about the Neapolitan style of pizza that demands a charred crust, but I can live with it, as evidenced by my willingness to spring out of the gates early and down three slices.

The pie was as good as any of the more heralded Neapolitan pies I've had in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it was a good start to the day. Plus, Salvatore of Soho wins the prize for best crapper of the day, with the fanciest toilet tank you'll ever see in a pizza joint.

Yes, I took photos in the bathroom. No, I wasn't the only member of my party to do so.

Second stop: Lee's Tavern

We decided to walk the half mile or so to Lee's Tavern, conveniently located right near the Dongan Hills station of the Staten Island Railway. Despite hearing of the place for years, I didn't know where it was until I started planning the trip. But when I saw pictures online, I realized I'd watched part of the Rangers' most recent playoff flop from outside Lee's window last year. So I had good memories there without even knowing.

I hadn't known it was Lee's, because it's impossible to know it's Lee's unless you're inside. There are no signs outside, and barely any indication that inside you will find one of Staten Island's most revered pies. And if that's not a reason to like it right off the bat, the pizza will do the rest of the convincing.

We waited a long time for our pie (we were stuck in the pizza line behind a softball team and a table led by a crazy woman who seemed to be complaining about almost everything, which is, of course, the Staten Island Way), but after watching a few pies pass and a few baskets of calamari pass by, it was finally showtime.

While waiting for the pie, I think I OD'd on water, which, combined with the walk in the 90+-degree heat, meant I could only shove two slices down my throat. And that made me sad, because the Lee's pie was damn good. The crust and the sauce were the stars here, and I feel confident that, on a good, non-tour day, I could polish off a whole large pie and be quite content.

Lee's is also the first pizza place I've been in that had deer heads on the wall. I'm not saying that's good or bad; I'm just stating a fact.

INTERMISSION: Staten Island Yankees vs. State College Spikes

Because eating at four pizza places in a row on a hot July day is a sure recipe for vomiting, we built in a minor-league game in between. We almost regretted that decision when a rain delay held up the start of the game for an hour, thus jeopardizing our strict timeline for the second half of the tour. But the skies eventually cleared, the home team won in extra innings, and we were out of there just in time to stay on schedule.

Third stop: Joe & Pat's

Joe & Pat's is the sentimental favorite among Staten Island pizzerias, because my dad worked there at one point (doing deliveries). Seeing as the joint opened in 1960, it's quite possible that my dad was in on the ground floor. Yes, I am bragging.

It took me a while to warm up to Joe & Pat's in my youth, partly because I preferred the thicker crust at Al's Pizzeria (now a shadow of its former self, though I can still remember their phone number--273-5877--which should give you some indication of how much pizza I ate there) and probably partly out of some kind of half-hearted child rebellion. But I have grown to love it over the years and now make a point to have a few slices there on Father's Day and my dad's birthday.

And another point in Joe & Pat's favor is that they now make whole wheat pizza, which we ordered (or I ordered while my tourmates looked on somewhat skeptically). So slices 6, 7, and 8 of the day were really healthy. Look at me, setting a good example for the kids.

The cheese and crust (super-thin) are good at Joe & Pat's, but it's the sauce that will keep you coming back (or keep you away if you're not a big pizza sauce devotee). It's got a little sweetness to it, which goes nice with the whole wheat crust, if I do say so myself. And I do, because this is my blog and what else am I gonna do here if not say things.

Fatigue once again set in as I made my way through the pie, but I couldn't resist the third slice. Besides, the end was near, so I figured I might as well finish strong.

Fourth stop: Denino's

This wound up being a historic visit to Denino's. It was the first, and possibly last, time I left Denino's having eaten a measly two slices. I debated the third, but having already hit double digits on the day, I felt I had nothing left to prove. Still, it's sad to leave Denino's after only two slices.

Denino's is the pizza spot on Staten Island. If you ask your average Staten Islander (please approach carefully) where you should go for pizza, the odds are reasonably high that they will tell you to go to Denino's (and go to Ralph's across the street for an Italian ice or some ice cream after dinner). Denino's produces a frighteningly consistent pie, always with a good balance of sauce and cheese and a nice, firm crust that's neither cracker-thin or overly puffed. I can't recall having a bad slice there, even the time we got there about 10 minutes before closing and they had to restart the ovens just for us. I choose not to think what they did to our pizza, but whatever it was, the pizza wasn't affected by it.

We got there in plenty of time this time around and settled into a booth for the final, satisfying lap of the pizza tour.

After Denino's, my fellow tourmates decided to cap the day with some ice cream at Ralph's. My stomach informed me that I would be well advised not to join them, so I took my Graham Crunch creme ice to go. After they finished off dessert, they picked up some bread at Melone Bros., and we were on our way, survivors of the inaugural Tinsel and Rot Staten Island Pizza Tour.

There will certainly be more in the future (perhaps with other places). Just not the near future, because I'm OK with not looking at pizza for a little bit.

Oh, so you want to know who the winner is, right? Because you need there to be a winner. Well, it's hard to pick just one. They all have their strengths, and I would have no quarrel with someone saying that any of the four was the best pizza they'd ever had. But, you need your winner. So, let's see, the winner is...

Me. For eating ten slices of pizza in one day and not throwing up. Let's hear it for me.

(View the full photo set of the tour here.)

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