Once I ordered a large pie from a fairly popular Bay Ridge pizzeria and asked for it without cheese. The guy behind the counter seemed afraid. He looked left; he looked right. Then he asked the guy-in-charge behind him, “can we do that?” Of course you can! Though the idea makes people emotional: I’ve had even family members yell at me that I’m not eating real pizza (while I was just sitting quietly eating pizza, not saying anything). But cheese doesn’t exactly play a central role in the history of pizza. As L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele explains on its website, “There are only two types of Neapolitan Pizza, the ‘Marinara’ and the ‘Margherita.’” The former features tomato sauce, dough, olive oil, basil—but not mozzarella, Romano, etc.
More and more pizzerias in the neighborhood have begun offering Marinara pies in recent years, and trying one can be a really great way to judge a pizzeria’s worthiness: after all, sauce and crust aren’t mere add-ons—they form the essence of pizza, and what better way to familiarize yourself with them than by removing the overbearing layer of cheese for direct access? (Plus, you also remove yourself from moral culpability for the systemic torture of sentient, smart and social beings. But that’s a different conversation!)
Some pizzerias are more understanding than others about baking without cheese. One time I spoke with a counterman and told him I wanted no cheese whatsoever. “So no cheese?” “No cheese.” And when the pie arrived, it was slathered in Romano. “Romano is not-a cheese,” he explained to me during our subsequent phone conversation. “It’s more like-a salt.” And then he hung up on me. (Lesson learned: never get pizza from Bari, on Fourth Avenue outside the 86th Street station.)
Much more amenable? Del Corso (7022 Third Avenue), with its shabby outside and charming red-checkered-tablecloth inside, which makes what’s become my favorite cheese-less pie in the neighborhood. (A bonus: they’ve never given me a problem nor messed up the order.)
This weekend, I ordered for the first time from them a Sicilian pie: with spinach and onions, but no cheese. And it proved an excellent decision. The thicker crust is chewy, pillowy really, a soft surface for the sauce, which is applied conservatively, so the crust doesn’t dry out but so it also doesn’t overwhelm the pie; it’s also light-tasting and slightly sweet, a perfect complement to the spinach, which tastes like the chopped frozen kind; I think this works in its favor: it appears generously in clumpy chunks, gaining in substantiality that fresh spinach would lack, giving the pie the kind of heft cheese might ordinarily supply. The onions don’t add much except a little oniony bite; I just like onions—which, in a sea of overbearing melted mozzarella, is exactly the kind of subtle taste sensation you lose.
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