Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eaten Lately, NYC (#4 in a Series) - John's

With all the new pizza places opening around town, old-time Village landmark John's on Bleecker Street has now become old hat. Already viewed by many as just a tourist joint, the opening of the much-hyped, much-debated Keste across the street has set up a face-to-face old school vs. new school showdown (although Keste and many of the other new schoolers would probably argue that the Neapolitan style they're trying to replicate is actually older and more "authentic" than what's served at old school places like John's).

Every time I've even thought about going to John's, the down-the-block lines have put the idea right out of my head. And for what it's worth, those lines usually do appear to be populated by tourists, including large tour groups. A couple of Saturday nights ago, though, there were only a handful of people in line at John's, barely spilling out of the vestibule, while Keste had a disorganized mob in front with 45 minute waits (or so I overheard from a few people who had given up and crossed the street).

I haven't tried Keste yet, but I've seen some of the press it's been getting, following the classic hype-to-backlash pattern that seems to happen faster and faster these days with restaurants, bands, and anything else that can generate an online buzz. Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri said Keste's pizza "tastes like shit" in the New York Magazine profile that preceded his departure from the NYC food scene. Robert Sietsema generated a great comments thread by leaving Keste out of his Top 10 NYC Pizza list in the Village Voice, saying in response to commenters shocked by the omission that "they can't control their oven" and "their crust is not up to par".

I have to admit that Keste was the original destination on that Saturday night (I'm not immune to hype and wanted to see what all the fuss was about), but seeing the relative size of the crowds made it an easy decision to hit John's instead. I was a little surprised at the weird decor, something like a cross between an old-school Italian restaurant and Southern college town staple the Mellow Mushroom, but I guess the whole hippie-mural-next-to-ancient-brick-oven vibe could be seen as a charming palimpsest of Greenwich Village history (or something like that). Anyway, nobody comes to John's for the ambience, so here are my impressions of the pizza (a half sausage, half basil):
  • just the right amount of char in the crust
  • good, slightly (and naturally) sweet tomato taste in the sauce (a sauce that tastes first and foremost like tomatoes, pure and unmuddled by other flavors, is one thing that most of the classic NYC pizza joints have in common - the original Totonno's might be the best example of this that I've tasted)
  • good ratio of sauce to cheese - I like to see some "exposed" sauce in this style of pizza instead of wall-to-wall cheese
  • toppings - not a lot of basil and what was there was pretty shriveled by its time in the oven, but just enough to make a solid contribution without dominating - the sausage was very flavorful and seemed fresh
Overall, an excellent pizza and definitely not the product of a place resting on its laurels. As St. Louis frozen custard impresario Ted Drewes used to say in his low-budget, high-energy local commercials, "it really is good, guys!" (he later added "and gals" in the name of inclusion).

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