Photo credit: Sydney Yorkshire
For as long as chefs have been firing up pizzas in Los Angeles, not-so-humble pizzerias have deigned to provide skeptical Angelenos with classic New York style slices. Pretty much all have failed. Sure, there are close calls with the likes of Vito’s or Mulberry Street or even more recent New York transplants Joe’s and Prince Street. But somehow, the nostalgia is missing from all of them.
Most critiques of why New York pizza doesn’t work in LA lies somewhere between the dry air and the chemically-saturated water. But ultimately, the problem is more psychological than it is technical. The reason an LA slice doesn’t taste the same is because your brain can’t displace the fact that you’re not in New York.
Take Da Michele in Hollywood. They use the identical ingredients and recipe as their flagship restaurant in Naples, but anyone who has been to both locations will swear that something is different. It’s just a chemical brain trick. You’re not in Italy, so it doesn’t taste like it did in Italy. And you’re not in New York, so it won’t taste like New York.
This is all a very long introduction to something new happening in Pasadena. Entering into the ‘does it taste like New York’ debate is U Street Pizza from the brilliant restaurateur brain of owner Marie Petulla and the genius cooking skills of chef Chris Keyser. U Street is the new little brother of Pasadena Italian standout Union, and is attempting to do two things at once: make you think of New York in passing while appreciating that LA has the best ingredients in the world.
And to say the least – it’s a really neat trick.
A New York transplant himself, Keyser got his pizza chops from legendary pizza maker Marc Vetri who is known for putting Philly on the pizza map. And like Vetri, Keyser took a very simple philosophy with him to LA. “Working for Vetri, we were taking something old and making it new again, and making it cool. And that’s what I saw for this restaurant,” Keyser explained.
So, what does a reimagined New York style pizza look like? For starters, it’s remembering you’re not in New York and that you have remarkable produce to play with. “The style of pizza is the same, but the ingredients are local to California and the west coast. The flour we use not only has a lower protein, which gives it more flavor, but it’s also easier to digest.”
Photo credit: Sydney Yorkshire
The other standout of these, as Keyser calls them, neo-New York style pizzas, is the artisan approach to the process. The pizza inside U Street goes through a 48-hour fermentation, “I don’t think a lot of people understand that fermentation is where you get the flavor from the wheat…And you know, it’s going to feel like New York, but it’s a much slower process. We also have a higher hydration dough than most New York pizza. Ours is closer to 70%, while most New Yorkers do 63 or 64% hydration.”
[Note: dough hydration is the total amount of water divided by the total amount of flour in your recipe.]
Ultimately, what sets Keyser’s pizzas apart from New York while maintaining their New Yorkiness is how he dresses them. “We have some pretty cool pies. We have a Vodka-Roni, which is our version of an upside down where it's a white pie with Fresno peppers, pepperoni and basil, but we have a vodka sauce that we just put right on top of the pie right before you get it, as opposed to the vodka sauce getting baked on the pie. We also have a clam pie that's an homage to Frank Pepe, but we do it our way in more of an Italian style where we chop up the clams, mix in a ton of garlic and parsley and some fresh red pepper and lemon. It’s somewhat of a salsa verde. And then we add fior di latte and fresh cream that we're drizzling on top. That’s our version of that clam pie that everybody is famous for.”
The most original addition to Keyser’s pies is the use of an aged 18-month cheddar called Fiscalini from Fiscalini Farmstead. It’s the final dusting atop the innovative neo-New York’s that hit your plate and provides hints of aged parmigiano with delicate crispiness for a sharp, unexpected bite in the back of your jaw.
Photo credit: Paul Feinstein
Will New Yorkers finally have the New York pie of their childhoods up in Pasadena and stop complaining about LA’s lack of authenticity? Of course not, but that’s because this isn’t New York. But will a simple bite of the Petaluma Style pizza with steaming grandma sauce, salty pecorino, and California extra virgin olive oil transport them to a Manhattan slice shop for a brief moment? Yes.
The neatest trick Keyser pulls off is that when New Yorkers go back east and bite into their city slice, it'll be these California pies that they'll be nostalgic for instead.