The first time I went to New York, it was on a boat. I was a ten-year-old immigrant, dressed in a matching herringbone tweed overcoat and cap, looking wide-eyed at Lady Liberty, then sailing up the Hudson to Pier 88, and catching glimpses of those magical towers that scraped the sky.
The second time I went to New York it was on an overnight train. I was a teenaged rock and roll explorer, still dressed in herringbone tweed but now via a three-piece suit with lapels on the vest.
I sailed into Grand Central and, with many, many hours to kill before I’d walk up West 45th to get in line to see Joey Dee and The Starliters do their go jeepa, goba goba jeepa at The Peppermint Lounge, I did a where-to-have-breakfast walk up 42nd Street.
At a plate glass storefront, a crowd had gathered. My Cuban heels gave me a two inch lift over the trench coats and stetsons. The crowd was enthralled by a guy in the window doing a juggling act with…what?…pastry? He’d do a little Rocky Marciano shadow box and down would come the twisting and twirling wheel of dough again and again.
From through the door drifted an aroma. Not just bread dough but roasted tomatoes, oregano and garlic. From through that door also came people carrying folded-in-half triangles. Pizza-by-the-slice. At nine-thirty in the morning. Breakfast was served. Twice for me that weekend. And, once again, as an after midnight snack.
Over the years there were pretzels and cheesecakes and pastramis and bagels but the king of New York cuisine will always be that pizza.
Unfortunately though, I fell off the New York style pizza wagon a few years ago. I discovered that, even at my overripe old age, I could be led astray by young, slim women in tight skirts with legs crossed who sat on stools at marble counters. I wanted to eat what they ate and they were eating Neopolitan-style pizza. So for a couple of years I knife and forked those cracker-crust pizzas with fresh tomatoes and cheese from water buffalos. But there was a problem. Neopolitan-style pizzas are like Don Day’s Wife. They don’t travel well. And those pizzas can’t be saved with a couple of dramamine. I eat most of my pizzas, not at marble counters but at a coffee table, in front of a television, in my home, and by the time they reach my home, Neopolitan-style pizzas are, almost always, dry disasters.
So I’m back on the bus, Gus. In a New York frame of mind again. New York style pizza is, once more, top of the list, king of the hill, hey number one. And in San Miguel de Allende, Joe (Pizza Guy) Ruffino and his wife Ana are my go-to people.
According to Ginger Adams, in the Lonely Planet’s guide to New York City, “The first pizzeria in the United States of America was founded by Gennaro Lombardi in New York City’s Little Italy in 1905. An immigrant pizzaiolo (pizza maker) from Naples, he opened a grocery store in 1897; eight years later, it was licensed to sell pizza by New York State. An employee, Antonio Totonno Pero, began making pizza, which sold for five cents a pie. Many people, however, could not afford a whole pie and instead would offer what they could in return for a corresponding sized slice.”
Joe and Ana Ruffino don’t sell pizza by the slice. There are a lot of vehicles on their street but they’re zipping by at about 70 kph and there may be more canine than pedestrian traffic. “More than 50% of our business is takeout or delivery”, Joe Ruffino told me.
Don Day’s business with Pizza Guy had all been via delivery until last week when I headed down San Miguel’s Libramiento to visit Joe and Ana Ruffino’s restaurant and talk to them about New York style pizza and what makes theirs one of the best. The location was previously the home of Pizza Pig, a pizzeria that once made a pie that I called the best in town, a plaudit that, if it’s a delivered pie, now belongs to Pizza Guy.
Joe and Ana arrived in San Miguel de Allende a year ago with a few hundred thousand pizza boxes of experience with them. For 45 years Joe was a part of the family business, Joe Ruffino’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, in Oneonto, a university town in upstate New York.
“I was a young kid when I arrived there along with my parents from Brooklyn. I had to learn a new language…stop saying ‘yooz guys’ and learn how to pronounce ‘water’,” said Joe. “Since I was seven, I ate, played, studied and worked at Joe Ruffino’s.”
Other than his wife Ana being Mexican, I’m not sure why Joe made the move to San Miguel. Who knows why so many of us make the move but, last July, an Oneonto newspaper quoted Joe as saying,”Now it’s time for my wife and I to move forward to a new beginning. It may seem like my wings have been clipped but in reality this bird has been set free.”
Whatever the reason it was that Joe and Ana Ruffino moved to San Miguel, it’s a pizza lover’s gain.
My friend Mark Tamiso, who started life as another East coast Italian, called Joe a typical New Yorker. “He’s got a New York accent, a New York nose, a New York haircut and he talks endlessly,” said Mark.
Last week, a lot of that talk was about pizza and, no matter what style of pizza, rating how good it is is the sum of four parts: The crust, the sauce, the cheese, and the toppings. I chatted with Joe about each of them.
We started with the crust. It’s the crust that separates a New York pizza most from a Neopolitan or a Sicilian/pan/Chicago style. I asked Joe how he would describe a perfect NY style crust.
Joe told me, “You should be able to pick up a slice, fold it, and put it in your mouth. It shouldn’t crack or crumble, it should hold itself together. You should be able to pick up a slice like a sandwich, with only one hand, and never lose a drop.”
“The ingredients of a New York crust are simple”, Joe continued, “It’s just flour, water, sugar, salt and oil…finding the right flour though isn’t so easy.”
“It’s got to be high-protein, high-gluten…it’s got to be fresh. In the States we used General Mills flour and when I found out General Mills had a plant here, I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. All of their product goes to the U.S. and Canada. It took us five weeks of searching until I found a place in Queretaro. It’s good, it’s fresh and it’s consistent.”
Knowing that, in the U.S., some out-of-state pizza bakers transport New York water cross-country for its minerals content and, perhaps, for the sake of authenticity, I asked Joe how important water is to the crust.
“It’s important”, replied Joe, “but there’s a locally bottled one that works fine.”
“And tossing the dough”, I asked, remembering my first sight of that juggler on 42nd Street.
“Yeh, you’ve got to stretch it out so the center is thinner than the edges. I’ve been tossing dough all my life,” said Joe. “I do it every day. I do it all day long.”
Part two in the art of good pizza making is the sauce.
For a long time, I thought traditional Italian (and New York) pizza makers used fresh tomatoes for their sauce. I always wondered how they ever found fully-ripened tomatoes every day of the year.
They don’t. Canned tomatoes are the standard and Pizza Guy uses California grown Romas that are processed by S&W Fine Foods.
“They’re higher in sodium than what we used at Joe Ruffino’s so I’ve had to adjust the amount of salt we use,” said Joe. “Otherwise it’s the same recipe with onions, garlic, oregano, basil, pepper, sugar and a little parmesan cheese.”
What I like about Pizza Guy’s sauce is, not so much what’s in it but what’s not in it. A lot of pizzaiolos use tomato paste that adds what I think is a nasty bitterness. Pizza Guy doesn’t.
Part number three in the art of making of a good pizza is the cheese. It must not only be mozzarella, it must be the right type of mozzarella.
What most New York style pizza makers use is a low-moisture, part skim mozzarella. It doesn’t require packaging in brine or vacuum-packing and you can refrigerate it for months.
Joe Ruffino doesn’t use part skim, he uses a full fat, whole milk mozzarella.
“We found a company in Jalisco. They bring it down by the brick each week”, said Joe.
You lose a little in the browning with whole milk mozzarella but gain a lot in stretchability (I think it’s a word) and, most importantly, taste.
Two more things about the cheese on Joe and Ana’s pizza. They put it on half way through the baking so it melds better with the other toppings and they are very, very generous with the quantity (don’t even think about the need to order double cheese).
The fourth and last part of the making of a good New York style pizza is the remainder of the toppings and, from a carnivore’s perspective, that’s all about sausage and pepperoni.
Pizza Guy uses Locavore’s Italian sausage (which you can read about at http://dondayinsma.com/2018/03/29/save-half-sausage-ill-breakfast/). Amanda Rueda’s hot Italian is the choice for pasta dishes at Don Day’s house if we don’t have Mrs. Day’s on hand, and the choice of Joe and Ana at Pizza Guy’s house.
Amanda told me, “It’s great working with Joe and Ana, they care about putting out a quality product.”
As far as the choice of pepperoni, you might think the ideal would be an import. That’s probably because, as I did for most of my life, you thought pepperoni originated in Italy. It didn’t. Despite being very similar to a lot of Italian salamis, pepperoni was an American invention, perhaps even originating in New York.
“We use the exact same brand that I used in New York. It’s made by a company called Liguria. It’s probably the most popular pepperoni in the world,” said Joe.
We’d talked about all four of the components of a good New York style pizza, about the only other thing was the baking.
“It took a few days to get the timing right at this altitude. It makes a big difference when you’re 6,000 feet up”, Joe explained. “We added some ceramic plates to the bottom of the oven but the temperature we cook the pies at…250 degrees C…is the same as always.”
As I mentioned a couple of thousand words ago, the reason I switched back from Neopolitan style to New York style pizza was what happened to the crust when it travelled, when it spent half an hour in a cardboard box.
Takeout or delivery can be tough on any pizza…especially when it’s going to the other side of town where my place is. But I do like the way Pizza Guy preps it for the journey. In the center of the pie they put what I call a spider (spun way too many 45s in my time).
If it’s a large size, they put knots of dough in two of the corners to add additional protection. And they punch a couple of steam holes in the corners which helps prevent oils from gathering on top.
Even then, there’s something else we personally do when we order from Pizza Guy (and from any and all pizza joints). Ten minutes after we order, we turn on our oven as high as it goes (which in our case is the same temperature as Joe and Ana Ruffino’s).
When the pizza arrives, one slice is removed (because I just can’t wait for something that good) and the rest goes on to a flat pan and in the oven until, through the glass, we see the cheese bubbling. Those two or three minutes don’t hurt…maybe even help…the crust and the toppings are be-careful-you-don’t-burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth gooey.
Then, about all you need in the world is a coffee table, some thick napkins, a bottle of red, a little Francis Albert on You Tube and an appetite for a really, really good, New York style pizza.
Pizza Guy is located at Libramiento José Manuel Zavala 12 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from Noon to 9:00 pm, Wednesday to Sunday.