When I asked Jim Staffieri, proprietor of the Pizza Stop downtown, which of his own pizzas was his favorite, the one that he mentioned was his meatball parmesan pizza. I'd never tried it, as that's not the kind of pizza I would generally order - I tend to be more of a minimalist when it comes to pizza - but I figured if he liked it, I'd better give it a shot.
What with checking out other pizzerias, it's taken me a while, but I finally got around to it, and recently picked up a large meatball parm pie from the Pizza Stop. After trying it, it's easy to see how this could make anybody's short list of favorites.
It starts with the same crust as Pizza Stop's other New York style pies: thin, crisp but chewy, and just a bit charred without being burnt.
From there, though, things are a bit different: the meatballs are put on first, then the cheese, with the sauce coming last. And rather than a solid layer of sauce covering the entire surface, the sauce here is applied in a spiral pattern, which to those of us old enough to remember, might bring to mind those little "HypnoDisks" that used to be advertised (right next to the X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys) in the back pages of comic books.
I'm not sure if the HypnoDisks worked, but this pizza did have some hypnotic powers of its own. I suspect, though, that this had less to do with the visual effect of the spiraling sauce and cheese than with the aroma of fresh garlic, which always casts a spell on me.
Or maybe it was the flavors, and the way that they all came together. First, there's the cheese, which, despite the pizza's name, does not include Parmesan. Instead, Staffieri uses a blend of mozzarella and Romano, for more flavor than would be imparted from Parmesan (I guess "meatball Rome" just wouldn't have the same ring as "meatball parm").
Next, add the sauce. The spiraling looks nice, but it also helps keep the sauce in balance with the other components. There may be a practical reason for the spiral application - once the cheese is on the pizza, it would be hard to spread sauce over it uniformly, the way you would over a bare pizza, without messing up the cheese - but regardless of the reason, the spiraling ensures some sauce in each bite without drenching the pizza.
And then there are the meatballs. These were broken up into small chunks, which were evenly distributed over the pizza. They were moist without being greasy, and had a slightly spicy, peppery flavor.
An unseen but noticeable presence was the extra virgin olive oil, which is swirled over the entire pizza after the other toppings are applied, just before baking, with a little extra along the rim of the crust. The oil softens the crust just a tad, and also helps transmit the flavor of the other ingredients to the tastebuds.
Perhaps it's the oil, but what I really liked about this pizza was the way that the disparate flavors came together - the sauce, cheese, garlic, meatballs, and of course the crust. Some pizzerias - particularly the big chains - seem to stress quantity: how many toppings, or how much of each topping, they give you. Often, I think, that's intended as a way of distracting you from just how lacking in flavor and texture the crust is.
A good New York style crust, on the other hand, doesn't need to hide under an overabundance of toppings, and this one didn't. The various flavors here complemented, rather than competed with, each other and the crust.
A reader recently pointed me to a column from last summer by Frank Bruni of the New York Times. In it, Bruni observed that "great pizza and great pasta are kinfolk. What’s a margherita, after all, but a canvas for tomato, cheese and herb with less slickness, more crunch and more portability than noodles? Many of the flavors are the same." Pizza Stop's meatball parm pizza did indeed remind me of a pasta dish, but not one doused with sauce, meatballs and cheese. There was an overall unity, balance and harmony here that made this one terrific pizza, and a good choice for family dinner.
Speaking of which - my six-year-old daughter, who herself balances out my pretentious pizza pontificitations with a simple "yummy or yucky" approach, absolutely loved this pizza. I've never seen her scarf down as much pizza as she did on this one. Add in my wife's concurrence, and this one gets a triple "A."