Replicating authenticity is a tricky thing. So you have to hand it to Joe Pozzuoli and crew for some touches at the new East Village Joe's Pizza outpost. Between the fluorescent-lit, sparsely lettered menu above and behind the counter and the Famous Joe’s Pizza "You saw us in Spider-Man" sign on the wall, there are enough familiar, echoing elements of the storied West Village original Joe's Pizza to give you hope in a city besieged by inferior $1 slices and sacrilegious 7-Elevens that have no business gaining the traction they have, that at least in this case, expansion means paralleled east side oasis. The only way to find out for sure? Try plain and pepperoni slices at both spots in one day.
This past Saturday afternoon, as on any day at almost any time, the West Village Joe’s location was packed. Not that that’s odd or difficult to understand — it’s only a few times larger than the backseat of the city’s yellow cabs. A bit shabby, New York’s beloved pie joint shows all the Velveteen Rabbit worn patina that you remember from the last time you rushed through the three-minute transaction there: Shuffle, shuffle, "Plain and pepperoni," cash, change, "Thanks," dash crushed hot red pepper, done.
The plain slice is a bit shorter than you might recall, and the crust a bit wider than it should be, but the thickness of the base of the slice is just as perfect as always: thin, two-fingers-almost-touching thin, with roof-of-the-mouth-scalding hot cheese, and an almost equal amount of sauce. In brief, at Joe’s West Village, the state of the plain slice is strong.
One of Joe’s strengths has always been quality — a great recipe and technique. But it has also been demand. Since there’s always a line, there’s always a fresh pie. As anyone worth the cost of a slice knows, a fresh pie always beats a reheat. At Joe’s, the pepperoni slice, to my recollection has always benefitted from this philosophy. Looking back through my memories of rolled up, crumpled, orange-greased paper plates all the way back through the early '90s, I only remember the pepperoni pie being made to-order the same way as the plain pie. Not so on this visit. Pepperoni slices were layered on a waiting cheese pie in a way that betrayed a lack of cohesion to the cheese that would have been there if they’d been placed on the pie before it went into the oven. And this resulted in something Joe’s has always been prized for not doing: the reheat. It might not be a big deal to most people, but to pizza nuts wary of the dangers an expansion could bring, it’s enough to kick-off recurrent nightmares involving California Pizza Kitchen, DiGiorno, and La Famiglia. "Pizza! Pizza!" You know? The review? Not perfect, a bit dryer from the reheat than it should have been, but pleasantly crispy — I guess a recent reheat at Joe's is better than one at an average slice joint.
And what of East Village Joe’s? Between Five Napkin Burger and Ngam, what was once a two-block culinary wasteland around Third Avenue and 14th Street has slowly clawed out a few pit-stops. And now? In what was once Naked Pizza, a place not worth your time or money unless you derive joy in pouring salt on slugs or taking a magnifying glass to ants, behold, Joe’s!
A walk from the West Village location to the East Village location is the time it took to go from a nine-person long line of post-grad dudes to a four-deep queue of oh-my-god NYU undergrads. The difference? No line out the door, more room inside, and a little less wear on the surroundings. The plain slice? Refreshingly similar to the original. Thin, hot, and crispy, with that super-hot cheese and sauce.
East Village pizza has been dominated by Motorino, South Brooklyn Pizza’s First Avenue shoebox (did you know they deliver?), Gruppo’s thin-crust (if you haven’t had the jalapeño you’re nuts), Nicoletta (give it a break, it’s better than it’s been given credit for, for crying out loud), and the once-mighty, now-gimmicky Artichoke Basille’s (all the love has moved to Chubby Mary’s). Joe’s is a welcome addition, and the plain slice one worth the distinction its ranking as number six on The Daily Meal's list of the 35 Best Pizzas in America. It will take some time for the warmth and the scuff to register the late-night adoration, alcohol-absorption, and kiss-rejection and "text-me-later" consolation and promise that slices at the original are surrounded by, but if they keep making fresh pies with the time-honored recipe, they should be just fine.
But let’s get back to the pepperoni... same deal at both Joe’s east and west: not fresh. Say it ain’t so, Joe's. Say it ain’t so...