My childhood during the 1960s and 70s in central New Jersey left an enduring impression on me. To this day, if I stumble across a metal Slinky on eBay, land on an episode of The Brady Bunch on Hulu, or find myself singing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the stereo, I’m twelve again. For some, the past is highlighted by visions of friends, parties, maybe boys. For me, though, my dominant memories surround food. Fantasies of Mom’s baked mac ‘n cheese casseroles and my brother’s fluffy popovers still make me drool, but nothing is as emblematic of that time in my life as pizza.
Pizza. A food so perfect, people have written ballads to honor it. Family pizza nights are long-standing traditions. College towns often boast multiple pizza joints to serve the demands of hungry coeds. It is the one food that everybody can agree on, from the pickiest to the most adventurous eaters. Anyone who has ever muttered the words “I don’t like pizza” must be one of two things: deranged or a liar. It is taste-tested, compared, and celebrated more than any other food I can think of. Food critics have written countless articles dissecting it, examining it, and rating it. There are numerous lists ranking it, from the best pizza in a given city to top pizza in the country.
My hometown boasted a substantial Italian population, ensuring I was never without access to some of the tastiest pizza ever created. Before chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Dominoes, and Uno’s rose in popularity, I had my pick of Gervasio’s, Mamma Rosa’s, Brothers’, DeLorenzo’s, Jojo’s, and Mannino’s, all within roughly two miles of my home. As a child, when I visited my family in Massachusetts and found myself in need of a pizza fix, I scoffed at the mushy dough slathered in watered-down ketchup with a rubbery cheese facsimile swimming on top and pined for a slice of authentic tomato pie from Papa’s.
Pizza is more than a food I love. It is an integral component of the backdrop of my childhood. It bonds me to the rest of humanity – other pizza fanatics, at least. So, imagine the pickle I found myself in when I decided to go vegan. At first, I was so excited by my new diet that bragging about my lack of animal product consumption was enough to override any cravings. But as the years passed, my sanity began to suffer due to lack of Vitamin Pizza. I yearned for the textural delights in my mouth, the orange-tinged grease dribbling down my chin, and the intestinal distress from over-indulgence. Those vegetable-topped, cheeseless slices that my local pizza joints triumphantly presented as their vegan option left me sad, unsatisfied, and frankly, lonely.
When my friend Jeanine, a food and travel writer, was assigned a story to research vegan pizza in Brooklyn, NY, I eagerly tagged along. Did a Land of Vegan Pizza really exist? Were there chefs who recognized that not all vegans found soggy, overcooked vegetables a suitable substitute for cheese? Could a two-day pizza crawl through the Greenpoint/Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn help me reconnect to my cherished memories of cheese-laden Utopia on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore?
I joined this culinary adventure with skepticism and a touch of hubris. I regard myself as a pizza connoisseur. The crust must be cooked perfectly – light, yet crispy. I want a red sauce that is seasoned so that I am not inclined to reach for a shaker of red pepper flakes or garlic salt. The mozzarella (or, in my case, “mozzarella”) must be fresh and fully melted. I don’t need toppings or novelty interpretations. I’m old school. I want a straight-up slice of cheese pizza, but it must be done well.
Two Boots in Williamsburg offered only one vegan option by-the-slice when we visited, and it wasn’t the plain cheese that my tastebuds were craving. I glared in disdain at the mushrooms, roasted red onions, and artichokes, slathered with a generous layer of Daiya cheese, then drizzled with a red pepper sauce and basil pesto. Grudgingly, as I bit into the thin, crispy crust, I conceded that it was actually quite appealing. Somehow they made vegetables taste good and not like I was eating the consolation prize. The Jersey girl in me couldn’t bring herself to calling it “pizza” — it didn’t satisfy me like a cheese burn to the roof of my mouth did — but I couldn’t resist devouring the entire slice.
Next, was Vinnie’s, also in Williamsburg. NOW we’re talkin’! A cheery red arrow with “Vegan Town” printed on it pointed to several options for us. We sampled designer slices, from a mac ‘n cheeseburger to a barbecue chicken to a surprising favorite, eggplant parmesan, all with plant-based “meat” and “cheese” toppings. The owner, Sean, stood behind the counter of the traditional but wittily decorated (tributes to Tom Hanks abound) pizzeria. He proudly informed us that he was the first to bring vegan pizza to Brooklyn fourteen years ago and has perfected the simple cheese pizza that I crave. I could see that he understood the importance of pizza, even to those of us who willingly gave up cheese, and he wasn’t going to let us suffer. I was starting to believe that maybe my pizza-loving days weren’t a distant memory.
For dinner, we chose a vegetarian/vegan Italian restaurant in Greenpoint that offers 12” oblong vegan pizza as one of their specialties. Given my esteemed background in pizza tasting, I would place Adelina’s pies into a category of their own. With a puffier crust, I’d call it a soft fusion of Sicilian and focaccia. We enjoyed an original, with sauce and NUMU cheese, one topped with sautéed mushrooms, and one with artichoke hearts and fingerling potatoes. These gourmet delicacies went down easily with some pinot noir. They were delicious, filling, and satisfying for a meal, but not quite what I was looking for. Would I come back another time? Absolutely. Would I come back when I’m craving my classic slice? Probably not.
The second day, we visited arguably the most famous vegan pizza joint in Brooklyn – Screamer’s. Offering only non-dairy options, their selection of pies is extensive, even by non-vegan standards. They offer the Green Scream and the Vampire and the Screamer and the Chorizo and the Hawaiian and the Grandma Pie and so many more. White pies, red pies, inventive pies. My stomach growled in excitement when I spotted the cheese pizza. Could my taste buds once again savor the beautiful blend of seasonings and textures? In short, yes. YES! I sampled some of the fancy pies, but that cheese slice almost brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. I wanted to jump to my feet and yell, “I’m home!”
As we strolled out of Screamer’s, Jeanine bubbling with excitement about the article she could write extolling the deliciousness of Brooklyn’s vegan pizza scene, I rubbed my satisfied belly, drifting on a sentimental haze. I thought it would be impossible to ever experience those tastes from my childhood that conjured up pictures of my parents. The distant sound of teenage giggles as my friends and I exchanged gossip while expertly folding our pizza slice in half. Youthful dates with cute boys, splitting a couple of slices and sipping our Cokes. But Jeanine informed me, we had one last place to visit.
Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. In my mind, I had accomplished my goal. I had found vegan pizza that wrapped its deliciousness around the child in me and embraced my fondest nostalgia. We had visited four shops that all touted their twist on an old favorite, and I could be content living the remainder of my days eating at any one of them. But the universe chose to bestow an unexpected gift upon me. Paulie Gee’s has elevated the craft of crust making to a level that surpassed anything I’ve ever had, even back in those authentic pizza joints in the 1960s. I opted for a thin cheese slice, plus splurged on a thick crust with sauce, roasted Vidalia onions, and a sprinkling of vegan parmesan. One bite and I heard the angels singing. Both slices were excellent – crust that is light as air and simultaneously crispy, well-seasoned red sauce, and make-me-forget-about-dairy “cheese” – but the thick crust, with its layer of sesame seeds on the bottom, has made me question my lifelong allegiance to the thin crust. I may be a convert.
I make no secret of my love of bygone eras, but I like to think of myself as a modern, forward-thinking kind of gal, too. Admittedly, I’ve wasted an excessive amount of time mourning the loss of the pizza from my youth. My recent pizza crawl through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn has taught me a valuable lesson. While what Thomas Wolfe asserted is true, You Can’t Go Home Again (…to your favorite pizzeria), it is possible for me to recapture those memories in a context suitable to my changing dietary needs. Many thanks to Two Boots, Vinnie’s, Adelina’s, Screamer’s, and Paulie Gee’s for allowing me to enjoy fabulous pizza that is close to, maybe better than, the pizza of my childhood.