Pizza traveled to the New World in the hearts and hands of Italian immigrants such as Gennaro Lombardi, who opened the first New York pizza restaurant in 1897. While traditional pizzaioli baked their pies in wood-fired ovens, coal ovens were cheaper and so immigrant pizzaioli devised a separate compartment to shield the pizza from the intense heat of the coal. This arrangement allowed pizza to be cooked at higher temperatures (as high as 900 degrees versus 750–800 degrees in a wood-fired oven) without burning. The pizza that resulted had crispy crust with just-this-side-of-charred spots, a smear of imported Italian tomatoes crushed into a basil-spiked sauce, and bubbling mozzarella.
There is no original-style New York pizza in Seattle (and I don't want to hear about Tutta Bella or Via Tribunali—they use wood-fired ovens to make tasty approximations of Neapolitan pizza), because there are no coal-fired pizza ovens in town. You'll need to go east for a taste of bituminous heaven.
The other style of New York pizza is the type places like Piecora's and A New York Pizza Place try to replicate here in Seattle. This pizza ideally has a two-finger-wide swath of crust to hold onto, is not too saucy, and boasts a liberal helping of mozzarella. Small iridescent pools of oil may sit atop the cheese. There may also be bubbles in the dough. The slice should be wide enough to be folded in half and eaten as a DIY calzone.
Talarico's in West Seattle makes this second type of New York–style pizza and they do it better than anyone else in the city. The gold standard, the plain cheese slice, is near perfect here, crisp on the bottom, the ideal blend of sauce (slightly sweet, with a hint of spiciness near the end) and cheese, and the ideal margin of well-cooked (not charred and not doughy) crust at the outside edge. They are also so big you could probably fold them over twice, which would create a most delicious pizza sandwich.
On a recent visit, we have to annex a nearby table when our enormous slices arrive. In addition to the plain cheese slice ($3.95), we investigate several different house specialties (all $4.95): the Coppola (goat cheese, roasted red peppers, garlic), the Tarantino (kalamata olives, green peppers, onions), and the South Street (Italian sausage, spicy sausage). The Coppola, especially, is exquisite; creamy dollops of sweet goat cheese complement the half-bitter bite of the peppers. The South Street sends my carnivorous friend into an ecstatic trance with its meaty bounty.
The beautiful simplicity of Talarico's is that they use the cheese slice as the building block for everything else. You want a Tarantino? Fine. They'll put a generous helping of olives, green peppers, and onions on the basic cheese slice and cook it up. Everything begins at the source and the source is good.
The menu is not extensive and focuses on slices, but we also sample a few appetizers. A plate of chilled asparagus ($6.95) in a lemon and caper sauce comes topped with shaved pecorino Romano. The light lemon sauce doesn't distract from the freshness of the Amazonian-length spears and both the capers and cheese provide piquant counterpoints. Arriving at the same time is a small plate of homemade meatballs ($7.95), which are tender and spicy, flecked with hints of oregano, basil, pepper, and garlic.
Talarico's may not do much, but they're good at what they do. There's no delivery, no take out, and as Talarico's is first and foremost a bar, no one under 21 is allowed in. On a recent visit I witnessed a particularly poignant scene, in which a father and son were turned away at the door. While that's nothing compared to DeLorenzo's on Hudson in Trenton, New Jersey (no bathroom, few tables, and sometimes two-hour waits), there does seem something inherently cruel about making pizza off-limits to the kids.
There is a certain pleasure, however, in sitting by the window on a cold, rainy night, enjoying a slice and a beer, and watching the wan faces of waifs pressed up against the glass. And until a new arrangement is devised (think the separate compartment of the coal-fired oven), the best pizza in town is for adults only.