One of the benefits of photographing a lot of pizza is, of course, getting to eat it afterward. With so many of us ordering in during this crisis, I find myself reminiscing about all the incredible chefs and restaurants who have honored this savory dish of Italian origin.
Throughout Brooklyn, Long Island, and the East End, the options for really good pizza are somewhat endless. Toppings offered can range from the classic to the unexpected, with condiments like Mike’s Hot Honey or chili oil. Once you step outside of the tri-state area, however, things can get tricky—unless you do some research first.
I recently visited Chef Vivian Howard’s Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria near Historic Downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. I first met chef Vivian when covering a story about her restaurant Chef & The Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. I noticed immediately the New York-style influence on this latest creation and asked her about the inspiration. Here is (a snippet of) our conversation.
Edible Long Island: Before opening Benny’s Big Time, you went on a 2.5-day recon mission to visit NY pizzerias and restaurants. Is it safe to say NY has the best pizza?
Chef Vivian Howard: I would say in the quantity of quality pizza. Are some of my favorite pizza places in other parts of the country? Yes. But if you want to eat the most, bestest pizza, I think you need to go to New York.
ELI: I love that you offer hot honey down south at Benny’s Big Time, was the Pizza at Brooklyn’s Paulie Gee’s and Mike’s Hot Honey the inspiration for this?
VH: Yes, Paulie Gee’s specifically was the inspiration. I think their pizza is called the Hellboy and it’s pepperoni with lots of hot honey and it’s fantastic.
ELI: How have customers responded to using Hot Honey as a condiment on pizza?
VH: Customers go crazy for it. We actually had to take the hot honey off the tables because people were taking it home with them and doing God knows what with it.
ELI: Roberta’s in Brooklyn is one of my favorite places for pizza; any memories you can share about the pizza there or another standout?
VH: I think Roberta’s pizza is excellent. Often, I don’t feel quite cool enough to be eating in there. But Lucali is among my favorite pizza experiences because of how small it is, the fact that you can see the gentleman right there making all your pizzas, and the giant sprig of basil they put on all their margheritas just makes me so happy. Emmy Squared is also super fun. I love how quirky it is. I love their thick, Detroit-style pizza crust. You know, we all put ranch on pizza, so why not acknowledge it and roll with it?
ELI: Your pizza oven at Benny’s is from …?
VH: Mario Acunto from Naples.
After this chat, I began to realize, besides the dough, that the oven might be the key to what makes a really good pizza. Neapolitan wood-fired ovens feature a low dome, a small oven mouth, and large heat sink, baking 10 to 12-inch pizzas optimally at 700 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. I remember the first pizza I had from this type of oven was at Brunetti’s in Westhampton Beach—far away from Napoli!
Their classic Margherita is prepared with San Marzano tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, and basil but what stood out was the dough, which had an inimitable texture and taste yielding a crisp, delicate outer crust with a tender chewy inside. Sitting and watching the pizza cook in about 8 minutes was also mesmerizing.
Notable chefs have also joined the Pizza Renaissance. While some may have outdoor kitchens with pizza ovens in the Hamptons, rest assured a simple gas grill can achieve great results. ‘The Kitchen’ host Katie Lee grills pizza in the Summer with fresh, farm stand toppings. “The key to success,” she says, “is a clean grill; the dough won’t stick to clean grill grates. And as always, when working with pizza dough, work with confidence!”
On a recent assignment with Bobby Flay, the crew was treated to wood-fired pizza topped with roasted eggplant, oregano, mozzarella, bacon & Calabrian chili. Photographing this Master Chef in his element was one thing, but the pizza? Unforgettable.
To wrap things up, I offer my somewhat biased opinion of my favorite pizza places in Brooklyn and Long Island. Let’s just say ‘Benny’s Big Time’ is #1 when I’m visiting North Carolina.
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, Wilmington, NC
I love a good Margherita and they nail it down here. Just drizzle with some Hot Honey for an extra sweet kick.
Some of the original team here has changed but they still offer one of my favorites (even if it’s not on the menu). The Millennium Falco is hands down their best, with Berkshire pork sausage and homemade breadcrumbs with parm, basil and red onion. Yum!
Pizza Parm, Islip
Honoring the classic Long Island Pizza place where you can still ‘grab a slice’, Bohlsen Restaurant Group’s ‘Pizza Parm’ offers a fantastic version of a Grandma-style pie!
Wild Side Bistro, Oakdale
I met the talented Chef Jay Jadeja on an Edible assignment and was so thrilled when he opened Wild Side Bistro so close to where I live! An unexpected place to find really good wood-fired pizza. Two standouts are the Funghi with Wild Mushrooms and the addictive Chicken Tikka Masala!
Brunetti Pizza, Westhampton Beach
A hard-to-find gem that’s worth the hunt. You must try the Vongole or the Sopressata!
Pizza Rita, Mattituck
No slices here at this classic Neapolitan-style pizzeria, but once people get over that they all come back. My favorite is the ‘Stella,’ with hot Capicola and Romano—just make sure you save room for gelato!
1943 Pizza Bar, Greenport
The ‘Clams Casino’ made with fresh clams, crispy bacon, green peppers, and garlic should be your main reason to visit Greenport. Treat yourself after all that walking!