Saturday, November 2, 2013

Pizza Perfection in the Adirondacks

PizzaDeep in the heart of the Adirondacks lies a special spot.  Unassuming at first glance, possessing neither towering heights nor glittering finery, it nonetheless, like so many places in the park, harbors intimate secrets.  This is a place of near perfection, of pleasures nonpariel.  Elsewhere will you find it loftier, thicker; elsewhere will you find it more scenic.  But nowhere – I mean nowhere – will you find it better.

And it comes in only medium and large.

Ladies and gentlemen, Pauls of all stripes, I will admit to being something of a foodie.  I love to eat it, I love to cook it, I love to be a little bit of an elitist about it.  So let’s get this out of the way: one of the hardest dishes to make well in the entire world is the ubiquitous pizza.  Oh sure, mediocrity is no big achievement.  The middling mass-produced, assembly-line stuff from the chains can be as edible as any other corporate food.  But that’s like calling the glop John Tesh outputs music.

So difficult is the art of making a perfect pizza that the fussy purveyors purposely over-think it, trying to compensate for their lack of mastery by loading on every topping imaginable.  Here’s a sample from a pizza place I ducked my head into the other day: Mexican tortilla pizza with arugula, peanut butter and chicken (?), or roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, seared spinach and fennel (this last from some juvenile James Beard wannabe).  Saints preserve us.

No, my friends, the sublime balance of a perfect crust, a simple tomato sauce worthy of Escoffier and just enough basic, pure toppings to give an ideal mixture of surprise and satisfaction.. well, that is as Rubinstein is to Chopin.

And for the sake of the Lord God on high, don’t tell me that four-inch-thick fluff from Chicago is pizza, or that stuffed nonsense in vogue these days.  Only thin crust – that is to say perfect crust – earns the name.  If you like goop you can embed your dentures in or squirt and slob over your beard, pick another moniker.  Give the word “pizza” back to its true owner.

Now I have learned over the years that the Adirondacks have a disproportionate share of decent food.  Some of it is better than decent, though on the whole I wouldn’t mistake the Adirondack region for Louisiana or Italy.  But while there have been plenty of places in which I have been happy to satiate myself after a long Adirondack trek, I would never have guessed that the very pinnacle of pizza artistry  – the zenith of pizza zen – is to be found in Lake Placid.  Kids, I give you Johnny’s Pizza Restaurante.

We first met Johnny when he worked at a pizza place on Main Street.  We were starving and ordered three pizzas (three teenage boys, if you’re wondering).  It took no more than one bite of the red clam pizza for each of us to realize we were in the presence of greatness.  We could hardly believe it: a crust so perfect, so tender yet well-bodied, so rich in earthy flavor, that it immediately exceeded even the legendary John’s of Greenwich Village fame.  And the garlic – oh the garlic!  Sublime.  I have never had a more perfect pizza.

At this point the only dignified and moral step was to effect introductions.  We descended upon the kitchen area and met Johnny.  And so began a beautiful, multi-year relationship, an essential part of our Adirondack sojourns.  In the deep woods we would go, as happy as though we were dallying in paradise.  But eventually we would emerge from the depths, odoriferous and svelte.  Always, we would seek out Johnny and his red clam pizza or his Italian pizza with fresh basil and mozzarella.  Ecstasy.  I forget who holds the record but it is nine slices.  Followed by a nauseous semi-coma.

Johnny has his own place now, the aforementioned Restaurante, situated right on the northeast corner of the junction of Routes 86 and 73.  It is in a nondescript locale, a barn-shaped building that has been five or six different things since I’ve been alive.  You would never guess from the sight of it that it holds within its depths a magician, a necromancer of pizza.  But it does.  I have had pizza the world over, literally in a dozen or more countries and twice that many states.  Johnny’s is the best, an Adirondack jewel.

Those of you who think I exaggerate clearly don’t know great pizza and certainly don’t know Johnny.  Food, art. natural beauty… what an astounding thing it is to be a living, breathing human being and experience the profound connection between these things.  Do yourself a favor: go do the Nippletop-Dial-Colvin loop or a long portage in the St. Regis Canoe Area or a bushwhack in the Sargent Ponds area; then emerge from the woods, make your way to Lake Placid right at the junction of 86 and 73 and have dinner at Johnny’s Pizza Restaurante.

You can thank me later.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

20 Responses

  1. George says:

    This is good news. It’s almost like a rescue.

    Let’s make the restaurant part of the Forest Preserve so the recipe can’t be changed!

    Seriously, is it better than John’s of Bleecker Street?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I would say it’s typically as good. He doesn’t have the incredible brick oven John’s has but he still cooks it perfectly. He gets that magic balance of textures that a perfect thin crust has. He makes a great dough. And he’s got the Seward Range looming out his window.

  2. Tim says:

    Dogwood Bakery in Wadhams–best pizza I’ve ever eaten,
    BY FAR! Friday nights only. And, as a bonus, craft beer.

  3. ke th Silliman says:

    I respectfully disagree. The best (with the requisite thin crust) pizza is Little Italy in Saranac Lake. The secret: order by the slice, or order an extra large pie (thinner crust).

    I live on pizza. To the point where we are considering putting in an outdoor pizza oven at camp.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Respectful disagreements are excellent, especially as pertains to food. Now I have another place to try.

  4. T.Barber says:

    …have to agree w/Pete….corner of 86 and 73 says it all…highly recommend it (the view too)!!

  5. Charlie S says:

    So finally there’s good pizza upstate NY.There’s none in the Capital region though I bet a thousand people would disagree. A thousand people aren’t me… Mr likes his pizza good,not just dough with cheese and sauce and toppings,which is all the pizza is around here.Anybody can make pizza,but to make it right…. There is a place down in Ulster County on Rt 209 near Ellenville who is very different when it comes to pizza.He uses organics and his cheeses come without hormones and antibiotics and that sure is different. Lake Placid is a three and one-half hour drive.The train to NYC is half an hour closer. The train would cost more than the gas to drive,but I sure do like the scenes along the Hudson River on the way.I cannot imagine pizza being better in the Adirondacks than it is in NYC or Long Island,or that place in Ulster County,but i’m open.Next time i’m in Lake Placid i’ll check out Johnny’s.

    • ADKinLA says:

      Charlie, have you tried Lou Bea’s in the CD? That is some good pizza right there! AS for the ADKs, can’t wait to try out Johnny’s next time I am back!

  6. Keith Silliman says:

    In the Capital District, try Sapienza in the Knickerbocker/Pepsi Arena/Times Union Center. The slices are just like from NYC.

  7. John Jongen says:

    I beg to differ with you all. The healthiest pizza comes from my wife Jeanne’s oven. Weather it’s her White Pizza, Potato Pizza or her Tomato Sauce Pizza they are all vegan, organic and non-gmo. Toppings are always different depending on what is available at our local farmer markets: spinach, garlic, mushrooms, sweet onions, artichokes, leeks, celeriac, and of course oregano, basil, rosemary, and thyme. And the dough is just right not too sweet baked on stone with a substantial crust. Just saying…

  8. chuck samul says:

    Dogwood pizza rocks. thin crust on par with some of the best ive tasted in new york metro area – im talking san matteo, luzzos and paulie g’s…. as an earlier responder stated the craft beer is a plus. its only tuesdays and fridays but it is a scene to behold – all the groovy people in the north country seem to be there. gets very crowded but its fun.

  9. Bob Meyer says:

    Bleeker St. Pizza NYC… anywhere in Naples, and i don’t mean Florida!

  10. Bob Meyer says:

    & FYI: for really good down home Italian food in the Park… THE PLACE on Rt 9 North of Chestertown [just South of the Rt 8 jct.]… since 1970!

  11. Paul K says:

    This Paul loves the deep dish….nice Pete

  12. rob farkas says:

    Never had Johnny’s pizza but will now. It sounds great. If Pete is right, it’s the real deal. Dogwood pizza is very good and the wood fired oven makes it special but it doesn’t rise to greatness in my eyes. The greatest pizza in the world is in NYC and the best pizza in the best pizza town in the world is in Brooklyn at DiFaro’s on 15th St. and Avenue P. Once you taste a slice of plain pizza made by Dominic DiFaro you understand the meaning of greatness and what it means to be in the presence of genius.

  13. Curt says:

    Taste tests are normally unreliable after the deprivations of a trip into the woods. The chili that was heaven in that dumpy diner on the way back from the Sewards is horrid otherwise. But Pete does not deprive himself on his trips, so perhaps he may be trusted here.

    Egads, was it really necessary to invoke an image of John Tesh pizza? Rhetorical excess. There goes my appetite.

  14. stilt says:

    Garramones in Forestport is pretty good. Get meatballs on it. Took some friends there,now they insist on it. Have the antipasto first.

  15. Curt Austin says:

    I know you’ll be interested in this, Pete:

    We investigate the mathematical relationship between the size of a pizza and its ratio of topping to base in a median bite. We show that for a given recipe, it is not only the overall thickness of the pizza that is is affected by its size, but also this topping-to-base ratio.

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