Yes Virginia, there really is such a thing as New York style pizza. It's not just a marketing name, but a specific style of this centuries old favorite. According to legend, Spanish soldiers invading Italy ate this snack of soft crispy dough topped with a variety of items in the early 1700s. Just like New Yorkers today, they folded it over into a "libretto" or little book, so they could eat it on the go.
According to Tom Boyles, a pizzeria consultant who is well-known in the "world of the pie," the primary importance in creating a New York style pie is a thin, crispy but also chewy crust. Many New Yorkers also claim that if the oil from the cheese doesn't drip down your arm while you eat it, it's not authentic.
In spite of this almost impossible requirement some 1,500 miles away, the pizza at Mario's is as close to authentic as I've had in quite a while. While a little bit soggy in the center, we attributed that to the fact that we ordered a white pizza rather than a traditional red one.
True to legend, the oil and butterfat did drip down our arms while we ate it. Fresh mozzarella is the answer at Mario's, too. On the other side of things, the crust was possibly a bit overworked and had a little more toughness than it should have.
But let me back up a bit. As you walk in, the walls are painted with the almost obligatory Italian countryside murals. But somehow it works in spite of its cheesiness! (More on cheesiness in a minute.)
Tall café tables for two adorn the outside of the room in front of high windows, and lower tables for four fill up the center. This is truly and absolutely a self-service pizzeria. You walk up to a counter and order your pie, calzone or baked pasta dish while you watch the dough man hand toss the crusts.
One of my first jobs in the restaurant industry -- more than 40 years ago -- was "throwing dough," and that visit brought back a lot of fond memories of busy Friday nights and pizza boxes piled literally to the ceiling.
We started with a Greek Salad. A clear plastic clamshell to-go container was filled with a mix of lettuces, topped with a variety of pepperoncini and cherry peppers and a handful of Greek olives so vinegary they literally made my wife and I do the "pucker face" our grandkids use when they don't like something. One little piece of Feta cheese, and two small stuffed grape leaves for a garnish finished it off. The dressing was OK, but it too had us puckering. A bit more sugar or some honey would smooth it out nicely. All in all, we didn't consider it worth the almost $7 price tag.
Years ago, we used to frequent Mario's when it was across 51st in the old Bodean's center, and one of our favorites then was the baked ziti. New York is big on baked pasta dishes, and Mario's stands up to the tradition.
A big pasta boat is filled with ziti and marinara sauce, topped with cheese and baked in the pizza oven. Did I mention it was topped with cheese? The pasta is just a vehicle to get that bubbly, gooey cheese into your mouth. TONS of it! The sauce was a wonderful surprise as well. The pasta itself was just a tad overdone before it went into the boat, so it came to us slightly soft. Not enough to be a problem, but it doesn't leave much room to absorb the sauce while it bakes.
The dish came with a big hunk of crusty, hot bread that was excellent for sopping up the sauce, but we both felt a bit of garlic oil or garlic butter beforehand would have turned it into something to fly to New York for! All in all, though, this dish was a big hit.
I asked the young lady behind the counter how long she thought our pizza would take. She estimated 20 minutes. It was out in 17. Under promise and over deliver. That's good business.
As your pie comes out of the huge oven, a playful sing song voice bellows out your name for you to come up to retrieve it. This guy obviously enjoys his job. He has a good time, as did all the people who were working there that night.
Although it's a self-service operation, a little more time could have been dedicated to coming out and wiping off tables, and picking up empty pizza pans that piled up around the room. There were plenty of opportunities for them to do so. It's great to have fun at work but not at the expense of the customer.
A bit of background entertainment would have been a nice touch, too. I'm not saying a magician or music grinder with a trained monkey, but a little background music might make the wait a little easier.
Pushing our less than half eaten baked ziti aside, (we knew we'd never be able to finish it) I strolled up to the counter and picked up our medium pie. OK, this might be a medium to them, but it's a large to any other joint in town. Mario's has three sizes of pizza: manhole cover, bigger manhole cover and, well..., you get the picture.
Steaming and burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot, we had to wait a bit to even take a bite of the pizza. So, we leaned over to the edge of the table and took bites of the pasta during the entire time we ate our pizza, until we were both scraping the last of the brown crusty goodness off the sides of the dish. A job that our plastic forks were no match for. According to the guy I talked to at the counter, the red pizza sauce is a little different from the marinara we had on the pasta, but if it is anywhere close, it's a winner in our book.
There were only a couple of the eight desserts listed on the menu that were on display and looked to be the frozen, pre-sliced variety, so we passed on them. That is not to say all of them are, but homemade or not, they weren't merchandised very well.
The restaurant business is as much about how big you can grow each ticket by selling add-ons, not just how many people you can get in the door. Desserts can sell themselves if they burn a memorable image in your mind when you first walk in. Mario's fell short in that regard on this evening. Not a big thing, but it all adds up.
So for a taste of authenticity, even if it is sans the New York City water, check out Mario's. Mangiare bene! Eat well!
3350 East 51st Street
Tulsa, OK 74135-3512
Mon-Thurs: 11am-2pm, 4pm-9pm
Friday: 11am-2pm, 4pm-10pm
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