It's easy to say something is done the New York way. You can put it on your sign, you can stamp it on your menu and tell everyone who will listen that you're making pizza the way it's made at Patsy's in Harlem, Luzzo's on the Lower East Side or Grimaldi's nestled beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
You can say all you want and, indeed, you can fool some of the people all of the time. But one day, someone from Hoboken or New Haven, Brooklyn or the Bronx is going to show up and pass judgment.
Your pizza had better be thin. It'd better be chewy. It has to be crispy. But it also needs to be foldable at about the halfway point of the slice.
When it comes to pizza, it's easy to say it's New York style, but not so easy to pull it off.
That's why John Ruffaine, born at Brooklyn Hospital and raised on the best pizza in the Western Hemisphere, can stand behind what he's serving at Giovanni's Old World New York Pizzeria, with locations in Land Park and east Sacramento. Sure, it's a mouthful on the sign – but it's mouth-watering on the plate.
Ruffaine is the genuine article, and his pizzas are the pies of honest-to-goodness New York. His 15 varieties range from good (the pesto) to great (the Don Giovanni with peppers and sausage) to sensational (the sauceless Pizza Rustica with salami, peppers, ricotta salata, mozzarella and spinach). The stromboli is no slouch, either – I loved it. It's a thick, almost puffy dough stuffed with sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, salami and some really tasty ham. While this is a family-oriented pizzeria, there is a nice selection of beers on tap, including Giovanni's proprietary amber ale and stout for $3.95 a mug or $11.95 for a pitcher. Wine by the glass is just $3.95.
The man who stands behind these New York creations started working in Brooklyn pizzerias by the age of 8, watching and learning at the feet of the masters. Sometimes they demonstrated. Sometimes they yelled. But it all sunk in. Ruffaine never lost his passion for pizza, his love for New York or his Brooklyn way with the English language.
These days, Ruffaine, who moved to Sacramento 14 years ago to be closer to his parents, still does things the right way, the New York way. He's old school. Part artisan, part obsessive compulsive, Ruffaine makes the dough, the sauce, the dressings for the salads, all of it from scratch each day.
The dough is the most crucial component of any pizzeria. The dough is really everything, the foundation and the delivery system for all the pizazz that goes on top. You cannot hide a subpar crust and you cannot have great pizza without this great foundation.
That explains Ruffaine's daily ritual in the commissary he built in the back of his Folsom Boulevard location, locking the door, then laboring in solitude. The only sounds are the whirring, rumbling motor of the 60-quart Hobart mixer and the slapping of the paddle against flour, water, salt and yeast.
There is no recipe. No formulas or percentages are written down. It's all in Ruffaine's head, in his hands. The only way to know the dough is good and right and ready, is to watch it, feel it and, yes, smell it. There will be a tangy element with each whiff, a little yeastiness that flares the nostrils. I can picture Ruffaine smiling when all goes well back there.
"I wish I could write it down. It would make life a lot easier," Ruffaine told me when I caught up with him by phone. "It's something I do naturally. I have to tweak it all the time. For somebody to do what I do, I would have to train them for a year – and then watch them all the time."
If the dough is the laborious, slow part prepared behind the scenes, up front is where pizza making happens – and happens fast. The dough is shaped, the sauce applied, the toppings spread out. One of Giovanni's devoted cooks slides the pie into the deck oven, which Ruffaine has obsessively rigged so it cooks hotter than the maximum 650 degrees that registers on the dial. How hot? Ruffaine doesn't really know. Hot enough.
I am not privileged to be a New Yorker by birth, but I know and love the city – the architecture, the energy, the people, the pride of place and, yes, the fabulous pizza. My girlfriend and I have walked miles and miles along crowded sidewalks and across busy streets in pursuit of New York pizza – and yet here it is in our home town, in two locations.
Never mind what it says on the sign or on the menu, Giovanni's has made me a believer by consistently creating high-caliber pizza. And over the past 11 years in Sacramento, Ruffaine and company have made believers and converts and loyal customers out of countless others.
The pizza is superb. It's crisp. It folds. It's endlessly delicious.
Yet, the experience of eating there is not exactly the New York experience. Ruffaine may have studied and lived New York pizza, but no one will ever accuse him of being a whiz with interior design. Let's be blunt. Giovanni's in Land Park and in east Sacramento are bizarre in their cavernous spaces, their hugeness.
Both places are roomy, not cozy. They are eccentric and vast, airplane hangars that just happen to have pizza ovens, tables, chairs and red-and-white checkered tablecloths done in vinyl.
But this is a place for eating superb pizza, not for thumbing through Architectural Digest. And if memory serves, I can't recall an actual New York pizzeria that would win any decorating awards.
Vast as it may be, Giovanni's earns its admirers, lives up to its accolades and deserves to be bustling, crowded and full of life. The more it looks and feels and sounds like New York, the better.
GIOVANNI'S OLD WORLD NEW YORK PIZZERIA
East Sacramento 6200 Folsom Blvd. (916) 455-8831
South Land Park 5924 South Land Park Drive (916) 393-7001
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Beverage options: Beer and wine Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Noise level? Moderate
Overall Three stars (out of four stars)
Great pizza and an unwavering commitment to quality and the traditions of New York-style pies. Giovanni's opened 11 years ago when this style of pizza was relatively uncommon here. Now, Sacramento is rich with excellent pizza, but Giovanni's remains, for many, A-No. 1, top of the heap.
Food: Three 1/2 stars
The pizza crust is thin and crispy, yet bendable and chewy, just the way it should be. The flavors are often incredible. The toppings are plentiful, balanced and of obvious quality. Don't overlook the delicious stromboli. The salads are large and fresh. Bonus points for making two kinds of lasagna, including one without meat.
Service: Three stars
You order at the counter (or over the phone), but you're always well taken care of. The folks here are friendly and take pride in what they do – just like the pizzerias in New York.
Ambience: Two stars
To the uninitiated, your first thought might be, "OK, where'd they park the C-17?" Yes, the place – both places – look more like aircraft hangars than pizzerias. That said, if you don't like coziness and aren't fond of the communal tables found at other, newer pizza places, you'll love the roominess here, if not the absence of all things trendy.
Value Four: stars
Great prices for great pizzas. The pies come in three sizes and all are excellent deals. Even better is the lunch special – two slices and a soda for $5.99.