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Thursday, November 11, 2004, 12:17 AM

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Totonno's, New York, NY, February 21, 2004 I'll admit that I don't have the deep and abiding love for pizza that some people do. For them pizza is like sex. Even bad pizza is preferable to none at all. That said, The unique combination that is dough, tomato, and cheese is quite compelling. And even moreso when done to perfection at Totonno's pizza on Coney Island in Brooklyn. I'd had decent pizza, but theirs was simply the best I've ever had. Needless to say, given that we've already gone all the way to Manhattan (from our basically pizza-less Seattle homebase) the trip to Coney Island seems like a long haul. Given our laziness we were excited that another Totonno's existed in Manhattan. Wondering if it was possible to replicate perfection a few miles away we were eager to try it out. We even asked on Coney Island how similar the pizza was. They assured us that it was identical. They were wrong.

We should have known that things were not going to go well when on the phone I asked the Manhattan folks if they were related to the Totonno's on Coney Island, and the woman answering the phone had never even heard of it. Oh oh. But we thought to ourselves that we had a secret that would save the day. The last time Steve and Kira went to the Coney Island Totonno's they were told that if they went to Manhattan, they should order their pizza "Coney Island style". This apparently means more burnt on the bottom. Apparently the New Yorkers in Manhattan freak out at a little charring, while the more hardy Brooklynites (Brooklynians?) know that this is how their pizza comes out best. With that little tidbit in our arsenal we ordered one cheese pizza, Coney Island style.

And while it was nicely roasted with charred edges, it was just not the same. The sauce in Manhattan was definitely the same - robust, flavorful, and delicious. But the pizza didn't come out the same. Was it the cheese? The dough? The water? The oven? Was it the fact that it wasn't a descendant of the founder personally making the pizza? The waitress claimed that the owners were the same, but she seemed to lack conviction, and her answers were suspect. I suspect but can't confirm that the Manhattan Totonno's is the result of some ancient licensing arrangement with the original (I have no proof of this, just a hunch).

We tried a couple of other pizzas. The cheese on the Margherita was a little too even, a little oily, and a bit salt. Maybe they were using a different mozarella. Peyman had a neapolitan with sauce, oregano, onion, and garlic which he thought was fantastic. The sauce was super present flavor-wise and the garlic was roasted to perfection. And though it shouldn't matter, I couldn't help but be slightly oppressed by all the St. Patrick's Day decoration giving this place more of a sports bar feel than the atmosphere of a place where great pizza is created. Though if the pizza were great I wouldn't have cared if they had Christmas decorations up in April.

Perhaps the real issue is quality control. Maybe the intangibles that make the pizza great on Coney Island simply don't translate into a different borough. It's not the first (or last time) that perfection doesn't scale when it comes to food.










Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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