Staten Island's nickname is the Borough of Parks, but it ought to be the Borough of Pizza.
Ask any outerborough type and they're likely to say their hometown offers the city's best, but the forgotten borough makes a serious run for the title. On the other side of a ferry ride you can find super-thin crust pies, taverns turning out perfect pizza and restaurants offering specialty toppings you don't see often.
Here's a look at some of the best in the borough, from sit-down spots to bar pies to slice joints.
Denino's Pizzeria & Tavern
Denino's is Staten Island's most famous pizzeria, and it lives up to the hype. The restaurant is the platonic ideal of the pizzeria-meets-tavern concept: a place with few windows, pictures of old Staten Island on the walls and disinterested but quick service, where you eat your pizza on a paper plate with a pitcher of beer, not a bottle of wine or a cocktail.
The pies are close to perfect, with a crust that's thin and very crisp and textured at the bottom, but just thick enough to be toothsome when you bite into it. The best on the menu is the M.O.R.: meatballs, onion and ricotta piled on to their regular cheese pie.
Denino's recently opened up a spiffy restaurant in the West Village, where the pizza is just as good -- but the lower-rent atmosphere on Staten Island is part of its charm. Make the pilgrimage to the original, and do it in the summer, when you can wander directly across the street to the original location of Ralph's Italian Ices for dessert.
(524 Port Richmond Ave., 718-442-9401, deninossi.com)
Lee's Tavern is the other giant of the Staten Island pizza scene -- lower-key, perhaps, but no less beloved and storied than Denino's, and home to the island's best clam pie: a white pie covered in chopped clams and a heavy helping of garlic. But pies are available (and delicious) in every variety, served both bar-sized (pictured) and full-sized.
"It's a very thin, crispy pizza. That's the way I like it," owner Diego Palemine said. "To me, if it gets too thick then it's like eating a loaf of bread."
Lee's claims the prize of making the favorite pizza of Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, who grew up in the neighborhood, but it appeals to plenty out-of-towners too.
"There's no sign, there's no website. I have a rotary phone. There's no wifi," Palemine said. "But I get people all the time, all different tourists -- more so in the last 5 or 10 years, the tourists have definitely come more. It's very convenient, we're right by the train."
(60 Hancock St., 718-667-9749, no website)
Joe & Pat's
If you are a connoisseur of thin-crust pizza, get yourself to Joe & Pat's, which has been dishing it out since 1960, setting the bar for the crispy pies that typify the borough's pizza scene.
"It's thin crust, fresh sauce, and we use the cubed mozzarella so it has the spotty cheese on it," owner Casey Pappalardo said. "It's a nice look."
Manhattan-dwelling Staten Island ex-pats recently rejoiced at the news that Pappalardo would open a Joe & Pat's in "the city," as Staten Islanders call it, but like Denino's, the original is worth visiting.
(1758 Victory Blvd., 718-981-0887, no website)
Many of Staten Island's great pizzas are available as pies only, but for a solid slice joint, head to Nunzio's. In a city increasingly full of fancy pizzas, this squat, square building on busy Hylan Boulevard is home to a lovely but straightforward New York slice: a tangy-but-a-little-sweet sauce, plenty of cheese, a little bit of basil atop a thin-but-not-too-thin crust. It's saucy, with just enough gooey mozzarella to keep things in check. It's simple, but there's a reason that simple formula is the base of a good pizza.
(Nunzio's, 2155 Hylan Blvd., 718-667-9647, no website)
Speaking of the rise of high-end pizza, there's Pizzeria Giove on New Dorp -- home to superbly thin specialty pies of the Italian rather than New York variety.
"We're straight from Italy," Marco Giove, one of the brothers who own the restaurant, said. "We learned how to make pizza there."
Leave your typical slice expectations at the door and order one of the specialty white pies, like the Variopinta (pictured): with slivers of pancetta, paper-thin zucchini rounds, stracciatella and garlic and herb cheeses and a swirl of olive oil.
"It gives you that creaminess, like butter," Giove says of the stracciatella cheese. "It's fresh mozzarella enriched with heavy cream."
Everything is imported, Giove says -- the cheese, the flour (What kind? "Can't say," he responds) and even his pizza helpers, who chatted in Italian as they worked. (278 New Dorp Lane, 347-286-0635, no website)
In the heart of Annadale Road's commercial strip you'll find Mona Lisa, a hybrid between a typical slice joint and a specialty pizza spot.
Among the offerings are the borough's best buffalo chicken pizza and owner Leonardo Giordano's "Gold Medal Pie" (pictured), with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary in a cognac sauce, placed atop a thin spread of tomato sauce and then finished with fresh arugula, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, speck and truffle oil. It's so-named because it has won Giordano, a member of the U.S. Pizza Team who competes nationally and in Italy, plenty of top prizes.
"My magic word is one: creativity. And quality comes with that," Giordano said. "When you create something that is unique, then people don't mind to pay the extra dollar. They know it's unique. I feel like it's a custom pizza for every customer."
(839 Annadale Rd., 718-967-1000, monalisasi.com)
In a borough crowded with pizza, Phill Errigo was taking a big chance when he opened Paulie's in Stapleton just a year-and-a-half ago.
"There's nothing but good pizza on Staten Island, so it's certainly not an easy genre," Errigo said.
But the pizza spot hits it out of the park with a classic thin-crust pie -- "always on the well-done side, which is the way pizza should be," Errigo noted -- and other Italian classics Errigo learned from his dad, Paulie. He's doling them out in a neighborhood that's changing quickly, with an influx of artists and, yes, hipsters. But he draws longtime locals, too.
"They have been waiting for good food, and the residents have been waiting for good food for a long time," Errigo said.
(500 Bay St., 718-981-5111, pauliespizzeriasi.com)
Campania Coal-Fired Pizza
Another relative newcomer, Campania recently expanded its reach with a second location on Staten Island's South Shore. (There's also a third one in Bay Ridge.) It bucks the Staten Island trend toward a classic New York pizza oven for a coal one, delivering artful margherita pies and one of the borough's best vodka pies, dubbed the Americana Pizza and sprinkled with pecorino cheese.
(3900 Richmond Ave., 718-227-3286; and 240 Page Ave., 347-983-4998; campaniacoalfiredpizza.com)
Pier 76 puts out a pie similar to what you'll find at Joe & Pat's -- no wonder, since one of its partners is the son of one of Joe & Pat's original owners -- but owner Joe Guastavino noted they're always getting creative.
"There's legendary pizzerias on Staten Island that have been open for 50 or 60 years," Guastavino said when we visited late last year on a tour of St. George. "We put our little twist on the pizza: The classic pizza, our arugula pie, or our fig pie and all our crazy specialty pies we put out."
But at the end of the day, Guastavino recommends a classic.
"I could offer you a $30 pie with everything on it, but really the classic pie, the regular pie, is the best pie."
(76 Bay St., 718-447-7437, pier76si.com)
Tony's Brick Oven Pizza
Brick-oven pizza isn't the dominant form on Staten Island, but Tony's does it well -- offering up a grandma slice with perfectly crunchy corners and a sweet-but-savory tomato sauce smothered in cheese. If you want to mix it up, owner Angelo Panzini recommends the Marsala pizza. The spot has less buzz than some of the others on this list, but it's worth a stop.
(1140 Bay St., 718-816-6516, tonysbrickoven.com)