Slice aficionados who’ve bemoaned the lack of a good slice in Midtown can rejoice. A new sliceria called Sofia Pizza Shoppe in Sutton Place is serving a crispy-bottomed thin pizza that inspires faith that the art of the quality New York City slice joint may yet persevere in the face of average reheats and the $1 slice. But this kind of quality doesn’t usually pop up out of nowhere. No wonder then Sofia’s family pedigree is linked to one of Brooklyn’s longstanding, unheralded neighborhood pizza institutions, Bensonhurst’s J&V Pizzeria.
Sofia opened last July on the west side of 1st Avenue between 54th and 55th streets in a space last occupied eight years ago by a pet groomer. Founders and friends Tom Degrezia (left) and Matthew Porter have both directing and acting credits (Porter had a role on “30 Rock”) and a passion for pizza. But it’s Degrezia with the sauce in his veins. His grandfather Vincent Degrezia opened J&V Pizzeria in 1955. And Sofia isn’t his first restaurant. Tom and his dad opened Sofia Wine Bar & Cafe on 50th near Second Avenue in 2008, where they serve a limited pizza menu.
“We live in the area, so we knew there weren’t any great slice places around, but when we started getting pizza delivery requests at the wine bar, we knew it wasn’t just us that felt the neighborhood needed a go-to ‘sliceria,’” Tom explained.
In fact, Degrezia and the New Hampshire-born Porter (who name Staten Island’s Joe and Pat’s and Rocco’s Pizza Joint in Chelsea as their respective favorite slices after theirs and J&V’s), said until Sofia opened, they had to go downtown or Brooklyn to get a good slice. They weren’t alone.
Ten years ago, bewildered by the dearth of quality slices in Midtown, I spent a week systematically seeking good pizza. River to river, 25 blocks deep, America’s supposed pizza capital was dominated by Bravo, Little Italy Pizza, Sbarro, and Papa John’s. Neapolitan joints PizzArte NY and Don Antonio by Starita (by Roberto Caporuscio of Kesté renown) have made inroads, but when it came to New York slices, it was a disgrace. (For the record, Pizza Suprema on 31st and 8th is technically in Chelsea.)
The wait is over.
Sofia has an old-school feel and new-era look. Outside, there’s a lit sign with a cursive logo Tom designed. The tiny spot is bright and clean with the modern touch of HD screen menus above the display. Brick walls add a lived-in touch but feel brushed and new. There’s a huge, open picture window reminiscent of one of New York’s old-school slicerias, Patsy’s in East Harlem, and three red stools at its window counter that make a great place to crunch into its three signatures and watch folks walking home from work, delivery guys hopping on and off bikes and people walking their dogs.
A plain slice fresh from one of their Marsal & Sons gas ovens is more saucy than cheesy, its crust fully brown and the combination of those three ingredients no thicker than a No. 2 pencil. It folds sharply with few cracks and leaves a fingertip and thumb-print worth of grease on the plate.
Beyond the plain cheese baseline, they offer 10 toppings: Italian Gaeta olives, roasted eggplant, cherry peppers, mushrooms, sliced onions, roasted peppers, garlic, pepperoni, sweet fennel sausage, and grass-fed beef meatballs!
There’s also a very precise grandma slice with fresh mozzarella. It’s garlicky like the one at J&V but with more cheese and less sauce. It’s a strong addition, but what you really want to do is try to catch them in the summer when they do a juicy summer heirloom tomato pie that tastes like a ray of sunshine.
The spinach pizza has a brown bubble surface with nutty, buttery patches between creamy bites of spinach-artichoke blend. It’s not a cheap at $5, but it’s a more nuanced, less salty take on the classic made famous on 14th Street by the Artichoke Basille guys (“artichoke” isn’t in the name of the slice, but is noted in the description).
Degrezia and Porter don’t believe in sugaring their sauce, they use sausage from Faicco’s on Bleecker (bravo), they sell pizza by the slice at $3 and charge $21 for an 18-inch pie, and when it comes to pepperoni, they note “It HAS to be little spicy cup-and-char slices, period.” Sofia? Tommy great, great grandmother (on his father’s side).
Well done, guys. New York thanks you.
Read on for an interview with these new Midtown pizza heroes.
Best Pizza NYC: Midtown has long suffered for a lack of good slice joints. Why’d you open here?
Tom Degrezia: My dad and I opened Sofia Wine Bar & Cafe in this neighborhood in 2008, and we serve pizzas there. We also live here, so we knew there weren’t any great slice places. When we started getting pizza delivery requests at the wine bar, we knew it wasn’t just us that felt the neighborhood needed a go-to “sliceria.”
Matthew Porter: We both live in the neighborhood and, until we opened, had to go downtown or Brooklyn to get a good slice.
Who are you?!
TD: I’m the grandson of Vincent Degrezia, whose name is recognized on New York’s pizza scene because he opened J&V pizzeria out in Bensonhurst in 1955. In “real life” I’m also a film and TV director/producer/writer.
MP: I’m a New Hampshire-born actor (also director/producer/writer) who has the great fortune of having a best friend who not only loves pizza as much as I do but whose family is an important part of New York pizza lore.
What was in this space before?
TD: It was empty for over eight years. Prior to that, it was a pet-grooming store.
What kind of oven are you using? And what makes them the best?
TD: They’re gas ovens from Marsal & Sons. Their ovens are the best match for our dough recipes. We tested many ovens but the thermal technology and the brick bouncing heat gives us the perfect cook: crisp on the outside while moist on the inside. They really are great ovens.
What family connection do you have if any to New York’s storied pizza scene?
TD: Pizza has always been a huge part of my life and upbringing. From a young age, I was interested in learning how to make it and my grandfather would bring me to work with him so I could experiment. I made some beautiful and thick egg shaped pizzas as a kid [chuckle]. For me, J&V was what pizza was supposed to taste like, so my pizza standards have always been high. One of the most important tenets of my family’s pizza history is also the most simple: Make pizza the way we like to eat it.
MP: My mom’s maiden name is DeMarco, with roots in Genoa, similar to another certain well-known iconic New York pizzaiolo. Does that count?
So why’d you open a pizzeria? This stemmed out of overrun at the wine bar and folks asking for pies?
TD: Pretty much! We were getting lots of calls at the wine bar asking for delivery, so that convinced us there was a market for our pies in this neighborhood. When I opened the wine bar, it was almost just a pizzeria. My plan was to build a wood-burning oven upstairs and personally make the pizzas. Unfortunately, the space the wine bar is in wouldn’t permit it and we ended up going a different route, but I was able to put a small oven in the kitchen. Ultimately, a pizzeria was always in the stars, I just needed the right person to team up with. Matt and I have been pizza buddies and best friends for over 15 years, and when we started kicking around the idea, it just felt like the right time.
What would you say your style of pizza is?
TD: Our focus is on traditional, New York-style pizza, though a few of our pies have a slight Neapolitan flare.
MP: Traditional, but our specialty pies certainly offer a modern twist. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of building some unique blends of sauces and toppings that complement our traditional New York-style pizza crust (our spinach dip pie, for instance, or even our various seasonal grandma pies). That blend of traditional-meets-modern is what makes us a relevant addition to the current New York pizza scene.
The Neapolitan flare… what aspect of your pies would you say characterizes that?
TD: To me, Neapolitan-style pizza tends to have a simplicity to it and a focus on the highest quality ingredients. Our classic pies, in particular, showcase simple, undoctored sauces that prominently feature the quality of the tomatoes we use. Plus, if you look at our pizzas, we go with the slice/dollop approach to cheese rather than shredded, which is aesthetically and texturally more Neapolitan style.
There’s a Patsy’s window thing going on… How did you model the design of your place and who designed it?
MP: Our freelance designer, Ed Cintula (who also designed Sofia Wine Bar) executed our vision perfectly. The large windows are a great touch, particularly in a space so small. He did an amazing job. Almost every day, somebody comments on how great the place looks.
TD: Our vintage fan, signs, and our artwork that pays homage to my family and the city’s history make the space more inviting and interesting than your typical slice shop.
What’s your signature pie?
TD: We’re getting a name for some of our unique specialty items, like our spinach dip pizza and our seasonal grandma pies.
MP: Our seasonal “granny” pies have been an heirloom tomato pie (to close out the summer) and one we called “tipsy” granny for the start of fall: Parmesan-crusted zucchini and squash on a grandma crust with vodka and marinara sauces, a four-cheese blend, and fresh basil.
What’s your sauce philosophy?
TD: It’s blasphemous to use sugar in sauce. We make our sauces. My mom taught me most of what I know and, to this day, she still makes the best sauces I’ve ever had.
MP: Good tomatoes make all the difference. Don’t skimp on quality.
MP: We use several imported Italian and domestic cheeses to achieve our desired blends. However, the cheese is cheese is cheese is cheese…anybody can buy quality pizza cheeses, but it’s how those cheese blends marry with your sauce that defines a slice experience. Finding the right match for the flavors in your doughs and sauces is key.
TD: Buy the best. Don’t be a cheapskate.
Sausage and pepperoni?
MP: We get our sausage from Faicco’s Pork Store on Bleecker Street. We’ve tried a multitude of sausage purveyors, but nothing comes close to their quality. As for pepperoni, it HAS to be little spicy cup-and-char slices, period.
What kind of flour do you use?
TD: We use a high grade imported Italian flour.
Besides the one at your own joint, where’s your favorite slice?
TD: Joe and Pat’s in Staten Island. Mainly because it was my after-school spot for seven years living there. It tastes like my childhood.
Tom, for folks who haven’t been, how would you describe a J&V slice?
TD: J&V is a throwback to a true slice joint. It’s kind of a “no B.S.” establishment. They don’t care about press or reviews, they just make the pizza they’ve been making for decades and, man, they still crush it.
MP: I’ll give a shout-out to Rocco’s Pizza Joint in Chelsea on 7th Avenue. Their grandma pie is garlicky chunky tomato brilliance.
Matt, best slice in New Hampshire?
MP: I haven’t lived there in 20 years, so I’m sure the pizza scene has improved, but growing up, it was mostly Greek-style and chain pizzerias – nothing memorable.
Do you remember your first slice of pizza?
TD: Of course. It was J&V plain slice. Absolute heaven.
MP: Not particularly, but growing up in the suburban New England, I’m sure it had something to do with a Hut. Halftime Pizza across from the Boston Garden was always a pre-game favorite.
What did you do before pizza?
TD: I’m a writer and filmmaker, but I also opened Sofia wine bar in 2008.
MP: I was a recurring star on the “30 Rock” for several years. More recently, I was the recipient of a Telly Award for my work with Jane Krakowski on our “Hoptown” campaign for Dish Network. You also can catch me in the upcoming comedy “Drunk Parents” starring Alec Baldwin, Salma Hayek, Jim Gaffigan, Joe Mangianello, and Will Ferrell among others.
Have you ever eaten a full pizza by yourself in one sitting?
TD: Shouldn’t this question be how many times? I mean come on.
MP: Are there people who haven’t?
What does pizza mean to you?
MP: At home in our house: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Seriously.
What does pizza mean to New York?
TD: Every New Yorker thinks they know everything about pizza. It’s both beautiful and infuriating. But I wouldn’t change it for anything. You can never hear this line enough: “I’m gonna try your pizza for the first time but I have to warn you, I’m Italian and from Brooklyn, I know a lot about pizza.”
MP: Pizzerias are to New York what pubs are to London: they’re everywhere, and it’s part of our identity. In a city where you have access to lots of extraordinary foods and experiences, New Yorkers take a particular pride in identifying where the “bests” are – especially when it comes to something as central to the city’s ethos as our pizza. The convictions people hold about the most important qualities that must be present in great pizza are at the core of many a debate in this town!
What’s the secret to rolling out the best dough and what do you try to achieve with yours?
TD: Practice. Simplicity, flavor, and a smile on that first and last bite.
MP: Consistency. A thin and crispy New York-style crust with some chew in the middle. It should perfectly complement the ingredients on top and deliver great bread flavor, especially at the end, an almost “scarpetta” like experience.
How much sauce should be on a pizza?
TD: That’s a loaded question. Everyone has their opinion. But it also depends on what type of pie, how many toppings, etc.
MP: Enough to taste the tomato quality without overshadowing the flavor of the crust or toppings. and without compromising the consistency of the crust.
How many toppings should be on a pizza?
TD: For me? Some days none. Others two max. Some pies, never. For instance, never on the spinach dip pie. That’s sacrilege.
MP: For me, any more than two is typically excessive.
What’s the general state of New York’s slice from your POV?
TD: In recent years, with low-carb diets all the rage and gluten-free and wheat doughs sought after, traditional New York slice shops have faced some hard times. But, like most iconic staples of this city, the classic New York slice is here to stay. More importantly, the places that really have a passion for pizza, rather than the places that just worry about their profit margin, are the places that still draw people from all over the world. As for overall quality of New York pizza as compared to the rest of the world, well, there’s no place like home.
MP: There’s a schism in New York’s pizza scene. You have ultra-cheap $.99 slice places popping up that just aim to do a volume business rather than one based on a quality product, and you have high-end boutique places aiming to make something so unique that it doesn’t reflect the traditional aspects of the New York slice. The straight-up classic, traditional slice places seem limited to the iconic spots. Our goal is to earn our spot amongst them.
Sofia Pizza Shoppe
989 1st Avenue,
New York, NY 10022
Phone: (212) 888-8816
Subway: E, M