I’m combining two Weekly Pizza Lunch outings into one here. That’s because they’re practically the same place. —The Mgmt.
There’s a pizzeria mini chain in the heart of Manhattan that I think doesn’t get enough attention or praise.* Part of the blame may lie in its unusual naming convention. I mean, did you know that the pizzerias Gruppo, Posto, Spunto, Vezzo, and Tappo are all related and are pretty much the same thing? I know! You’d think they would have settled on one name and stuck with it. (Think of the efficiencies gained by maintaining one single website!)
Then again, avoiding the appearance of a chain has a certain advantage as well.
* Which is pretty rich coming from me, seeing as how I am part of the pizza media and could easily rectify this. But I mean in general. I could crow about this place all I wanted, but I still think other pizza heads and food writers would continue to ignore this chain.
And that advantage may be the fact that these restaurants almost all feel perfectly at home in their respective neighborhoods. They don’t feel like intruders from elsewhere looking to make a buck. But… I’m getting ahead of myself.
Continuing in my survey of bar and ultra-thin-crust pizzas, I hit up Vezzo Thin-Crust Pizza on Friday. I’ve been familiar with the offerings at the original Gruppo location since way back—when I worked at Martha Stewart Living and a coworker there hipped me to Gruppo as her favorite pizzeria in NYC. I can see why she likes it.
The pizzas are exceptionally thin. They’re crisp. The ingredient quality is high. The cheese is gooey and stringy and rich. There’s a lot of stuff on top, but the thin crust seems to hold up well. It’s not ultra rigid and crunchy but not floppy and sloppy, either. Because it’s so thin, you can just scarf this stuff like there’s no tomorrow.
Pizza heads don’t seem to rave about the place, though, and I’m guessing it’s a crust thing. Native New Yorkers seem to dig the thicker New York–style pizzas. And for Neapolitan fans, there’s just no oven spring or cornicione or any of the qualities that Neapolitanistas favor.
But as I said above, the pies here hit a sweet spot. And the toppings are damn fine. Like other successful bar pies or thin-crust pies, the Gruppo group hits you with generous toppings and classic “pizza parlor” flavors.
But just as important in the chain’s success, I think, is the atmosphere. It’s no Roberta’s or Paulie Gee’s, but it fits comfortably within the context of its respective neighborhoods. (Granted, I’ve only been to three of the five.) They all have stylistic cues in common (black and white tiles, a pubby feel) and feel warm and welcoming. They feel like a reliable neighborhood place.
In that way, I think they hew toward the ethos of a bar-pizza joint. All the most renowned bar pizza joints are institutions that people keep coming back to generation after generation—Star Tavern, Colony Grill, Kinchley’s Tavern, Reservoir Tavern, Town Spa, etc. The Gruppo group hasn’t been around long enough to see whether it will become a part of that sort of tradition, but it’s possibly as close as you can get to it in a Manhattan neighborhood these days.
Annnyway… I ate there on Friday on my own and had a small Meatball Classica. Meatballs were calling to me that day. I liked it well enough. The crust is crisp and thin, as I mentioned above, and the meatballs were perfectly fine. The small size, though. I felt like I was missing something. Texture, slice ratio. Something.
It wasn’t until Monday, when I met up with Matt Lyons (Tribute Pizza and Mattivore on Slice/SE), that I remembered why the Gruppo group has made a lasting impression on me. A large size pie has the proper proportions. You get a lot more of the inner pie in a larger slice, and it’s not overcooked to the point of dryness like a smaller pizza can be. Additionally, we got the Shroomtown on Monday, which was the overwhelming pizza “do,” according to Foursquare and Yelp intel. (And in fact, I do remember my friend from Martha telling me to do the Shroomtown back in the earlier part of this millennium.)
The Shroomtown is wonderful. The combination of mushrooms (portobello, shiitake, button) gives it depth beyond what you’d get with a single variety. The shiitakes and portobellos give it a rich, savory, meaty flavor. Even the truffle oil, which I usually avoid, wasn’t too overpowering. I may have to make a “tribute pizza” of my own to the Shroomtown. I could see it being a fantastic option for vegetarians.
The Gruppo group does what it does well, without a lot of critical fanfare, but maybe that’s OK. The restaurants are always packed for lunch and dinner, and I think they deserve to be.
Gruppo (Alphabet City): 98 Avenue B, New York NY 10009; 212-995-2100
Posto (Gramercy Park): 310 Second Avenue, New York NY 10003; 212-716-1222
Vezzo (Kips Bay): 178 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10016; 212-839-8300
Spunto (Greenwich Village): 65 Carmine Street, New York NY 10014; 212-242-1200
Tappo (Flatiron District): 49 West 24th Street, New York NY 10010; 212-807-9200