Next to Ray's, Famous Joe's is probably the most obvious spot to start my New York Slice education. It holds a cult status among New Yorkers in the west village as being the "real deal" without being ostentatious in the process. Unlike some other famous pizzerias (which will go nameless in this post), Joe's hasn't become a caricature of itself. Joe's occupies a small outlet on Carmine street just off of Bleecker. It's so unassuming that I almost missed it from the street. Inside, the walls are unadorned and there are no big tables. You've got to eat your slice standing up or sitting on a high stool.
When I asked for a slice of cheese pizza, the cashier asked me if I wanted a slice with mozzarella or a just a "cheese" slice. This confused me a bit. Isn't mozzarella the standard cheese for pizza? When I asked about the difference, he seemed a bit flustered and never really answered my question. He just kept saying the word "fresher" to describe the more expensive slice. My guess: the "fresher" slice, with big, white globs melted all over the top, used a higher quality mozzarella while the other slice-cooked with a shredded, yellower cheese- used a less expensive, more processed mozzarella.
The slice on the left is the one with "fresher" mozzarella
So what did I order? One of each, of course. When in doubt, always order both. As I carried my lunch across the street I wondered which one would be better. The slice with white globs was more aesthetically pleasing, more comparable to the type of pizza I've been trained to make. The neapolitan snob in me had already picked a favorite. But I was surprisingly disappointed. The cheese on the "mozzarella" pie, as I guessed, was fresher and of higher quality. But fresh mozzarella is only as good as its other ingredients, and in this case, it drew attention to the blandness of the tomato sauce . The sauce had no tang or salty tweak to it. It was flatly sweet from beginning to end. The mozzarella did taste better, but only at the overall expense of the pizza. I then realized why there were countless containers of garlic powder scattered across the countertops.
If the pie with real mozzarella was boring, how would the "other" mozzarella pizza hold up? Surprisingly well! The yellow, processed cheese has a secret weapon that the fresh mozzarella can't account for: more grease. This slice was greasy- greasy enough that afterwards my paper plate could have been used as a pane for a circular window. Fortunately, grease does more than just give you heart attacks; it tastes delicious while doing so. The grease drew attention away from the mediocre sauce, which is a good thing, I guess.
It feels counterintuitive to say but in the case of Famous Joe's, the fancy, more expensive slice with "better" cheese isn't always the better choice at all.