There is one tradition that must be honored upon every trip to Western New York, without exception. A religious pilgrimage to one of the local Pizzeria’s. As any former Western New Yorker knows, and will expound upon for hours at a time, the greatest Pizza in all of creation is to be found in Batavia, New York. One of the enduring traits of the great Batavian-diaspora, is our kvetching about how inferior the local pizza is in whatever locale we have settled.
I don’t have the exact figures before me, but I am fairly certain that Batavia had the highest numbers of Pizzeria’s per capita of any city in the world. In a town of 16,000 people, we averaged somewhere between 8-10 dedicated pizzerias, not counting the bakeries, and other restaurants that also tried their hand at making the Pizza.
While the lineage of Batavia’s pizzeria’s are more convoluted and inbred than most counties in Eastern Kentucky, it is generally accepted that the first true Pizzeria was Pontillo’s established in 1947. I am sure there are Sicilian old timers that could point to somewhere on the South side that predates the founding of Pontillo’s in the old Cary Mansion on Main Street, but it was Pontillo’s that was the first Pizzeria / Italian restaurant to cross the ethnic divide and reveal the secrets of Sicilian style pizza to the rest of us.
While most American’s think of Pizza, they think of “New York Style” Pizza. Well folks, let me tell you, there is more to the story than NYC Style. In fact, the Pizza in Western New York, and Batavia in particular is different from, and clearly superior to NYC style. As a friend in Seattle has pointed out to me, it is a style unto itself. A hybrid of Sicilian Style Pizza, and Neopolitan Style pizza that is unique to Batavia and WNY.
For those who are uninitiated, Sicilian Style pizza has three distinguishing characteristics.
1.) Thick (1”) crust, fluffy and soft inside
2.) Sauce is on top of Cheese
Sicilian style is in no way to be confused with Chicago style “deep dish” pizza. Chicago deep dish is an abomination and is not a pizza. It’s pizza flavored Quiche. Let us not speak of it again.
Growing up, the lunch lady at St. Joe’s, Mrs. Suranni, was well known for making a classic of the Sicilian style. For special occasions she would make large, rectangular trays of thick, chewy pizza. As a kid, I can also remember getting this style of Pizza at Pontillo’s. However, they seemed to only make it when someone ordered a “sheet” Pizza for a party. Many a birthday party, or Pop Warner football team pizza night was spent consuming that soft, thick, doughy crust with the sticky red sauce on top. When you make a pizza with the sauce on top of the cheese, the sauce takes on a sticky, pasty consistency that is much different from Neopolitan style. I’m not sure why, but Sicilian style seemed to be the preferred style of Pizza for large get togethers like parties and lawn fetes. Perhaps because the size and shape lends itself better to serving a big group. Or maybe it’s easier to make in big sizes than the hand tossed, round style. I guess there’s a limit to how big you can toss a round pizza dough. The rectangular shape must be made by rolling the dough out, and shaping it by hand.
But Sicilian style pizza is only half of the lineage of “Batavia style”. The other half is related to the more “traditional” style of pizza that the world knows and loves as Neopolitan style. This is the classic hand tossed “NYC” style of Pizza. Thin, and greasy with the oil from the cheese and pepperoni soaking into the crust, and dripping off it when you picked it up, this is the stuff people have to fold in half to eat. What was unique to the Batavia versions is that the crust was thicker than what you get in New York / Neopolitan style, trending towards, but not quite as thick as Sicilian style. How, or why these styles came to create this unique hybrid, I have no idea. Sam and Tony just made the stuff, they didn’t write a book about it.
However, they did manage to not only take their pizza as far and wide as Minnesota, they also tutored a generation of Pizza entrepreneurs. Just about every kid in town worked for them at some point, and a good number of those kids would one day grow up to start their own pizza businesses. If the Colonel had a secret recipe, Sam and Tony Pontillo had the exact opposite.
Ficarella’s, Jerry Arena’s, Pauly’s, Main Street Pizza, Uncle Tony’s, Pizza Partners, Gino’s, the list goes on and on. Batavian’s can discuss the intricacies of each place’s version of the style for hours. Yet it is undeniable, they all share the same basic style.
Pontillo’s closed in 2008. A few years after Sam Sr. passed away. The three sons have been locked in mortal combat ever since, proving the old adage about mixing business and family. I have read recently that the Batavia Pontillo’s is open once again, however, whether this is the “Sam” branch of the business, or an offshoot of “Tony’s” is a matter of some debate. Regardless of who is behind it, I am glad to see the old Green Neon sign on the corner of East Main and Harvester, lit up once again. A Batavia without Pontillo’s is like a Batavia without the Muckdogs. Not a place I want to see.