“The Italians really knew what they were doing, combining all the major food groups into something we can eat without a fork.” - Jim Gaffigan
Friends, Western New Yorkers, epicureans, lend me your ears, for I am about to tell a tale of three pizzas. Born after the peak of the Italian empire in Niagara Falls, I was privy to their former spoils in the guise of three epic pizzerias; a triumvirate, if you will. While many have lauded loudly their Buffalonian compatriots, La Nova's, Bocce's and Romeo & Juliet's, to this son of the Cataract City, none compare to the glory and splendor found in the heart of the mighty Niagara.
In this tale, the part of Julius Caesar is played by the flamboyant Aldo Evangelista, owner of La Hacienda Pizzeria [Read Ryan Nagelhout's report on that pizzeria]. La Hacienda is believed by many to offer the finest thin crust Italian pizza in Western New York. I concur, but the hero of this tale is not Caesar.
The now deceased Trusello's would be Marcus Crassus, the first of the triumvirate to expire. Trusello's is still spoken of by locals in hushed, reverent tones for their epic take on “traditional style” Romano cheese pizza. Their loss was felt deeply by many locals and expatriates alike.
Which would leave Pompey as the remaining member of the triumvirate. While many would speculate the part of Pompey to be played by DiCamillo's Bakery, whose broccoli cheese pizza may be one of the greatest achievements of Niagara Falls' golden age, this pizza is a “white pizza” alternative on the classic model eschewed by the triumvirate. Therefore, DiCamillo's is awarded the part of Senator Brutus. Et tu, DiCamillo's?
Pompey was a man on the fringe, a stalwart standing up against the might of Caesar only separated only by the Rubicon. In this story, and the hero of this tale, the part of Pompey is played by the Pizza Oven.
You may have never heard tales of the Pizza Oven, though it was around since the time of my forebears. The Pizza Oven is located at 1903 Niagara St., a now-depressed section of Niagara Falls. It used to be a neighborhood largely populated by Italian and Polish families.
Now, Pizza Oven is a reminder of that which was, like the ruins of the Colosseum. Yet the Pizza Oven has been the master of its fate, remaining viable even though its original audience has moved on. (In the only place this extended Roman metaphor breaks down, Pizza Oven is actually run by a Polish fellow, named Marion Bresko. But you'd never know it from his pizza.)
The place is only open Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., with no seats to speak of. Without either convenience or décor to support its existence, it is only through the strength of pizza, and the legendary loyalty it produced, that it remains with us.
It is a rare pizza explorer who happens across Pizza Oven, three blocks off the main thoroughfare of Pine Avenue. I was told of its existence. When it comes to advice on pizza there is one man I turn to: my uncle Louie Destino of Lewiston. A few years back, when my uncle told me that the Pizza Oven might make the best pizza in Niagara Falls, this was not a casual remark. It challenged the core of my Niagara Falls pizza cosmology, which held that none could ever top La Hacienda.
Beware the Ides of Louie. I have been a loyal customer of the Pizza Oven ever since.
The Pizza Oven usually prepares trays of pizza for walk-ins to purchase a slice ($1.25), but the selection is not vast. I have only witnessed cheese and pepperoni offered, though one can get mushrooms or anchovies if you have the foresight to order in advance.
Yet it is not the toppings that make this pizza, for the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. To me, this pizza represents the very ideal of Niagara Falls-style pizza. It is the pizza I would make at home with my mother or grandmother when I was a child.
The sauce is not overly seasoned, with just enough oregano to create a wonderful herbal perfume in the air. The mozzarella cheese is sparsely spread over flavorful pepperoni. The dough has a hint of sweetness, a fine dusting of flour and just enough oil used on the well-seasoned pans to create a texture and crunch.
While the sauce is spread gratuitously it does not soak through the dough creating a soggy mess. Yet these are merely words, words, words. One bite will have you understand that this is a pizza that has been perfected through the ages. This is a pizza that changes you, and should raise the bar in the industry. Yet should its legend fail to spread, will its fate be sealed?
I wonder as I mourn the passing of Trusello's of sainted memory, a wonderful pizza remaining alive only in our tales. Aldo Evangelista recently announced that he was selling La Hacienda Pizzeria, and one can only hope the new owners present the same high quality product. I would hate for all the good of the Pizza Oven and the epic Niagara Falls triumvirate to be interred with their uneaten crusts, their pizza bones.
So I implore you to cry havoc and let slip the legend of the Pizza Oven. Let the next generation appreciate that which once made my home town great, and in turn, provide impetus for others to follow suit, creating legends of their own.
Info: Pizza Oven, 1903 Niagara St., Niagara Falls, 282-6838
Joseph A. Leta is an Amherst attorney who specializes in criminal, business and divorce law whose lifelong goal is to find the world's greatest foods, and eat them.