Loath to make the same mistake twice, I will resist the urge to contend that there's New York pizza in New Orleans. I won't even say it about the pizza at Sugar Park Tavern, the Bywater's latest chow-related buzz. As the tavern's owner and pizza cook, Stephen Polier, puts it, "Pizza is a touchy subject. There's lots of pizza police out there." Agreed: With pizza, as with documentaries of a liberal slant, it's best in certain company to keep exuberance to yourself. I will, however, report the facts, such as that Polier is from Manhattan, that he learned to make pizza in Manhattan, and that his nearly unleavened pizza crusts are among the thinnest in this city.
In addition, objective observations verify that slices of Polier's pizza dip platewards about halfway between crackly edge and tip, that most are sealed with the slightest film of melted mozzarella cheese, and that the grease that pools on their surfaces inspires blotters to request extra napkins. For some eaters, such a combination of characteristics does a New York pie make; for others, it simply makes a thin, moderately cheesy, grease-pooled pizza.
Polier himself hesitates to reference New York in describing his technique. He recalls a discussion during which he and three other pizza cooks once contemplated his style. "They all agreed that mine was more of a Connecticut pizza," he says, noting that he has never made a pizza in Connecticut. "If it's not a New York pizza, it comes within 35 miles," he adds. (It should be mentioned that New Haven, Conn., is widely considered to be the birthplace of the American pizza; some connoisseurs believe the pizzas at Sally's and Pepe's still outshine any in New York.)
I seldom speak at such length with a cook or restaurateur prior to a review, but Polier has too much to say about pizza to ignore things like, "If you do something over and over all day, and if it's [shaped like] a circle, you get philosophical about it. You could go Eastern on pizza." From appearances, Polier goes a little Eastern on his pizzas. There's a sort of Zen garden harmony in the positioning of crisp, ham-like bacon, thin pineapple slices and fresh jalapeno rounds on The Billyburg, and to the balanced application of artichoke petals, mushroom slivers and jalapenos on The Losaida. It's rare to taste two pizza toppings in one mouthful at Sugar Park, unless you order the crowded All Up in There pizza, which, judging from the rank crawfish on the one I tried, you have no business ordering anyway.
Sugar Park's standard pizza sauce is thick, though not thickly applied, with the naturally concentrated sweetness and acidity of tomato paste. There's also a piquant, rust-colored adobo sauce, which tastes smoky, like chipotle chiles. The adobo varnishes a few of the specialty pies, such as the over-garlicked Zephyr, which also includes cherry tomatoes and mushrooms.
Polier shares ownership of Sugar Park, and also of the nearby Channel Zero Video, with his girlfriend, Shannon Stith. The community-oriented couple opened the bar, formerly called Leo's, last November and renamed it after a park they used to frequent in Brooklyn next to a Domino Sugar factory. While they lightened the tavern's two rooms, replacing Leo's dark-as-night colors with maple cream walls and milk chocolate trim, it still functions primarily as a laidback neighborhood watering hole.
If the Sierra Nevada keg blows a gasket, there's always Blue Moon; when that gives out, at least there's Abita Amber. Don't be surprised if the fountain Coke runs clear, or if the kitchen is out of vegetarian chili, again. Pool games between neighbors drinking PBR from the can seem to last all evening. A nocturnal entrepreneur wanders in around 10:30 p.m. hawking a used coffee maker and a blue teddy bear. When the jukebox finishes spinning Holly Go Lightly or Bob Dylan, the digital shuffle of video poker fills the quiet space.
It's the kind of all-accepting bar many of its Bywater neighbors probably find themselves wandering into more often than they would admit. Due to the caliber of its pizza and -- a bonus surprise -- to much of its supplementary food, it's also the kind of bar that lately has been inspiring pilgrimages by New Orleanians from faraway neighborhoods. Chef Ross Muggivan cooks everything besides the pizza. His spicy beef, black bean and corn chili, topped with sour cream and grated cheddar, reaches way beyond bar standards.
If I lived around the corner, the thick, automatically medium-rare burgers on toasted seed buns would become a habit. Chunky red potato salad with fresh rosemary, an optional burger side dish, is a thoughtful alternative to the frozen French fry; still, it didn't keep me from enjoying two orders of Curry Chips -- fries with a mild, gravy-like, yellow curry dipping sauce -- one night. As for Sugar Park's thin-crust pizza, it probably does uphold some New York values. But since no two pizza joints on the island of Manhattan turn out the same pies, it couldn't possibly meet everyone's New York ideal. "It's my pizza," says Polier, which is more than good enough for me.
- Cheryl Gerber
- SUGAR PARK TAVERN owners Shannon Stith and Stephen Polier got their business' name and some of their pizza inspirations from, dare we say it, New York City.