My vacation meal in New York

by Brian Clarey

When I’m visiting New York, I always get pizza. Sometimes every day. There are good pizza joints on almost every block here, it seems, but my absolute favorite is Mama Theresa’s.

I’ve been going there since I was a teenager for slices and Cherry Cokes, and today I’m going to share the experience with my oldest son, born and raised in the South. He thinks he’s had pizza before. He’s wrong.

Why is pizza in New York – and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey – so much better than it is everywhere else? It’s not because of the proliferation of Italians here – there are a lot, but there are Italians in every corner of this country. I used to think it was the ovens, which at one time were difficult to get, but now I see real pizza ovens all over the place. Some people say that the water up here has a certain quality that makes the dough more resilient and flavorful. I don’t know about that, but I have heard of pizzeria owners importing their dough from Brooklyn to maintain that authentic taste.

Really, I don’t know why it’s better, just that it is better.

I explain this to my son as we make the drive. He looks like he doesn’t believe me.

When I was in high school, Mama Theresa’s looked like pretty much every other pizza joint in town, with dollar bills taped to the walls, a high glass counter and a bunch of Italian guys in white T-shirts yelling at each other behind it.

Now, though, it looks… nice. Marble walls and wooden tables. Artwork and carpeting. A granite counter, low, with a glass top so you can look down and see the pizzas. There are waiters. Wine service. A hostess. The guys in white T-shirts are still there.

And back then Mama’s was a simple pizza joint, but now the menu has exploded to include numerous variations on the form – cheeseless pies, stuffed slices and ones topped with antipasto. They serve major pasta dishes, veal and shrimp, clam sauce, several variations of eggplant and Sicilian rice balls with seasonings and meat.

But there’s no way I can walk into Mama Theresa’s and not get my usual order: a slice of regular (or, to the purist, Neopolitan), a slice of Sicilian and a Cherry Coke. Though this time I forsake the soda for a bottle of Vitamin Water, because I’m kind of an old fart like that.

My young charge doesn’t like the look of the Sicilian slice – he can’t process square puffy pizza – so he gets a couple of triangular slices, bigger than any he’s ever seen before. On my advice he gets a Cherry Coke.

We sit and we eat.

“You know I used to come here almost every day when I was in high school?” I ask him.

“You told me that already.”


Though the place has changed in the 20 years or so since I left, the pizza, I am happy to report, tastes exactly the same, so much so that I get a powerful sense memory when I tuck into my lunch.

Mama’s Sicilian slice is a wonder: the dough soft and light, the crusts expertly pinched and browned, the cheese bubbled off nicely and the sauce… oh man, the sauce… the natural sweetness and acidity of the tomato perfectly pureed and appropriately slathered. And if I close my eyes, I can almost convince myself that I’m 17 again and skipping seventh period math class, because that class was just plain bogus.

I’m not 17 anymore, of course, and a reminder of that is sitting across the table from me happily munching on his slice.

“You like it?

“I do.”

“Does it taste different than pizza in North Carolina?”

“Yeah. I think it’s the cheese.”

The cheese, huh? Maybe the kid is on to something.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at