2011-01-06 / Cuisine

Cortazzo’s pizza is tops – does N.Y. water make a difference?

Cortazzo’s, on U.S. 1 in Lake Park, was opened by Lenny Manuto, who ran three pizza shops in Brooklyn. Cortazzo’s, on U.S. 1 in Lake Park, was opened by Lenny Manuto, who ran three pizza shops in Brooklyn. You’d think we have enough pizza shops in the area — like drug stores, it seems as though there’s one in every strip mall and competing on every corner.

One of the newest is Cortazzo’s in Lake Park, in a strip mall on U.S. 1. A sign long promised the appearance of the “brick oven pizzeria,” and those who noted it wondered if it had bit the dust before it began.

Turns out there were glitches all along in pre-opening days, with a balky oven, then a balky credit card machine and various minor setbacks.

Over the holidays, it finally came round full force and since we were crazed as everyone else running around, it gave us an excuse to try it out one busy night.

We chatted with other customers and the owner while waiting for our first pie, a pepperoni-mushroom. Lenny Manuto is from Brooklyn where he owned three pizza shops before moving here. He started in the mortgage game, then opened Cortazzo’s.

Diners can view owner Lenny Manuto, left, making pizza. Will Morse staffs the cash register. Diners can view owner Lenny Manuto, left, making pizza. Will Morse staffs the cash register. We let Manuto make the pizza as he normally would without asking for extra sauce or cheese. Here’s a bit of regional trivia: He says people from New York request extra cheese; Floridians want more sauce on theirs.

The large pie was a steal on a Monday: the 18-inch cheese pizza was $5.99 (regularly $12.99). With our two toppings at $1.50 each, it came to $9 — and we have half leftover in the freezer for another meal.

He makes a New York-style crust — neither ultra-thin nor very thick — somewhere in between. The dough, which he claims is made with New York state water, along with the brick oven, produces a crispy-bottomed but chewy base for the house-made sauce, cheese and other toppings.

We have only a brief drive home, so the pizza stayed hot — no reheating needed. The crust stayed crispy, but it passed the “fold” test — you could fold the slice to eat it without a fork. The sauce was mild and slightly sweet, which went along with the crust and salty mozzarella just fine. It wasn’t overly spicy, though, so I shook a little red pepper flakes over mine to zing it up.

You can tell pizza salons that serve by the slice as this one does — every pizza is made as though it’s going to be sold by the piece, so each slice gets a generous and fairly equal amount of each topping, as ours did.

The test for me, however, was the rim crust. It was thick and flaky-crisp on the outside with a little chew in the center — perfect for dunking in extra marinara. No burned edges. Alas, I failed to ask for an extra little cup of sauce and so had to eat it as is. Still tasty, but I at least want the sauce smeared closer to the edge next time so it’s not all dough when I hit those last bites.

Can I tell the difference in New York water, however? No. I’m not sold on that as anything more than a marketing ploy. New York pizza makers swear it makes a difference in the dough; I bet I could blindfold most diners and they couldn’t tell what dough was made with what water, however. I think it’s all in the proportions and in the flour rather than the water. Technique plays a part — a dough kneaded to death is tough; this one was not.

Along with the pizza we ordered a house salad. Good tasting tomatoes elevated the mix of iceberg, onions, pepperoncini and black olives — it’s all sprinkled with Parmesan, a nice extra. A bottled dressing of your choice is served on the side.

On our next trip, we tried a manicotti ($8.50) and a Philly cheesesteak sub ($6.99). The pasta was everything we like about old-school, baked manicotti. Three soft pasta tubes, oozing with the ricotta mixture, swimming in marinara and covered with mozzarella was served piping hot out of the oven. Along with the pasta came two boxes of garlic knots — 18 in all. (Ordered separately, they’re $3.50 a dozen, though Manuto often throws in extra rather than waste extra dough, he says.) Those suckers are so addictive, we had to restrain ourselves from eating more than two. They’re real knots, by the way— not buns or round, dried up things. Long, tender, garlic-heavy dough chews. Not for a date unless you both indulge.

The manicotti was even better once we let it cool to room temperature. Still oozing, but the cheese and pasta firmed up slightly, giving us a good chew with every bite. This will be a favorite — once I ace this New Year’s diet.

My mate ordered the Philly cheesesteak and pronounced it great — even though the meat was out of a box. “It’s still good quality meat,” he said. None of the roast beef stuff — it was shaved steak meat. Order it with whatever you want on it other than cheese and onions. He added green peppers. The meat was stacked high on the soft sub roll, and the cheese melted and oozed out around it with each bite. The meat was tender, tossed briefly with the onions and peppers on the flattop grill. Without any true Philly cheesesteak places near our place, it’ll do.

Along with pastas and pizzas — traditional and gourmet — there are calzones small and large, a list of hot and cold sandwiches, subs and wraps, soups and traditional eggplant, chicken and veal Parmesan for entrees. The entrees include a salad and garlic bread with the meal. Desserts are cannoli, cheesecake and zeppole — a fried sweet doughnut-like pastry that’s not typically on pizzeria menus.

Everything’s done in plain sight with the owner literally hands-on — that’s always a good sign. Teens hired to make pizza don’t have as much vested interest in repeat business as the owner does.

Cortazzo’s offers take-out for lunch and dinner and delivery to its surrounding area with an $8 minimum; there are a handful of casual tables to eat in the L-shaped area dominated by the pizza oven, as well. A TV on one wall will entertain you as a single diner if you don’t feel like chatting with the amiable staff.

After two successful meals here, I’m thinking maybe you can’t have too many pizzerias after all. ¦

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