Joe Riggio lives and breathes pizza. At the tender age of 10, he started helping at his father’s pizzeria. As a youth, he used to love going around Manhattan tasting pizza.
Riggio used to tell his Dad that pizza from Pizza Suprema was the best in the city.
“I used to say…’If a person would go out and try every single slice, they would call us the best.’ But no one had done it.”
Until Colin Hagendorf came along.
Over the course of two and a half years, Hagendorf made it his goal to try all the pizza slices the fair island of Manhattan is home to. Some 375 pizzerias later, it was Pizza Suprema that clinched his top vote back in late 2011.
The pleasant, if unassuming, pizzeria on 31st Street and 8th Ave., behind Madison Square Garden, opened in 1964. From that time until 1988, owner Salvatore Riggio carried only one item: plain cheese slices.
“He believed in simplicity. And he believed if you kept it simple, you can have better control over the quality of the product,” said his son and second-generation owner Joe Riggio. “He thought that if your pizza is good, you don’t have to disguise with toppings.” In particular, he was dead set against toppings such as spinach or broccoli.
Starting in 1988, the pizzeria started carrying different types of pizzas, some with toppings.
Today, one thing Joe Riggio still carries from his dad is an unyielding belief in quality. He is hands-on in testing, tasting, and ensuring quality.
So, how does the pizza measure up? The dough is light, crusty, flavorful—no sign of sogginess. But for me, it was the topping that caught my attention. Let’s face it, there aren’t many ingredients that go into a plain cheese slice. So you can really tell the difference in the quality of ingredients used in the pizza sauce and the cheese.
Riggio says the pizzeria uses four different pizza sauces: a marinara sauce for the marinara pizza; a caramelized onions-based sauce for the Sicilian upside-down pizza; the fresh mozzarella sauce, which consist primarily of peeled plum tomatoes; and the sauce for the regular cheese pizza, which is his father’s original recipe.
I start off with the Margherita, with mozzarella and basil leaves. The sauce is actually on the sweet side—maybe a little too sweet for some, but this turned out to be my favorite slice.
“People say, ‘do you put sugar in your sauce? No sugar … We use delicious plum tomatoes that are naturally sweet,” Riggio said. He says some people may think San Marzano tomatoes are the way to go, but he would choose the California plum tomatoes he uses over the San Marzanos any day, reminding me tomatoes originate from the Americas, not Italy.
“Years ago Californian wines weren’t considered as good as the Italian wines, the French wines,” Riggio said. “Everybody knows that’s a lot of nonsense. Our wineries are phenomenal.”
There’s no cloying sweet aftertaste with the Margherita that you might get from an overly sweetened product. It goes down smooth and easy.
Riggio says Pizza Suprema is one of the last NY-style pizzerias to use real pecorino romano along with mozzarella, in careful proportions; and he does import cheese from Italy, and grate it in-house, as he can’t find the same quality hard-form cheese in the U.S.
It is expensive, especially with the euro holding strong against the dollar. “People will say to me, how come the dollar slice is $1, and you charge $3? It’s because i’m using pecorino romano, I’m using grande mozzarella, I’m using beautiful plum tomatoes, I’m not using pizza paste. I’m using the best ingredients on the market, fresh produce, basil, I check my basil everyday.”
He has also tried parmigiano reggiano but decided against it. “It’s not as sharp as a pecorino. It’s more expensive, but it’s not as good.”
Riggio’s own favorite is the plain cheese slice—his father’s original recipe. At first look, it looks like an ordinary slice, but one bite, and you can taste the quality of the ingredients.
Keep in mind this is NY-style, as Riggio emphasizes—large round pie, individual slices, thin crust, not the Italian-style, individual pizza type that a place like Grimaldi’s would do. Comparing the two is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Another popular item is the upside-down Sicilian slice—the dough again is flavorful, and even though it is thick, it’s very light—literally it hardly weighs anything in the palm of your hand. There’s a layer of mozzarella underneath, and the onion-based sauce goes on top.
This slice too is delicious. After downing three different kinds of slices in one sitting, the remarkable thing is, afterwards, I felt pretty good. Everyone has their own criteria for what makes a good pizza slice, and many times, in the aftermath of one slice, I’m left feeling queasy. But not here, which again I think attests to the quality of the ingredients.
I visited Pizza Suprema on two occasions, and both times, the foot traffic was brisk, and the place was full of people. It has some nice seating areas in the back, with booths; oldies were playing. It’s true, this is no dollar-slice place, but still eminently affordable. When I brought my family of three here, we walked out full after spending $16 for four slices and two drinks.
Despite its proximity to Madison Square Garden, the clientele is mostly people from the neighborhood. Still it gets out-of-towners, drawn by their reputation, or simply history. “We’ve developed a following—people who used to go to the Garden with their dad bring their children here now. it’s a good feeling.”
When Riggio gets out-of-towners, he finds they always try to order a slice with everything on it, out of habit. “I’ll try to direct them to the regular cheese” so they can get the real New York pizza experience. “Sometimes the simplest things are the best.”
413 8th Avenue (corner of 31st Street)
Open everyday 10:30 a.m.–midnight