I was born and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, about fifteen miles outside of New York City. Until I was in middle school, I never really liked the pizza available in our town. There was El Greco's, which had an overly thick, overly bready crust and too much pasty, room-temperature tomato sauce. My brother disagreed, but even at that young age I knew El Greco's pizza was just plain stupid. In South Orange, the next town over, there was Bunny's Pizzeria, where the pies were always blackened to a crisp on the bottom and unappealingly unctuous on top. South Orangers loved it; Maplewoodians tended to stay away -- which wasn't surprising, considering that pizza in the tri-state armpit is a very specific, very regional, crazily loyalist sort of thing.
Maplewood also had the Roman Gourmet, in the town center, where the cool kids (including Garden State star Zach Braff, one year behind me in school) would get Sicilian (read: square-cut, also bready) pizza by the slice on Saturday nights after the PG-13 movie let out at the theater next door. (I still hold the theory that being anointed one of the cool kids has everything to do with how cool one's parents are, and whether or not they're the sort of easygoing child-rearers who will allow their offspring to do things like hang out at a pizza joint until 11 p.m. Not only did my parents refuse to give me pizza money, but they'd be double-parked outside the movie theater at 9:30 sharp, blaring the horn like a mama elephant in heat.)
Then the Maplewood Pizzeria opened about a mile or two from our house, and suddenly my family was ordering pick-up once or twice a week. Two large pies could feed the six of us with leftovers to spare, and render all of us happy as clams. The crust was thin but not droopy or limp, with just the right amount of burnt happening on the underside to give it some structure. The tomato sauce was sweet-tinged and plentiful, but matched in quantity by the mozzarella on top. The crust (talking now about the pizza's circumference; I've always wished there were two distinct words to differentiate the bottom of the pie from its edge) was the proper width and heft. And once the rest of the slice was gone, the crust was perfect for a little after-dinner snack or for sopping up the oil and red vinegar from the salad my dad always made to go with the pizza.
When I moved to New York after college, a slice became as much a part of my daily routine as taking the C train. The slice was how you ended a night out. I'd ask the cab driver to let me off a block away from my apartment so I could stop at Nick's for my nightcap to-go slice, which I'd sprinkle liberally with oregano, then grated Parmesan, then two shakes of salt before putting it back in its white paper bag.
Until Feraro's Jersey Style Pizza opened in Soulard about two months ago, it had never occurred to me what might differentiate a Jersey pie from a New York one. One slice, and I remembered. Jersey pizza's crust (in both meanings of the word) is a barely perceptible notch thicker than New York's. The sauce is noticeably sweeter (though still salty, a wonderful and unique combo) and pastier. If you're on the lookout for them, you'll spy morsels of canned tomatoes mixed into the marinara. But the key difference is what I like to call the "moon craters" -- the tiny, dimpled bubbles that crop up on the topside of the bottom crust, a result of the crust's extra thickness and of baking the pie right on the floor of the stone oven instead of on a rack. The craters are squishy and spongy, adding another layer of texture to the pizza. As kids, we liked to rip the cheese off the top (which would separate in one fell swoop, as there was a certain congealed quality that rendered the cheese sheet-like), eat that, then eat just the crust, with its moon craters and remaining bits of sauce.
Jon Feraro was born in Bound Brook, then bounced around the Jersey shore from Loch Arbour to the borough of Point Pleasant and neighboring Point Pleasant Beach. He started working in boardwalk pizza walk-ups as a teenager. Eventually his family moved to the St. Louis area, but his love of pizza remained firmly entrenched in the Garden State.
The restaurant's interior suggests that the 32-year-old Feraro has retained his love of many things Jersey. The walls of the shed-size space, formerly the patio of Mike & Min's next door, are cluttered with Atlantic City postcards, Feraro's family photos, snapshots of Seaside Heights and autographed headshots of celebs who only other New Jerseyans would know are from New Jersey: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (what, no Nutley native Martha Stewart?). There's also tons of Sopranos memorabilia, natch, and a soundtrack that seems to run a perpetual loop of Springsteen, Sinatra and Bon Jovi.
Feraro's pizza is authentic (yay, moon craters!) but not perfect. My biggest complaint -- and I would take issue with this no matter what style of pizza Feraro's was slinging -- is that the cheese comes out too oily. It makes blotting with a napkin a necessity rather than an option, and it causes the mozz (which is whole-milk, so it's confounding why it's coming out this greasy) to slide about on top when picked up by hand. This makes a fork and knife also mandatory most of the time -- even though using cutlery on pizza would be considered sacrilege in New Jersey.
Another tiny travesty is that there are no shakers of oregano put out with the grated Parm, garlic salt and red-pepper flakes. Oregano is it when it comes to this kind of pizza, adding a grassy, herbal taste that harmonizes with the sweet sauce astoundingly well. I'm sure plenty of Jersey pizzerias now supply red-pepper flakes for sprinkling as they do at Feraro's, but that seems to me a byproduct of the gourmet-ifying of pizzas everywhere, not to mention America's fairly recent cravings for all things tongue-scorching. Still: Even Racanelli's offers oregano.
Feraro's specialty pies are named after the Boss, Ol' Blue Eyes and other Jersey icons. (What, no Turnpike pizza?) The Bon Jovi, ironically, rocks the hardest. It sounds fancy-schmancy but doesn't taste it: Though the pie contains herbed chicken, sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers (cozying up alongside more blue-collar toppings like sliced, canned mushrooms -- I admit I love those -- black olives and garlic), all ingredients live to serve the single, sustained note of salty/sweet/ tomatoey/cheesy that makes both Jersey and New York pies the profoundly uncomplicated yet profoundly religious experiences they are. The Soprano, meanwhile, would get Feraro whacked and dumped into an East Rutherford landfill. Pepperoni, meatball and sausage on a pizza? That's as it should be. But smoked bacon and ham, which bring piquantly cured, distracting flavor where there need not be any? Fughedaboutit!
In the oddball environs of Soulard, where Joanie's Pizzeria has long been the neighborhood favorite, Feraro's fits right in. Credit that at least in part to Feraro's walk-up window, where you can get a slice to go (or place orders for the patio seating out front). There are few delights as simple, pure and cheap as a slice after (or during) a night of bar-hopping, the activity for which Soulard is perhaps most famous. Even with a few kinks in Feraro's pizza-making system, it's great to have a little boardwalk mixed in with our boozing.