Tuesday, April 24, 2007

4,466 miles from Naples: “The Pizza Capital of the World”

The river road from Wilkes-Barre up to Old Forge snakes through small storefront towns, hugging the mighty Susquehanna. This is Main Street for a riverside of Italian and Polish enclaves; home to immigrants lured a century ago by coalmines, steel mills and a better life for their kids. We drive by memorials to mineshaft disasters, soda-fountain drug stores, corner taprooms, salumerias, ethnic social clubs, and about as many Catholic churches as there are saints.

Up here in Old Forge, the only thing that may outnumber churches is pizza parlors. This is the self-proclaimed “pizza capital of the world,” and folks in every local parish agree that Old Forge pizza is a religion unto itself. But this is where the agreement ends and a world-class pizza rivalry starts cooking.

Some say Arcaro & Gennell, a comfy tavern of a pizza restaurant, knows just the right combo of cheeses and sauce. Others say Revello’s, right across the street, makes a crust to die for. Still others insist the best Old Forge-style pizza isn’t even in Old Forge.

“Grotto’s is the best pizza you’ll ever eat. You’re crazy not to start there.” We heed a local’s advice and stop first in Harvey’s Lake, where people drive from miles for a mouthful of Grotto’s pizza. It’s good, but we’re not about to settle for a chain-store pie.

What makes Old Forge pizza unique? You can order a slice (here they call it a “cut”), but most folks get it by the rectangular tray (not by the pie) It could be a half-inch thick. Olive oil goes in a deep pan first, then a layer of dough. More olive oil, more dough. The crust is thick, with baked-in bubbles and chewy good. Pile on the cheese, ladle on the sauce and bite down with alacrity.

The specialty up here is white pizza. No red sauce, just a blend of cheeses and sometimes, sweet onions. When it’s good, white pizza is like white chocolate. That is to say, it’s not like pizza at all; like great white chocolate isn’t really like chocolate. The best Old Forge white pizza transcends the category and creates a delicious new food group.

And we’re here to tell you, the best white pizza on our sojourn (we sampled nearly a dozen pies – oops, trays - in two days) is at Revello’s, in the heart of Old Forge. Our choice is controversial, even in Revello’s. We ask our server whether she prefers the white or red and she confides in a whisper, “I don’t like either here. The best pizza in Old Forge is up at Mary Lou’s.”

We drop our napkins and bolt for the door, planning on a beeline for Mary Lou’s. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your appetite – there are two other pizza joints along the way and we don’t make it Mary Lou’s for about an hour. By then, our pizza judgment is pretty much impaired.

You think we’re sated. But on the way back to Wilkes-Barre we pull up to Sabbatelle’s in the hardscrabble river town of Pittston. Rocky and Jane Sabbatelle have stocked their Italian deli for 30 years. Aisles are crowded with homemade everything and shelves are full of olives, salamis and sausages, incredible aged provolone, fresh mozzarella, egg pappardelle, fried eggplant, and – you guessed it – trays of pizza.

“The best you’ll ever eat,” Rocky promises. “Better than anything up in Old Forge.” What the heck, we shrug, and loosen a couple buttons.

Later, we head for a local brewery tour and a four-poster bed in what was the summer mansion of the “lumber-and-ice king” of Pennsylvania’s great industrial age. But that’s a whole other story. So until then, we’ll see you round the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For a map with photos of all these places and more, go to www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.)

Smile and say “Cheese!”
Folks in Old Forge know you need more than plenty of napkins with good, gooey pizza. At Revello’s we’re lucky enough to find a free dental floss dispenser in the rest room. So there’s no excuse for picking your teeth at the table!

Arcaro and Gennell
They’ve been at it for 44 years, and you feel completely home inside this family pizza tavern. Sure, you come for the pizza, but try the hot pepper shooters and homemade fettuccine capricciosi on the full-blown Italian menu. 443 S Main St, across from Revello’s in Old Forge. Check out pizzacapitaloftheworld.com. 570.457.5555

Revello’s Café
Everything on the menu is available for take-out, except the homemade tripe. “It takes too long to make, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser at the bar,” we’re told. No wonder the bar is so crowded, especially on weekends. Our white pizza winner. 502 S Main St, across from Arcaro & Gennell in Old Forge. 570.457.9843

Mary Lou’s Pizza
Mary Lou Verdetto knows what she’s doing. In fact some of the insiders at other pizza parlors says hers is the best. Turn west off Main Street, keep your nose out the window and you’ll find her. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturdays only. 209 Dunn Avenue in Old Forge. 570.562.2700

The Lion Brewery
What’s better with pizza than free beer! They’ve been at it since 1905 here and you can sample the ale, porter and 1857 lager in the historic Stegmaier Brewhouse. Call ahead for a free tour: 570-823-8801, ext 346 (ask for Theresa) or online at lionbrewery.com. 700 North Pennsylvania Blvd in Wilkes-Barre.

Sabatelle’s Market
Stop in for an enormous sandwich, some homemade pasta, and don’t forget to bring home the pancetta. Say “ciao” to Rocky, Jane, Chuck, Maury, Jason and/or A.J. Sabatelle.114 S Main Street, Pittston, PA 570.654.4617

Bischwind B&B, Bear Creek Village
This glorious B&B was the “lumber-and-ice king” Albert Lewis’s summer home back in the day. (He’s buried across the street in one of the most amazing little cemeteries you’ll ever see.) Current owner Billi English grew up in the house and knows all the nooks and crannies. (Ask her to point out the Tiffany glass transoms. Awesome.) Billi’s four-course breakfast is fit for a land baron. Filet mignon and eggs anyone? One Coach Road and Rt 115, Bear Creek Village. 570.472.3820 and/or bischwind.com.

Bear Creek Inn
Enough with the pizza trays. Belly up to the beautiful old bar and let Larraine Eddowes, the Inne’s gracious owner, introduce you to all the locals. She makes a fine martini, and the conversation gets just as spirited. And you’re crazy if you don’t get the lamb chops with mint jelly. Quarter mile from the Bischwind on Rt 115 in Bear Creek Village. 570.472.9045 and/or bearcreekinne.com.

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to shunpiker@visitpa.com.

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