They say even when pizza is bad, it’s good. That makes determining great pizza difficult. How can something so simple and so satisfying spur coastal rivalries and inspire such divisive emotions? And how do you put everything aside—all the variations in technique and crust and style—and crown one pizza best of them all?
If you have had the Grandma pizza at Clay & Fire, this question answers itself. That’s why it’s our pie of the year.
Clay & Fire is not necessarily known for its pizza. The menu is near-Eastern, and there are only two pies on the menu. But chef Brent Gunnels came to the kitchen in a roundabout way. Mid-pandemic, Clay & Fire owner Adam Jones discovered Cult of Pi, Gunnels’ ongoing backyard pizza pop-up, and offered Gunnels a job. He brought his dough recipe with him: a straightforward combination of flour, salt, water and yeast, with a refrigerated fermentation (to control the rise) and a laborious kneading process (to control the crumb). The Grandma pizza is a classic margherita, Gunnels’ favorite. Only he inverts the layers—cheese first, then dollops of chunky garlic tomato sauce.
“It’s called the Grandma pizza because that is what that style of pizza is called on Staten Island and South Brooklyn,” he says. “It’s Sicilian style, which a lot of people would consider deep-dish style, with sauce on top of the cheese. It’s my homage to New York-style pizza.”
What comes out of Clay & Fire’s wood-fired oven is a twelve-inch pie with a leopard-spotted crust. There is char. There is fresh basil, shredded and scattered evenly. There is a drizzle of olive oil to finish. And when you take a bite of this pizza, when you get the fresh tomato and the melty cheese and the fire-licked crust all in one mouthful, it is almost like you are tasting pizza—really tasting it—for the first time.