New York-style pizza meets Texas-size appetites on the coast
Anyone from the Northeast, and many from elsewhere, will tell you that when it comes to quick, cheap, hit-the-spot foods, there’s nothing quite like a slice of pizza. A slice can cure a hangover, or prevent one after a night on the town, and it’s lunch when your hour has been sliced to 15 minutes.
The pizza slice originated in New York, as legend has it, and has migrated all over the country, although, curiously, Galveston County and the Clear Lake area have only a few spots that sell the sensational, yet solitary, slice of pizza.
Gulf Coast pizza slices may be an oddity, but that didn’t stop four pizzerias we talked to from sharing secrets about what makes the perfect triangle (or rectangle, in the case of one slice depot) of chewy, cheesy goodness.
103 Davis Road, League City, 281.554.7232
Long before 40-year-old Peter Giovanniello opened Pizza King in League City, he lived in Wellsville, N.Y., and dreamed of being a truck driver. That dream came true, and one day in the 1990s, while on route through Galveston, Giovanniello was driving along Broadway at sunrise and was moved by the scenery.
“It was a beautiful morning,” he said. “There was just something magical about the light, the old houses and the trees.”
That image stayed with Giovanniello. By 2006, he was a Texas resident. Within a few months, Giovanniello met his bride to be, Carrie McCarthy. The couple in 2006 opened Pizza King in League City and married the next year. The entrepreneurs are big proponents of independent business.
“We believe in shopping and eating local,” Carrie Giovanniello said. “We’re up against multimillion-dollar corporate pizza operations, so we appreciate our loyal customers.”
Trucking got Giovanniello to Texas, but making pizza is keeping him here. “New York-style” pizza is a motto Giovanniello’s Pizza King comes by honestly, but one few restaurants outside New York deserve.
Giovanniello’s father, Pietro, was born in Naples, Italy, and owned a pizza restaurant in Italy in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, he had moved to the United States and opened a pizza shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., followed by two more New York shops in Long Island and Wellsville.
The original Pizza King outdoor sign from the Wellsville restaurant hangs inside Giovanniello’s League City pizza parlor today. In the early 1980s, the Wellsville restaurant was Giovanniello’s training ground for making pizza and where he began working at age 7.
“I’m not an expert chef,” Giovanniello said. “I just know what I know — and that’s how to make pizza and Italian food. High quality and consistent ingredients that cost a little more are the key for us.”
Slice sales haven’t exactly taken off in League City the way Giovanniello had hoped, despite Pizza King being very close to Clear Creek intermediate and high schools. But he has no plans to end the menu item that includes “Happy Hour” $1 slices.
“I know the slices are good,” he said. “I have quite a number of East Coast customers who come just for the slices because they say it reminds them of home.”
1605 Second St., Seabrook, 281.291.7498
It doesn’t get much simpler for Midnite Slice owner and chief pizza Chef Sibbian Roe.
“We love pizza and listening to music,” Roe said.
The sentiment resonates throughout the former Seabrook post office turned pizza parlor. The ceiling is adorned with 12-inch album covers; a guitar rests next to the front counter, ready for anyone to pick up and play a tune; and the TV mounted on the wall frequently runs a stream of YouTube videos Roe took herself while hosting live, local musicians on the Midnite Slice patio.
Although the vibe is funky and laid back, and despite names like “Oh My Godzilla,” the pizza slices are serious business. They’re created by Midnite Slice pizza Chef Harold Rhames.
Midnight Slice makes the pizza dough fresh each morning and uses only real mozzarella cheese.
“A lot of places use ‘cheese product,’ which is not cheese at all,” Roe said.
Roe, who grew up in Houston in a house where someone was always cooking, dreamed of owning a restaurant since she was 5 years old, she said.
Midnite Slice opened in 2012, before Roe was in her 30s, and in keeping with the creative spirit that drives her, has redefined the “pizza slice,” at least for Midnite Slice patrons. In fact, it’s not really a slice at all, but its own small pizza. And it’s rectangular.
“It takes about 10 minutes, but it’s fresh made to our customers’ specifications,” Roe said.
Midnite Slice makes deliveries “around the lake” in Seabrook, El Jardin, Kemah, Nassau Bay and parts of League City. With its brightly colored building, the pizzeria fits right in to the eclectic charm of Seabrook’s Main Street, where independent, one-of-a-kind shops and markets sell handmade art, locally roasted coffee and locally caught fish.
“Supporting local business, music and art is important,” Roe said. “My art, my creativity, is expressed through the food I make.”
4400 Seawall Blvd., Galveston, 409.766.7272
Joey Smecca knows everything is bigger in Texas. The slices he serves at Papa’s Pizza — at 14 inches — are no exception. Despite one of the best views in pizza slice history — Papa’s is lined with windows facing the Gulf of Mexico — the restaurant stays focused on flavor.
“People can add whatever toppings they like, but with a slice, people expect a good crust, sauce and cheese,” Smecca said. “The best way I know how to make that is with vine-ripened tomatoes, packed fresh to make the sauce, a quality mozzarella and top-of-the-line flour for my crust.”
Smecca has been in the pizza business since he was 13 years old, when his family in 1973 took over Mario’s Flying Pizza, now called Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant.
Smecca’s father, Antonio “Tony” Smecca, born in Sicily, Italy, moved his family from New Jersey to Galveston because the coastal town atmosphere reminded him of his hometown of Gela on the island of Sicily, Smecca said. The Smecca sons, Joey and Johnny, and business partner Danny Hart, now operate eight restaurants in Galveston County, including Sky Bar Steak & Sushi in Galveston, Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar in League City and Galveston and Nonno Tony’s on Pier 21.
Smecca isn’t a professionally trained chef; his “college” is experience, he said. But over the past 43 years, he’s learned a thing or two about the psychology and marketing of pizza.
“You’ll always have your favorites,” Smecca said. “I think it has to do with ‘comfort foods’ and what you ate growing up. I remember eating slices in Jersey when I was 10 or 11 very clearly. We made our slices big so people would talk about it.”
Russo’s New York Pizzeria
1660 W. FM 646, League City, 281.337.7992
500 Seawall Blvd. No. 300, Galveston, 409.762.0200
Homesick New Yorkers are regulars at Russo’s New York Pizzeria.
“They come back here again and again,” said Vic Matthews, who with Mike Putnal, opened the League City restaurant eight years ago.
Although Russo’s New York Pizzeria isn’t a mom-and-pop establishment — there’s an island franchise and nearly 40 locations in Texas and elsewhere — it has an independent feel.
And the pizzeria is famous for Texas-sized slices that come from its 28-inch “XL” pie, which feeds eight to 10 people, Matthews said.
The giant Party Pizza and the giant slice are both very popular, Matthews said.
Anthony Russo’s parents immigrated from Sicily and Naples to New York in 1962 and later opened “Russo’s Italian Restaurant” in 1978 in Houston. In 1992, Anthony Russo introduced the New York Pizzeria concept in the Houston market, in an area where many customers were from New York City. And those customers were hungry for the New York-style pizza, giant slices and calzones in Texas.
The New York-style pizza is hand-tossed and baked in a brick oven at Russo’s.
New Yorkers feel at home there, Matthews said.
“It’s the only pizza they can get down here that’s like New York,” he said.
Editor Laura Elder contributed to this story.