Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Slice of the Big Apple Comes to OC

Johnny's Real New York Pizza
1320 Bison Avenue
Newport Beach, CA 92660

My first experience in New York City was not a pleasant one. It was the summer of 84, and my parents had taken us on a long three week trip back east to see family, friends, and historical sites along the way. It was an awesome trip, and probably one of the highlights of my childhood, but it was also a long trip with just the four of us in a car, for what seemed like 6,000 miles. Surprisingly, my parents only included one night in New York City, which was also the last night of our trip. My Dad had no desire to see NYC. Back then it still had the reputation of having a high crime rate, rude people, and was pretty expensive. As I remember, it was my Mom that finally convinced my Dad to take us on a bus from Newark, into the city. We wandered around, went to the Plaza Hotel, and saw Central Park. All memorable moments, but there are two things that I remember most about this time in New York. One was my sister almost getting hit by a cab, and the other was a pizza that we had.

That was my first taste of a great New York pizza. Not soon to be forgotten. I do not recall the name of the place, but I do remember my Dad ordering a large, and the strange look on the guys face when he did it. My Dad had no idea that a large New York pizza could easily feed eight people, let alone our little family of four. We ate on the top of a newspaper rack, and I can still remember how great that pizza tasted. I like to think that pizza helped change my Dad's mind about the city of New York. He has since been back maybe three other times. We could not finish off that pizza, and left it on a trash can in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. I still regret that to this day.

Okay, sorry for that trip down memory lane, but those are the thoughts I had when we were invited to try Johnny's Real New York Pizza. Now I know what you are thinking, real NYC pizza in Orange County? Yes, I was skeptical too, as I am whenever a place has New York or any other locale in its name. Most of the time these places fall well short of the mark of being truly authentic. So yes, I was a cautiously optimistic.

I was even a little more optimistic after talking to the man behind Johnny's, Johnny Younesi, a native of Queens New York. He has a real passion for bringing a little piece of his home cuisine to OC. He opened his first Johnny's location in Corona Del Mar two years ago. Just like that location, this bigger Newport store is adorned in red, white and green in homage to Sicily, and of course New York. Another reason for my hopefulness about this place is the use of a water purification system that filters out the hard water chemicals that are in California water. A lot of people believe that what makes NYC pizza so great is the water, so Johnny's uses this filtered water to make their dough everyday. I had skipped lunch in anticipation of this event, so I was famished when the first food came through the kitchen door. I was polite and let people take their pictures, but man was I hungry. Let's take a look at what Johnny's considers to be the best pizza in California.

The first thing to hit the tables for us were these Big C's Best Eva Garlic Knots ($5.99). I wish this blog was equipped with smell, because the garlic aroma was intoxicating with these. I really liked the manageable size of these garlic knots. They were just a little smaller than a golf ball, and had a crunchy exterior, while the inside was soft. The marinara served with these was good, but I almost always prefer ranch dressing with garlic knots. I knew a lot of food was on its way, so I let everyone else fill up on these.

Naturally a pizza place that prides itself on its New York roots, has to have good wings, and these Johnny's Wings ($9.95) were definitely good. I really liked the sauce used on these. It had a very nice kick to it, without being too over the top. These came out scalding hot, but as they cooled down they became more manageable to eat. I wish they had a little more meat on them, but I made up for that by eating about ten of them.

With the mild heat from the wings, a beer was definitely in order. I was in luck, Johnny's has my favorite Italian beer, Peroni, on tap and also in the bottle. For wine drinkers out there, they offer Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Grigio.

When Johnny was giving his speech welcoming us, and telling us about his restaurant and food, he made a point of mentioning the house salad served here. He wanted a house salad, that went above and beyond what people would expect from a typical house salad. Hence, the Johnny's Famous House Salad ($7.95/$11.95/ $15.95). Not only did this salad photograph well, it was chock full of goodness. This salad was made up of romaine lettuce, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, salami, mortadella, Kalamata olives, baby corn, and peppercini's. How's that for a house salad? This was simply dressed in an Italian dressing. The dressing added a touch of flavor, while still allowing the produce to be the star of the show. This is a must get item when coming to Johnny's.

Kind of unusual for a pizza place to serve fries, but at Johnny's they serve two kinds of fries. The New York Fries ($3.95) are your run of the mill fries, served with ketchup. The Sicilian ($4.50) are the same fries, but with garlic and Parmesan poured on top of them, and then served with their Caesar salad dressing, which resembled a garlic aioli. The fries came out crisp and hot, and were great dipped in the dressing.

Now the main star of the evening made its way out of the kitchen, the pizzas. For as many pizzas as they had coming through the door, I thought they were going to have to replace the door. We had all kinds of pizza, but the one thing they had in common was that these were some large pies. At Johnny's they have 12 inch, 16 inch, and the massive 20 inch pizzas that are pictured above. The slices were so huge they almost did not fit on the standard size paper plate. The first thing I noticed about these pizzas was the freshness of the cheeses, along with the flavorful meats used liberally to top them. The sauce took me by surprise a bit, because it was a sweeter sauce than I am used to, but I quickly learned to like it a lot. Johnny was right about the crust. It had a good chew to it, while being light enough to let the toppings be the highlight of the pizzas. My two favorite pizzas were the Andolini, which came with a lot of meat on top of it. House made meatballs, which come from an over 100 year old recipe, Genoa salami, sweet Italian sausage, and of course mozzarella and tomato sauce made this pizza a meat lovers dream. The other pizza I was excited about was nicknamed The Big Bambino, and came out with pepperoni, thick cut onion, and green peppers. I am not much for green peppers, but in this combo they really worked.

Almost overshadowing the pizza, but not quite, was this Penne Bolognese ($12.95). The Bolognese meat sauce is truly legit here. This meat sauce comes to us from Johnny's family recipe. We have even heard rumblings that they are in talks to bottle and sell this sauce in markets across the country. We will be first line when that happens for sure. The pasta was cooked fine, but to be honest this sauce could have been served over my shoes, and I still would have eaten it. If you're not in the mood for pizza, this is what you should get.

I am not sure why this appetizer came out so much later than the other ones, but these Authentic Mozzarella Sticks ($6.50) were well worth the wait. These could have been one of the best fried mozzarella sticks I have had at a pizza place. The breading was very good, you could taste some herbs in it, and the cheese on the inside was creamy smooth. The cheese paired wonderfully with the marinara sauce.

By this time of the night, I had thrown in the towel, and could not eat anymore. Of course the guys at Johnny's were not done, and brought out three of their four sandwiches. I snapped some quick pictures of the Johnny's Authentic New York Sloppy Joe ($8.95), and the Eggplant Parmesan ($8.25). Both looked really good, but I took the Meatball Parmesan ($8.95) with me to lunch the next day. The meatballs were great on this sandwich. Very flavorful, and you could tell that they took great care getting the seasoning just right in these. I would have liked a little more mozzarella cheese in this sandwich, but the sandwich was still a winner, and was the envy of everyone at my work the next day.

By the time we left, both Katie and I needed to be wheeled out of Johnny's on a dolly. We did not even get the chance to try their O's Famous Cinnamon Knots, which are served with a glaze dip. I guess this means we will have to come back soon to give those a try, along with other things we were too stuffed to eat. We really did enjoy Johnny's a lot. There is not anything really like it around OC, and after eating the food here, you can see why Johnny and his partners are so passionate about their restaurant. They really have brought the basic concept of a NYC pizzeria, and enhanced it with some good quality ingredients and extra special attention to detail. I still regret when my Dad left that first NYC pizza on the trash can in the Plaza Hotel, but it's good to know that we only have to go as far as Newport to experience good New York pizza.

Both Katie and I would like to thank everyone at Johnny's Pizza for making us feel so welcome. Johnny, Angie, Corey and Jan have assembled a great staff, who know what they are doing, and welcomed us into their restaurant like family. You all should be very proud of what you have created here. We would also like to thank public relations powerhouse, Jane Gillespie for thinking of us, and inviting us to this great event. It is always good catching up with you Jane. Lastly, I would like to thank all of my fellow bloggers and media friends that were in attendance this night. Usually blogging is a very solitary thing, so when I get the chance to interact with all of you, whose blogs I read religiously, it makes it an even better night. Looking forward to seeing you all again real soon.

For more information on Johnny's Real New York Pizza, go to their web site here: http://www.johnnysrealnypizza.com/

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