Upper crust

By Allan I. Ross

Izzo’s brings Big-Apple pizza to REO Town

It’s been a more than a week since the fire at Discount Dave’s Buy-Rite effectively knocked the two front teeth out of REO Town. But if Discount Dave’s was REO Town’s incisors, then Izzo’s Pub and Pizzeria is one of the canines: two doors down, and built to rip stuff up. And oh, how they’re tearing into the competition.

“Since we opened in February, we’ve been bringing a whole new entourage of people to the neighborhood,” said Geno Abbey, owner of Izzo’s Pizza, which is attached to Izzo’s Pub, owned and operated by Mary Izzo. “Politicians, business people, young families are all coming down here for lunch, after work, you name it. This area had a bad reputation, but the response my pizza has been getting and the amount of people it’s bringing in is blowing my mind.”

And theirs too, apparently. Case in point: Abbey walks by a table of newbies who are learning the art of folding their pizza (more on that shortly). When he asks how they like it, they both respond, “Amazing.” “I’d be happy with ‘good,’” he grins, walking away from the table. “But I’ll take ‘amazing.’”

Abbey grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a restaurant family; his father-in-law taught him the art of making pizza from scratch. When he moved to Lansing in 1994 to go to Cooley Law School, he thought the restaurant life was behind him.

“But then I got a job after Cooley where I was doing a lot of traveling, and by 2001 I was getting really burned out,” he said. “I wanted to get back into the business, so I came to Vic Izzo [operator of Izzo’s Pub], and he let me start bartending for him. He became like a godfather to me. And I always had a passion for pizza; I never lost that. I’d still make hand-rolled pizza every Friday at home.”

When Izzo died a few years ago, his wife, Mary, took over Izzo’s Pub, and it was to her that Abbey went when he finally had the idea to share his unique style of pizza with Lansing. “I brought her a business plan, and from there everything happened so fast,” he said. “We started chiseling the plaster off the walls [of the new space adjacent to Izzo’s Pub] on Labor Day, and the next thing you know, I’ve got the mayor behind the line, teaching him how to throw the dough in the air. It’s been a trip.”

Every single facet of pizza was engineered by Abbey to capture the essence of East Coast-style pie. The dough is made fresh several times a day and tossed in the air to become properly aerated. The sauce is composed of hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes (considered the world’s best for making sauces), which are flown in from Italy. The cheese is a special blend of upscale mozzarella designed for maximum stretch-ability and reheat-ability, and the toppings are all Old World-style: the pepperoni curls up on the outside rim when it’s cooked, creating mini-cups that capture that special oil, the Italian sausage is sliced, and all the veggies are garden-fresh — nothing canned. Even the ovens are part of the authenticity. “These are old-school brick ovens,” said Abbey, proudly. “This is how you make a crispy crust that’s also soft, chewy and foldable.”

Each slice of pizza easily dwarfs a dinner plate, but then again a dinner plate would be redundant; this thing is built to be a main course and its own edible serving dish all in one. The secret is in the crust. Abbey has cleverly duplicated the New York street vendor-style dough, which evolved to accommodate pedestrians who don’t have time to sit and eat. By folding the pizza in half at the very edge of the crust, you create what’s known as “the fold,” and it’s the dish’s distinguishing characteristic.

Creating the fold — step one: break the crust with your first finger at the halfway point between the two edges of the slice. Step two: using your thumb and middle finger, lift the two outer edges of the crust off the plate. Step three: once the edges get high enough, let your first finger take over for your third finger, and pinch the two edges together above the crease you created—you now have completed the fold. Step four: lift your folded slice in the air (the very tip will be the only part that dips down, so either support it with your other hand or take a bite really quickly before you lose any toppings). Step five: work your way down the slice, feeling free to revel in your pizza’s gravity-defying capabilities.

The Mediterranean ($20) has massive artichoke hearts, garlic, roasted red peppers, red onions, black olives and feta cheese. It may look too big to pick up, but master the fold and you’re golden. And when you order a large, you get a large — it’s a full 18 inches of pie. If that’s too much pizza, you can always go for a slice: $2 for just cheese, $2.50 for one topping, and $3 for specialty slices, like the Whiskey Garlic Chicken. Garlic knots, another East Coast staple, are also on the menu, and come with a side of that killer marinara sauce. “My favorite thing is introducing people who have only had this wimpy Midwest pizza their whole lives to the style that I grew up on,” Abbey said. “And I’m really glad I don’t have to go all the way to New York any more for good pizza.”

Izzo’s Pub and Pizzeria, 1145-1147 S. Washington Ave., Lansing. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday, Noon – 9 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday. Pub open later than pizzeria. (517) 853-8500.