Three Great Cheap is a weekly series from critic Robert Sietsema that seeks to find and popularize New York City’s most interesting and inexpensive food in the five boroughs and beyond. Find the back catalog here. Also consult the bigger cheap eats guide, with maps, walking tours, and other resources.
It was inevitable in Sunset Park — which boasts a plethora of pizza parlors along Fifth Avenue — that the old guard Italian and Albanian pizzaioli would abandon their peels (wooden pizza paddles) as the establishments were taken over by newcomers, principally from Mexico, Ecuador, and Dominican Republic. Evidence of this trend began over a decade ago, when tacos and quesadillas started popping up on pizza parlor menus, the tortillas often warmed in the pizza ovens.
There’s a place on Fourth Avenue that makes Mexican pizzas like the ranchera, which comes topped with grilled steak and avocado. But the creations of Gina’s, an establishment founded in 1968 during the golden age of neighborhood pizzerias, are even more fantastical. There’s a cheeseburger “gibarito” (a misspelling of jibarito, which means “little hillbilly”), using flattened and fried plantains instead of buns, said to have been invented in Chicago by a Puerto Rican restaurateur. More elongated plantain buns are used in the “crazy plantain” sandwich, which piles a pair of thin chicken milanesa cutlets along with Swiss cheese and mayo into the crisp plantain bun. The sandwich is fantastic, and cheap at $8. The pizza? That’s good too, with a pale and crunchy crust, and a surfeit of molten cheese. 3905 Fifth Ave., between 39th and 40th streets, Sunset Park
We’ve all had the experience of reaching into the refrigerator case for sushi and discovering that the seaweed wrapper on the rolls has gotten all limp and mushy. This problem is remedied at Maki Maki — a few blocks south of Central Park — by an assembly line, whereby a red-capped cohort puts your maki together and hands you the finished product. Sixteen different rolls are available (no nigiri sushi or sashimi), as either cut-up rolls or the cheaper hand rolls, which run as little as $4 apiece. The fish has been unfailingly fresh on my visits, and the nori snaps when you bite into it — as long as you eat the maki immediately. Luckily, a stand-up counter is provided for that very purpose. 1369 Sixth Ave., between 55th and 56th streets, Midtown
Pranzo Pizza & Pasta
Dating to 1994, Pranzo is the kind of cheap, red-sauced Italian refectory that used to fill the city. It sells pizza and steam table dishes that allow you to eat well for $10 or less, and it provides a comfortable dining room decorated with mirrors and posters of its culinary offerings. Served with spaghetti and a free garlic knot, the breaded and fried chicken cutlets stacked up and smothered in cheese are formidably good, the marinara as deeply red and pungent as you might have hoped. Stuffed shells and baked ziti are other steam table highlights, along with Thursdays-only rigatoni with sausage and mushrooms. A couple of slices of Pranzo supreme pizza (sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, and onions) will do just as well for lunch or dinner. Closed Sunday. 34 Water St., between Broad Street and Coenties Slip, FiDi