In 1999, cookbook author Grace Young coined the term “breath of the wok,” a poetic translation of wok hei, in an attempt to convey the distinctive flavors characteristic of high heat Cantonese cooking. Many factors contribute to wok hei — how a chef agitates the cast iron vessel over an open flame, the way the ingredients are coated in sizzling oil — but it is, at its core, when a “wok breathes energy into a stir-fry.” The phrase is intriguing because, like umami or savoriness, it represents an attempt to describe the indescribable, to pin down an elusive flavor or mouthfeel.
I recount this tale of linguistics because wok hei, or at least an Italian-American variant of it, is precisely what came to mind as I dined at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint. At this counter service sequel to the no take-out, pie-only flagship just a few blocks away, the cheese slices ($3.50) simply taste better than elsewhere. City residents and tourists alike make pilgrimages to Di Fara, Prince Street Pizza, and L&B Spumoni Gardens for their slices; I’d argue that Paulie Gee’s stands to become as vital a destination.
There is, to be fair, nothing particularly alluring about the way Paul Giannone and head pizza chef Andrew Brown prepare the slices. There is no indirect heat or smoke from burning wood, like at the original Paulie Gee’s. There is no charcoal either, the ingredient some say gives the clam pies that extra something at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven. The pies are baked in a gas oven, just like at any other slice joint. But when you lower your face over the slice, a religious gesture over an oil-sodden paper plate, the perfume that ensues is otherworldly.
The floor of the oven warms up a bit of fine semolina flour used during the stretching process, imparting the pizza with a scent that’s unmistakeable yet difficult to categorize. It’s a curious blend of smokiness and toastiness, rounded out by a whiff of sweetness. The fragrance exhibits a level of complexity I’ve not encountered even in the city’s most classical Neapolitan pies; one wishes a high-end single malt scotch tasted like this. If breath of wok isn’t quite the right phrase here, let’s try calling it breath of pizza oven. I’ve encountered this sensation at notable (and ramshackle) slice joints throughout my life, but it’s something I’ve only encountered with any consistency here in Greenpoint.
In fact, its quality might even surpass the original Paulie Gee’s — now a growing chain of neo-Neapolitan spots with locations in Chicago, Miami and Cleveland; a recent visit to the flagship yielded a pie with an unpleasantly carbonized char.
The environs at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, in turn, are as masterful a nostalgia play as Carbone in Greenwich Village. But while that Michelin-starred venue tips its hat to post-war red sauce spots, Slice Shop channels the 60s, 70s, and 80s with bright orange booths, letter board menus, baseball pennant flags, and an old-time TV hooked up to a working Atari game console. Should Stranger Things 3 ever see the light of day, they would be remiss not to film an episode here.
Patrons arrive in tank tops, baseball hats, full cycling regalia, and in one case, a lime green dress matched to a lime green iPhone case. You order at the counter, pay with one of those Square devices that Robert Sietsema hates, and carry your slices away on a plastic tray — ideally to the bar for pints of ice cold Allagash and Yankees baseball on the flat screens.
An affordable pizza slice renaissance is flourishing in New York at the moment, with chefs at Sullivan Street, PQR, Corner Slice and elsewhere using high end toppings and studied bread making to elevate the form. What sets Paulie Gee’s apart is the fact that its paying homage to a more plebeian foodstuff, the classic New York slice, a blend of olive oil, tomato sauce, and mozzarella that exhibits a distinctly orange glow. That hue is particularly handsome with the Hellboy ($4.25), a riff on the classic Paulie Gee pie (and not dissimilar from the Roberta’s Bee’s Sting). Counter workers top the slice with quarter-sized coins of pepperoni, let them curl under the heat, then slather everything with Mike’s Hot Honey. The chile-laced mead softens the blow of the saline sausage, while a gentle heat reverberates on the tongue.
The Hellboy is about as edgy as things get here; Slice Shop, for now, leans a bit more conservative than Paulie Gee’s proper (i.e. nothing is drizzled in maple syrup). There are tweaks, though. The classic white pie ($4), a blend of mozzarella and pecorino, is slicked with enough garlic oil to qualify it as scampi. And a vegan pepperoni slice ($4.50), a touch dry, deploys pickled jalapenos to counter the blandness of the meatless sausage.
But again, the classic slice is the true stunner here. Caress the underside with your fingertips. Feel the gentle scarring from the oven. On a good day, it almost takes on the lightness and weight of the Roman-style pies at Marta. Now take a bite, though keep in mind that the New York slice isn’t a study in the creaminess of fresh mozzarella or the floral aromas of pedigreed tomatoes. It is about a union of these three ingredients, a blend of fruity tang, stretchy-salty cheese, and a crust that veers from toothsome near the tip to softer near the outer lip. A Sharpie-written sign informs customers that square slices are on their way, but for now, Slice Shop is pretty close to perfect.