Paul Liscio, chef and co-owner of La Casa Bianca in Whitehouse Station, grew up on Wooster Street in New Haven, in an apartment above his parents’ Italian deli. The apartment was across the street from and midway between Sally’s and Pepe’s, the two shrines of New Haven’s justly famous pizza culture. People stand in line for hours waiting to get in, sustained by aromas wafting to the sidewalk. Liscio can go them one better.
“I could see and smell both Sally’s and Pepe’s from my bedroom window,” he says. “I was in my crib smelling those pies.”
After he earned his CIA degree, Liscio interned at a restaurant directly across the street from Sally’s. “Every afternoon I would have a pie and some homemade wine” with owner Sal Consiglio while the
kitchen staff, who were all Italian, took their siesta.
Liscio later trained in Rome and Palermo before opening La Casa Bianca (lacasabianca.net), a fine dining restaurant in Whitehouse, twelve years ago. In 2002, his partner, Joe Speranca, whose masonry company is doing the brick-and-block work on the new Giants Stadium, brought in third-generation Italian artisans and special stone from Tuscany to build a wood-fired oven. Though the oven is cleaned regularly, it has not been allowed to totally cool down in six years. When Liscio began making pizza—small individual pies at first—“my influence,” he says, “was Sally’s and Pepe’s.”
As a trained chef, Liscio says he can easily duplicate almost anything he sees and tastes, but getting his pizza dough right proved a much greater challenge. “I found out through trial and error that you need a blend of flours,” he says. “It took me 50 times to get this dough the way I wanted it.”
He got more than the dough right. All the ingredients he uses are fresh and of high quality. He makes his own mozzarella, imports extra virgin olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, and Reggiano Parmesan. “If you make pizza right,” he says, “it’s good for you.”
Liscio thinks of the crispy baked dough “as a plate.” The toppings are sautéed in olive oil and a little garlic before the pizza goes in the oven, so everything is cooked to the proper degree. The pizza on our cover, for example, starts with chicken marinated in brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, roasted garlic, and fresh rosemary. Before it goes in the oven, the pizza is dressed with slices of the grilled, marinated chicken, a light pesto (minus pinenuts) and a sprinkling of genuine Reggiano Parmesan, which Liscio calls “the blessing.”
In sum, “It’s like dinner in a pan. It takes a little longer than usual to get a pizza here, but people know, and they appreciate the pies, so they call earlier. It’s about the love. When I was a kid I knew I was going to have meatballs at night because when I got up for school my mother was already frying up the meatballs before she put them in the sauce. It’s the love. People ask me, ‘Can you make it like my mother did?’ I say, ‘Absolutely not. Your mother loves you a lot more than I do.’”
Although his mother and Italian aunts, who learned cooking in the Old Country, might be scandalized, Liscio will introduce some innovations this spring. A chocolate chip pizza for kids, which gets a scoop of ice cream when it emerges from the oven. For grownups, a mascarpone dessert pizza, which will get whipped cream and fresh berries after baking. “There are a lot of young families in Hunterdon County, and they appreciate the fine dining we offer,” he says, “but they like to bring the kids.”
Kinchley’s Tavern in Ramsey has had only three owners since it opened in about 1937, including Mr. Kinchley. The Margolis family, who took over in 1986, have staunchly resisted change, bless their hearts. They continue to make great, almost-paper-thin pizza. The closest they come to innovation is that, instead of thin-slicing big meatballs as most places do, they cut small meatballs in half and toss them on.
Tacconelli’s serves thin-crust, wood-fired pies in the shadow of the Moorestown Mall. It’s even better than the original in Philly, where you need to call ahead and reserve your dough.