Sampling the Slices of Sunnyside
ABOVE: Philomena’s Pizza Margherita and Pepperoni personal pies.
BY ROBERT ITELISANO
The idea for the crawl started a few months ago at the Queens Chamber of Commerce networking event at Shi, the Asian fusion restaurant in Long Island City.
I ran into my friend John Renda, and I casually mentioned that I had accepted Tom Grech’s offer to write a monthly column dedicated to Queens pizza for This Is Queensborough.
Renda, who is a financial planner for Edward Jones in the Fresh Meadows office, had a big smile on his face. Who knew that his passion for pizza matches mine?
He suggested Sunnyside Pizza (ranked #13 in Queens by Four Square), and since there are two other very good pizzerias within a four-block radius – Philomena and Sotto Le Stelle – the crawl was hatched.
In general, pizza is a personal preference, sweet vs. savory and thin vs. thick dough and crust. We decided to focus on the Margherita pizza, so we could compare the three pizzerias.
We started our journey at Sunnyside Pizza, which is known for their sesame seed crust. About 150 feet from the 40th street 7-train stop, Sunnyside Pizza had been closed for two weeks because of a gas leak. A tiny storefront you could walk past and miss, they do almost strictly takeout as there are only five seats in the cramped space.
Sunnyside Pizza features an upside-down Margherita style with the tomatoes above the cheese. The sesame seed crust was crispy and crunchy, and there were thinly sliced tomatoes combined with sauce on top.
Sunnyside Pizza is owned by second-generation Italian Americans who have experienced pizza in Naples, Rome, and Florence. As per their website, “food has the power to connect people, unite cultures, and enrich our daily lives.”
Next, we walked to nearby Philomena’s Pizza. Unlike many pizzerias, owner Dave Acocella creates the pies himself. David, who is 75 percent Neapolitan and 25 percent Sicilian, first learned how to make square slices as a child with his mother.
He has an impressive pizza background. For years, he was a chef at Da Silvano in Manhattan. When Da Silvano decided to install a pizza oven, Dave honed his skills making $100 truffle burrata pies for the rich and famous.
His Da Silvano experience was followed by apprenticeships at New York pizza guru Paulie Gees and Neapolitan master Gino Sorbillo. His dream of owning his own pizzeria in his hometown of Sunnyside came to fruition in 2018.
A workaholic, he wanted to be close to his family “and the dough.” Philomena’s, named after one of his twin daughters, features personal pies with a very thin crunchy crust and the right ratio of sauce and cheese.
Within minutes of speaking with Dave, this passionate pizzaiolo made us feel like family. We arrived at their 4 p.m. opening time and Dave opened the door for us as we walked in.
One of his secrets is to let the dough ferment for “three days but no more than five.” He also adds a little baker’s yeast to the dough.
We really enjoyed the Philomena’s Margherita pie. There is a small phrase under the sign that reads “Made with Love,” which was clear after our Philomena experience.
Our final stop was Sotto Le Stelle (Italian for “under the stars”). Sotto is a result of a partnership among Valerio, a restauranteur from Milan, Gina, a restauranteur from Cisternino, a small village in Puglia, Italy, and Manuel De Gregorio from Naples.
In 2017, the owners of Sunnyside-based Italian restaurant Sole Luna decided to open a high-end pizzeria a few blocks away. Sotto Le Stelle features wood-fired personal pies and panini made by owner Manuel De Gregorio in an oven imported from Italy. Their dough rises for 48 hours, which creates a thin and light crust.
Sotto Le Stelle has a full bar and 30 indoor seats. They were packed at 6:15 p.m. on the Monday night we were there. We had their Margherita and Soppresatta pies, which were both very good.
Queens is full of quality authentic Italian pizzerias, many of which opened recently. Stay tuned next month as I review another “Slice of Queens.” Email me at [email protected] to share your favorite Queens pizzeria and slice.