There’s Budweiser, there’s Yuengling, and then there’s Dogfish Head. There’s Taco Bell, there’s Panera Bread, and then there’s Chez Albert. There’s Toyota, there’s Lexus, and then there’s Bentley. The higher the price point—so they say—the better the product. And better products, of course, are built from higher quality materials. And higher quality materials are generally more expensive. And more expensive things, of course, are in scarcer demand. The ghost of Econ 101 continues to haunt me.
Trim and tidy as it might appear, this sort of economic logic turns out to be an oversimplification. Costlier high-quality ingredients do not always constitute superior products: Fiji-brand bottled water, for example, is an utter disgrace, a sinister marketing dupe at best. Furthermore, costlier high-quality ingredients are not always worth their cost: I’d never buy a $400 bottle of wine that tastes only slightly better than a $40 bottle of wine. Diminishing returns are steep.
But Fiji water continues to sell with alarming popularity, and the expansive palate of a $400 Cabernet justifies its cost to the discerning connoisseur with thoughtless ease. The great and terrible thing about capitalism is that we all get to decide for ourselves how to valuate products—whether or not they’re worth our investment. The tremendous diversity of consumer preferences is a truly awesome thing, as in it literally fills me with awe, that particular mix of admiration and fear and confusion.
For each of us, there’s an overpriced product that justifies its unseemly cost, whose diminishing returns are not so diminishing after all. For my mother, it’s dog toys (I’ll nip this rant in the bud before it spins cacophonously out of control). For me, it’s pizza. There’s Domino’s, there’s Antonio’s, and then there’s what I’m looking for. Give me unpronounceable cheeses, hand-milled flours, tomatoes near and far. Thin crust, thick crust—who cares? If it’s fancy, I’m all-in.
There’s no shortage of overpriced artisan pizza in the Valley, but you won’t find it at your local pizzeria. The best of the best will come from the real sourdough specialists: bakeries. I recently took a close look at two such locales: Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, and Bread Euphoria Cafe & Bakery just past the Northampton/Williamsburg border in Williamsburg. At each of these worthy pastry heavens, you’ll find some of the tastiest and priciest pies in the area.
Hungry Ghost, which is cash or check only, serves takeout-only pizza on Wednesdays and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Thursdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Bread Euphoria, all major cards accepted, fires up the oven beginning at 11 a.m. daily, dine-in or takeout. This week, for the sake of unnecessary rivalry, I designed and orchestrated the Pizzalympics. Hungry Ghost and Bread Euphoria went head-to-head in an unwarranted battle of the margheritas (fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil).
I ordered two of their simplest ’zzas, and set them against each other in five distinct categories: 1) Experience. How enjoyable was the customer service experience? 2) Aesthetic. How appealing was the pizza’s presentation? 3) Crust. How delicious was the crust? 4) Tomato Presence. How well have tomatoes been figured into the equation? 5) Toppings. Did the toppings help the flavor profile cohere?
Only one bakery will be elected the 2014 Crust Champion.
Hungry Ghost: An altogether unpleasant experience. A cramped interior, relatively unpleasant counter attendants, not-so-helpful pizza recommendations. This place is obviously not designed for a pleasant eat-in experience.
Bread Euphoria: Top-notch marks. A beautiful Williamsburg setting, a charming building, extensive parking options, friendly and helpful counter attendants, prompt service. Had I not already planned on takeout, I would’ve loved to hang out here for a while.
HG: A bit sloppy. Oblong pizza shape, splattered-on mozzarella, carelessly sprinkled basil, overflowing tomato sauce. An overall messy-seeming pie.
BE: A photogenic pizza, to be sure. Perfectly circular shape. Properly and evenly distributed ingredients. Carefully sprinkled basil. It’s obvious that some TLC went into this pie’s creation.
HG: Wow! This is a second-to-none crust. Perfectly cooked—crispy, chewy, flavorful. After taking a bite, I feel foolish for having seriously considered the aesthetic.
BE: Good, but not very good. A blander taste than HG’s crust, but delicious in its own right. Solid consistency, solid crispy-chewy balance. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
4) Tomato Presence
HG: This pizza has a marinara base. The sauce is delicious—well seasoned, flavorful, fresh. Not an altogether creative employment of tomato, but a delicious employment nonetheless.
BE: This pizza has no marinara base, but is covered with what must be farm-fresh cherry tomatoes. These tomatoes are damn good. A bit more creative, perhaps, than the standard marinara base, but I miss the omnipresence of sauce.
HG: Delicious cheese. Delicious basil. Delicious olive oil. No complaints.
BE: Delicious cheese. Delicious basil. Delicious olive oil. No complaints. We’ve got ourselves a tie in this category.
After some serious soul-searching deliberation, I came to my conclusion. Hungry Ghost wins the Pizzalympics, and will henceforth be known as the 2014 Crust Champion. But this award is not offered without a series of cautionary caveats.
For me, in all my self-determined snobbishness, eating pizza is much more about the pizza than it is the experience of eating pizza. I reserve my experiential judgments for food that I like less. If you’re similar to me, and you’re looking for the highest quality pizza available, you’ve got to go with the Hungry Ghost. The crust, the sauce, the coherence: it’s all just fantastic.
Sadly, the Hungry Ghost experience is not at all what you’d hope for, to put it lightly. I often hesitate before I enter the front door, milling about awkwardly outside, anticipating and fearing the grimace and cold shoulder that I know await me. Something about that place gives me the creeps. Maybe it’s the on-premises ghost?
My suspicion is that most folks are substantially more interested in the experience of eating pizza than they are the extravagant particulars of taste and mouthfeel. If you desire a relaxing family afternoon at an idyllic cafe setting, along with first-rate oven-fresh pizza, Bread Euphoria will not lead you astray, I promise.
In many ways, Bread Euphoria deserves the 2014 Crust Champion title, but I’ve got to stick to my guns here. That’s capitalism for you. As a consolation prize, I’ll award Bread Euphoria the Miss Congeniality Award of this year’s Pizzalympics. It’s too bad Sandra Bullock can’t be here to pass on the proverbial torch. Congratulations to all competitors. ’Til next year!•