No matter where you are in Jersey, you’re never far from a pizza joint. And even in the state’s most remote locations, the quality of a pie never dips below decent (not including national/regional pizza chains, fuck that stuff). Keep in mind: “decent” by NJ standards is better than what 90% of the country considers great.
We were driving north out of southern Ocean County recently, and thinking about pizza. Unable to come up with a consensus on the best place in Monmouth or Ocean County, we decided to try something new: Brooklyn Square Pizza.
Brooklyn Square has been all anyone can talk about ever since some national rag that you’ve probably never heard of (Reader’s Digest) ranked it the Best Pizza in New Jersey. We think food rankings are dumb, and a state-by-state “best of” guide when it comes to pizza (NOT good, nationally) is even dumber; however, if some publication wants to come into Jersey and give a place we’ve never tried the title, then we needed to at least investigate.
Brooklyn Square isn’t a new or up-and-coming spot, and before this latest round of publicity started, it had actually been recommended to us by a few Ocean County friends over the years. Why didn’t we try it sooner? We love all pizza and probably eat way too much of it, but I, at least, am not overly partial to the style that Brooklyn Square is known for: a thicker, square pie that most of us would refer to as Sicilian. In all honesty, I only really get a craving for a Sicilian slice once or twice a year and that’s typically when the local Italian bakery makes Sfincione—what the American Sicilian pie originated from; a real treat when fresh.
Owner Peter Grippo, a Brooklyn transplant, has opened three Brooklyn Square locations in New Jersey: Jackson, Toms River and Manalapan. While we’ve heard plenty of folks mention the first two locations, none of our contacts could speak to the lone Monmouth County branch. So, being the contrarian that I am, I insisted that we stop in Manalapan; a chain can only be as strong as its weakest (or, at least, less heralded) link, right?
On a stretch of road that could never be confused for a main artery (at least not on a Wednesday afternoon), we pulled into a less-than-inviting strip mall (politely speaking), in the middle of the afternoon, in that lull between the lunch and dinner rushes. Thus, there was no wait to order (which would be alarming if it were a different time of day, or a place with lesser acclaim), and we were hungry.
The menu includes appetizers, salads and entrees in addition to your customary, thin-crust round and square pies, but, their specialty, and the only thing we ordered on this visit, is the square, “upside-down” pie.
Remember what I said about our aversion to Sicilian pizza? Yeah, forget all of that. While this upside-down pie may look the part of its Sicilian cousin, it shares none of the traits that typically keep us from ordering it.
Crust: Yes, it’s definitely thick, but without that loaf-of-bread density its Sicilian-style looks would lead you to expect. The crust is flavorful and obviously made from fresh dough but, frankly, we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around how they make it so soft and airy. Most importantly, and unlike a lot of Sicilian pies that tend to punish your jaw, the edges and underside of the pie are crispy but not burnt or overcooked—just the right amount of crunch.
Sauce: This pie leans heavily on the saucy side with respect to the sauce-to-cheese ratio… and we’re not complaining. All the boxes are checked, here: intense flavor, amply sweet, good tang, well-seasoned, a nice contrast with the cheese, and it holds up to the thicker crust. For weirdos who don’t like sauce and prefer the dough-dominant, sauce-light Sicilian variety, this might not be the pie for you.
Cheese: Definitely the most subtle element of this pizza but perhaps the most important. The construction of this pie (and the inspiration for the “upside-down” name) is vital to the whole experience in that it combats a fundamental flaw of Sicilian pies that try to incorporate more sauce: soggy crust. Thin, tasty layers of mozzarella tucked underneath the sauce act as a barrier, preventing the liquid from sinking into the crust and creating square-cut slop. While the mozzarella’s function may outshine its taste a bit, the almost invisible dusting of pecorino romano on top of the sauce adds a punch of salty flavor to keep everything in balance.
Bottom line: Obviously this is a much different experience than your regular, round pie; but not in a bad way, at all. Sure, it’s thicker and more filling, but putting away a couple of Brooklyn Square’s slices (and, trust us, you won’t be able to stop after just one) won’t relegate you to your couch for an hour to digest the brick in your stomach like Sicilian pizza typically does. Also, it’s worth noting that this pie is huge, and, at $25 it’s a great value—we didn’t even come close to finishing it.
Is it the best pizza in New Jersey? We won’t play that fool’s game. Is it worth a trip? Most definitely.