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1. Mombo's, 1880 B Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.

(528-3278). ****

2. I Love NY Pie, 65 Brookwood Ave. at Fourth Street, Santa Rosa

(526-9743). ***

3. The New Yorker, 3 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma (762-7595). *??

Star rating system:

**** -- Extraordinary

*** -- Very good

** -- Good

* --Not very good

0 -- terrible

Have you ever had real New York pizza?

When you order a slice, it's a big floppy one. It's one of eight slices cut from an 18-inch pie. The crust must be thin, but flexible, so you can hold it by the rim and fold it between the thumb and four fingers (otherwise the tip will flop down and the hot cheese and toppings will slide off). Held properly, the tip of the wedge protrudes straight out, presenting you with the choice first bite of hot pizza goodness.

To get the proper thickness and large size of a typical New York pizza, the dough should be hand-thrown and twirled. There are pie-makers who are good at this, but then there are masters of the art, twirling the dough up and down as well as spinning it on their fists like the plate-twirlers on the old "Ed Sullivan Show." When the dough is just right, it's laid on a pizza pan and a large spoonful of tomato-based pizza sauce -- not too much -- is swirled on.

While true New York pizza can be topped with a variety of edibles, pepperoni is the default topping. Pepperoni, when subjected to the heat of a pizza oven, yields an orange oil that runs over an abundance of melted mozzarella. The hot oil, cheese and spicy sausage irritate the alveolar ridge -- the ridge of flesh right behind the front teeth -- so it swells slightly. This is the so-called "pizza hump."

Now, there are several pizza parlors in Sonoma County that purport to serve New York pizza. As a child of the Big Apple, I grew up eating pizza in New York City. So please accompany me on a tour of these shops to find out if any, or all, might be serving the real deal, which we'll call "New York-style" pizza, since actual NYP is only available in NYC.

The minute I walked into Mombo's at 1880 B Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa (528-3278), I could almost smell New Jersey. There's another Mombo's at 560 Gravenstein Highway N. in Sebastopol (823-7492). First of all, there's the Mombo guy icon -- who looks like a real New Yorker: porkpie hat, ethnicity somewhere between Italian and Puerto Rican. But where's the toothpick in his mouth? Then there's that police mugshot of Frank Sinatra, looking very punk like -- hey, he could have posed for the Mombo guy. In a fine redundancy, since there are real pizzas on display behind the counter, the walls are hung with pictures of pizzas. And the atmosphere is well-worn shabby shop chic. Very New York.

The people working there don't have New York accents, but we'll not fault them for that. If you want to hear a New York accent, repeat after me: "I tol' huh tuh fuggedaboudit." But it all comes down to the pie, and this pie does not disappoint.

The crust is exactly right, a harmonious balance of crunchiness and chewiness, perfectly thin yet supple, able to carry its toppings well so it can be folded in the true New York one-hand fold. The cheese is smooth, not chewy or stringy and beautifully bubbled brown. The slice goes down ever so easily, accompanied by classic rock 'n' roll. (But shouldn't they always be playing The Ramones?) This is real New York pizza. ****.

I Love NY Pie, 65 Brookwood Ave. at Fourth Street in Santa Rosa (526-9743), comes pretty close. The shop even sports some New York attitude with its sign offering these menu choices: "1) take it; 2) leave it." There's a large Yankees logo (go Bombers!), a copy of the famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover showing the typical Gothamite's chauvinistic view looking west from midtown Manhattan, a picture of Kong atop the Empire State Building, and a neon Brooklyn Bridge.

You can build your own pizza, but the standard issue 18-inch pepperoni costs $19.95. The crust is correctly thin, although more chewy than crunchy (the best crusts combine chewiness with crunchiness). There's just a thin smudge of pizza sauce across the surface of the pie. The mozzarella is the stringy (read inexpensive) type, but nicely bubbled brown in the hot oven, and the pie is loaded with pepperoni. And yes, the pep -- as New Yorkers say, "gimme a slice a pep" -- has yielded its spicy orange oil to lubricate the mouth as the bite makes its way down the hatch. The spiciness builds as you eat, nicely inflaming the mouth. Really, all you need to think you're in Manhattan is a siren wailing down a street somewhere nearby and a crowd of strangers jostling you. ***


There's a sign in The New Yorker pizza parlor and restaurant at 3 Petaluma Blvd. N. in Petaluma (762-7595) that says, "Slices Friday and Saturday to 2:30 a.m." Well, that's New York for you -- the city that never sleeps. Except the d??cor is all about Italy, with pictures of the Mona Lisa and Luciano Pavarotti and maps of Italy hung here and there. The walls are plastered all over with pictures and postcards from seemingly everywhere in the world. There are Italian accents to be heard from the employees. If this is New York, then it's a piece of Little Italy in lower Manhattan, a place familiar to all from first "The Godfather" movie.

The pizzas come in four sizes: 10-inch minis, 12-inch regular, 14-inch large and 16-inch extra large, but not in the 18-inch jumbo size preferred in the Big Apple. That's strike one. The crust makes it strike two because instead of the balanced combination of chew and crunch, it's just doughy and dense. And the mozzarella cheese is stringy and rubbery, indicating a lesser grade of cheese. Strike three -- "yer out!" There's lots of pepperoni, though, and it's not cut translucently thin for once. *??.

Incidentally, America's first pizzeria was opened in New York's Little Italy in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi. It's still there, at 32 Spring St., between Mott and Mulberry, and still serves killer pizza. Go next time you're in town.

Just to check, I went to some of the more upscale pizza places to see if they had anything resembling New York pie.

Jackson's Bar and Oven, Josh Silvers' new (wildly successful so far) venture at 135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa; 545-6900, has a $15 pie called The Dad that features house-made sausage, roasted fennel, fontina and mozzarella cheeses, and sourdough starter along with yeast in the dough. It's absolutely delicious, but a New Yorker would try to use it as a Frisbee before he'd eat roasted fennel on his pizza.

PizzaVino707 at 6948 Sebastopol Ave. in Sebastopol; 829-9500, has a simple pie for $14 with Hobbs pepperoni (extra points for that) and fresh basil and oregano. The heat from the pie lifts the aroma of fresh herbs to the nose. To a blue-collar New Yorker, oregano comes in a jar. Who knew it grew fresh? The pie is super good, but it's not New York pizza.

Finally, Diavola at 21021 Geyserville Ave. in Geyserville; 814-0111, makes a truly authentic Italian pizza for $15.75. The crust is perfect and smells of yeast. The sausage is home-made and joins the pecorino sheep's milk cheese and chopped red onions. It's what it was in Italy. Then the Italians came to New York and forgot the nuances. They couldn't get the good native Italian ingredients like the mozzarella di bufala or the salsiccia di Napoli.

So the pizza changed, and here in America they created New York pie -- different, but great in its own unique way.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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