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East By Northeast 

AUGIE'S TOWER OF PIZZA brings a slice of New York City to eastern New Orleans. Who knew?

My friend Billy has one regret about moving from his hometown, New York City, to New Orleans last summer: the pizza. On several occasions he has voiced disappointment in certain pizza endorsements I've made in this space. "I am not one of your sycophants," are his exact words. While Billy and I don't share an identical pizza ideal -- mine is rooted in a Wisconsin greasy spoon called Pizza Villa, his in the country's thin-crust capital -- I agree that there's an egregious number of sub-par pizza joints in my New Orleans neighborhood alone. Which is why I shared his enthusiasm the day Billy told me about stepping into Augie's Tower of Pizza to inquire about the menu and meeting what he described as "a surly Italian woman." At the risk of stereotyping, she seemed to bode well for the pizza.

Augie's is located on a stretch of Downman Road in eastern New Orleans that holds little other culinary promise besides the Bunny Bread factory. In a lot beside the white-painted brick building, which is lit by pink and green neon tubes spelling "spaghetti" and "pizza," you park alongside convertible Mustangs with their tops left down and emerald-green Lincoln Town Cars with white leather seats. Beside a pizza oven visible through a front window, there's always someone surrounded by empty pizza boxes and bins of cheese; usually, it's a young man propelling pizza dough high into the air with the kind of bulging, tattooed biceps you'd expect to see at Grimaldi's Pizzeria in Brooklyn.

Inside Augie's, a non-surly woman sits at a table that's part office, part living room: an organized clutter of cigarettes, telephone, calculator, desk lamp, laminated menu, basket of mints and a television remote control that sometimes requires a whack before it will switch channels. Wine bottles, mostly the straw basket Chianti variety, line the bar. Solid green-red-and-white checkered cloths decorate the tables. The smells of browning dough, cooked garlic and hot cheese hang in the air, full of promise.

When four of us ordered two large pizzas, a non-surly but practical waitress moved our party to the largest available table, in order to make room for the tire-size pies. She carried them to us still bubbling, and Billy gazed lustfully at the browned cheese, the well-done crust and the shimmering pools of grease at the center of each pepperoni. He appeared cautious yet encouraged, how any New Yorker would look as he anticipated tasting New York-style pizza in eastern New Orleans. As Billy hoisted the first slice with the help of metal tongs, the tip drooped and the middle sagged exactly as he had hoped it would. Though he gave it readily, I didn't wait for my friend's approval to decide that the sweetish tomato sauce and the mozzarella had been applied with the restraint of an expert; that warm herbs like thyme and oregano had been sprinkled on with a caring hand; and that the charred but pliable crust, textured with the pizza maker's fingertip indentations, was the thinnest I had eaten in New Orleans thus far.

The crust became chewier as it cooled, and it didn't bend at all by the meal's end, but that didn't stop us from finishing both pizzas in the time it took to drink just one pitcher of Budweiser. We weren't in Brooklyn yet, but we could hear the distant rumblings of the A-train.

Augie's Tower of Pizza was called just Tower of Pizza until Augustino Muolo closed his 24-hour restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, Augie's Spaghetti House, and moved to eastern New Orleans in 1986. He bought his Tower from the Forschler Family, who still runs the Tower of Pizza on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie. The Metairie location is closer to an all-American pizza joint in its wood-paneled walls, its jukebox, its parking lot packed with pick-up trucks and its large percentage of clientele in athletic gear. There's a young man spinning rounds of pizza dough like a Harlem Globetrotter twirls a basketball, but the crusts are decidedly thicker and more rigid than the ones at Augie's.

Whereas the Metairie location serves only pizza, salads and spaghetti, Augie Muolo, born in New Jersey but raised in Italy, digs into his culinary ancestry to create numerous appetizers (like the superb fried eggplant sticks), pastas and steaks. Meatballs are as tender as a medium-rare filet. The dark marinara satisfies a basic craving for red sauce. And spaghetti with clams in a garlicky white wine sauce is executed with cookbook precision. The Hot & Spicy pizza (ground beef, green peppers, green onions and jalapenos) is a thrilling way to test your tolerance to jalapeno heat, but the specialty pizzas get bogged down with ingredients and cheese; even their crusts seem bulkier and less flexible.

For the ultimate Augie's experience, in my opinion, stick with an honest pepperoni pie and show up after 9 p.m., when the place only begins to fill up. Those people over in eastern New Orleans think they live in New York or something.

click to enlarge Tossin' and turnin': Mike Hendrick keeps the pizzas and heads spinning at AUGIE'S TOWER OF PIZZA. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Tossin' and turnin': Mike Hendrick keeps the pizzas and heads spinning at AUGIE'S TOWER OF PIZZA.
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