Last Thursday, I thought I was going to be roamin’ to Hixson, but instead I found myself in New York. Oh, wait. Yeah, it was Hixson. My bad. Although New York City and Hixson don’t have much in common, at all, New York natives Kurt and Erik Cilen decided to bring a slice of the Big Apple to the Chattanooga area-in the form of big New York pizza slices-by opening up the New York Pizza Department back in March.
5731 Highway 153
Hixson, TN 37343
10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
I’ve been to New York City several times, and in every trip to New York, great pizza has always been a big part of the experience, so I was hoping to find that flavor in Chattanooga.
Atmosphere and service
Although looking out the window and seeing a Walmart rather than skyscrapers may take you out of the zone, the interior brings you right back in. The walls are adorned with New York scenes and its iconic buildings, and a large front ordering area with an array of large pizza slices and other New York/Italian baked foods displayed behind the glass help create a New York pizza bubble.
As the NYPD name suggests, there is also a strong reverence for the New York police officers and firefighters, in tribute to 9/11. I actually saw two off-duty Chattanooga police officers walking around inside and, at first glance, wasn’t sure if they were working there until they sat down to eat. They were in casual police attire that was similar, albeit less cheesy, than the employees’ uniforms. NYPD gives a discount to active military, police, firefighters and emergency responders, which is a nice gesture. The Cilen family has many members of emergency personnel, and Erik Cilen has a background as a firefighter.
They had a steady influx of people coming through on this Thursday evening, with the small dining area staying relatively full and many people coming in to grab to-go orders. As my party and I snagged menus and a seat to plan what to order, one of the owners came around, passing out 10 percent discount cards and greeting all the tables. I was glad I had waited to order because I was able to grab an extra dish on my budget with this card. Score.
Both the owner and the girl taking my order at the counter were extremely friendly and seemed to be having fun joking around with us. This lively, fun vibe seemed to be a nature of the place, which was also evident in the menu descriptions.
The menu is filled with puns using New York crime-style wordplay. And although I could make my own shameless pun about the cheesy menu names, saucy atmosphere and how they seemed to be making a lot of dough with this large crowd, I wouldn’t write something like that, of course.
If there is one type of food that I am more familiar with than any other, it’s pizza. I worked for several pizza places during high school and early college-back in the day, I could not only toss a pizza dough with some skill, but also spin it on my finger in the process without tearing it. In addition to many slices in New York and Chicago, I’ve also had pizza in Naples, Italy, where it is said pizza was originally invented. Pizza and I go way back.
Before getting to the pizza, I ordered a couple of other items off the menu as well, and they all came out in about 20 minutes, which is an acceptable waiting time with how busy it was and how long it takes for a pizza to be made and baked.
The $3.75 “mia ham” pinwheel was my extra score with the discount card I acquired before ordering. At first, I was thinking the pinwheel was going to be one of those little wrap finger foods you see at many social events. I was wrong. This was a massive spiral of dough packed with ham and fresh mozzarella, garlic butter, basil, oregano and grated Parmesan cheese.
I also tried the $5.25 “bada bings.” These were huge Italian meatballs, which were well-seasoned and juicy on their own, while the marinara sauce with large tomato chunks, fresh basil, and melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses added a bold flavor to the meat mixture. It had a powerful smell backed by powerful flavors. This dish had some balls.
Now to the pizza: Although they had premade slices available, to really put this place to the test I wanted a pie straight out of the oven. Although it is possible to reheat newly made pizza and make it close to the same, you can’t beat a fresh pie.
This $23.95 pie was a massive 24 inches in diameter. The crust was thin but firm, baked to a golden hue and flexibly foldable, like a true New York slice should be. The sauce was lightly sweet and nicely seasoned with a slight tomato tang.
On one side of the pie I had the “convict concoction,” which had mild Italian sausage, pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions and mozzarella. It was loaded with a hefty amount of toppings, although not so overloaded that the dough couldn’t properly bake. The meats were all high-quality, and I especially enjoyed the savory flavor of the Italian sausage. The fresh mushrooms and onions perfectly complemented the meats. They aren’t afraid to go BIG in New York, and this slice was no exception.
The other side was the “fresh offense,” which hearkens back to Naples’ traditional pizza Margherita, although done in a New York style-a completely different kind of dough, with pizza sauce rather than crushed tomatoes. Although not a traditional Neapolitan pizza, many elements were there, such as fresh basil, tomatoes, olive oil and sliced mozzarella.
Fresh mozzarella is traditionally made with water buffalo milk, although it is also made with cow’s milk. Real mozzarella is a semisoft cheese sliced from a brine-preserved ball (if not used right after making it) and not the hard, shredded kind most people associate with mozzarella, particularly on pizza. On the pizza Margherita, the cheese would be purely slices of this soft cheese, but this pizza combined the shredded mozzarella with the soft slices.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, NYPD isn’t trying to make you feel like you’re in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius, they’re trying to make you feel like you’re in the shadows of the Empire State Building. And they succeeded in that. There were plenty of mozzarella slices, with the shredded cheese just filling in the gaps. Folding this slice and biting into the light, nongreasy crust and strong flavors was a piece of pizza paradise.
The $5.95 cannoli I had for dessert whisked me back to Italy to the charming cliff-top town of Taormina, where, it is said, this tube pastry was invented. This crunchy shell was sprinkled with powdered sugar and chocolate chips and filled with sweetened mascarpone. The shell was cracked in several places, but it wasn’t bad overall. It looked worse than it tasted and was sweetly satisfying.
I am giving NYPD 3 stars for taking me back to fine city of New York with quality ingredients and strong flavors. The Cilen brothers are doing it right, and any New York expatriate will find a slice of home here. If you think you are going to find a more authentic-tasting slice of New York-style pizza in Chattanooga, you can just “fogettaboutit”-sorry, couldn’t resist.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.