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Hollis Hills pizzeria serves upper-crust pies

Michael Durante holds a framed news photograph of his father, Sal, and the home run ball hit by Roger Maris that he caught. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

For more than a decade, a Hollis Hills pizzeria has been serving meals that are affordable and decidedly gourmet — and they come by the slice.

La Tavola Nonno’s, on the corner of Springfield Boulevard and Union Turnpike, has perfected the art of gourmet pizza, according to Michael Durante, whose father Sal first opened the restaurant 11 years ago.

And their ingredients for success are no secret: freshness and quality.

“For example, I’d rather have you wait for 10 minutes for a chicken sandwich,” Durante said. “You might get angry in the store, but then you get home and you say, ‘Wow.’”

The “wow” factor comes from the chicken, which never sits in a freezer or prepackaged bag, only in a marinade.

The chicken marsala pizza — a deep-dish crust topped with fresh mozzarella and fresh chicken and mushrooms cooked in a delicate marsala wine sauce — is like five-star dining packed into three corners.

Durante also takes great pride in the freshness of what is known as grandma’s pizza, a simple tomato, garlic, cheese, olive oil and basil pie that many establishments put forth as a badge of quality.

Because the pie is so simple, it requires balance and finesse to become exceptional, and Durante would put a slice of his grandmother’s pizza up against any other restaurant in the city, including famed Umberto’s in New Hyde Park, which notably delivered pizzas via airplane to the New York Giants before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis earlier this year.

Every pizzeria has a story behind its grandma’s pizza, and Durante is no different.

He likes to tell people that the crust is thin because his grandmother, who came to America from Italy, had to feed a lot of mouths with a limited amount of dough. There is a small amount of cheese and garlic for the same reasons.

But the fresh tomatoes, which give the pie a smell that has likely enticed many a passerby, are abundant because that is what his grandmother had in the house.

Durante’s grandmother is also what inspired him and his father to start putting dishes normally eaten with pasta onto a slice. Hungry patrons can get chicken parmesan, Mediterranean- or vodka sauce-based toppings that seem to fit so naturally on the slice that one might wonder why anyone bothered with noodles to begin with.

But that does not mean Nonno’s shies away from pasta dishes.

The eatery has a full menu every day and serves veal dishes and seafood specials according to whatever fish he finds in the market.

On Tuesday nights, he sells pies for $8.75. He knows they are a hit because city Sanitation Department workers who come in for a snack complain about all the Nonno’s pizza boxes they have to pick up Wednesday morning.

“We’re a little place with a big taste,” he said.

And every meal comes with a little bit of history.

On Oct. 1, 1961, Durante’s father Sal was at a New York Yankees game with his future wife. During the fourth inning, slugger Roger Maris stepped up to the plate and belted the ball over the fence, breaking the longtime, 60-home run record set by Babe Ruth.

As the ball descended into the crowd, Sal Durante quickly shoved the cigarette he was smoking into his mouth and jumped onto his seat. A picture of him nabbing the ball, which now sits in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was immortalized in the Daily News and started a lifelong relationship between Durante’s father and the Yankees, and the pictures are on the wall to prove it.

Maris gave the happy couple a gravy boat for their wedding present.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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