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Sicillian pizza: square, thick crust, cheese under the sause.
Sicillian pizza: square, thick crust, cheese under the sause. (George Oxford Miller for The Boston Globe)
 If you go: Brooklyn pizza tour

Can there be any topping this tour?

It makes stops for Brooklyn's best-loved pies

Email|Print| Text size + By George Oxford Miller
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2005

NEW YORK -- Our tour bus slowly cruises down 86th Street while the opening credits for the 1977 movie ''Saturday Night Fever" roll on the video monitor. The crowded sidewalks and storefronts outside seem to merge with the scene on the monitor as a very young John Travolta walks down the same busy street.

Travolta stops at Lenny's Pizza for two slices just as we drive past the pizzeria. We could be in a time warp -- or on a movie set. Then Travolta turns into Shirt World and reality returns. The corner storefront is now a McDonald's.

Clips of movies filmed in the borough are among the condiments on our Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour.

''We're going to sample pizza and see Brooklyn from one side to another," Tony Muia promises when we board the bus at Union Square in Manhattan. Our group of 10 hails from New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, Boston, and the Bronx.

We cross over the Manhattan Bridge with views down the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge. Muia cues the bus CD player and Frank Sinatra sings ''The Brooklyn Bridge" from the 1947 movie ''It Happened in Brooklyn."

The song and view of the historic bridge set the stage perfectly for our half-day, insider's tour of the state's largest borough after Manhattan. Even though it is home to world-famous Coney Island, the New York Aquarium, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and 526-acre Prospect Park, Brooklyn hardly registers in the minds of tourists, or for that matter, Manhattan residents, as an interesting destination. Muia wants to change that.

A respiratory therapist, Muia, 41, quit health care in March to launch his tour business. As a second-generation Italian, he often travels back to his homeland.

''I like to ask locals where to eat," he says. ''I make a lot of friends that way and invite them to visit me. Some have, and I take them around Brooklyn. I realized that no tours really show the Brooklyn I grew up in and love. So I took the two things I know best -- Brooklyn and pizza -- and came up with the tour."

Once in Brooklyn, we cruise through DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a warehouse-now-condo neighborhood. Muia plays scenes from ''Scent of a Woman" and ''Coming to America" as we pass corners and views featured in the movies.

We drive to the Old Fulton Street docks below the Brooklyn Bridge for one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline, and then head to Grimaldi's Pizzeria, rated best in New York by Zagat six years in a row. A small mom-and-pop storefront, Grimaldi's serves Neapolitan-style pizza cooked in a coal-fired, brick oven at 600 degrees. The family has been making pizza since 1941 and has been on Old Fulton Street since 1990.

Chris Grimaldi, store manager, brings three margherita pizzas and we dig in. The thin-crust pies are topped with freshly sliced mozzarella and crushed tomatoes and sprinkled with whole basil leaves. Various toppings are available but we sample the original recipe created in 1889 in honor of Queen Margherita of Italy. The crushed tomatoes have very little added spice, so the fresh tomato flavor dominates.

''I live in the Bronx but didn't know much about Brooklyn, so I signed up for the tour," says Frank Sanchez Sr. He takes a bite of pizza and smiles. ''I'm used to Manhattan pizza, but this is better. It's great to try different types for comparison."

From our table, we can see the cook preparing the pizzas and sliding them into the oven on a large wooden paddle.

''I can't tell you how many neighborhood pizzerias are in Brooklyn," Muia says. ''You can step in any and get good pizza, and all styles. Neapolitan is always round and Sicilian is square with a thick crust. We'll sample that at our next stop."

Indeed, at L&B Spumoni Gardens, we sit in the outside garden and savor the flavor of the thick crust and rich sauce. Unlike most pizza, the rich layer of spicy sauce covers the cheese. The crunchy crust adds just the right consistency to the combination. I limit myself to two slices and get in line for a rainbow spumoni, a swirl of vanilla, chocolate, and pistachio.

Later, Muia and his tour get rave reviews.

''Tony has a relaxed, accommodating style," Peter Mitchell, a teacher from Boston, says. ''Combining the movies, music, and pizza was a great idea and very creative. He showed us a side of Brooklyn you would never find on your own. He made Brooklyn seem very accessible."

Contact George Oxford Miller, a freelance writer in New Jersey, at gomiller@travelsdujour.com.

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