New York-style pizza parlor authentic, even if it's in Hixson

photo Keigh Lee prepares a 911 supreme pizza for the lunch crowd Thursday at New York Pizza Department on Highway 153, in Hixson.

The Southeast, especially Chattanooga and Atlanta, has for many years reluctantly welcomed waves of Northerners seeking warmer climates, lower taxes and a little more elbow room.

New York's Central Park is fantastic to visit, the shivering immigrants report, but don't expect a view from your apartment of anything other than the building next door -- unless you happen to be a stockbroker or an Internet millionaire.

That said, they've certainly figured out how to eat well.

There's nothing like a hot pastrami sandwich with sauerkraut on rye, a $2 hot dog with mustard and relish from a street vendor, or a slice of pizza the size of a baby.

Over the years, pizza became one of the foods for which New York is best known, and the rest of the country followed suit in embracing the simple, starchy treat.

With so many variations, pizza is hard to hate.

But New Yorkers often find that outside the five boroughs it's nigh impossible to find a proper slice of pizza, a fresh bagel or a good Reuben. So they start their own restaurants.

That's the story with Kurt and Erik Cilen, two brothers from Long Island who co-founded the New York Pizza Department.

"I kept trying to find New York pizza everywhere," said Kurt Cilen. "I went to Dayton, Chattanooga, Ringgold, Cleveland and Atlanta, and there's just no New York pizza."

New York Pizza Department, on Highway 153 in Hixson, brings a slice of New York to East Tennessee, complete with the dirty fireman's jacket, the stenciled skyline and the sumptuous smells.

Cilen says the restaurant serves "authentic New York City cuisine," using recipes that are passed down "from generation to generation."

As near as I can tell, that's true.

The menu

IF YOU GOWhere: New York Pizza Department, 5731 Highway 153, Hixson.Phone: 531-8830.Website: www.indoughwecrust.comHours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday.Price range: .50 (certain additional toppings)-$25.95 (the 911 pizza).

Opened in March, the restaurant boasts a generous variety of belly-filling feasts.

Though not diet-friendly, the ingredients are fresh, and there are options for leaf eaters as well.

In addition to pizza, the menu includes pinwheels, calzones, stromboli, wings, salads, sandwiches and desserts -- all with a New York twist.

Pizza starts at $2.75 per slice, and additional toppings cost between 50 cents and $1.

Specialty slices, which are huge and must be folded in half to eat properly, vary in price.

The Hawaii Five-O ($4), for instance, combines fresh ham and pineapple for one of the best flavors yet invented by man. It beats my previous favorite, a Domino's pie that combined pepperoni and pineapple on thin crust.

For a Mediterranean twist, I tried the My Big Fat Greek Pizza ($3.50), which adds feta cheese, kalamata olives, red onions, tomatoes and bell peppers to a standard cheese pizza.

One thing every slice has in common is just-right crust that's not overly greasy, and the effortless fusion of up to half a dozen flavors.

As I lounged in pizza heaven, I realized that the provided red pepper, garlic, parmesan and oregano shakers sat unused on my table.

The pizza didn't need them. It's good the way it is.

For most people, one slice will be enough, but others may want more.

A good second slice might be the Meaty Accusation ($4.75). For that, the bakers combine pepperoni, meatballs, ground sausage and bacon, all of which looks and tastes like legitimate meat rather than the cafeteria food some restaurants use.

Three slices would be a brave choice, one that would send most into a dough coma.

But were I forced to choose, I would try the Fire Starter ($3.75), a beautiful mash-up of spicy Italian sausage, roasted pepper, onion, hot sauce and something called "fire oil."

The Chicken Caesar ($5.75) wasn't my favorite, but still it beats the pants off a delivery or a DiGiorno.

If you've had enough pizza and are hungry for something else, try the Mia Ham ($3.75), a pinwheel stuffed with ham and cheese.

The Stromboli ($4.25) is another delightful option. When I bit into it, the pepperoni, sausage, salami, capicola, ham and cheese tumbled into my mouth as if it had just found a new best friend.

Wash it all down with a refillable fountain drink or some sweet tea, or order your food to go and just drink whatever you have at home.

The service

Perhaps one of the reasons NYPD's pizza tastes great is that it's cooked away from the raucous New York pizza scene, where hundreds of parlors compete for customers with virtually identical pizza sitting under heating lamps for hours on end.

Or it could be that New York's fabled "champagne tap water" has been bested by the Tennessee River.

But I suspect that away from the city, NYPD's owners felt free to experiment and blend, to take chances with flavors that simply succeed.

The other place they succeed is in their service.

It's simple: Walk to the counter. Pay for what you want. Sit down. Eat the pizza when it arrives. You're out in 20 minutes.

Employees are brash but friendly and keep the establishment shinier than New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's smile.

The space

Visiting NYPD is not exactly like flying to the Big Apple for a long weekend, but it's reminiscent of a family-owned pizza parlor on a Brooklyn street corner.

Metallic accents let you know to enjoy your food but to hurry it along so others can eat, too. American flags flap in the breeze.

Posters of the Empire State Building and Central Park whisk the visitor away to a idealized version of New York, where the World Trade Center still looms over Lower Manhattan and rookie cops still walk a beat.

The vision starts to fall apart if you look out the window. There's a Walmart outside instead of a subway stop and a Choo Choo BBQ where the Chrysler Building should be.

But enjoying a good slice of pizza shouldn't hinge on whether the atmosphere is convincing.

The decoration does its job, which is to keep the focus on the authenticity of the pizza as well as to remind you to fold your slice if you don't want to get it all over you.

And the tributes to firemen who lost their lives in 9/11 aren't just window dressing.

Cilen's uncle lost most of his unit in the World Trade Center attack.

The verdict

While it's not exactly Broadway and West 34th Street, NYPD is as close to New York as you're going to get without packing a change of clothes.

In fact, this is better.

You don't have to worry about crowds, you can take your own car, and there won't be any panhandlers waiting for you outside.

The pizza is crispy and soft in all the right places, flavorful without being overly seasoned and is ready when you want it. Owners offer a variety of options without overcomplicating it to the point of absurdity.

If anything, the decision on what to order is made more difficult by the size of the slice. Unless you've been hiking a remote trail for several days and have worked up a ravenous appetite, you probably won't have more than one or two pieces. So choose wisely.

Of course, you can always come back.

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