It didn’t used to be this way, but these days, if you’re opening a hip sliceria and you want it to be in the conversation about New York City’s best pizza, you need a great square. You can point to Emmy Squared, Prince St. Pizza, Mama’s Too!, and Sofia Pizza Shoppe (for its Doughdici) as catalysts, but buzzy new shops including Upside; Manero’s; Sauce; Made in New York; Lions, Tigers & Squares, have all made waves due to squares. Heck, Village Square Pizza opened specializing in squares. And while many look to Detroit or L&B Spumoni Gardens for four-sided inspiration, one recent joint, Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, looked to deep Queens.
If you haven’t heard, Paulie’s slice shop has collected all kinds of praise for its throwback Brooklyn vibe and the Freddie Prince, a square that fuses the Prince St. Pizza square aesthetic with that of a lesser-known, outer-borough pizzeria, which lines the entire undercarriage of its squares with sesame seeds. (No, She’s All That fans, Paulie Giannone’s Freddie Prince is not an homage to actor Freddie Prinze Jr.).
The result is a crust with nuanced flavor and texture. The seeds add toasty nuttiness and brittle crunch. You nibble to the cornicione and end with an idealized sesame-studded diner breadstick but soft and crunchy. You can easily see why Giannone did the homage.
Freddy’s isn’t the only pizzeria to use sesame seeds, of course. Joey’s Pizza of Maspeth calls itself “Home of the Sesame Crust Pizza” and Best Pizza in Williamsburg does New York City’s other most well-known sesame slice (a white one with a wide sesame-studded cornicione). Brooklyn slice shops Ciccio’s (Gravesend) and Caruso’s (Boerum Hill), and Sunnyside Pizza (in…Sunnyside, Queens) are known by aficionados for sesame crusts.
But nobody outside Paulie seems as dedicated to sesame as Freddy’s, which has been serving Whitestone on the corner of 150th Street and 14th Avenue since 1961. This is deep northeast Queens near the Cross Island Parkway and Whitestone Bridge, a subway-and-bus kind of trip. One of Whitestone’s other icons, Cherry Valley, is just a block away, the siren scent of bacon and eggs wafting down the street (their “Beast Hero,” chicken cutlet, bacon, Swiss, onion rings, and brown gravy in a toasted garlic roll is perhaps the most obsessed over).
Freddy’s has an 80s vibe, a stone-studded facade, a shingle overhang, big windows, and mostly tile inside. Its sesame-studded Sicilian slice is draped with a perfectly made hotel bed blanket of buttery mozzarella, and underneath, two-thirds of the undercarriage is coated with golden-brown sesame seeds. The crust is nutty, rigid, and airy at the cornicione. It’s a really good square. At a time where most people toss pizza crusts (aka “pizza bones”), it’s refreshing to see a place give customers a reason to keep eating that doesn’t involve ranch dressing.
But the effect means more work and an extra expense. So why do it? How did it start? And what’s Freddy’s story anyway?
“My father actually opened a place with his brother in 1958 in Corona,” Freddy’s owner Joe Iurillo says. “They named it ‘Angelo’s’ after my father, but he didn’t like Corona so he moved to Whitestone in 1961, and named this place after his brother, Freddy. Freddy stayed at the original shop. So Freddy had Angelo’s and Angelo had Freddy’s.”
Joe graduated from St. John’s but found he was making better money delivering pizza for his father. “Back in ’88, the job market was terrible,” he said. “I decided to stick with the family business. In ’98 my father made me a partner, and now it’s mine.”
The sesame crust started in the mid-’80s.
“My father was always trying different things,” Iurillo said. “A lot were off-the-wall and we thought he was crazy, but I admire him, I respect him for trying different things. I’m not as creative. He took chances. He took a chance with the sesame seed bottom, and it went crazy.”
They went from selling six Sicilians a day to 40 that had sesame undercarriages, Joe said.
“At first, people were leery. ‘Oh, sesame seeds, uhhh,’ they’d say. But then they’d love it, and I’m proud of it. But it’s a lot of work. And you need the right trays. If you use the new thinner trays that they sell now, the seeds burn. The bottom would burn.”
So what is the extra work that goes into making these special pies?
“We oil the pan, we evenly coat the pan with seeds—we’re not cheap with them, and sesame seeds aren’t cheap,” Iurillo said. “We stretch the dough, put it in the pan stretched already. If you stretch the dough in the pan with the seeds, they’re going to move to the sides. It’s not going to be evenly coated. You fix it, stretch it to the edges a little, and then we oil the top, let it rise, par-cook, and let it cool. It’s a process. We put in the work and it pays off. It does. I take pleasure in the fact that people enjoy it. A lot of places don’t want to put that work in.”
Paulie Gee and Drew Brown of Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop were two pizza guys who did want to put in the work. “Paulie Gee tried it at my store and he loved it,” Iurillo says. “He asked me how I did it, and I told him. He’s far enough away.”
Both of Freddy’s Sicilian slices, the regular with Grande mozzarella and their old-fashioned square with crushed tomatoes, fresh mozz, and basil, feature sesame bottoms. Iurillo said he could also do grandma pies with seeds but would never do it on regular pies.
“I’ve tried it and the seeds fall off, they burn, and it won’t be Freddy’s if it’s burned so I won’t do it. And people get pissed. ‘Why can’t you do it? You do it for the Sicilian.’ I’m sorry, I can’t. Just like I won’t put pineapple on a pie. Or pasta—it’s like having a macaroni sandwich.”
It remains to be seen if Paulie Gee’s riff on Freddy’s sesame crust will lead to other places doing it, but for now, the Greenpoint slice shop and this Whitestone stalwart are destinations for a special style. Iurillo said at least a dozen pizza seekers have visited Freddy’s on a quest to sample the square that inspired the Freddy Prince at Paulie Gee’s.
And you’ll have to make that trek because Iurillo has no plans to open a second place. “You can’t be in two places at once,” he said. “I’ve seen guys do it. They want their name all over the place, and it suffers. The quality suffers. They say you got one good horse, ride it.”