In my five years of living in New York, never have I ordered anything but a slice at one of the city’s countless pizza joints, often during a quick lunch escape from the office. Though the Italian specialties tantalize with garlic aromas from underneath the glass casing, it never crossed my mind to order anything but a no-fuss pepperoni, tried-and-true mushroom, or, when I’m feeling extra indulgent, a white pizza loaded with creamy ricotta.

And then I went to Justino’s Pizzeria.

The recently opened Murray Hill location is the fourth for the franchise. What began as a two-store hit in Staten Island has grown to two others in Manhattan (the first debuted in Hell’s Kitchen). The vibe in each is laid-back, and nothing particularly special, however the ample seating in their largest location to date beckons customers to sit and stay, celebrating the array of pizzas, pastas and Italian-accented entrees over glasses of wine, in true Italian form.

The décor may be minimal but owner and chef Justin Alioni saves the surprises for the food.

I was invited to a recent tasting party and I brought my very Italian, and stereotypically opinionated friend, along as my sidekick. We began the feast with plump shrimp scampi, baked clams and chicken Marsala, the thin filet cooked to moist perfection and drizzled with a flavor-filled mushroom-based gravy that takes three days to make (though Alioni wouldn’t share his family recipe secret).

After washing down with complimentary wine, we selected slices of our choice from the Brooklyn-style thin crusts. My eyes laid on a chicken Parmigiana pie, graciously layered with chicken, while my friend went for simple tradition, a margherita pizza. The Parmigiana was good, but the margherita was heaven. Or as my foodie friend dubbed, “The best margherita pizza I’ve ever had.” We topped our meal off with a traditional grandma pizza, bubbling with fresh mozzarella.

We were told an outdoor café area will soon open, which will certainly encourage a repeat visit. Not that the chicken Marsala hadn’t already warranted it…

– Brittny