New York, New York Pizza
If they can make it here, you can make it anywhere …
Last fall, my son Asher went off to college. And like any kid born and raised in New York, he ventured into the hinterlands with a few firmly held beliefs on what is acceptable in terms of certain kinds of food and drink. He knew what a good bagel should taste like, and the proper architecture of a cream-cheese schmear. He wanted seltzer, not club soda. And where pizza was concerned, he had standards.
This made me proud. I felt I had done my job as a parent because, by the time he reached maturity, Asher had two favorite pizza places in New York — one for slices, and one for whole pies. It was right that he had two, for slice joints and pizzerias are not the same thing. They make different kinds of pies for different needs.
Neither of his choices were marquee names, the kind that make best-of lists or appear in weighty tomes about the history of pizza. They were local businesses. This also struck me as apt for, no matter which pizzerias New Yorkers think are the best in town, everyone has their favorite neighborhood haunt. And at the end of the day, these are the places where, pound for pound, you spend the most time and eat the majority of your life’s allotment of pizza.
Asher’s slice joint is the wonderfully named The House of Pizza & Calzone, in the neighborhood that used to be known as Red Hook, but has now been rechristened by real estate brokers as the Columbia Street Waterfront District. The House has been serving its waterfront community since 1952. They make a solid, consistent slice with a tangy sauce; not too thin, not too thick. For many years, the slice’s signature was a thin dust of cornmeal on the underside of the crust.
Asher’s full-pie place is even older: Sam’s Pizzeria. In business since 1930, it is easily the oldest going concern in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. The restaurant is the personal fiefdom of its gruff, completely non-PC owner, Lou, whose approach to hospitality is of the my-way-or-the-highway sort. But Lou likes kids, so Asher’s patronage has always been welcome. The pies at Sam’s are of the classic Neapolitan sort, with a sauce made of three tomato varieties. We always order green olives, a topping not often found and a specialty of the house. The pizza comes out within 10 minutes of ordering, and the piping-hot freshness of the pie can’t be beat.
In a city like New York, of course, one isn’t limited to the pies within walking distance. So, as every Gotham parent should, I took my son to other celebrated pizzerias over the years so he might experience the full richness of the town’s offerings. By the time he reached 18, he had visited most of the big ones: Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s, Totonno’s, Lombardi’s, John’s, L&B Spumoni Gardens, and Joe & Pat’s. Location is everything, and my pizza-loving son was born in the right place. (I only failed to get him to the fabled Di Fara. It’s hard to convince a kid to wait in line for two hours, even if the slice at the other end is magical.)
How did Asher, and New York in general, get so lucky pizza-wise? It’s not a terribly old story, the tale of how pizza came to the city and became a part of its DNA; just about a century or so old. And, as such things go, the history is fairly easy to track.
The story usually begins in 1905 with Gennaro Lombardi, whose Lombardi’s still stands on Spring Street in Little Italy.
New York did not lack for Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, and Lombardi, from Naples, was one of them. Recent research has revealed that other Italians sold pizza in New York before Lombardi, specifically one Filippo Milone, who may have been Lombardi’s employer. Whoever dropped the acorn on Spring Street, it was a fertile planting, and from Lombardi’s the mighty New York pizza oak grew. The pizzeria had many apprentices and none of them were particularly loyal, though they were considerate or smart enough to set up their pie shops in other neighborhoods.
There is John’s, supposedly founded by John Sasso in 1929. (Milone, however, may have opened what became John’s as well, in 1915. Milone got around.) It is perhaps the most visible of the city’s old-school pizzerias, owing to its prime location on Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Its interior, made up of ceiling fans, worn wooden booths and tables, and old framed posters of bygone concerts, looks like what tourists imagine every Village hangout should be. In East Harlem, once an Italian stronghold, there is Patsy’s, begun in 1933 by Patsy Lancieri. It remains a lonely outpost of superior pie on First Avenue and, because of its remote location, is primarily a neighborhood place. And then there’s Totonno’s, begun in 1924 by Anthony “Totonno” Pero. It once served pizza to the throngs that visited the Coney Island beach every summer, as well as the thriving community that lived there year-round, but now holds stubborn vigil among a sea of auto-body shops. As one article recently put it, “these are the four acknowledged prewar pizza pillars in the city.”
Patsy’s and John’s began to expand in the 1990s (amid endless internecine family feuds), opening outposts in other parts of the city. Though the extensions weren’t bad, none produced pies as good as the original locations. (The quirks of original ovens and the qualities they lend to pizza are one of the more ineluctable mysteries that contribute to the character of heritage pizza pies.) However, they helped to remind the denizens of New York of the city’s rich pizza legacy, and inspired others to open their own contenders. The list of great modern New York pizzerias — Kesté, Motorino, Roberta’s, the late Franny’s, Lucali, Paulie Gee’s and others that can stand tall beside their culinary ancestors — is now columns longer than the old tally.
But those are all makers of complete pies. Slice joints are a different breed and have their own tale to tell. (Many of the older places still proudly post signs in the window that declare, “No slices!”) The original pizzerias were all fueled by coal- or wood-fired ovens, which lent the pies their signature, bubbling, semi-blackened crust. The slice places used gas ovens, which had multiple, rectangular heat chambers stacked one on top of the next, all with closeable doors. This transformational contraption was devised by Frank Mastro, another Italian immigrant, in the 1930s. Gas ovens were easier to operate, got hot more quickly, could handle many pies at once and, most critically, allowed proprietors to serve a slice at a time, reheating each triangle as needed.
This changed everything. People no longer had to sit down for a pizza dinner, or gather enough diners to finish off a pie. They could grab a slice and go, either eating it quickly at the counter or while walking down the block. Pizza was now something everyone and anyone with a little pocket change could eat. They could eat pizza anywhere, any time of day. It became New York’s endlessly giving moveable feast.
Every residential enclave in New York boasts several slice joints, ranging from the indifferent to the excellent to the unavoidable outpost of the Ray’s chain. Of course, the fame of a few slice specialists has spread beyond the borders of their neighborhood. Perhaps the most celebrated and universally beloved is Joe’s Pizza. It opened in 1975 on a picture-perfect corner in Greenwich Village and now operates just a few doors down from its original location. Joe’s is the slice assembly line at its best. A queue forever snakes out the door, and greedy customers devour all eight partitions of each pie within seconds of it emerging from the oven. The pies are always hot and fresh because they never have a chance to cool down. If anyone asks you what a slice of New York style pizza tastes like, just send them to Joe’s. The wedges are textbook. It could be that all slice joints could potentially be as good as Joe’s if they enjoyed such turnover. The world may never know.
If Joe’s is New York’s most popular slice joint, Di Fara, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood, is the city’s most hallowed. From the outside, the shop looks as crummy as crummy can be. Inside, the ancient Dom De Marco fashions each pie by hand, sprinkling each with grated Grana Padano cheese and a shower of fresh basil leaves, hand-clipped into shreds with a scissors. You’ll wait forever and pay a small fortune ($5) for a slice, but you’ll barely be able to fathom the robust flavors that humble slice holds.
There are other pizza storylines in New York. Staten Island, the most neglected of the five boroughs, has been quietly holding its own for decades. Joe & Pat’s (since 1960) has a thin crust and sweet sauce like no other. Denino’s (since 1937) serves a great clam pie, a New Haven tradition rarely offered in New York. And Lee’s Tavern (since 1940) offers a fantastic example of that under-sung, thin-crust sub-category known as bar pizza.
And then there are places like The House of Pizza & Calzone and Sam’s Pizzeria, the steady soldiers that serve their communities and stand by tradition while only occasionally reaping a bit of press and praise. They propel the pizza continuum too, and they have their fans. My son is one. He probably won’t find great pizza at college. But he is sure to find a place that says it serves “New York pizza.” There’s one in every city. Those words aren’t an explanation. They’re a boast. The owners hope they communicate: good pizza.