MANY words have been used to explain New York pizza, but one word stands out: tradition.
Respect for tradition is why New York pizzerias go to such lengths to link themselves to the great pizzerias of the past. Tradition explains why Andrew Bellucci called the pizzeria he opened in SoHo last year Lombardi’s, after the restaurant opened on Spring Street in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant who is credited with introducing pizza to New York City. Tradition explains why Mr. Bellucci was able to get the founder’s grandson and namesake, Gennaro Lombardi, to advise him in the new venture.
Tradition also explains why three New York pizzerias are called Patsy’s: the original, which opened in East Harlem in the 1930’s; seven-year-old Patsy’s in Brooklyn, and a new Patsy’s in Murray Hill. Both of the newer Patsy’s claim a connection to the original. Not surprisingly, each disputes the other’s claim.
And tradition goes a long way toward explaining the success of Nick’s Pizza in Forest Hills, Queens. Although it opened just last year, its respect for the tradition of great New York pizza-making is evident in every delicious bite.
New York City’s own style of pizza is so dominant that many New Yorkers may not realize that New Haven is renowned for its brittle-skinned clam pizzas, or that Chicago is the epicenter of the deep-dish pizza, a vital tradition itself. It’s common to hear that New York has the best pizza in the country. Whether this is true or not, much of the pizza sold in New York is not very good. That’s because most pizzas in New York either are made to be sold by the slice, meaning they are pre-cooked and reheated, which is ill treatment no matter how good the ingredients, or are made to be delivered, which allows a hot pizza to wilt in its cardboard prison.
The invasion of the designer pizza, individual-size pizzas that are often cooked in wood-burning ovens and topped with ingredients from prosciutto to artichoke hearts, has been a good thing for pizza lovers. In truth, good designer pizzas may come the closest to reproducing authentic Italian pizzas. But they are not traditional New York pies.
True New York pizzas are thin crusted, cooked quickly in a very hot oven (traditionally coal-fired) to a charred, smoky crispness, and topped with simple ingredients: tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and the optional sausage, peppers, mushrooms or anchovies. And true New York pizza makers, particularly those using coal ovens, are artists, shifting and moving the dough within the oven as it cooks, equalizing the effect of hot spots.
There are hundreds of pizzerias in New York City, and just as many opinions on which are the best. Here are 10 of the most noteworthy New York pizzerias, focusing on those that specialize in whole pies ($10 to $18 apiece, depending on extra ingredients) and listed in order of preference. John’s Pizzeria
278 Bleecker Street (between Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue), Manhattan, (212) 243-1680.
The dining room of John’s sprawls outward, as if it had annexed neighboring spaces by eminent domain, yet it still can’t contain the crowds that are drawn here by the restaurant’s reputation for legendary pizza. John’s earns its reputation every day. This is classic New York pizza, with wonderful thin crust, smoky from the coal oven and just crisp enough to offer resistance to the tooth, made with fresh, creamy mozzarella, the restaurant’s own tomato sauce, delicious crumbled sausage and fresh-roasted peppers. Yet what really sets John’s apart is the expert economy of its pizzas: no waste and no excessive ingredients piled on for show, just flavor, texture and a regard for tradition.
With booths and tables crammed into all available space, amenities are few at John’s, and service is brusque. But as at delicatessens, grumpiness can be rationalized as charm.
John’s has opened two branches, at 408 East 64th Street and at 48 West 65th Street. Both make fine pizza, but the original John’s is still the best. Nick’s Pizza
108-26 Ascan Avenue (near Austin Street), Forest Hills, Queens, (718) 263-1126.
Nick’s has been open only since the spring of 1994, yet it seems imbued with age-old tradition, or rather, respect for tradition. From the swinging Sinatra music in the background to the wood floor, tin ceiling with ceiling fans, blue Formica tables, teal booths and big plate-glass windows, Nick’s was built to look and feel like a traditional New York pizza parlor, with the added bonus of an up-to-date concern with the comfort of its clientele. The menu says, “No Slices!” just as John’s does, yet at Nick’s, it sounds pleasant rather than gruff.
Nonetheless, pizza is serious business at Nick’s. It’s hard to imagine a better crust: blackened and just barely crisp, glistening, golden and blistered around the edges, with a smoky flavor that seems impossible to obtain with a gas oven like Nick’s. And the toppings more than stand up to the crust: terrific sausage rich with character; fresh, pure mozzarella; delicious roasted peppers and mushrooms, and each pie garnished with strips of fresh basil. Nick’s menu doesn’t stray far from pizza, but what little else it offers is just as good: grilled calzones, stuffed with cheese and prosciutto, with a wonderfully puffy crust; very good arugula salads and Caesar salads, and a first-class cannoli with pistachio nuts embedded in the crisp crust.
Nick’s manages to pay homage to the past without being limited by it, a feat that entails its own compromises, like waiters walking around with pepper mills the size of yardsticks. Nonetheless, its achievement is showing how good and modern pizza can be in the 1990’s. Patsy’s Pizza
19 Old Fulton Street (between Water and Front Streets), Fulton Ferry District, Brooklyn, (718) 858-4300.
Patsy’s is threatening to become the Ray’s of New York’s pizza elite. That is, dozens of by-the-slice places are called Ray’s, Famous Ray’s, Original Ray’s, etc., and now there are three Patsy’s. Unlike the Ray’s pizzerias, though, nobody disputes the origin of Patsy’s. The original Patsy’s opened in East Harlem in 1932. The original Patsy, Patsy Lancieri, died several years ago, and his family sold that pizzeria, which is being renovated. But now two other Patsy’s claim a relationship to the original: a Patsy’s that opened last year in Murray Hill, and this one, hidden in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The owner of the Brooklyn Patsy’s, Patsy Grimaldi, says he is the nephew of Patsy Lancieri. While other pizza makers may dispute that claim, the legacy of the original Patsy’s thin-crust pizza, cooked in a coal-fired brick oven, lives on in Brooklyn. So does the Patsy’s obsession with Frank Sinatra, reputed to have been a regular at the original. Photos of the early Sinatra, photos of the late Sinatra, and photos, newspaper clippings and posters of all Sinatras in between line the walls. Needless to say, there’s a jukebox. Don’t ask who predominates.
From any vantage point in the brightly lighted dining room, diners can see the pizza bakers in the open kitchen slapping the dough, ladling out fragrant tomato sauce, sprinkling fresh mozzarella and basil leaves, fennel-laced sausage, slivers of pepperoni and roasted peppers. They can watch as pies are shoveled into the big coal-fired brick oven and removed, still bubbling. The pies arrive quickly, the crust thin and crisp in the center, blackened and blistered around the dense and bready edges. If it’s not quite so flavorful as John’s or Nick’s, it’s wonderful in its own right.
Patsy’s also serves a good traditional cannoli and a delicious cappuccino, stratified layers of steamed milk, espresso and foamed milk clearly visible in the tall glass mugs. Service is swift, friendly and efficient. But you have to like Sinatra. Lombardi’s
32 Spring Street (between Mulberry and Mott Streets), SoHo, (212) 941-7994.
The original Lombardi’s was opened on Spring Street in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi, who is often credited with introducing pizza to New York City.
Andrew Bellucci, the owner of this Lombardi’s, had made pies at Two Boots and Three of Cups, and wanted to open his own place. He sought out Gennaro Lombardi’s grandson and namesake, who still owned the building at 53 Spring Street that housed the old Lombardi’s. Mr. Lombardi agreed to teach Mr. Bellucci what he knew about pizza making, to give him recipes and to act in a general supervisory role once the new venture opened.
Just down the block on Spring Street, Mr. Bellucci found an old bakery with a coal oven. The bakery had been closed for 21 years, but the oven was still there, a crucial factor because city environmental law permits existing coal ovens to be used but does not permit new ones to be installed. They were in business.
This small, handsome restaurant has a floor of tiny white tiles, red-and-white tablecloths, booths for about 45 people and a small cement garden in back. Photos of the original Lombardi’s adorn the brick and stucco walls.
The Lombardi’s crust is glorious: light, thin, crisp yet elastic, blackened and blistered and full of the smoky flavor that comes from the coal oven. The mozzarella is fresh and hand cut, the tomato sauce is decent, and toppings like roasted peppers and thin slices of dry Italian sausage are fine. It is worthy of the Lombardi name.
509 Third Avenue (at 34th Street), Murray Hill, (212) 689-7500.
According to Patsy’s menu, Patsy Lancieri, founder of the original Patsy’s in East Harlem, learned his trade in the original Lombardi’s. Despite this implied link to pizza tradition, the owners of this new Patsy’s, Nick Tsoulos, Nick Paschalis and Michael Zarmakoupis, are not related to the Lancieris, though they say they are “affiliated” with the East Harlem restaurant, where their pizza cook was trained. They are not connected at all to the Brooklyn Patsy’s.
Nonetheless, they make terrific pizza, with a smooth crust, black around the edges though without the sustaining smokiness of a coal-cooked crust. And what Patsy’s puts on top of the crust is superb: sauce made of plum tomatoes, wonderfully mellow mozzarella, excellent crumbled sweet sausage and peppers roasted on big trays in one of the twin brick ovens in back.
Despite its bow to tradition, Patsy’s looks completely modern, with shiny wood and brass all over, halogen track lights, faux marble inlay tables and big pepper mills. And like all pizzerias named Patsy’s, it has pictures of Frank Sinatra on the wall.
7003 Third Avenue (at Ovington Avenue), Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, (718) 745-9197
Lento’s, now in its seventh decade, is a relic from the days of restaurants and pizzas past. It’s just a simple brick corner tavern with a good-time neighborhood feel to it, but at one time Lento’s had an air of formality that made restaurant-going a dignified business, traces of which still linger. A sign on the wall says, “Prospective diners, please leave your name with the hostess,” and the burnished wood paneling, lace tablecloth under glass, high pressed-tin ceiling and Tiffany lamps convey the buttoned-up feeling of the turn of the last century. Each of the high-backed wooden booths has a buzzer to summon a waiter, but that convenience has since been disconnected.
The pizza, too, is a throwback, with a wafer-thin, extra crisp crust that makes up with texture what it lacks in elasticity or smoky flavor. The mozzarella is mellow, the tomato sauce is slightly spicy and the sausage is chunky and flavorful, though the peppers are green, without roasted richness. Waiters dressed in black and white serve the pizza on upside-down, battered aluminum pizza trays.
Lento’s has opened a branch in a handsome former firehouse in Park Slope, but so far the pizza has not matched the Bay Ridge original.
Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano
1524 Neptune Avenue (at 16th Street), Coney Island, Brooklyn, (718) 372-8606.
Totonno’s is in the pantheon of New York pizzerias, one of the early giants of coal-oven pies. Its status became legendary, both because of the single-minded determination of its founder, Anthony (Totonno) Pero, and his son, Jerry, who focused all their attention on maintaining the handmade quality of their pies, and because of the younger Mr. Pero’s habit in recent years of keeping irregular hours, opening only three days a week and staying open until the dough ran out, whenever that might be. But Jerry Pero died in 1994 at the age of 69, and though a nephew took over the business, something special has been lost in the transition.
The restaurant, in a small Italian bastion in Coney Island, still feels as if it’s in a different city. With ceiling fans, the cheap plastic tables, and the breeze blowing in the front door, it’s almost as if you are eating on a porch down South. But the pressed tin walls are covered with testimonials from the old glory days, and there is one section with a series of framed drawings of old-time Hollywood luminaries — Bogart, Monroe, Groucho Marx, W. C. Fields — that trails off as if a decorator had started with a theme but couldn’t see it through.
Something in the pizza-making seems to have trailed off as well. The mozzarella is still fresh and creamy, but the crust is now thick and pillowy, soft and bready rather than coal-oven crisp. Little rounds of sausage are unremarkable, and roasted peppers, served with onions, have little flavor. Measured against the vast sea of pizzas in New York, Totonno’s is still better than 90 percent of them, but measured against its past, Totonno’s no longer keeps up. Pintaile’s Pizza
26 East 91st Street, (212) 722-1967; 1443 York Avenue (near 76th Street), (212) 717-4990.
“I don’t like pizza,” said Rory Wade, owner of Pintaile’s Pizza, producers of one of New York’s more unconventional pizzas. “I’ve been eating it for 35 years already, and I wanted something different.”
So Mr. Wade, who also owns Canard & Company, a caterer and specialty food shop on Madison Avenue, set about looking for something different. The first thing he and his associates did was to get rid of the sauce. Instead, Pintaile’s uses slices of fresh, flavorful plum tomatoes. Then they worked to create a crust imbued with the charred, slightly smoky flavor characteristic of brick-oven baking, without using coal or wood.
The result: paper-thin crusts, crisp with occasional airy blisters, with lots of fresh vegetables and cheese, but no marinara sauce, far closer to designer pizzas than to the doughy, saucy street varieties. What’s more, these are light pizzas, lighter in calories and in heft, yet with real flavor.
In addition to its tiny shop down the block from the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, a second, handsomer Pintaile’s has opened on York Avenue, with brick walls, a ruddy tile floor and stained glass. And it has expanded its menu from just 6 pizzas to about 15, with untraditional varieties like spinach and feta cheese, and smoked salmon. My favorites are still the simple pizza with fresh mozzarella and thin slices of plum tomato, scented with olive oil, and the mushroom pizza, spread with slices of savory shiitake mushrooms. I also liked the salamino pizza, made with wafer-thin slices of a peppery air-dried salami that turns almost crisp when cooked.
37 Avenue A (between Second and Third Streets), East Village, (212) 505-2276.
With three restaurants in Manhattan and one in Park Slope, Two Boots is now an authentic mini-chain, yet there is nothing prefabricated about any of the restaurants. They each emphasize what made Two Boots successful in the first place: pizza and Cajun food in a hip atmosphere that is especially welcoming of children.
The East Village Two Boots, with its big luncheonette-style booths, strings of lights shaped like crayfish, pizzas and hot peppers, and other bright objects, is a children’s paradise. The pizza itself is unusual and, though not at the top level, very pleasant. The crust is thin, and cornmeal gives it a nice texture. Toppings are decent, and it is unlikely you will find crayfish and jalapeno pizza at too many other places.
Children scream with laughter, infants howl, but parents all seem to be eating happily. Arturo’s Pizzeria
106 West Houston Street (at Thompson Street), Greenwich Village, (212) 677-3820.
This dark den, with live jazz most nights, a cast of regulars, an old-fashioned tin ceiling and a floor that slants in every direction, is Greenwich Village, circa 1955. Waitresses are great kidders, and the bartender is a comedian. If a woman in a black leotard began reciting beat poetry in the corner of the crowded barroom that serves as a stage, it would simply be evidence that the Village is slow to let go of its institutions.
The hold that Arturo’s pizza has on its fans has more to do with sentiment than quality. The pizza, cooked in a coal oven, looks great, with a crust charred black and bubbly around the edges. But the oven imparts no real flavor to the crust, which sort of wilts in the hand. The mozzarella lacks a fresh tang, while the tomato sauce, sausages and peppers lack distinction. Bottom line: Arturo’s is a fun place for a party; the pizza is passable but not distinctive. Where to Find Three Nonstandards
Here is Eric Asimov’s look at three non-New York pizza traditions, and where they can be sampled in the city.
Pizzeria Uno, 432 Columbus Avenue, at 81st Street, Manhattan, (212) 595-4700.
Pizza is taken very seriously in Chicago, where the deep-dish style was invented more than 50 years ago at the original Pizzeria Uno.
From a single restaurant, Pizzeria Uno has grown into a nationwide chain. This branch, one of five in New York, is a distant cry from the original. The original was dark and dingy, with wooden tables etched with names, like graffiti, of hundreds of patrons and with the menu limited to pizza. But the Pizzeria Uno chain is bright and lively, more like a combination East Side bar and ice cream parlor, with fruity drinks, pasta and huge whipped-cream desserts, all in an effort to please children, singles and anybody in between. No longer is the focus strictly on the deep-dish pizza, which made Chicago a pizza power to be reckoned with.
Nonetheless, Pizzeria Uno offers an acceptable version of the kind of dish that is as much pie as pizza ($10 to $15 each). The crust is high, bready and chewy, with a delectable olive oil flavor and just the slightest bit of crunch around the edges, though the middle is too wet. Cheese is nondescript, but the tomatoes are chunky and the sausage has good flavor. This is knife-and-fork pizza, served on a rack in a deep black tray to catch drippings.
There are three dining rooms to choose from here, ranging from quiet and woody to loud and raucous. To escape the assembly-line feel of the restaurant, you can buy frozen pizzas and bake them in your own kitchen. They taste just as good.
California Pizza Kitchen, 201 East 60th Street, Manhattan, (212) 755-7773.
This is the first New York branch of a chain that serves California pizza as the world imagines it, topped with anything from Peking duck to pineapple and bacon. It may be a tonic for Californians, but those who prize New York pizza will find little here to bridge the bicoastal divide.
Even so, California Pizza Kitchen is packed nightly, with people at the bar overflowing onto the patio out front as they wait for tables with bar stools downstairs or booths upstairs. When you put your name on the waiting list here, you’re issued a beeper, a detail you might forget once you slip it into your pocket. But you are reminded when it signals your table is ready with a gentle vibration. Waiters wear badges with their names and hometowns. Why not their college majors?
The dining room is airy but crowded, with many shiny surfaces, including mirrored walls. No matter how narcissistic you are, pizza — not even these nine-inch designer pizzas ($8.50 to $11) — is not something you want to watch yourself eating in a mirror.
The crusts are soft and billowy, bland as white bread, and though most of the toppings are quite fresh, they are simply discordant with pizza. I’m talking about roast chicken and garlic, which tastes bizarre atop mozzarella and tomato, as does shrimp in garlic. The tangy sausage pizza is not bad, though there is little sensation of tomato; but the popular vegetable pizza, laden with broccoli, eggplant and mushrooms, is simply overwhelmed by vegetables.
New Haven Pizza
Lombardi’s, 32 Spring Street (between Mulberry and Mott Streets), SoHo, (212) 941-7994.
To the uninitiated, the notion seems bizarre. But clam pies bear little relation to the familiar tomato-mozzarella pizzas. As made famous at Pepe’s in New Haven, the clam pie is elemental and delicious, simply whole clams with garlic, olive oil and oregano, served atop a thin, brittle crust.
In Manhattan, clam pies are a delicious specialty of Lombardi’s, where the fresh-shucked clams are combined with herbs, garlic, black pepper and a hint of grated romano cheese. Take note: these pies ($16 small, $20 large) must be eaten right away while still hot, otherwise the crust begins to toughen.
While New Haven is best known for its clam pizzas, Andrew Bellucci, Lombardi’s pizza maker, says that clam pies were served to family and special customers in the original Lombardi’s, which opened in 1905, though they were never on the menu. As usual in the pizza business, tradition triumphs.