In New York City, pizza is an institution. Ask anyone on the street and they will swear by one pizzeria or another as having the best-and they’ll be passionate about it. I decided to do a bit of drooling – er, grueling – research of my own to boil down the list to five delicious options that shouldn’t be missed.
I started by meeting with self-proclaimed pizza expert Scott Wiener to get a little background and make an itinerary. Scott is so passionate about pizza that he quit his job to keep up with his own research and now he gives pizzeria tours around town on an old school bus.
One of the first things he warned me about was pizza-by-the-slice. For New Yorkers, pizza parlors can often bear a resemblance to an espresso bar. Patrons come in for a slice, wolf it down standing at a bar table, and continue on with the rush of the day. “The thing is, a slice is reheated,” says Scott with a furrowed brow, “so already you are changing the nature of the pizza. In fact, take-out pizza, even by the pie, hits that cardboard with the scorched crust, and the steam that is released and enclosed in the box, and the heat held in by cheese and olive oil…” He shakes his head. “That is a different pizza by the time you open the box again.”
Pizza wasn’t always by the slice, and, in fact, several of the best pizzerias post signs on their front doors: no slices! "In reality, the classic style was pizza by the pie. In the 60s and 70s, the American dream was faster food. Drive ins and drive throughs."
Scott informed me that, besides the obvious call for good quality, fresh ingredients, the key to a good pizza is the heat. Ovens need to reach temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 C) to get the properly thin, crispy and slightly charred crust that still offers a bit of chewiness. It’s a delicate balance. The best device for this is a coal-fired brick oven. New coal-fired ovens are no longer allowed in the City for environmental reasons, but pizzerias opened before these laws took effect were permitted to continue their use.
The result is a pizza that cooks in less than three minutes, and a crust that has charred spots along the bottom. If you’re a purist, go for Pizza Margherita: just simple tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. A great pizza doesn’t need to hide behind a mountain of toppings.
So with an unlimited-ride MetroCard in my pocket, I hit the subway ((a lovely system which is never far from any New York accommodation) and started my pizza pilgrimage. Here are my results:
Founded in 1905 Gennaro Lombardi, this was the first licensed pizzeria in America. His idea was inspirational and a few of the other top-notch pizza parlors claim that their founders learned here.
32 Spring St., New York, NY, (212) 941-7994,
Di Fara Pizza
Go watch Domenico De Marco doing what he’s been doing right for over 40 years. The basil and rosemary grow in the front window. Dom does sell it by the slice, but since people are waiting in line, that slice is as good as the pie since it doesn’t need to be reheated and rarely sits for more than a minute. 1424 Ave. J, Brooklyn, NY, 718-258-1367
One of the alleged disciples of Lombardi’s, John Sasso founded this hallowed hall of pizza, now a legend in Greenwich Village. No slices here; just the coal-fired classic. 278 Bleecker St, New York, NY, (212) 243-1680, www.johnsofbleeckerstreet.com
Patsy Grimaldi learned to make pizzas when he was ten helping out his uncle at the original Patsy’s in Harlem (still there!). Don’t be discouraged by the omnipresent line here. Remember, pizzas bake in about 3 minutes. At night this is the pizzeria with the best view. Walk to the end of the block and have a look at the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. 19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY, (718) 858-4300, www.grimaldis.com
With all the long-reigning pizza giants, it’s reassuring to find some new blood in the business. This newbie on the scene has received many great reviews. A pizzeria for a new age, it is committed to sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and biodegradable packaging. It’s not coal-fired, but Franny’s manages to get it right anyway. Green pizza? Who’d have believed it? 295 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn (718) 230-0221, www.frannysbrooklyn.com
Not big on Mapquesting all this, but love pizza just the same? Have pizza fanatic Scott Wiener take you around for an afternoon of culinary history and sampling. Scott’s New York Pizza Tours