Pizza as we know it was invented in 1905 down on Spring Street, when Neapolitan immigrant Gennaro Lombardi fired up his coal oven to nearly 900 degrees and popped in the first pie. Though Gennaro’s pizza had distant cousins in Naples—pie created for Princess Margherita in 1889 was the first to use tomatoes and mozzarella—his new creation was far more cheesy and tomatoey, a substantial meal in itself that eventually came to be strewn with all sorts of toppings. One hundred years down the road, you can still eat superb pizza at Lombardi’s, made in the same sainted oven. The clam pie is especially recommended—some say it has aphrodisiacal powers. (The accompanying chart serves as a guide to the location of Lombardi’s and other pizza joints mentioned in this primer, and indicates which ones are closest to your college; apologies to those students whose schools we didn’t have room for.)
The charismatic Lombardi inspired his bakers to spin off their own pizza parlors. John’s in Greenwich Village, Patsy’s in East Harlem, Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano in Coney Island, and Grimaldi’s in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge were all founded in the ’20s and ’30s by Lombardi alumni. All generate superb thin-crust pizzas with good mozzarella, but none of these places (with the exception of Patsy’s northernmost storefront) sell slices, so bring friends or be prepared to eat a whole pie by yourself.
Though there have been imitations of this original style, most notably at Joe and Pat’s on Staten Island, most New York pizza has evolved considerably from this model, with a conventional gas oven in the 500-degree range substituting for the hotter coal oven. Twenty years ago there were virtually no McDonald’s and Burger Kings in the city, and citizens depended on the corner pizza parlor for fast food: Two slices and a soda constituted the standard proletarian lunch. The gas ovens cooked the pies more slowly, so pizzas prepared therein could flaunt thick crusts and profuse toppings. According to journalist Jonathan Kwitny in Vicious Circles, the mob came to control the manufacture of pizza cheese (supplied by Al Capone in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin), and forced the neighborhood parlors to use the mediocre Wisconsin mozzarella. The ancient places like John’s and Lombardi’s were grandfathered out, however, and could still use locally made fresh mozzarella, as long as they never sold individual slices. Hence, according to Kwitny, John’s still carries the warning “No Slices” on its awning to prevent firebombing or other signs of Mafia displeasure.
Independent neighborhood parlors are thankfully still an important feature of the New York landscape, even though terrible national outfits like Domino’s and Little Caesar have tried to horn in. One of my favorite local parlors is the sweet-sauced Stromboli’s in the East Village; further uptown in the Flatiron district, there’s Bella Napoli (favoring an herby sauce) and Pizza Supreme near Penn Station (favoring a garlicky one). Way north in Riverdale, Denise Pizza mounts a very refined slice with good cheese. In neighborhoods with a substantial Sicilian presence, often dating from the early ’50s, thicker-crust pies have come to be preferred. Known as Sicilian pizza, the slice is square rather than wedge-shaped. L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn’s Gravesend is a noted purveyor of these pies in a setting that feels like an outtake from Grease. The spumoni rocks, too. Better yet is the Sicilian slice at Rose & Joe’s in Astoria, which is not a pizzeria at all, but an Italian bakery. Their luscious square finds its equal only at Krispy Pizzeria in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, where the nonna (“grandmother”) pie comes festooned with some of the best fresh mozzarella in town.
Long isolated from the other boroughs, Staten Island has developed its own distinctive style of pizza, halfway between thin-crust and thick. Meriting the encomium “low dive,” Denino’s has been slinging Staten Island pizza and incredible scungilli salad for over 50 years, and is also a great place to sit and drink beer. Another sterling producer of this style is Nunzio’s, located a stone’s throw from the beach in a frame structure that seems like it might blow away at any moment.
Recently, upscale pizza parlors have begun looking back to Italy for their model of what a pizza should be. It never occurs to them that contemporary pizza in Italy has been partly inspired by the worldwide popularity of American pizza. La Pizza Fresca turns out thin-crust pies in a wood-burning oven, and is actually certified by some crank organization called the Associazione della Vera Pizza Napoletana as the producer of a true Italian product. This certification shouldn’t dissuade you from enjoying their pizza, though the high price tag might. Also harkening back to Italia is La Villa, which offers a fresh-mozzarella nonna focaccia gobbed with fresh garlic. Another oddity served there originates in Abruzzi, though it’s named after Rome: the Romano, a double crust rustically stuffed with potatoes, pepperoni, and Italian sausage. Gut bomb time!
New York being New York, there are all sorts of oddball pizzas invented by crackpots who don’t realize there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. O’Neill’s serves up a pizza with stunningly high-quality ingredients in the middle of an OTB parlor: Down your pie while watching the ponies run on dozens of TV screens. Devotees of Chowhound.com are obsessed with the pizza at DiFara’s, painstakingly created in a conventional oven by aging master Domenico DeMarco, who will fiddle with your pie endlessly before he turns it over to you. The artichoke slice is legendary. Otto caused a sensation this year when it introduced pizzas with a thin crust something like a big cracker, though this type is standard in parts of central Italy, which once again proves there’s no such thing as “real Italian pizza.” Toppings run from the fairly normal (buffalo mozzarella) to the bizarre (lardo—strips of cured pork fat). Also on the very frontier of experimentation is Famous Pizza of Jackson Heights, where there’s never been anyone named Ray. Their Indo-Pak pizza begins with the usual cheese and tomato sauce, but not content to stop there, the baker rains on onions, fragrant masala powder, and fresh green chiles, making the pie scaldingly hot as well as delicious. Hell, I like it so much that I’m willing to take one back to Italy and certify that it’s the only true New York pizza.
“Pizza Orientation: The Best Slice Near Your School” by Robert Sietsema