If you’d described pizza to the average New Yorker in 1904, chances are they’d kiss you on the mouth for dreaming up something so incredible. It wasn’t until the following year that Gennaro Lombardi began selling the simple and mouthwatering combination of bread, cheese, and tomatoes that has since become as synonymous with this city as the subterranean rats that now enjoy it.
More than a century later, our city’s pizza scene has exploded to the point where local diners can choose between pillowy Neapolitan rounds and bulky Sicilian slices, fried pizza, deep-dish, and several subsections of the thin-crust genre — including Roman pizza and bar pies (please, let’s forget the time we went all Nineties Madonna and experimented with pizza cones).
New York’s longest-enduring pizza legacy is undoubtedly the style that formed indigenously in Italian-American kitchens — our longest-standing pizzerias attest to that. We’d like to think that Gennaro would be mighty proud of what he started 110 years ago, though he’d probably be pretty miffed about all the new competition. Whatever his deal, he’d eat well digging into any of these, our ten best old-school pizzas:
10. Joe’s Pizza (7 Carmine Street, 212-366-1182)
After forty years slinging exceptional slices in Greenwich Village, Pino “Joe” Pozzuoli and grandson Sal Vitale finally branched out, and the perennial favorite now operates both in the East Village and across the East River in Williamsburg. But the original location thankfully still stands as a testament to cheesy gas-fired New York–style pizza. Plain slices are textbook, featuring bright, lightly sweet sauce melded with gooey low-moisture mozzarella and flour-forward crusts. Vitale also bakes up bulging, doughy Sicilian pies sporting nicely browned caps of melted cheese.
9. L&B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street, Brooklyn; 718-449-1230)
Bensonhurst’s landmark Italian-American nostalgia complex — spread out over three buildings that include a formal dining room and pizzeria — is as famous for its wonderfully airy Sicilian pies as it is for its namesake frozen dessert, a milky not-quite-ice-cream offered in chocolate, pistachio, and cremolata (almond-spiced vanilla). A summertime favorite since 1939, slices here, pulled from rectangular trays, have real height, with crisp crusts and yeasty, just-baked interiors supporting gobs of mozzarella and richly herbal sauce ladled on top. But regardless of weather or season, when the craving for robust square pizza hits, a trip to L&B is a must.
8. John’s of Bleecker (278 Bleecker Street, 212-243-1680)
In 1929, former Lombardi’s employee John Sasso struck out on his own with this Bleecker Street pizzeria that likewise eschews slices in favor of table service and faintly smoky coal-fired pies. The restaurant’s split dining rooms ooze with history, its walls and tables bearing the hungry etchings of diners past. Lines to get in the door move fast, and so do the dough-slingers in the back. Their handiwork arrives at the table hugging the edges of its metal tray. While the sauce could use some acidity, the gooey fresh mozzarella that John’s uses has a broad creaminess when melted that harmonizes with heartier toppings — all of it supported by crust with an admirable crunch.
7. Luigi’s Pizza (686 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-499-3857)
Visit this South Slope staple, with its handful of seats, charming vintage signage, and pressed-tin ceilings, for quality thin-crust and Sicilian pies. Luigi Lanzo opened his namesake shop in 1973, and it’s now run by his children, Giovanni and Marisa. Lightly sweet tomato sauce (their mother’s recipe) cradles milky puddles of mozzarella — plain slices with nicely chewy, burnished crusts. And like his father before him, “Gio” seasons the olive oil he drizzles over finished pizzas with homegrown basil and turns the aromatic herbs into a zesty pesto that elevates white slices.
6. Sal & Carmine Pizza (2671 Broadway, 212-663-7651)
Founded in 1959 by Sal and Carmine Malanga, this family-owned pizzeria slings superlative slices and gorgeously amorphous pies that bank on a floury crust baked terracotta-brown underneath. The bready canvas soars when sloshed with the pizzeria’s sweet, bold sauce and aged mozzarella. Now run by Carmine and Sal’s grandson Luciano Gaudiosi, the Upper West Side parlor retains a simple allure. We could wax poetic about the towers of pizza boxes stacked high, Carmine’s no-bullshit attitude, and the shop’s resistance to delivery, but the parlor’s success could easily be predicated on its product alone.
5. Lee’s Tavern (60 Hancock Street, Staten Island; 718-667-9749)
Staten Islanders popularized skinny, thin-crust pizza in New York (with Joe & Pat’s and Denino’s battling it out for saucy supremacy in that regard), but when it comes to bar pizza in New York City, Leroy Morocco’s Dongan Hills pub takes the cake. For 75 years, locals have congregated under pressed-tin ceilings to delight in the modest cracker-thin, extra-crisp rounds. The kitchen’s piquantly sweet sauce pairs perfectly with the salty funk of pepperoni or sausage.
4. New Park Pizza (15671 Cross Bay Boulevard, Queens; 718-641-3082)
Since 1956, this Howard Beach pizzeria has supplied city-dwellers with some of the cheesiest and most archetypal pizza in the five boroughs. Pizzaioli here scatter the bottom of the brick ovens with salt, which flavors the crust’s underside, giving it a more pronounced yeastiness. New Park’s concentrated and saccharine marinara cuts through both the crust’s bold smokiness and the onslaught of creamy, slightly scorched mozzarella. Per the city’s pizza cognoscenti: Order your pies and slices well-done or risk having to deal with a somber droopy dough triangle.
3. Louie & Ernie’s (1300 Crosby Avenue, Bronx; 718-829-6230)
First operating in Harlem before a move north, this Pelham Bay slice shop has served locals and raving pizza pilgrims for more than seventy years. Brothers Cosimo and Johnny Tiso bought the current space — which sits below a small house — in 1987 from Ernie Ottuso, one of the original owners (immortalized via a street sign at the pizzeria’s corner intersection). Their plain pizza finds a commendable balance between golden-brown crust, full-cream Wisconsin mozzarella, and gently sweet tomato sauce, and their white pies pile on the ricotta. To either of them, make sure to add crumbles of tender, fennel-accented pork sausage, imported all the way from right down the street at S & D Pork Store.
2. Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-372-8606)
A beloved slice of historic New York City, Brooklyn’s oldest pizzeria has stood the test of time, battling and persevering in the face of Hurricane Sandy and a fire. Then again, half a decade is nothing for this Coney Island pizzeria, which Anthony “Totonno” Pero opened in 1924 after working at Lombardi’s. Seasoned from more than a century of use, the shop’s coal ovens produce pizzas boasting darkly charred crusts that are sturdy enough to support generous layers of sweet, herbal tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella.
1. Di Fara Pizza (1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn; 718-258-1367)
New York City’s patron saint of basil-snipping, Dom DeMarco opened this Midwood dough shrine in 1964 and has presided over it ever since. From his spare corner shop, he and his family turn out beautiful, imperfect rounds drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with punchy grana padano cheese. While the oven occasionally lends pies a good deal of char, Di Fara’s recipe — which includes a mix of buffalo and cow’s-milk mozzarella and both canned and fresh tomatoes — yields a pie that’s better than most even when it’s verging on burnt. The place was swamped even before jerks like us deified the poor guy. Some will tell you to get there early, but we prefer to double down on delicious by placing an order at Di Fara and then walking around the corner to split one of the Italian comfort food dishes served at sister restaurant MD Kitchen (the DeMarcos just opened a sweets shop nearby as well). If you’re going to suffer a two-hour wait, you should at least take solace in a plate of shrimp parmigiana.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 1, 2015