Monday, July 13, 2015

New York Pizza Journeys

Although I've lived in California for over 30 years, according to a recent New York Times test, I still talk like a New Yorker.  I have also held fast to a couple of New York obsessions.  As readers of this blog well know, I remain painfully devoted to the baseball team of my youth.  The other one -- less easily satisfied with a cable TV subscription -- is pizza.  For that, I have to wait for my occasional visits to New York, when I venture out to as many of the legendary pizzerias as my family will tolerate.

There was wonderful pizza in Great Neck, Long Island, where I grew up.  I preferred La Tosca, but a plausible argument could be made -- and often was -- that Scotto's was its equal.  We took great pizza for granted and it was hard to imagine it could taste any better.  But everything is better in the City, and back then the consensus was the best pizzeria in Manhattan was Ray's.  Yes, but which Ray's?

Ray's, Famous Ray's, Original Ray's or Famous Original Ray's?

Well, the first Ray's was on Prince Street in Little Italy, opened by Ralph Cuomo in 1959. Ray's closed in 2011, after a legal dispute among Cuomo's heirs.  (This is now the site of Prince Street Pizza, where the long line misleadingly suggests a stellar slice.  Perhaps if you like the thick square (Sicilian) slice, which although quite good is not really my jam; the Neopolitan slice was just ok -- unfortunately not hot enough and so the crust had the consistency of cardboard)  Cuomo had opened a second location on First Avenue at 59th Street, which he sold in the early 1960s to Rosolino Mangano, and which then became the first of several "Famous Original Ray's."  For me, the go-to Ray's was Famous Ray's on 6th Avenue and 11th Street, opened by Mario Di Rienzo in 1973.  Famous Ray's closed in 2011, but Mario reopened in 2012, as Famous Roio's Pizza.  In the fall of 2012, I went to Famous Roio's with that wide, thin, greasy slice still embedded in my memory.  I was deeply disappointed.  Too thick with too much cheese, and nothing at all like I recalled.  Others must have felt the same.  Famous Roio's closed its doors in 2013. 

Coal Brick Ovens

Then there are the storied coal brick oven pizzerias, beginning with Lombardi's at Spring Street and Mott, which, as the plaque says, is the "First Pizzeria in the United States."  Opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905, the pizza at Lombardi's is truly excellent, but the restaurant -- geared for tourists -- sorely lacks atmosphere.  

Lombardi, himself, trained the next generation of pizza makers, including Antonio (Totonno) Pero, who opened Totonno's at Coney Island, John Sasso of John's of Bleecker Street, and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's in East Harlem.  Patsy's nephew, Patsy Grimaldi, opened Grimaldi's in Brooklyn. 

These successors to Lombardi's form the pantheon of the great coal-fired brick oven pizzerias.  These ovens give the pizza a crispness and smoky flavor that cannot be duplicated -- literally.  New coal ovens are not permitted because they fail to meet New York's  environmental laws, but the old ovens, having been grandfathered in, can still be used.

In 2015, we were in NYC for Father's Day and my family asked where I wanted to go for dinner.  Without hesitation, I said Patsy's, which has been serving up pies in East Harlem since 1933 (although the Lancieri family sold the restaurant in the early 1990s).  With Sinatra watching us approvingly, we wolfed down pizza that was as close to perfection as you can get -- thin crust, slightly sweet sauce, just the right amount of cheese.

Totonno's might be even better.  It is unassuming and more down-to-earth as befits its Coney Island location, and has the feel of a family-run operation -- as it should since Totonno's grandchildren operate the place.  John's of Bleeker Street, with its wood booths and "no slices" reminder, is fabulous too. 

The walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Grimaldi's feels like the true pilgrimage that it is.  Once you brave the line outside, the red and white checkered tablecloths, photographs of New York glitterati on the wall, and -- of course -- Sinatra on the sound system transport you back in time.  The pizza, crisp and piping hot out of the brick oven is not marred, in my view, by the fact that Patsy Grimaldi sold his interest in the restaurant in the late 1990s.  (He operates Juliana's in Grimaldi's original location a couple of doors away.)

The Old Masters

There are not too many things more sacred than personally receiving a pizza from one of the Old Masters. Sal & Carmine's is indistinguishable on the outside (or inside for that matter) from any other hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, but this hallowed place opened in 1959 on the upper West Side -- Broadway at 102nd Street -- is no run-of-the-mill pizzeria.  Sadly, Sal passed away in 2009, but his brother Carmine is still behind the counter, and served up one of the best slices I've ever had.  A bit light on sauce but with a memorable, chewy crust that is not as floppy thin as a traditional NY slice (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I dragged my family to Avenue J in the Midwood section of Brooklyn for a pie at Di Fara, which is often rated the "Best Pizza in NY."  Di Fara has been run by Dom DeMarco since 1964, and he still makes every pie personally.  Yes, every pie.  As a result, service is slow and the line outside the door is long.  When we got there in the late afternoon, DeMarco's friendly but very protective daughter came out to say they were going to close for an hour because her father needed a break.  We didn't mind the wait, and were ultimately rewarded when DeMarco, himself, took our pie out of the oven, ceremoniously cut fresh basil leaves over the top, and handed it over. 

My favorite slice in the City is from Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street in the West Village.  Joe's was opened in 1975, by Joe Pozzuoli, who still runs the business.  This is THE classic thin, wide, greasy New York slice.

Staten Island

OK, I didn't actually go to Staten Island.  If I had, I would have gone to Joe and Pat's.  Instead I went to Rubirosa in the Village, run by the son of Giuseppe Pappalardo, who is the "Joe" of Joe and Pat's.  The pizza is very thin, very crisp and the slices are very small.  The pizza is very, very good. 

More Modern

I usually like to go for the plain (cheese) pie or, if I'm feeling adventurous, I might add some anchovies or maybe olives or mushrooms.  At Motorino on 1st Avenue in the East Village, I had one with cherry stone clams and another with brussel sprouts.  Great choices.

On the other hand, at Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, I should have stuck with the plain.  This place comes with a lot of hype and a pun-filled menu (e.g., Ricotta Be Kiddn' Me).  We went for the Brian De Parma (essentially a margherita) and the Greenpointer (with a salad's worth of arugula on top).  Mostly enjoyed the former, not the latter.

Speaking of Brooklyn, Roberta's in Bushwick appears to be just another hipster joint, which it is, but its pizza is serious -- truly up there with the best pizza in New York.  I see now why the New York Times features a recipe for how to make its pizza dough -- aptly described as "delicate, extraordinarily flavorful."  Wow.

The individual pies at Keste Pizza & Vino on Bleeker, and its cousin, Don Antonio by Starlita on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, are also quite good, if not up to Roberta's impossibly high standards.  Don Antonio apparently features a fried pizza, which I neglected to try.  Next time.

So Much For A Cliche'

I have been known to say that a slice on any random corner of New York is better than the best pizza elsewhere.  Unfortunately, I went to the wrong corner.  Finding myself around Times Square recently, I walked into Patzeria Perfect Pizza on W 46th Street and ordered a couple of slices. A long way from perfect.

The right corner is 92nd and Second Avenue where Delizia 92 (and I would assume its other branch on 73rd Street, Delizia 73) serves a classic slice that is just about as good as it gets.
To Be Continued


John Myste said...
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Lovechilde said...
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Unknown said...

That is a very good article about New York’s pizza icons. It’s fascinating to read about the history of the pizza industry to date. It’s too bad what happened to Ray’s; it must’ve been very disappointing to pizza fans to see its decline. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

Brian Carter @

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