As a New Yorker, I'm unfit to make the call on whether or not we have the best pizza in the world. It's against my basic upbringing to even entertain the notion that our pizza, bagels, pastrami, and hot dogs aren't the best. But if you, as a visitor to our fair city, want to make the call for yourself, you should start by getting the best that the city has to offer. Finding great pizza in New York used to be as easy as going to the closest street corner and ordering a slice. This is not the case any more, which is why I think many New York visitors in the last decade or so have come away unimpressed by the quality of pizza here. It's not your fault.
"Most of the dollar slice joints in Manhattan have ousted far superior places"
The reason? Most of the dollar slice joints in Manhattan have ousted far superior places because people (including myself from time to time, I'm ashamed to admit) would rather pay $1 for a slice of something hot, filling, and decidedly low-quality than $2.50 for something made with better ingredients from a pizzaiolo who is skilled at their craft and puts care and attention into their pies. At the same time, for the last decade, pizza-obsessives opening new pizzerias have been focusing more on Neapolitan-style pies.
The end result is that while great Neapolitan is easy to find in New York, the classic New York slice is getting to be more and more of a rarity. So how can you recognize a good slice joint in the field? When you walk by a pizzeria, how can you give yourself a fighting chance?
Here are some basic guidelines for finding a good slices joint, along with some specific recommendations.
And remember: while New Yorkers tend to take their pizza very seriously, a lot of it is just a charade. At the end of the day, it's just pizza. Enjoy it.
Identifying Great Pizza in the Wild
- Avoid Dollar Slices. If the slices are $1 and the sign above the door doesn't say Percy's, there are only two times when you should enter that door: if you are drunk, or if you are broke. In all other cases, keep walking.
- Get the Best Pizza in the Neighborhood. If the sign above the door does say Percy's and you've got at least $2.75 in your pocket, walk on down the street to either Joe's on Carmine or to Bleecker Street Pizza for a better experience.
- See how they're baked. If they are cooking their pizzas on pizza screens instead of directly on the floor of the oven (or in the case of a Sicilian or Grandma-style in an aluminum or carbon steel pan), don't buy it.
- Watch how they're stretched. If they are stretching their pizza dough on an oiled metal countertop instead of a floured one, don't place an order.
- Purple stuff. If they have bubblers full of Kool-Aid style fruit punch and grape drink, this is a good sign.
- Signage. If they have a big sign out front that says "brick oven pizza!," they are probably compensating for bad pizza with good marketing. Be wary.
- Light cheese = good. If the cheese is so thick that you can't see the sauce underneath, walk away.
- Check for char. If the crust on the slices in the display case are not well-charred, nicely puffed, and spotty brown, move along.
- Lines are good. If there is a long line, particularly in a non-tourist neighborhood, this is usually (but not always) a good sign. At the very least, it'll mean that you'll score a pretty good chance of getting a fresh-out-of-the-oven slice.
- Leave Times Square. If you are buying a slice near Times Square, don't. Actually, after you've taken one good look at the signs and the buildings, leave.
How to Order and Eat Like a Native
- A slice is a slice: A pie is a pie. A "plain slice" is what you might call a "cheese slice." Just say, "One plain slice, please." Don't ask for "one piece of cheese pizza" or you'll be met with confused stares.
- Non-standard slices: Thick square slices, the kind that generally come with crisp, fried bottoms, thick tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella are known as Sicilians. Thinner square slices made with garlicky tomato sauce are called grandmas. Some pizzerias specialize in these styles, and in fact, at most pizzerias that serves square slices, the square slices are probably better. They're making them because they specialize in them.
- On reheating: Standard MO for a pizzeria is to take a slice from the display window and pop it into a reheating oven for a minute or so. The results are usually moderately hot slices that range from crisp to slightly floppy. If you like your pizza extra crisp, tell them to reheat it "well done." If you want your slice NOW, just tell them "I'll take it cold."
- To stay or to go? If you're eating your pizza right away at the counter or a table, just say "to stay." If you're taking it eat on the street, DON'T say "to go," or they'll shove it in a paper bag which means you a) have to take it out to add red pepper flakes or salt (or whatever you want to add) and b) run the risk of having your cheese smooshed onto the inside of a paper bag. Just say "I'll take it on a plate." That way, you're ready to season it, fold it, and walk out the door.
- Speaking of seasoning, go easy on the shakers they set out. Just because they offer dried oregano, doesn't mean you need it. I generally go for a sprinkle or red pepper flakes, a little shake of salt (most pizzerias don't salt their pizza, and I like salt), and if it really looks like it needs it, a light dusting of Parm. But go easy.
- Fold and bite! We eat our pizzas without utensils in New York, mostly because we don't want to get yelled at by Jon Stewart. Pick up the slice by the back end, fold it a little to give it some structural integrity, and you're good to go. Or just use a fork and knife. Honestly, nobody will judge you unless you're the mayor or Donald Trump.
- Go easy on toppings. Seriously. That slice with barbecue sauce and grilled chicken might look appealing to someone who isn't used to the awesome simplicity of really high quality crust, sauce, and cheese, but New Yorkers like their slices minimally topped. Plain is the most popular, followed by pepperoni. Basic rule of thumb: If you fold the slice lengthwise and lift it up and the tip can't stand out straight under its own power, you probably have too many toppings. Time to rethink your life. Or at least your slice. Once you've found a joint that does a great regular slice, then you can start thinking about topping it up on a future visit (or later on in the same visit).
- Look for good pepperoni. If a pizzeria is offering a slice that has pepperoni that has curled up into little crisp-lipped grease chalices, they are using excellent pepperoni, and you should order said slice, preferably immediately.
- Trust the specialties. Many good slice shops will have a few specialty slices. These are often slices that have had care and attention put into their construction, with variations in sauces, layering of ingredients, etc. (notable examples: the pickled vegetable slice at Best Pizza or the Spicy Spring at Prince Street Pizza). You'll probably have a better time ordering these than going for the custom-build approach, which generally means adding cold toppings to pre-cooked slices and warming them over in a re-heat oven.
- If you like sausage, check to make sure that the sausage is applied in chunks, not slices. The former were applied raw and thus end up juicy and moist, their fat and juices washing over the slice as it bakes. The latter were applied pre-cooked, which means that they just dry out and turn tough, with no marriage of flavor during the cooking process.
Some Great New York Slices
If you're coming to New York and want great pizza here are some places to check out. Bear in mind, I'm ONLY recommending classic NY slice joints, so some great pizzerias that serve New York coal-oven whole pie pizza (like, say, John's or Lombardi's or Totonno's) aren't on this list, and neither are any of the Neapolitan or neo-Neapolitan joints (like Paulie Gee's or Motorino or Don Antonio).
These are classic NY-style places where you can walk in and order pizza a slice at a time to be enjoyed while walking down the street or standing at the counter.
- Sal and Carmine's on the Upper West Side. A classic New York slice made on a deck oven. Not the best in the city, but certainly the best in the 'nabe.
- Patsy's Pizza, and we're talking the original in Harlem, NOT one of the many knockoffs that have the same name. I believe it is the only place in Manhattan where you can buy coal oven pizza by the slice, and the slices are still under $2. You won't find a better pizza deal in town.
- NY Pizza Suprema has an upside down Sicilian (sauce over the cheese) that is great. Their regular slices are in the upper echelons of classic NYC, and it's in the tourist-packed shadows of Penn Station to boot!
- Bleecker Street Pizza is a west village institution. Their slice can be hit or miss, but they're mostly hit.
- Joe's Pizza is Bleecker Street Pizza's closest competitor, and a worthy one.
- Artichoke's signature artichoke slice is a travesty and an affront to pizza everywhere (it's dip on a big cracker, basically), but their grandma slice is great, with tons of olive oil and plenty of those blackened, crisp edges where the cheese melts into the hot pans.
- Rubirosa in Little Italy is a newish red sauce Italian joint. Here's the truth: the Italian food and pizza in Little Italy is mostly junk. Rubirosa is an exception. They serve super thin-crust, Staten-Island-style pizza by the slice during lunch or by the pie during dinner. Get the vodka slice. It's good.
- Prince Street Pizza took over the space that the real original Ray's Pizza used to occupy, and they gave it a huge upgrade in terms of pizza quality. Their "Spicy Spring" square pie made with Fra Diavolo sauce, spicy pepperoni (real natural casing stuff, the kind that cups up into glorious little crisp-lipped grease chalices as it cooks) and mozz gets an insanely crisp, olive-oil-saturated bottom, making it one of my favorite slices in the city.
- Famous Ben's of Soho (not to be confused with the inferior Ben's on West 14th Street) has greasy, bland regular slices, but their specialty "Palermo" slice is great. It's a thick square-style, topped with an oniony tomato sauce and breadcrumbs, in the style of a sfincione from Sicily. (Note: Prince Street Pizza also has a great breadcrumb-topped slice.)
- Sacco Pizza on 54th and 9th. I used to get my butt kicked here by the older and bigger kids for winning at Street Fighter II too often, but Dominick and Joe, the two pizza-slingers, always had my back. They make great pizza too.
- Nonna's LES Pizza makes a regular slice that has a long-simmered, oniony tomato sauce, which is unusual but tasty. Even better is the grandma slice, which is made with the same rich sauce and mozzarella made fresh in-shop.
- Best Pizza in Williamsburg. They are unique in that they do New York-style pies and slices in a wood-burning oven, giving those slices a hint of smoky char. They also make a killer meatball sub.
- L&B Spumoni Gardens. Get the Sicilian, which is the archetype for the style. Soft and crisp, great sauce, just a bare sprinkle of Romano cheese.
- DiFara in Midwood. Yeah, it's hyped and yeah, it's expensive and yeah, you'll have to wait on line for a good hour to get a slice and yeah, Dom occasionally burns a pie or two, but when it's at its best, I'll be damned if this isn't the finest slice in NYC. Fresh and dry mozzarella, Grana Padano cheese, light tomato sauce, chewy charred crust, fresh basil on every pie as soon as it comes out of the oven, and tons of good olive oil.
- Williamsburg Pizza in Williamsburg makes some fan-f*&king-tastic classic New York slices, as well as an excellent Grandma. I love their grandma with mushrooms. They recently opened in Manhattan too, but I haven't been to the new location so I can't yet vouch for it.
- Pizza Cotta Bene in Gowanus. It's a new spot, but it's totally old-school, with good regular and grandma slices.
Bronx and Queens
- New Park Pizza would get my vote for best New York slice in the city. They cook in an insanely hot beast of an oven, creating New York slices that have the poofy, cloudy airiness of a good Neapolitan slice with that perfect crisp-tender contrast. Don't add salt to this pie: they spread the base of the oven with salt before placing the raw pizza on top for baking.
- Louie and Ernie's in Throg's Neck. Get the sausage slice, which is made form sausage made at the Italian deli down the street.
- Rosario's Deli in Astoria. Big slices served in the back of an Italian market. Slicemaster Adam Kuban swears by 'em.
This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg here, folks, but at least from now on, when a visitor to New york says to you, "you know what? I've had New York pizza and it's not very good," you can point them this way and make sure that they followed the rules of engagement before passing judgment.
The pizza joints I listed here were off-the-cuff, first-to-my-head suggestions (which I find often says more about what mood I'm in than what I really think), so my apologies if I missed any obvious ones. You can school me in the comments!