NYC Pizza Cultural Literacy


Here's the tweet that inspired this post:

tweet screenshot

Yes, @alexandrak, such a post does exist, and if your boyfriend finds what I'm about to write all TL;DR, he can check it out: The 10 Best Pizzas in NYC »

That's a solid list, no doubt. And if his NYC pizza research stops there, I'm sure he'd be happy. But I think simply dropping a best-of list on a New York newbie does him a bit of a disservice. After all, he's moving to a pizza mecca. I think a little context is in order.

NYC Pizza: Miles of Styles


We've got some of the best pizza culture in the world here in NYC. You can get classic New York-style pizza (duh), coal-oven pizza, wood-fired Neapolitan-style, Roman-style, Grandma-style, Sicilian-style. There's tomato pies now (at 900 Degrees) [now since closed], and deep-fried pizza (at Forcella). And sfincione. And Greek style. Geez, I'm starting to feel like Bubba Gump here.

Yes, the cool thing about the New York City pizza scene, Phillip (can I call you Phillip?), is that you can get pretty much any pizza style you can shake a pizza peel at. (OK, maybe not Chicago deep dish and maybe not New Haven-style, but, hey, you need some reason to visit those cities, right? ;)

Pizza By the Slice


The overwheming majority of pizzerias in NYC are slice joints. If NYC's pizza pyramid looked like the one above, slice joints would pretty much be all the crusty, craggy stuff below the finished casing near the tip. It seems there's almost one on every block.

How many total pizzerias are there in NYC? That's one of those questions I get all the time. I've heard as low as 800 and as high as 3,000, but the best answer seems to be around 1,600. For a crazy visual reference, check out Slice Harvester's map of Manhattan slice joints:

Colin the Slice Harvester's goal is to eat at every slice joint in NYC. He completed Manhattan (above) earlier this year.

OK. Stop and think about that for a minute. Wow, right? The guy ate a slice from every slice joint in Manhattan. That is a feat that deserves applause. Visit Slice Harvester for his complete exploits.

A slice from Joe's Pizza.

Anyway, this style of pizza you'll find at these ubiquitous slice joints is the stuff most people think of when they think of New York–style pizza. Thin, floppy, cheesy slices of pizza. Seeing as how you're from Austin, Philip, it's the stuff that Home Slice there is trying to emulate.

Must-Eat Slice Joint Pizzerias

Where's the best slice of pizza in NYC? As our Daily Slice posts have shown, there's no shortage of top-notch pizza joints in the city's five boroughs. Here are eight of our favorites:

See also: Open(ish) Thread -- Your 'Great 8' Slice Joints in NYC »

Coal-Oven Pizza

One thing you might not be familiar with is the fact that some NYC pizzerias use anthracite coal to cook their pizzas. (Then again, I know that Brooklyn-based Grimaldi's has made inroads into Texas, so maybe you do know coal-fired pizza.) Pizza geeks have long been into coal-fired pizzas. The ovens cook at a hot-enough temperature that a skilled pizzamaker can create an amazing crust that is both crisp and chewy at the same time and that is not dried out and tough. Also, the way that most of these old-school coal-oven places make the pizza, they just sort of know how to make a nice balanced pie, one that doesn't go too heavy on the sauce or pile on too much cheese.

Anthracite coal.

Most of the coal-fired pizzerias in NYC are part of an old and venerable family tree of pizza history. Lombardi's is widely thought of as having been the first pizzeria in NYC and indeed the nation (at least on paper). That's probably oversimplifying things (see this post on Lombardi's for its history), but the fact remains that many of the other beloved coal-oven pizzerias in NYC were founded by people who once worked for Gennaro Lombardi in the early 1900s.

DOOD! MUST READ: For an excellent overview of coal pizza ovens in general, please see Scott Wiener's post "The Story of Coal."

QUICK NOTE: With the exception of Patsy's in East Harlem and Sac's in Astoria, the coal-oven places are whole-pie only, i.e., NO SLICES.

My Top Coal-Oven Pizzerias in NYC

A couple of pizzas from Patsy's in East Harlem. Nick Solares
  • Patsy's, East Harlem: When it's on, it's transcendent. Not gonna lie, they're about 50-50 on hitting that mark. Still, gotta go!
  • Totonno's, Coney Island: Every newcomer has to visit Coney Island. Someone'll drag you, I'm sure. While you're there, skip the hot dogs at Nathan's and visit Totonno's instead. Along with Patsy's on a good day, this is one of the top two coalers. 524 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11224
  • John's of Bleecker Street: Some folks diss it these days, but I think John's still makes a pretty good pie. (And I'm not alone in that.) 278 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014
  • Arturo's: Arturo's is a little thicker than the others here, a little too chewy, but still one of the better coalies. 106 West Houston Street, New York NY 10012

The Wood-Fired Revolution of the 2000s

Alejandro Rivas of La Pizza Fresca places a pizza in the wood-fired oven there. Nick Solares

Yeah, so coal oven pizza used to be the shit in NYC. When you wanted to make a night of it pizzawise, you'd go to one of the storied coal-oven joints, maybe wait in a line, finally get in, and get a whole pizza or two to share. Chowhound used to be full of people talking about how one coaler had gone downhill while another had reemerged as triumphant.

Not so much anymore. The mania now seems to be for wood-oven pizza. This started somewhere in the early 2000s but seemed to really get going once Una Pizza Napoletana opened here in 2004 (it has since moved to San Francisco). Since then, it seems like a week doesn't go by when someone's not opening a wood-fired-oven (WFO) pizzeria. And almost 99% of those are doing the Neapolitan-stye pizzas.

Here are some my favorites (no particular order):

Thumbnail image for 20110418-paulie-gee-monte-christo.jpg
The monte cristo pizza at Paulie Gee's.
  • Roberta's, Bushwick: Great pizza, awesome space. As an Austinite, Philip, I think you'll really feel at home here. It's got that sort of hippy-freaker-cool-kid vibe to it. They're putting a spin on Neapolitan-style pizza, with lots of inventive toppings. The Cortes is killer
  • Kesté, Greenwich Village: Really great traditional Neapolitan pizza. People who have been to Naples often say this is the closest pizza in NYC comes to it
  • Motorino, Manhattan: ZOMG. Crazy-high puffy crusts. Killer brussels sprout pizza. The cherrystone clam is awesome, too
  • Paulie Gee's, Greenpoint: Paul Giannone is a genius of toppings. He just knows what works well together and almost never fails to hit the mark. Really great atmosphere here too
  • Forcella: Great newcomer. DEEP-FRIED PIZZA! Need I say more?
  • Best Pizza: LOVE IT. These guys are basically doing NYC-style but in a wood oven. And they're just doing it right. I promise you, you will love this pizza. If you don't, you have no soul and should pack your bags and move back to Austin
  • Lucali: A perennial Brooklyn favorite. Very good pizza. But you're going to have to wait a while to get in. Sort of does a Brooklyn-style pizza but in a wood oven
  • Fornino: Wood oven pizza that sort of treads the line between Neapolitan and New York-style. One of the first in NYC to do house-made mozzarella and house-grown herbs and toppings (in a mini greenhouse)

Historically Significant/All-Time Favorite Pizzerias

L&B Spumoni Gardens' square slice.

OK, so I could keep slicing and dicing lists of pizzerias for you, Philip, but I think you have enough to work on for a while. But last, I'll leave you with this list of pizzerias that are either historically significant or are all-time popular favorites with people in the city. They're sort of like places that you should know and/or visit if you want to be a pizzahead. Some have already been mentioned above.

  • Lombardi's: The original Lombardi's could be called the city's and the nation's first pizzeria. Unfortunately, it closed for several years and then reopened in the late '90s down the block. Still, it's got the storied name and a pretty historic oven. Worth checking out
  • L&B Spumoni Gardens: Regarded as having one of the best Sicilian slices in the city. Go when it's nice out, since it's as close to a roadside stand as you're going to get in NYC. Save room for the pistachio spumoni
  • Di Fara: This is a perennial best-of. Strong feelings here from many quarters. Most people love the place, but there's also a full-fledged backlash. You really do HAVE to go, though, to make up your own mind. Read my "Everything You Need to Know about Di Fara" piece. (To give you an idea of Di Fara's significance in NYC pizza lore, it's the only pizzeria on Slice that has its own how-to visitor's guide

So this post is getting waaaaay too long, and it's getting late, so I'm ending it here, Philip.