NYC Quintessential: Patsy's Pizza, East Harlem


Patsy's Pizza

2287 First Avenue, New York NY 10035 (117/118; map); 212-534-9783;; @Patsys_Pizzeria
Pizza Style: New York–Neapolitan
Oven Type: Coal
The Skinny: Awesome. Go
Price: $12 a pie, toppings $3 each

Look, I'm not going to do a better job with a Patsy's review than Nick Solares did with this one from early 2010. Seriously, go read it. It's a thoughtful piece of food writing that captures the essence of this historic coal-oven pizzeria in East Harlem.

After re-reading that post, I was almost going to skip my pizzeria review this week and go hang my head in shame knowing I'll never match it. But, you know, Patsy's Pizza — the original Patsy's Pizza, which this is — has come up quite a bit lately 'round these parts (here and here), and I wanted to revisit myself. It is, after all, a New York City pizza institution.

I don't even remember when I took this photo. You may have seen it around on Slice. It's one of my favorite pizza-related photos of all time. I'm always happy to dig it up and use it again.

First, let's give you a backgrounder. You know all these Patsy's Pizzerias around NYC? They are unrelated to the East Harlem Patsy's.

OK. I'll backtrack a bit. They are and they aren't. You see, when the original Patsy, Pasquale Lancieri, died in the late 1970s, his widow, Carmella, sold the pizzeria to longtime employees Frank Brija and John Brecevich. In 1995 Nick Tsoulos (owner of the Angelo's and Goodburger chains) made an arrangement with these new proprietors to license the Patsy's name and chain out a number of them. All the while, the original Patsy's in East Harlem would operate under its own name, doing what it had always done since 1933.

So, yes, the mini chain Patsy's bought the name and branding, but that's the only way it's related.

Anyway, my take for a while now has been that this Patsy's can be OMG amazing when it's on. But sort of lackluster when it's off. And that it's off as often as it's on.

I might have to change my tune after last night. Patsy's was firing on all cylinders, and we had a couple amazing pizzas there.

What to Know When Visiting Patsy's

A plain pie with regular mozzarella.
  • There's only one size pizza available on the menu. It's a respectable size — about 16 inches across, I'd say. Not HUGE but not Neapolitan dainty. Still, even though it's on the bigger side, don't let the size fool you. As the menu says, it's "paper thin." (Yes, the menu says "paper thin.") Got a big appetite? You could easily house three-quarters of a plain pie on your own. Hell, I've eaten an entire Patsy's plain pizza by myself. That was in another lifetime, before Slice even existed. On a long lunch break. I almost fell asleep at my desk when I got back to work. But I digress...
I left it to Girl Slice to choose the topped pizza and was surprised she went with mushroom and pepperoni. A classic combo — and Patsy's uses fresh mushrooms instead of canned. Also, they're not too watery. (I suggested the use of fresh mozzarella.).
  • Regular or fresh mozzarella are options. I don't know which I prefer. Just last week, I said I liked the regular. After last night, I'm on the fence. The fresh was as good as the regular, and they use the fresh mozzarella a little more sparingly, so you get to taste more of the sauce. The fresh mozzarella pizza is a little better balanced. But I still kinda like the regular mozzarella just because
Here's the hole structure of the crust. Not too crazy a rise there, but not too dense, either.
  • Whole pies or slices: One part of the operation is a sit-down restaurant. A couple doors down from that is the Patsy's slice shop. That's where the actual oven is. This is one of only two coal-oven pizzerias in NYC where you can get pizza by the slice
Here's the upskirt. Some charring toward the center of the pie. Not burned! Enough to give it a nice smoky flavor but not enough that it's acrid or bitter.
  • Cash only. Like most of these venerable old-school pizzerias, it's all about the ... Jacksons. (I would have said Benjamins, but unless you're going crazy at Patsy's, you're not going to run up a tab that high. That's because whole plain pies are only $12. Yes, you read that right. Twelve freakin' dollars. This is like the steal of the century here, people

The Patsy's Secret

These shakers are on every table for a reason.

To me, it's sort of pointless to "review" Patsy's, since it's kind of a roller coaster of flavor, up and down. If your first experience of it was on a peak, you'll probably love it forever. Fortunately, there's a way to juice a so-so slice.

On every table at Patsy's is a plate of assorted condiments. In my mind, this plate is a Patsy's hallmark. And it runs the gamut of shakeables: red pepper, black pepper, salt, garlic-salt, Parmesan, oregano. I took the picture above before our pizzas even hit the table but figured wouldn't dip into them. I usually leave my pizza as-is.

A properly dressed slice.

Well, after the first slice, I was kinda like, "Uh oh... I think Patsy's is kind of off tonight."

The crust had a great texture. Just crisp enough, but tender and foldable. A little underflavored, though. And on the plain with regular mozzarella, there's perhaps a bit too much cheese.

But add some salt to that slice — whether via regular table salt, a shake of Parm, or some of the garlic-salt — and all is right with the world. Like I said, I'd normally say pizza shouldn't need an extra boost, but this boost works, and it makes the pizza at Patsy's sublime.

Anyway, this is less a review than a riff. If you want a different perspective on Patsy's, go read Nick's bit. Or, just go take it all in for yourself.