Since I had to turn in all of my pizza picks For “Pizza City, USA” by the end of 2017, I invariably missed some places, and of course new pizzerias are opening up all of the time in and around Chicago. Here are some of the notable places I’ve visited since I turned over the manuscript to my publisher. Had I not already chosen my 101, they would have certainly made it into the book.
Donning a red knit cap and a white work shirt, Matt Halack calmly oversees his pizzaiolos near the large, wood-burning oven inside Grateful Bites Pizza Shoppe in sleepy downtown Winnetka. Since 2017, he and his wife have been running this tiny restaurant, with its compact list of salads and artisan Neapolitans. Halack knows good char when he sees it, because he’s seen plenty. His inspiration came from a pizza eating experience at the late, lamented Great Lake in Andersonville. It was there he realized how good pizza dough, and by extension, pizza as a whole, could be.
Halack made a sourdough starter around 2011, and he’s been feeding it ever since. There is no yeast in his dough, just flour, water and salt. Topping highlights include a pepperoni with hot honey and an Elote, featuring corn, queso fresco, kewpie mayo and cilantro. But the gem is a South Side-inspired sausage with homemade giardiniera, that I’d gladly fight traffic on the Edens to go get another time.
Note: this is not pizza for delivery or carryout. Halack grudgingly admits the pizza doesn’t travel well, and I’m guessing most of his Winnetka customers can’t understand why, when they get it home, the pizza has lost something. Eat them there!
899 Green Bay Rd., Winnetka I 847-386-9141
NAPOLI PER TUTTI
When greatness reveals itself in Chicago, you can bet that at some point, the student/intern/stage will become the entrepreneur. It happens to chefs like Paul Kahan and Rick Bayless all of the time – their employees eventually go out on their own, and make the culinary scene even richer. The same is true in the pizza world. Spacca Napoli tends to have a pretty good batting average. Nella Grassano left the Ravenswood Neapolitan gem years ago to open Nella (formerly in Lincoln Park, now in Hyde Park), and now Henry De Leon has done the same, but in suburban Schaumburg.
De Leon and his partners found a tiny plot near the Prairie Towne Center, on Barrington Road, where they can burnish their Neapolitan pies with charred corniciones and puffy sides. The interiors are slightly wet, a result of quick, high-heat baking on a stone deck with lots of fresh mozz or bufala. This is as close to Neapolitan as you’ll get in the suburbs, the exception being Napolita in Wilmette, on the North Shore.
181 N. Barrington Rd., Schaumburg I 224-653-9464
Stix n Brix Wood Fired
This neighborhood restaurant – across the street from the home of the Chicago White Sox – shares ownership with the adjacent Red Line Cafe, where you can indulge in smoothies and pastries. On the pizza side, they make very good Neapolitan-style pies, albeit with firmer, crispier heels and crusts. The margherita is solid, as is the version with giardiniera, which provides a nice element of crunch and heat. The pizzaiolo appears to know his oven’s hot spots. A full day of rest gives his dough structure, and the chew is really quite pleasant; much more pleasing to me than the usual, run-of-the-mill squishy Neapolitan. If you live anywhere near the South Side, this is a great new addition. If you happen to be going to a Sox game and don’t feel like eating the sub-standard food in the ballpark, here’s your post-game option.
220 W. 33rd St. | 312-265-0219
I had always known L.A. to be more of a vegetable town than a gluten-heavy one, despite Nancy Silverton’s gem, Pizzeria Mozza. The toppings in L.A. are always dynamic, seasonal and bursting with flavor. The crusts? Usually more “meh” than my goodness. But things are changing on the West Coast, as a new crop has emerged. Not just seasonal, artisan pies, but even a few NYC slices. Some of the pies (mostly Neo-Neapolitan and Artisan) are truly worth sitting in your car for an hour to get to. Here are some of my favorites across all categories.
Joe Vitale moved out to L.A. after working at the legendary slice joint on Carmine and Bleeker, opening his first location in Santa Monica in 2007. Two years later, he opened on the Sunset Strip (the shop I visited). I really didn’t expect much, but a friend from New York (now living in Chicago) told me it was definitely worth a stop. There are now four locations in L.A. and a food truck.
The slice is remarkable. It’s got that lightly browned undercarriage, with just a bit of crispness; easily foldable, with cheese placement evenly distributed and a zesty tomato sauce that complements the slightly charred edges. If I wasn’t headed to another place to eat that day, I would have easily ordered a second slice.
6504 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles I 323-467-9500
Candace & Charles Nelson, the couple behind Sprinkles Cupcakes, opened Pizzana in Brentwood with partners Chris (yes, the actor) and Caroline O’Donnell. The pizzas are made in the Neo-Neapolitan style, and created by Naples-born master pizzaiolo Daniele Uditi.
Uditi uses a “slow dough” that is prepared with a blend of imported Italian flours, creating a crust that is light and easy-to-digest, yet sturdy enough to pick up with one hand. He does not use yeast. The crispy undercarriage is due in part to the custom, perforated, raised pan liners that the pizzas sit on. Due to the air flow underneath, the crusts don’t get soggy after sitting on the pan after a few minutes.
Uditi allows the dough to ferment for a full 48 hours before adding meticulously sourced toppings, blending the traditional with the unexpected. Pies include the Amatriciana with housemade amatriciana sauce, fior di latte, crispy prosciutto crudo, red onion, shaved parmigiano; the Corbarina with cherry tomato, zucchini blossom, burrata, gremolata; and spicy Messicana, an ode to Uditi’s Mexican wife featuring chorizo, cilantro lime sauce, sweet chili, jalapeño, queso fresco. Any pizza can be prepared with a gluten-free crust upon request – this is, afterall, Brentwood.
I’d recommend sitting at the pizza bar, so you can watch the pizzaiolos firing pies in the hand-crafted wood-burning oven. I loved seeing how they built the special pie I ordered on the night of my visit: a diavola, featuring spicy salami, fior di latte, charred shallots and ‘nduja walnut romesco with honey. One of the all-time greats.
11712 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles I 310-481-7108
Wait a sec, there’s pizza worth eating in Vegas? Outside of a casino? I wouldn’t say it’s a mecca for pizza, but there are a few notable spots, including that hidden joint inside the Cosmopolitan. One of the city’s adopted sons, originally from the East Coast, has taken the local pizza game up a few notches, and yes, there are a few options outside of the Strip worth getting in a cab for, if the mood strikes and you’re tired of overpriced sushi.
Grandma, NYC Slice, Sicilian
Vincent Rotolo has won awards for his pizza-making, but the New York City native grew up in the business, literally. Spending days with his mom in Brooklyn and weekends with his dad, who lived above John’s Pizza on Bleecker, he formed a life-long bond with pizza making that continues to this day. Having worked for several New York restaurant groups, he moved west, to Las Vegas, working with the Bellagio Resort as well as Dom DeMarco’s Pizzeria. He consulted on Evel Pie on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, creating pizzas that received critical acclaim.
In February of 2018, on National Pizza Day, Rotolo opened Good Pie, which features four styles of pizza: grandma, Brooklyn, Detroit and gluten-free. His grandma pie is the standout. We tried it during the Pizza Expo with another 100 or so industry folks, so the pressure was obviously on. All of the pies in the front case look great, but the grandma is truly the most inspired. Finding that shorter dough, with the crispy edges and a sauce-to-cheese ratio that is the reverse of most regular slices, his pies have great chew and structure. Don’t be put off by the Pawn Plaza location, you’re in Vegas, after all.
725 S. Las Vegas Blvd., #140 Las Vegas | 702-844-2700
It’s impossible to write a book about pizza – whether it’s in Chicago exclusively or anywhere else in America – and not talk about New York City. The first recorded pizzeria in the U.S., Lombardi’s, has been cranking out blistered pies from their coal-fired oven since 1905. Pizza is as much a religion in New York as Sunday morning bagels and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The pizza debate between Chicago and New York City has raged for decades. Thin vs. deep and slice vs. square-cut, tavern-style seem to be the main points of contention. I knew that if I wrote a book extolling the virtues and pleasures (and superiority) of Chicago’s pizza landscape, I better be able to back it up by knowing as much, if not more than, the average New Yorker about their own pizza. Yes, it was a defensive move. So I consulted a few friends in the business who’ve eaten more pizza than most locals: Mark Rosati, the Culinary Director of Shake Shack, Lawrence Weibman, a former Producer on “The Chew” and Senior Producer of @FirstWeFeast who also goes in front of the camera by @NYCFoodGuy on Instagram and finally, Michael Anstendig, a freelance food writer and lifelong New Yorker who has a keen eye for all things NYC. I asked them to give me their “must visit” pizza places. Not surprisingly, they sent me a combined list of 56 places.
I decided I would check all of them off over the course of four visits. I tackled Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in the first two, then ticked off the remaining 20 or so in Manhattan, Harlem and Jersey City, NJ (trust me) on the final two visits. Not all of them were stellar, but I’d say at least 30 were remarkable, and a handful – Lucali, DiFara, Roberta’s and Sofia Pizza Shoppe were game-changers for me. Chicago has nothing like them. But in the end, I could see patterns emerge. For starters, New York City has only five styles of pizza compared to Chicago’s 10; only 30 killer pizzerias in a city this size? Hmm.
I mapped everything out, plotted itineraries and planned to tackle them all in four trips. The final trip – in May of 2018 – resulted in 12 stops alone. Several times, these friends would be able to meet me, like the memorable Sunday afternoon when Mark showed up at DiFara to get a whole grandma pie that he was going to bring back to his wife, who was not feeling well. I had heard about those legendary lines at DiFara, and since they didn’t open until 1 p.m., and I had a flight back to Chicago at 4 p.m., I hired a Task Rabbit to get in line at 11 a.m., ensuring we’d be the first in line when they opened. It was a crazy endeavor, but incredibly eye-opening. The result of all of that eating was the discovery that New York City really just has five styles of pizza: the classic floppy slice, Sicilian, Grandma, Artisan and Neapolitan. There is just one Detroit-style (and Emmy Squared is amazing) and maybe one or two Roman al taglio (Mani in Pasta) but in a city this large, having one or two anomalies doesn’t count as having an established style that is accessible to many. Unlike Chicago, with its 10 unique styles, it’s pretty hard to argue that New York City’s pizza landscape is superior. In the largest city in America, with its international caché and global melting pot, I was stunned to find the same five styles over and over.
One more note: you know how New Yorkers love to rip on how deep and thick Chicago’s deep-dish is? Well, for one thing, they’re usually aiming their satire at the wrong pie (that would be stuffed). But more enlightening than their misguided barbs, was the fact that true deep-dish in Chicago, from the likes of My Pi and Labriola, is actually the same height, if not shorter, than the thick slabs of Sicilian locals swear by at Prince Street Pizza in Soho and Scarr’s on the LES. All this time, New Yorkers have been gobbling up their rectangular pan pizzas and conveniently forgetting that real deep dish may have high sides, but the majority of the slice – the middle – is a lot smaller than their over-proofed egos would have them believe.
I continue to add to this list, and now have 60 places checked off below. Not all are recommended, but that will be made pretty clear in the accompanying descriptions. If you want to see/taste/learn about NYC pizza, best bet is to take one of Scott’s Pizza Tours.
After a full day of tasting several pizzas (about six I believe) we took a long walk down Pearl Street, into the heart of Wall Street’s financial district. There, amid the cavernous canyons where investment bankers and brokers play Master of the Universe, Adrienne’s offers a tomato-and-mozzarella-fueled respite amid the bro bars and steakhouses. There is a literal bar facing the ovens, but you’ve got a choice to make: either the standard, 12-inch round pies you’re accustomed to seeing around the city, with their thin, bulbous corniciones, or the more special, rectangular grandma-style slices (called “Old Fashioned” on the menu here) with their crispy, squared edges. A red sauced version will cost you $26, a white (no sauce) $27. Each extra ingredient you want (including garlic, basil and the usual meat and veg suspects) will set you back between $2 to $6 each.
As much as I loved the visual of this pie, with its generous chiffonade of basil strewn across the top, this isn’t a traditional grandma, in that those old school varieties (like at L & B Spumoni Gardens or DiFara) have more sauce than cheese. Here, it was just the opposite.. The crust is at the almost perfect height though, which is a tad shorter than a focaccia-like Sicilian. The undercarriage has a few tiny craters of tan and white, providing nice little cruchy respites from the chewy interior. Tiny cups of pepperoni, no larger a quarter, are curled up and crispy from the heat of the oven. But the edge pieces – usually my favorite – are left naked to the point of neglect. They actually needed sauce or cheese to improve their fortunes. We simply left those unseasoned edges behind on our plates, like a forgotten Italian breadstick that just had no other purpose than to soak up a sauce.
54 Stone St., NYC | 212-248-3838
Tucked into the middle of a dingy strip mall next to the Whitestone Expressway, Amore’s customers are a snapshot of America: I saw cops, some construction workers and a priest having lunch here, and I can see why. The slices are pretty amazing, reminding me of the OBR (optimal bite ratio) seen at places like Joe’s on Carmine. You’ve got a choice of Sicilian or a slice, but I’d skip the former, which is way too thick with a weak sauce, and go for the NYC classic slice. The sauce is vibrant with an even layer of mozz distributed expertly across the top. The three-finger fold can be employed here, as the crust is crispy enough to hold everything together without significant flopping. There is just enough salt in the sauce to keep things well-balanced.
By 12:30 p.m. there’s a small line out the door, but it moves fast. The cooks know their work flow and are efficient with their movements. Be sure to grab one of the two fruit punches and grab a seat at one of the six hard booths in the back, since the best time to eat one of these slices is immediately after the emerge from the deck ovens.
30-27 Stratton St., Flushing | 718-445-0579
Don’t expect to see Pac Man or Galaga here, the arcade in question is at the ground level of an office building in Tribeca. The long hallway descends downward, depositing you in front of a small bakery window, where tempting almond croissants, ham and cheese sandwiches and chocolate babkas tempt. My friend Mark Rosati had told me about their grandma slices, however, so I made this my first of six stops one day, since they begin selling them around 11:45 a.m. each day.
I liked the appearance of this slice, with its misshapen top and slightly uneven, cratered undercarriage. I even appreciated the handful of char domes protruding from the top. There is a soft chew to this $4.50 slice, not unlike a Sicilian. But the sauce is too mild, barely seasoned at all, and they go light on the cheese (as most grandmas do). There are at least two crispy upper edges on my slice, with a middle that’s as soft as a goose down pillow. It can definitely spend a few more minutes in the re-heating oven – mine was barely warm – and while they’re at it, might be a good idea to train the servers to be a bit warmer too. I asked two questions of my order-taker and was met with a look and a response implying I should just fuck off. Welcome to New York City!
220 Church St., NYC | 212-227-7895
Artichoke Basille’s Pizza
I visited the 14thStreet location in the East Village. You descend a few stairs to the spartan dining room (aren’t all New York pizzeria dining rooms spartan?) where the heat kicking off from the gas ovens only exacerbates the internal temperature on a steamy summer night. Like most by-the-slice joints, you hear the creaky opening and closing of the pizza oven doors frequently. A slice here will set you back about $5, but they’re gargantuan. I could have easily split this heavy behemoth with someone else. A massive lip allows for fairly easy folding, but the topping – in this case, the namesake – was more like the thick, cheesy artichoke dip I made in college as a young adult. It sits on an utterly flavorless crust, so my recommendation is to turn the slice upside down in a bowl, then tear off the crust and drag it through the topping for your next gathering (maybe that was the original intention?) They also offer Sicilian slices and some bizarre-sounding slices with “crab sauce” and vodka and cream, which made me wonder if I was eating in a red sauce joint on Staten Island.
11 locations in NYC
Grandma & Slice
Frank Pinello is an alum of Roberta’s, so he’s got street cred among the pizza cognoscenti. He also hosted “The Pizza Show” on Munchies (full disclosure, I was a guest on the Chicago show). When I met him, I thought, well, here’s a nice young guy with lots of tats who wears his hat backwards like I did when I was 21. I honestly didn’t know anything about his cozy little place in Williamsburg (located an easy 7-minute walk from Emmy Squared if you want to check two great pizzas off your list). But one bite of his grandma slice and I was hooked.
I kept asking questions of the manager while I was there (Frank was gone) and learned they initially bake pizzas in a wood-fired oven, then finish/warm them up to-order in a gas oven. They sell traditional slices, white ones and grandmas. The crispiness of the latter is remarkable. The undercarriage has a lacy, complex web of ridges and craters, but it was the bright, acidic sauce that stole the show. Frank, if you’re reading this, not sure if you’re going to be happy your manager told me the secret: they start with giant, roasted tomatoes (both Alta Cucina and Teo whole peeled) then blend them with anchovies, garlic and basil. Whoa! There was an umami-ness to this slice I had never experienced before, and it continues to haunt me.
33 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn | 718-599-2210
From Ivan Orkin, the man who created a mini ramen revolution in Japan (and has the “Chef’s Table” bonafides to prove it), this neighborhood pizza joint sits in the corner of the Gotham West food hall, where you can literally eat all day and never cover the same ground twice.
As you approach the case, you’re faced with a few flavors to choose from, all of which are essentially grandma slices, cut into rectangles with slightly raised edges. There’s a white pie, a tomato, a special and a soppressata. Slices are reheated at 520 degrees, which help to accentuate the lacy undercarriage, which is evenly browned. The middle is standard, focaccia-esque – slightly soft and chewy, while the namesake edges and corners retain some crispiness. These slices are shorter, in typical grandma style, but they do not have the preferred ratio of sauce-to-cheese that you’d find at Sofia Pizza Shoppe or L & B Spumoni Gardens. The ones at Corner Slice have more cheese, and for some reason, more oil across the top.
My soppressata has a pleasant chew, albeit one that contains a large amount of oregano and grated Pecorino Romano on it. My friend, a local, says she doesn’t care for the slightly greasy top, and I have to admit, as much as I like the chew, neither do I.
600 11th Ave. (Gotham West Food Hall), NYC | 212-956-9339
Tim Cushman is a bit of a pizza geek, and his wife/partner Nancy has indulged him over the years. The couple also runs a stellar Japanese restaurant in the Park South Hotel – O Ya – that has its origins in Boston. But talk to Cushman for five minutes, and his passion for pizza will ooze out like the cream in a soft ball of burrata.
His coveted dough gets coddled, resting a full two days before even coming close to his gorgeous 850-degree wood-burning oven. Pizzas spend only a minute or two in the rustic inferno, emerging with a charred lip and an ultra-thin crust. Warning: if you decide to sit at the counter to get a front row seat watching the pizzaiolos in action, just know that you’ll feel the heat from the oven a good eight feet away (great idea in the middle of winter). Unlike a lot of traditional Neapolitan pies, the middle here isn’t soupy or too wet; it maintains structure.
My soppressata with honey had a wonderful harmony of sweet and spicy and while I usually make a habit of only trying one or two slices, I managed to polish off 80% of the pizza, knowing it was my final tasting of the night.
127 E. 27th St. (in Park South Hotel) | 212-204-0225
A long counter protected by a sneeze guard greets you on the way in to Pizzeria DaVinci, a neighborhood joint that’s been feeding hungry New Utrecht residents since 1966. Known for their Sicilian slices, they also make a pretty good grandma slice as well as a regular that was, well, average. This is definitely a slice joint, with most customers sitting either solo in the pre-fab booths in the rear dining room, or up front at a narrow counter, munching away one slice at a time.
The Sicilian is pretty standard, definitely a respectable version here, with its slightly crispy bottom crust, its misshapen undercarriage and puffy, focaccia-esque middle. But there’s way too much cheese on top, almost like a Chicago stuffed slice; just too overwhelming. The grandma fared much better. The style typically features more sauce than cheese, and the slight bit of Pecorino Romano sprinkled across the top adds the slightest amount of saltiness to each bite. I also like the puffy lip on this slice, which offers a pleasant chew. Since the ratio of sauce to cheese is higher, I like that’s it’s almost more Sunday gravy/marinara-like than thin and watery.
6514 18th Ave., Brooklyn | 718-232-5855
“How yous doin’?” our seasoned server, Vincenza asks us as she hands us our menus. There is clearly more to the old-school vibe than just the sign on the front awning proclaiming they’ve been in business since 1937. Denino’s has another location in Manhattan (which I’ve heard is a shadow of the original) but we knew we just had to visit the original. (Note: this was our fourth stop of the night on our Staten Island crawl, so pizza fatigue was assumed, but surprisingly, we found a second wind/stomach).
Black and white photos along the walls tell the story of Staten Island, and you realize quickly how big the restaurant is, as one dining room gives way to another. Families having dinner, teenagers making a stop on the way home, crusty old-timers nursing cheap beers – there’s a slice of every demographic here, and it’s no surprise they’ve been coming here for so long. The pizza is amazing.
Fior di latte (fresh, domestic mozzarella) covers our pie like Pangea once covered the earth. There are few rivers of sauce that shine through, but even those are splendid. The kitchen showers a generous chiffonade of basil over the entire pizza just before serving, as the tiny ribbons are still vibrant green when it hits the table (thank you). The undercarriage is just gorgeous: some splotches, some char, some character. The heel is ever-so-slightly raised, with a few charred ridged and a dark brown/tan complexion. The middle is also slightly crispy and when you lift up a slice, you know this dough has been allowed to rest a bit before hitting the oven. I kept wondering how they were able to keep that bottom crust so crisp, so I asked the owner on the way out: they place breadcrumbs underneath the raw dough when it hits the oven.
After a long day of trying nine slices in Brooklyn and then Staten Island, this was our final pizza of the day, and I still managed to eat two slices. Why? Well, bite ratio is certainly one reason, but I think it’s also because there is just something so perfect about it all. I noticed that the regular pies contain a blend of Polly-O and Grande mozzarella, but the fior di latte is only used on the house margherita. Guess which one I’ll be ordering next time?
524 Port Richmond Ave., Staten Island | 718-667-9749
Grandma and NYC Slice
As we emerge from the Av J subway stop on the Q line, we can see about a half dozen people waiting patiently in the rain just outside of Di Fara. Since 1964, pizza pilgrims have made the trek to the Midwood section of Brooklyn to see Domenico DeMarco make each pie by hand (often sticking his hands into the oven to pull the pies out, sans gloves). Due to the pizzeria’s legendary status – and the fact I’m catching a plane in a few hours back to Chicago – I hire a Task Rabbit to get in line at 11 a.m., a full two hours before they open at 1 p.m. on this particular Sunday. I roll-up at 12:45 pm and we’re #1 in line. Now I’ve heard stories of how long pizzas take here, and so we had planned to stay awhile. What I didn’t expect was that a private party was taking over the front room on this particular day.
I count three tables and about 12 seats in the dining room, so I know we won’t be sitting here anytime soon. Dom is nowhere to be found, so that old story about how he makes every pie? Urban legend. Apparently, there’s another storefront behind the pizzeria they use for overflow, so one of the cooks tells us we’ll be fine there. We first need to decide what to order. I rule out the calzones, but face the prospect of getting a $6 square slice or $5 regular one (I get a regular). Then my friend Mark Rosati (a confirmed pizza freak) orders a whole square pie ($34), and I think at first, wha?? (He planned to bring the rest home to his under-the-weather wife). Toppings are well within the Italian canon, but there are also some surprises: soppressata and prosciutto, some sun-dried, roasted peppers and semi-dried cherry tomatoes. Porcinis and broccoli rabe round out the options. Is this Tuscany or Brooklyn?
The worn marble work table holds several sheet pans, each with par-baked crusts and the slightest amount of deep red tomato sauce. Dom isn’t in the kitchen on this day, but one of his cooks adds a few more ladlefuls of sauce to each pan, along with fist-sized handfuls of Rotondino fresh mozzarella and Pecorino Romano. He cuts-up some gargantuan basil leaves with a kitchen shear, scattering them across the top, then a healthy drizzle of olive oil. The thing I love seeing here is the rusticity, as if we truly were in the Tuscan countryside. There are rough edges bordering each pie; sometimes the sauce goes all the way to the edge, and sometimes not.
My regular slice has beautiful little cups of crispy soppressata; it holds its shape beautifully. There is the most delightful chew and I dare say one of the finest New York slices in the five boroughs. My friend’s slice has a few circular discs of sausage, laced with fennel and garlic, but sadly, like a lot of pizza sausage in New York, just not that interesting. They appear to be sliced from a smooth link. But it’s the square pie that sets my heart aflame. A cross between a Sicilian and grandma (more sauce than cheese), the bottom crust has a quarter inch layer of crispiness, a greenish-golden hue, the result of a shallow pool of olive oil in the bottom of the pan. The perimeter has a sexy, burnt perimeter, offering yet another layer of texture and crunch. I can’t stop eating it. There are equal amount of mozzarella and messy blobs of tomato sauce, some of which has oozed over one edge, like a lava spill from Vesuvio. The bite ratio is indeed, optimal. I can see why generations of devotees have made Di Fara their favorite destination for pizza all these years.
1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn | 718-258-1367
Sicilian and Grandma
This well-worn joint, in business since 1979, came highly recommended from the owner of Gotham Bagels in Madison, WI. A Brooklyn transplant, he swore by the quality of the grandma slices. Funny how a few months (or years) away from the big city can color your memories. There was nothing wrong with the slices here, but I wouldn’t book an Airbnb, then take the R train all the way South to the Bay Ridge Ave stop just to try one.
You might be tempted to pop into one of the halal shawarma shops along the way. Arabic jewelers, butchers and other Middle Eastern shops definitely tell you the neighborhood is no longer Italian. Inside, orange booths and four large deck ovens serve to bake giant, circular pizzas and rectangular grandmas/Sicilians. The décor is Italian pizzeria cliché – pics of DiMaggio, Sophia Loren and the Italian soccer team.
One of the friendly cooks tells me their grandma adheres to the universal rule of more sauce than cheese, often with some oil at the bottom to provide crispness (no one beats DiFara on this count). We try a grandma slice, which has a pleasant crispness to it, and plenty of camel-colored craters underneath, the size of bubble tea tapioca pearls. An extra layer of whole milk mozzarella graces the top of the slice, followed by some cooked marinara, and then the pizzaiolo tosses the slice back into the 400-degree oven just to heat everything through. We thought the slice, once removed from the oven, actually had more cheese than anything, to the point of overkill; despite the crispy edges, this “grandma” really looked and tasted more like a Sicilian.
6922 5th Ave., Brooklyn | 718-745-9715
One of the highlights of trying 50+ different NYC pizzerias is discovering the occasional hidden gem. The five boroughs have essentially the same five styles: Slice, Sicilian (to a shallower extent, Grandma), Neapolitan, Artisan and Brooklyn. But Detroit-style, which has been around since Buddy’s launched in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1946, continues to seep into the national consciousness. Chicago now has a half dozen places featuring this style, and it’s nice to see New Yorkers now have an option at Emmy Squared. Brought to you by the same creative team behind Pizza Loves Emily, this Williamsburg restaurant takes the form to a new level, and has already expanded to Manhattan and Nashville.
Unlike true Detroit-style, which is rooted in classic Sicilian, focaccia-esque thickness with a bit of brick cheese and pepperoni embedded into the dough before being allowed to rise for a few hours, Emmy has a slightly shorter dough, but with an irresistible crispy-crunchiness that is rarely found in even the best Sicilian slices. Like Detroit, it’s a rectangular pie cut into square slices with a perimeter of addictive, caramelized cheese, but here, it’s served on a wire rack, to allow for airflow beneath that pockmarked dough, keeping it crispy. Tomato sauce is applied just before the pies hit the oven, and right after it emerges from the oven, blobs of oozy stracciatella di bufala are placed on top along with torn shards of fresh basil.
Each bite results in an audible crunch; I dare you not to eat three squares all by yourself.
364 Grand St., Brooklyn | 718-360-4535
Sicilian & Grandma
Opened in 1961 in a working-class neighborhood (technically Whitestone), Freddy’s is a throwback. Unfortunately, I wanted to throw back my enormous slice of Sicilian since it was literally cheese bread. I was eating with a well-respected NYC pizza pro on the day I visited, and we both agreed there was far too much cheese on our slices. However, we loved the presence of toasted sesame seeds embedded into the undercarriage, giving each bite the faintest hint of Middle Eastern mouthfeel. Was this a bagel? A seeded lavash? Nope. Just a hefty slice with nice cratering underneath, a slightly sweeter sauce and a solid 1.5 inch naked perimeter of dough around the edge. They also offer a grandma (with fresh mozz) and a regular slice.
1266 150th St., Queens | 718-767-4502
NYC Slice & Grandma
This utilitarian joint in Carroll Gardens has been around since ’92, and came moderately recommended by a friend who lives in NYC, but not sure I’d go out of my way. If you happen to be walking around the area late night, and craving a slice, it’s fine. But much better pizza lives just a few minutes’ walk away at Pizza Moto, beneath the BQE.
As you wait for them to reheat your slice, you can gaze at one of the TVs, peruse a menu with baked pasta dishes and paninis or just zone out on the faded pictures of Brooklyn and old newspaper reviews that grace the walls. They offer four to five slice flavors, all reheated in a large Bakers Pride oven. We tried a few: a slightly gummy Grandma, with too much cheese; a classic slice with lots of mozzarella and an inoffensive-but-lackluster sauce; finally, the best of the bunch – a Sicilian with an undercarriage that had a lovely crispness and crunch, with a pleasing sauce; overall, a decent bite ratio.
363 Smith St., Brooklyn | 718-596-5320
Since 1979, Gino’s has been a local favorite in Williston Park, on Long Island, about 40 minutes from the city. There are just seven booths up front, with a large pizza counter in front of a series of large ovens in back. The family is Sicilian, and employs a rather ingenious method for adding whole milk mozzarella to its series of pies. The specialty here is the Sicilian, but rather than sprinkle regular, grated mozzarella, they push their blocks of mozz through a meat grinder, turning them into thicker pieces that resemble fusilli (corkscrew) pasta. Having slightly larger pieces of cheese prevents it from burning and releasing oil, since the pies have to bake a little longer – about 10 to 13 minutes – and therefore, it melts to just the right consistency. The cheese is pressed into the dough, which is stretched out in a rectangular pan with a bit of oil underneath, and then left to proof as it rises overnight. The result is a Sicilian with perfectly embedded cheese that gets tomato sauce (a secret), oregano and then another blend of grated cheeses (also a secret) before going into the large oven.
The square Sicilians that emerge are impressive. There’s a ridge along the border, nicely crispy, while the interior is soft, porous and utterly addictive with its soft chew. The undercarriage is a gorgeous, with occasional craters and crispy edges. It’s burnished brown like a new Coach bag. Along the top – as uneven as the moon’s surface – small pockets of oil collect in the crevices, but not to the point of annoyance. There is also a grandma-looking pie (they called it a baby spinach slice) about half as high as the majestic Sicilian, but I know that if I’m ever back here, I’m getting one slice to eat-in, and another one (or two) to go.
628 Willis Ave., Williston Park | 516-746-2860
The original coal-fired oven pizza, located directly beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and started by Patsy Grimaldi in 1991, is now, what we unfortunately call, a “corporate” pizza business. After Grimaldi sold the business (and his name, oy) to a former customer, the business has franchised all over the country. Yes, Brookfield, Wisconsin, even you have a Grimaldi’s. The old man probably couldn’t stand being away and seeing his name spread around the U.S. without any input, so he opened up Juliana’s just a few yards west to see if he still had what it takes. He does; I prefer Juliana’s.
But if you find yourself beneath the bridge among the tourists and their smartphones, you could do worse than a pizza here. Again, no slices (they have signs reminding you) so you’ll be forced to get a whole pie. It’s actually not bad, just not remarkable. There is more dough exposed on the lip, and that doesn’t do it any favors. The kitchen is certainly generous with the mozzarella, and the coal absolutely helps contribute to a blackened undercarriage that is, unfortunately, more charred than crisp. What I mean by that is, it’s a subtle distinction between a dough that is burnt from spending an extra 20 seconds in the oven and one that’s baked to perfection. This oversight is surprising, because the two mustachioed dudes working the line and the oven seem to have a pretty good rhythm between them. I’m not sure why they feel the need to cook the basil into the pizza though. Why not do like Lucali and toss them on just before serving, to perfume the surface?
1 Front St., Brooklyn | 718-858-4300
Joe & Pat’s
Grandma & NYC Slice
This is the sort of place (along with Denino’s) I had expected to see on Staten Island. A total family operation – in this case, since 1960 – where the staff knows most of the customers by first name, while multiple generations sit down together and form pizza impressions that last a lifetime. Walk past the cooks in the front room and make your way to the large dining room, with its painted walls of pastoral Italian scenery, the perfect backdrop to a night of devouring memorable Grandma Sicilian slices.
As always, I ask our astute server about the house special. They make both traditional thin slices as well as Grandma Sicilian. The former is pretty good – a cracker-thin crust with large white blobs of fresh mozzarella and an even layer of tomato sauce that rides all the way to the edge of the pie, which is, itself, almost blackened. But it’s the latter that they’re truly known for, and so we order a full pie (note: this is our third stop of the night on Staten Island, but our friends Chris and Phil don’t seem to be showing any signs of pizza fatigue, so we opt for a whole pie rather than a slice).
The square pie, cut into rectangles, is glorious. There are a few char domes in the middle, showing that this dough is a little funky, and not devoid of all air after being run through a sheeter too many times. Flecks of basil are scattered randomly across the surface, most of them blackened (this is more of sauce enhancer than anything) and in true Grandma style, there is more sauce than cheese. I have no problem with that, since it’s so fresh and vibrant. It does need more salt, but the tomatoes are naturally sweet. Amazing. The undercarriage is browned evenly, and the cooks tell me they use a bit of cornmeal on the bottom to prevent sticking to the oven’s deck. As much as I love fresh mozzarella (they also use Grande mozz from Wisconsin) I love that it serves as an accent, rather than hitting you over the head with the creaminess. The balance of sauce-cheese-dough is spot-on. OBR (Optimal Bite Ratio) among Staten Island’s best.
1758 Victory Blvd., Staten Island | 718-981-0887
Since 1975, this West Village joint has been serving classic slices – ultra-thin, impossibly crispy – from a space that could charitably be described as shopworn. Like most NYC slice joints, you choose your flavor, then they toss it into an electric/gas oven to re-heat. There’s typically a line – I waited about 10 minutes to get to the front – and the choices are pretty limited. In addition to standard thin slices, they also offer thicker Sicilian slices. You can add fresh mozzarella, which bumps the price up to $3.50 for a slice. I order the fresh mozz slice (derided on social media afterward – more on that shortly). Despite its nicely blackened undercarriage, the crust itself is fairly weak and the sauce needs seasoning. The middle of the slice, like a lot of New York-style slices, is barely two millimeters thick; while the lip has pretty good even browning, sadly, there just isn’t any flavor there. Not sure why there’s so much love for Joe’s. I would guess it’s history, nostalgia and a little bit of PIGUE Syndrome.
But on a subsequent visit to New York, I return, this time with my son, Max, and a friend, Michael, who’s a local boy and a huge fan. This time around we get a plain cheese slice and it’s night and day. Literally 360 degrees from that previous slice. This time around, there is an optimal bite ratio and the eminently foldable slice, which we get practically out of the oven (Michael prefers to have one heated up, as the cheese is more baked-in, and doesn’t slip off). Max and I devour our slices, gobbling up the zippy tomato sauce and the oh-so-perfect cheese balance. I’m so glad I gave this place a second chance.
Note: unaffiliated with the Joe’s on Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn. There have been lawsuits filed in both directions on this issue, the result of a former employee going off and starting his own place, apparently without the owner’s consent to use the image, likeness, font and other collateral material from the original Carmine Street location.
7 Carmine St., Manhattan | 212-366-1182
John’s of Bleecker Street
As we waited in line to get in (there’s usually a line), we noticed a few New York food tours pass by, with the tour guides talking about how great the coal-fired oven pizza were here, and how legendary the space was. They even made recommendations about what to order (fennel sausage) and talked about cooking times (allegedly 3 minutes). John’s was one of the few places that was universally praised by people as I planned this itinerary. It’s a sacred cow among pizza critics, perhaps due to its coal oven, perhaps due to the aged wooden booths, scratched out with graffiti that some of those same locals likely contributed to over the years.
I’m afraid I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid.
I did love the tin ceiling, the enormous, colorful murals of old Italy and the sight of the ancient Universal Oven Co. coal oven (which, by the way Mr. Tour Leader, only gets to 750 degrees and bakes pies in seven to eight minutes, as per the cook I queried). What I didn’t love was the weak fennel sausage (this is one department where Chicago kicks New York City’s ass like Ivan Drago thumping Apollo Creed). But even more disappointing, the crust and the bite ratio. Is baked mozzarella and tomato sauce a joy to eat? Sure. But with an exposed heel of at least two inches, devoid of any flavor, there was no reason to finish a whole slice. The heat of the oven is less than a wood-burning one, and so the coal doesn’t add anything, like it does at Patsy’s (or like the venerable Frank Pepe in New Haven, CT). Pepperoni is sliced thin here, which renders them crispy, but the resulting fat that’s rendered off of them and the sausage doesn’t do this pizza any favors. Since you can’t just buy a slice here, it’s a whole pie or nothing, and I’m afraid that if I happen to find myself back on Bleecker, I’ll choose the latter. Afterall, Joe’s and Keste are right up the street.
278 Bleecker St., Manhattan | 212-243-1680
Even though Juliana’s sits just a few yards from Grimaldi’s beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, please don’t confuse the two. Yes, the restaurant represents legendary Patsy Grimaldi’s return to pizza-making, but after he and his late wife sold the original Grimaldi’s (along with their name) to a former customer in the early aughts, he was out of the business. He didn’t stay away long. The coal-fired oven is cranked up in the morning, and by the time I arrive at 11:30 a.m. to be among the first customers, it’s already blazing with an internal temperature of about 850 degrees.
Just a reminder, this isn’t a slice joint (neither is Grimaldi’s) so be prepared to order a whole pie. Toppings and sauce are brought all the way to the edge, preventing any bare spots. I loved how the zippy tomato sauce stood up to the tiny cups of spiced pepperoni floating above the brightly acidic pool. Large blobs of mozzarella (made on Long Island) dot the pies, providing fatty, creamy richness.
19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn | 718-596-6700
I’d seen Keste show up on Scott’s Pizza Tours itinerary more than once, and so figured this was a must-stop on the #StevesNYCPizza Crawl agenda. The convenient thing is, it’s around the corner from Joe’s and across the street from John’s on Bleecker, so you could really hit a triumvirate of different pizza styles all in an afternoon. There also happen to be some excellent craft beer bars and Italian groceries, plus Murray’s Cheese Shop on the same block, so I’d come here hungry.
Keste has a very narrow front dining room, and if you look hard, you’ll see the giant, beehive-shaped wood-burning oven in back. We order a margherita. When the pizza arrives, it’s gorgeous, naturally, but we notice the cornicione has an almost tan appearance, slightly darker than the usual Neapolitan. The Manager tells us that they use an organic flour, milled to “01” rather than the “00” that Neapolitan pizzaiolos tend to use. That means the flour is a little bit rougher when they buy it, and not as soft as the 00. This actually results in a pizza with a tad more chew and more heft. It’s got more structure and even though the middle is just a few millimeters high, it holds its shape when lifted, unlike traditional, VPN-certified pies. Did we care if they strayed from tradition? Of course not. With a pizza this good, you won’t either.
271 Bleecker St., Manhattan | 212-243-1500
L & B Spumoni Gardens
On a typical visit to New York, you never imagine you’ll be riding the N subway all the way to 86thStreet, the second-to-last stop before Coney Island. But on a day where I tried eight different pizzas, the stop at L & B was one of my most highly anticipated. So many people had implored me to make a trip here via social media, it was impossible to ignore. The short walk up 86thStreet, past tiny grocery stores and auto repair shops is a window into Bensonhurst daily life. Then, out of nowhere, there it is, across the street from a Jehovah’s Witnesses hall: a low-slung brick building, fronted by a dozen or so large, red, all-weather communal picnic tables, boasting its 1939 birthdate on a giant sign, featuring a horse and buggy.
Everyone apparently knows to get the Sicilian slices here, which resemble a grandma in that there is a bit more of the thick-ish sauce than cheese. What an edge! A gorgeous, charred rim with a burnished exterior and a lovely undercarriage with just the right amount of toothy crumb. The melted cheese, peeking up through the craters of sauce is a salty, rich delight; there is a wonderful balance in the bite ratio here that can’t be understated. Skip the regular slice, which is just a doughy wedge of meh.
There are really two entrances here: on the left side, it’s strictly pizza; on the right, a larger menu to one side, flanked by the soda fountain, where you must absolutely try the spumoni. Think of it as a creamy sherbet, or maybe as a slightly icy super premium ice cream. Maybe it’s a lovechild of the two, who knows. We opted for the “rainbow” flavor of chocolate, vanilla and neon green pistachio, and I can’t tell you how good the combo was after eating that salty, cheesy slice. We had met my friend Alan Richman shortly after our visit (at Totonno’s in Coney Island) and couldn’t stop raving about it, so we convinced him to make a stop there on his way home. He apparently was unimpressed, but don’t listen to him. He’s far too jaded. Get the rainbow and thank me later.
2725 86th St., Brooklyn | 718-449-1230
This tiny shop, just a few blocks from the Bedford subway stop, is the brainchild of Florence native Massimo Laveglia. The night I stop by, a few guys are at the narrow front window table, speaking rapid-fire Italian. I order a standard slice, which takes about two minutes to heat up. Just before serving, they sprinkle on some freshly-grated Parmesan and cut a few shards of fresh basil onto the slice with kitchen shears. The chew is fantastic – a textbook NYC slice with a lightly-charred undercarriage and a heel with some open crumb. They offer about two dozen red pies, another nine whites, and even have a Nutella “dessert” pizza, but it’s all about that crust, which is clearly well-hydrated and baked on a glorious stone deck. I’ll definitely be back next time I’m in the neighborhood.
254 South 2nd St., Brooklyn | 718-599-0002
Lions and Tigers and Squares
This quick-service shop, just a few yards east of 8th Avenue, comes from the same team behind the overrated Artichoke Basille’s. But the spirit of Detroit is strong here, with each 6″ x 9″ pan filled with brick cheese, which predictably oozes down the sides and caramelizes into a lovely cheesy cracker. The requisite racing stripes of tomato sauce are drawn across the top, with a middle that has a decent springiness and chew, but not nearly as good as the original at Buddy’s or even the versions coming from Emmy Squared elsewhere in the boroughs. You can stand at a high-boy and gobble down your slices, but unless you’re really hungry, it’s going to be hard to finish all four of these large squares in one sitting.
268 W. 23rd St., Manhattan
Tucked into a corner brick building across the street from the Dongan Hills MTA stop, you feel as if you’re walking into a Northern Wisconsin tavern, with its five TVs (all tuned to golf during our visit, funny enough). You hear the house phone ring a few times, and it reminds you of the old ringer your grandparents used to have. I spot two deer busts on the wall, along with the requisite trophies from some sort of local competitive league. The entire front half of the tavern is bar, but you soon realize that there are other dining rooms beyond the main bar/dining area.
A first glance at this pizza also has some Midwestern parallels: the crumbles of sausage (rarely seen in the other boroughs) contain hints of fennel and oregano; tiny pepperoni discs, set above the cheese, are crisped-up around the edges, their fat having drifted into the pizza. Both the sausage andpepperoni are placed above the cheese here, which you don’t see everywhere. There are a few char domes across one egde of the pie, giving way to a fully blonde undercarriage. We loved how the thin crust held its shape, even while holding a slice up, rather than drooping sadly. There’s a bare, exposed heel of dough here, about an inch or so wide, that delivers absolutely no flavor. I’d imagine you’re going to see most plates full of discarded dough heels (as I did), since the excellent interior, with its browned mozzarella and zesty sauce is so good.
60 Hancock St., Staten Island | 718-667-9749
Slice, Sicilian, Grandma
It’s hard not to hum the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” as you walk to Lenny’s from the 20 Av MTA stop. Afterall, Travolta himself strutted along 86thStreet, in the shadow of the D train, during the opening credits of 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.” While carrying his paint can, he stops at Lenny’s window for a double slice, and the pizzeria has been an iconic touchstone between Bensonhurst and Bath Beach ever since. The movie may have put Lenny’s on the map (and the faded pictures of Travolta and Sylvester Stallone enjoying their slices are proof) but it was slinging slices long before Hollywood came calling, having opened in 1953.
Frank Giordano is a Sicilian native, so no surprise to see Sicilian slices here. His daughter, Josephine, is usually behind the counter, running the show. They also offer both regular slices and grandmas, the latter of which reminded me of Nino’s on 3rdAvenue in Brooklyn. Josephine then reminded me that her family used to own part of Nino’s, and if you compare the façades of both businesses, you’ll see the similarities as well.
That grandma has a thin layer of tomato sauce (more of a marinara) and super thin-and-crispy crust. There really isn’t much chew to this slice, but I loved the blackened spots underneath which offered some tasty, charred bits of crust. The regular slice (Travolta’s choice) has a traditional tomato sauce, and allows for the usual three-finger fold, with a good cheesy-greasy layer across the top. It’s a late-night slice for sure, but the undercarriage is sadly kind of bland, and for as little sauce as there is, each bite is mostly a mouthful of cheese.
The Sicilian is truly crisp, and certainly holds its shape. Sauce is draped across the top along with a very generous layer of part skim and whole milk mozzarella. Loved the crispy edge here, but after a couple bites into the middle, I was done.
1969 86th St., Brooklyn | 718-946-1292
I never thought I’d see or experience the New York City equivalent of a Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, but there’s no doubt Lombardi’s is it. Just like Uno’s, where deep-dish was created in 1943, Lombardi’s – the birthplace of pizza in New York City in 1905 – has become a tourist-only mecca where the pizzas are on par with TGI Friday’s. The coal-fired oven is the only thing saving these pies from being a complete joke (more on that in a minute).
The Spring Street original, in what’s left of Little Italy, certainly looks iconic from the outside, boasting of its original coal oven and landmark status. There are plenty of pictures hung on the wall of owner John Brescio in a chef’s jacket, either eating or tossing dough in what they’ve repeatedly referred to as “America’s first pizzeria,” spelled out pretty clearly in their web address: www.firstpizza.com. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a cozy, brick-lined back room set the scene for what surely has to be a legendary pie, right?
There are no slices here, so it’s a whole pie only, even if you’re by yourself, as I was. I opted for the small margherita (six slices for $21.50) as opposed to the large (eight slices for $24.50). What arrives on your table, is a standard-looking thin pizza, with a slight amount of speckled charring underneath and a drier heel around the edge, the result of that coal oven. There is a bit of fresh mozzarella across the top, as white as snow, along with a scant dusting of grated Pecorino Romano and a few basil shards. There isn’t enough salt in the dough or the sauce, which had to be one of the weakest sauces in all of NYC. Did they just open a can and pour it out? A naked perimeter of at least two inches of dough with absolutely no flavor means pretty much every table leaves this behind on their plates. All-in with tip, it’s a $25 waste of money. When the server asks if I want to take the other five slices to-go, I just nod my head. Just because you’re first, doesn’t make you the best. Uno proved that to me a long time ago. Lombardi’s has somehow gone from one of the nation’s most revered pizzas to one of the most embarrassing. Shame.
32 Spring St., Manhattan | 212-941-7994
Louie & Ernie’s
A quaint brick façade frames a half moon-shaped front glass window, at one of New York City’s most beloved pizzerias. Located in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx since 1959, pies are dispatched with stern authority. I made the journey out there, to the second-to-last stop on the 6 train, with fellow pizza writer and fanatic Arthur Bovino. He told me he’s been making this sojourn for years, and has never had a bad pie. We order a Sicilian with anchovies and a regular pie with sausage. I peek over the counter to see the pizzaiolo squeeze sausage out of a casing, then pinch and press like we do in the Midwest, scattering the jagged pieces in an even distribution around the circular pie.
This was a pizza I was really stoked about, but for some reason, (maybe because we were there near closing) the pizza just didn’t have the magic Bovino had promised. Even he was stunned. Cheese and toppings simply fell off the slices in a sloppy mess; there was some crunch to the heel, but not enough chew to warrant a rave review. Don’t even bother with the Sicilian, unless you plan on bringing deli meats and cheeses, slicing it in half and making a sandwich. I realize places have off nights, and I’ll probably make the trip back one day, but with Arthur as my witness, this was not L & E’s finest night.
1300 Crosby Ave., The Bronx | 718-829-6230
Owner Mark Iacono is lucky to be alive, based on an altercation back in 2011 near his store. But he perseveres, still making some of the best pizza in all of New York City, from the back of his cozy Carroll Gardens shop. Since 2006, Iacono or his pizzaiolos (he wasn’t there the night I visited) treat every pie with the greatest care, as if each one was sculpted from pure silk and shaped by Buddhist monks.
I arrive extra early, as I’ve heard DiFara-like stories of interminable waits, and I’m the second one in line to put my name down. The store feels like a turn-of-the-century dry goods store: wood is stacked onto chairs, near a large, brick oven that dominates the back half of the room. A pizzaiolo in a black t-shirt with a white apron and a Yankees cap stands sentinel, in front of a marble work table, next to a wide bowl full of fresh mozzarella; candles are lit, giving the room a warm glow.
Choices for toppings are limited: shallots, onions, mushrooms and hot or sweet peppers. There is no extra charge for garlic or basil. This is not a slice joint, so pies are sold whole only. Larges run $24, but I opt for a smaller version that costs $15. While a cook grates hot peppers onto a pizza before transferring it to the oven, another guy is tearing apart an entire ball of fresh mozzarella for a large pie while his co-worker rolls out some dough with the side of a wine bottle. Pizzas take a few more minutes than the standard Neapolitan. Since the dough is fermented for at least two days, it has more complexity and potential air pockets than a standard Neapolitan dough. I’d call this style Artisan or Artisan/Neapolitan, but locals would most likely call it Brooklyn style. Iacono’s pizzas emerge from the oven with cracker-thin crusts, topped with basil leaves as large as Boston lettuce. There are small “char domes” across the top of the pizza, some hiding crispy, crunchy crusts that are slightly blistered underneath. The slices are amazingly light; so light, in fact, I polish off the 15” pie with ease.
575 Henry St., Brooklyn | 718-858-4086
Luzzo’s La Pizza Napoletana
There is no question the coal-fired oven at Luzzo’s makes a difference. But so too does the dough recipe owner Michele Iuliano has perfected since opening in the East Village in 2004. Almost hidden away among dry cleaners and nail salons on a congested part of 1stAvenue, the room is cozy and oh-so-Italian with its rustic, wooden chairs, tables and exposed brick. The Naples-born Iuliano grew up in the baking business, and his pizzas reflect a great attention to detail. Meticulous placement of the fior di latte resembles a cloud-filled sky painted by Monet. There is tremendous crunch and chew in every bite of this pizza, with a tomato sauce that keeps you coming back for more bites than you probably anticipated. I was actually on my way to another dinner on the day I visited, and still managed to polish off three large slices before leaving.
213 1st Ave., Manhattan | 212-473-7447
Mani in Pasta
Roman al Taglio
This Roman al taglio (“by the cut”) style has two locations in Manhattan, but only one has the impressive sort of display you’d find at similar places like PQR or, if you’re in Chicago, at the revered Bonci. That would be the 37thStreet location. But I was eating at the 14thStreet location in Gramercy Park, where it’s simply listed on the menu (however, the pizzas are all made on the premises). The dining room is small, quiet and filled with sunlight on the afternoon of my visit.
There are a few options here, but you cannot tell the server how much you’d like – there is no cutting and weighing of slices, they simply come one size. I decide to try a margherita (as always) in addition to a namesake Mani in Pasta slice, featuring porcini mushrooms, some black truffle paste and a 24-month aged prosciutto from Parma. There is also creamy fior di latte for added richness, to cut through the salt of that prosciutto. The margherita is less inspired, with its whole milk mozz (applied far too heavily) although I loved the crunch on the bottom, a hallmark of all Roman pies. The dough has some of the telltale open crumb structure you expect to find in a proper al taglio, but the top isn’t as soft and forgiving as the finely constructed slices I’ve had at Bonci in Chicago; similarly, the heavy handed cheese application combined with a thin tomato sauce doesn’t inspire me to want to return anytime soon. Alas, New York’s al taglio scene will benefit greatly when Bonci opens there eventually.
14 E. 37th St., Manhattan | 646-870-5851
This casual, pizza-focused joint comes from the Union Square Hospitality Group, and is a younger sibling to Marta, which they also run in a nearby hotel. The theme is really Roman-style, as in tavern thin, with an über-crispy bottom as thin as a cracker. Roman pies – whether they’re al taglio, like at Mani in Pasta in NYC or the round versions at Marta and Martina – should always be crunchy. Martina certainly delivers on this promise.
The space is carefree and simple. There’s a decoration-only menu board in the middle of the room we mistook for an actual menu, as we learned after trying to order tripe and Jewish-style Roman artichokes. There are dozens of boxes ready for takeout, and we got the sense that this might be a concept that USHG is priming for a larger rollout (they did o.k. with Shake Shack, right?) Pizzas are personal-sized here, about seven inches across, and are meant for one person. Prices are commensurate, with a range from $7 to $11. We tried a margherita and a white pie, featuring squash blossoms and anchovies. The umami bump from the latter is a nice surprise, and the optimal bite ratio, these being really thin pies, is easily achievable.
198 E. 11th St., Manhattan | 646-747-6635
(also locations at 510 Columbus and 139 Broadway in Williamsburg)
I had been to this location once before in the East Village, but decided since I was revisiting everything about NYC pizza, I better go back. Glad I did. The wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the small kitchen, with its “Motorino” emblazoned in black and white tile. There are still more subway tiles around the dining room, along with pizza peels and Neapolitan-inspired photos hung in simple black frames. Pizza eating and pizza making are what they do here.
I try a Pugliese – going off-script a bit, since I normally get margheritas in Neapolitan joints. At $17, it’s about average price for New York, though it could easily feed two. There is lovely, even cornicione all the way around the perimeter, with significant leopard spotting. The broccolini, sweet chiles and tiny crumbles of sausage make an excellent combination, and one that I find myself luring me back for a rare second slice. Maybe it’s because of the thin layer of stracciatella cheese strewn across the base (this is a white pie, rather than a red one). The undercarriage is evenly splotchy and the OBR (optimal bite ratio) is on point. There is a pleasing chew to this pie, though even some locals at the table next to me find it necessary to use a knife and fork when eating it (being a Chicagoan who eats proper deep dish with his hands, I passed on the silverware).
349 E. 12th St., Manhattan | 212-777-2644
New Park Pizza
I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed riding the A train all the way from downtown Brooklyn to the Howard Beach-JFK stop, then walking about a mile past tiny bungalows to this legendary slice joint. They’ve been making über-thin pizza here since 1956, and sitting on one of the tables in the enclosed patio seems like a tradition that locals have been abiding by for generations. Indeed, dudes in track suits have no hesitation grabbing one of the plastic shakers full of oregano, grated “cheese” and chili flakes from next to the register. You can see the gas-fired oven in front, constantly being opened and closed with pizza slices being re-heated throughout the day.
I was surprised how thin these slices are. I should clarify I tried a standard wedge (they also sell square grandma slices). They are among the floppiest I’ve had, so folding is a requirement, but they’re so large you’ll need not one, but twopaper plates to carry them from the counter back to your seat. They definitely have the sauce-cheese ratio down. I devoured the portion of the pizza that was covered in mildly seasoned tomato sauce in about a minute. I also liked the tiny char domes near the well-blackened lip, indicating plenty of heat in the oven and a dough that’s been allowed to rest a bit. But there’s a tad too much of that dough exposed on the lip, which I felt lacked the complexity and craveable chew of other notable slice slingers.
156-71 Cross Bay Blvd., Howard Beach | 718-641-3082
If you look closely at the façades of both Nino’s and Lenny’s on 86thStreet in Bay Ridge, you’ll notice the designs are eerily similar. That’s because they were once owned by the same people. The Giordanos (no relation to the Chicago stuffed pizza dynasty) now just have Lenny’s, but clearly, they used the same architect or sourced their signage from the same place. The other funny thing about having tried more than 50 pizzas in New York, is that you begin to see patterns emerge. I wasn’t surprised, for example, that Nino’s and Lenny’s used to be owned by the same people, because as soon as I took a look at the Grandma pies and slices at Lenny’s, I remarked how similar they were to Nino’s. The owner, Josephine, overhead me, then told me the story of how they were connected.
Since 2000, the current owners have served the neighborhood with a brisk to-go business and a whopping eight booths to dine-in. Nino’s does regular, NYC-style slices, some biancas (sauceless) with mozzarella and ricotta, and their most popular, the Gran Mama slices. These perfect, thin squares begin with a thin but not too generous layer of marinara, then a bit of mozzarella (grandma style typically means more sauce than cheese). The final garnish is a bit of grated Pecorino Romano and a ribbon of basil and oil, almost resembling a loose pesto, draped across the top. The crust is thin and crispy – almost like a Chicago-style thin – with a few browned splotches underneath. Like all pizza slice joints in New York, the slices are presented out on large plates behind sneeze guards, then are reheated in gas-fired deck ovens for about a minute. I detected just the faintest whiff of garlic beneath the chunky sauce, and the bite ratio here was spot-on, thanks to the narrow crust.
9110 3rd Ave., Brooklyn | 718-680-0222
I was told that if my New York City Pizza Crawl was to have any credibility, I’d have to tackle a few legendary spots on Staten Island. Turns out there are four noteworthy spots, actually, and since 1942, Nunzio’s has been a favorite of locals. They have a quick carryout space in front, along Hylan Boulevard, as well as a larger dining room in back. Lined with black and white photos of old Staten Island, you just know this room has been host to countless birthday parties and postgames for the local Little League teams.
A giant neon sign greets you as you walk in, almost blinding you with its intensity. Sausage is homemade here, but sadly, it’s sliced as thin as a gyro and lacks the fennel-garlic punch of a Chicago equivalent, not to mention the textural prowess. I notice they also place a generous amount of pepperoni on top of the cheese, which allows it to render the fat and curl up a bit.
The crust is nicely charred here, with a few char “domes” scattered along one side. There’s an evenly blackened undercarriage, providing some decent crunch and chew. Sauce is vibrant, zesty and old school. It’s simply seasoned and straightforward; just what you want in a pizza sauce. The edge is crispy, and we notice how the rear 20% or so (near the heel) has more thickness than the center, giving you some more chew than you might expect from a typical New York-style pizza. You can still fold it, of course, but there’s more heft than you might be used to.
2155 Hylan Blvd., Staten Island | 718-667-9647
At the Northern edge of Little Italy, you’ll find all sorts of pasta shops and souvenir stands. The street lights are hung with care and there are still remnants of the old neighborhood (even though condos continue to creep inward from Soho and the Bowery). One of the best places to sit (solo or with a friend) is at the kitchen counter, facing the two massive wood-burning ovens. You can chat with the cooks, or be a pest like me, and ask about the type of wood (it’s oak, hickory and cherry) or the oven composition (stone from a quarry near Vesuvius). They purposely didn’t add shiny tiles to the outside of the ovens, so that they’d maintain their rough, rustic look. They are hulking pieces of cookery. Looking like a set of pistons from the engine room of the Millennium Falcon, these grey-green ovens get a workout, cranking out much of the menu on any given night, including the pizzas.
Everyone I talked to about this place recommended the clam pie, and in fact, when The Infatuation did it’s 20 Best Pizzas of New York City in 2018, this was the pie they tested. It’s pretty amazing, although not sure it’s worth the $30 (to be fair, that includes tip). The middle, however, is a chowder lover’s dream: creamy-rich from a bit of heavy cream, it’s embedded with both chopped, briny clams and bits of green broccoli rabe. A large lemon wedge arrives in the middle for gentle, strategic squeezing and a sidecar of spicy Calabrian chilies soaked in oil is there for the taking.
The dough here gets a four to six-hour bulk fermentation, spends the night in the cooler, then gets three days to rest. A solid two -nch perimeter of the cornicione is left bare, revealing lovely leopard spotting, slightly puffy but with an awesome chew. The undercarriage is uniformly tan with plenty of random charring, and there are even a few char domes along the top. I really did enjoy eating this pizza, despite the high price tag, just not sure it’s a pie I’d go that far out of my way for.
187 Mulberry St., Manhattan | 917-453-0339
My cab driver from Laguardia asks me where else I’m going while in town on this particular visit. It’s the third of four trips I have planned to New York City, in order to tackle all 54 of the places I had set out taste. My first stop on this trip is in Harlem, at the revered Patsy’s, an icon of New York-style pizza since 1933. At just $1.75 a slice, it’s easy to get a pair, which I see plenty of heavy-set dudes doing when they place their orders. I get dropped off in front of the restaurant, but quickly learn it’s the take-out only shop I want, just a few doors down. It’s hard to miss the enormous sliding window, painted green around the border, propped open so you can see the coal oven in the back.
Once inside, you hear the constant thwacking and slamming of the front door in harmony with the creaky noise of the coal oven door, slamming open and shut. There really isn’t much décor here, just a pile of coal beneath the oven, which sits below a hood that’s tilted to one side. There are plastic containers of red pepper flakes, oregano and “cheese” on the front counter, with a soda machine off to the side. White pizza boxes are stacked to the ceiling, indicating it’s mostly take-out.
I’m one of the few customers dining in during my visit, getting a slice that was pulled from a pie that emerged from the oven about five minutes earlier. The heel of the slice is slightly raised, and there are a few char “domes” scattered along the edge. Everything about my slice is in perfect symmetry. Each bite yields the exact proportion of mozzarella, tomato sauce and dough, which is itself wonderfully chewy but also slightly crisp. The cheese is just barely browned across the top and the undercarriage also have a few charred splotches, giving it wonderful texture and crunch. This slice is easy to fold in half, and I have no problem finishing it off; a chewy, crunchy, utterly enjoyable taste of New York history.
2287-91 1st Ave., Harlem | 212-534-9783
There’s already a line forming at 6 p.m., when this neighborhood pizzeria opens its doors. Located in a gritty section of Greenpoint, near the water and tucked among a few swanky clothing stores, the company has slowly expanded its Neo Neapolitan-style to other cities – including Chicago – since it opened here in 2010. On any given night, you’ll likely see Paulie himself roaming around, talking to customers or offering a complimentary shot of homemade limoncello (it’s quite good, surprisingly).
The space feels as if you’ve stumbled into a relic from the Industrial Revolution, its large, wooden beams and dark steel framing the space with its soaring ceiling, each table topped with flickering candles. We’re sitting about 15 feet from the white-tiled, wood-burning oven, and can easily feel the heat blasting from its mouth. Paulie opened a slice joint around the corner in 2018, but he still oversees a collection of funky, out-of-the-ordinary “Neapolitan inspired” pies here at the original space. Sourcing is a priority here, with important toppings like speck and hot sopressatta coming from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack.
Each pie emerges with gorgeous leopard spotting, charred undercarriage and toppings bursting with flavor. The Cherry Jones was especially remarkable, with its contrast of slightly sweet dried cherries against the rich backdrop of gorgonzola and mozzarella (the gorgonzola isn’t nearly as powerful as you’d imagine, the mozz truly helps mitigate its funkiness). Another highlight: a white pizza featuring smoked gouda, Canadian bacon and maple syrup. Trust me. These may not be pizzas in the traditional sense, but you can go as purist or as psycho as you want to be here, and no one will pass judgement.
60 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn | 347-987-3747
Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop
You can certainly get a whole pie at this shop, just a few minutes’ walk from the Paulie Gee mothership, but most come here for the slices, and you’ll be forgiven if you suddenly suffer melancholy if you’re of a certain age. The Atari console on top of the throwback TV did it for me; retro wood-paneled walls might do it for you.
Paulie continues his tradition of shout-outs to industry friends on this menu. The Hellboy (pepperoni with Mike’s Hot Honey) a nod to his former pizzaiolo Mike, who quit to launch his own hot honey business. The “Freddy Prince” is an upside down (sauce over cheese) Sicilian, with a thoroughly coated sesame seed undercarriage, a nod to both the Sicilian slice at Prince St. Pizza in Soho, but also to Freddy’s in Queens, where I had the pleasure of trying a slice of the sesame seed-flecked slices with Paulie himself. Beers are all outstanding and they’ve got five or six vegan slice options to boot. Dessert bonus: they’ve got spumoni from the beloved L & B Spumoni Gardens along with lemon ice.
110 Franklin St., Brooklyn
Pizza Loves Emily
(also location at 35 Downing St., Manhattan | 917-935-6434)
Matthew Hyland really wants you to try the burger. It features Pat LaFrieda beef and runs $27 he says. His time spent at The Breslin and The Spotted Pig give him the street cred of course, but while his burger is quite good, if not a bit excessive, I wouldn’t waste the stomach space. You certainly don’t want to eat a pizza at the same time, unless you’re a carbaholic. But oh, what a shame it would be if you visited one of his two restaurants – named for his wife, incidentally – and didn’t try a pie.
Hyland treats pizza like the folks at Stradivari treat violins. Mozzarella and ricotta are made on-site each day; Jersey Fresh tomatoes form the basis for his six red pizzas, while King Arthur all-purpose flour is combined with Central Milling rye, to create the dough that rests for two days in the cooler. He also offers pink pizzas (with vodka sauce), greens (tomatillo sauce) and some sauceless whites, including the namesake stunner with mozzarella, pistachios, truffle sottocenere cheese and honey. Toppings run all the way to the edge, and the wood-fired ovens at both locations char the edges to a wonderful, jet-black crispness.
The couple has also opened Emmy Squared, specializing in square, Detroit-style pizzas, and chances are you’ll one day see these in a city near you, since they have taken on a partner to help them expand. But make it a point to get to one of Hyland’s current locations and try his Classic Red. It sets the bar in so many ways, and assuming you order a second pie for contrast, and maybe some Korean hot wings to boot, that burger will have to wait for another time.
919 Fulton St., Brooklyn | 347-844-9588
Most of the better pizza places make a big deal about their oven. It’s coal-fired! It’s make from clay that came from the hills surrounding Vesuvius! The team at Pizza Moto, however, has reason to be pumped-up about their oven. The space is a flickering, wood-lined beacon far below the BQE. Backlit, recycled pinball machines hang along one side of the brick walls. Tucked deep within the back of the space is the oven, with a story as long as an episode of Serial. The owners discovered their cherished address used to be home to a bakery in the mid-1800s, run by an Irish immigrant. The neighborhood (technically the border of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens) saw waves of immigration, resulting in the space passing from a Prussian cigar maker to an Italian pasta shop and finally, a coal-fired pizza baker. But hidden in the shadow of the newly constructed BQE, it remained hidden for decades.
Once the owners broke through a wall, discovering the white-tiled oven, they lovingly restored it, retrofitting it to burn wood instead of coal. They also managed a Herculean feat of design, masonry, plumbing and carpentry, finishing the space themselves. It’s that sort of passion that weaves its way through the food. Not surprisingly, the oven is the workhorse, roasting vegetables and churning out irresistible Margheritas, topped with D.O.P bufala mozz, tomatoes with a hint of oregano and Pecorino-Romano. But the dough serves as canvas to all sorts of wonderful toppings: beef and ricotta meatballs, bacon and soft eggs, even clams with potato, cream and pork belly (chowder pizza?)
This is pizza with Optimal Bite Ratio (OBR). Lovely leopard spotting around the perimeter with large, generous mozzarella blobs scattered about. I had a hard time stopping at just three slices.
338 Hamilton Ave., Brooklyn | 718-834-6686
Don’t let the 5th Ave. address fool you. This slice joint is tucked firmly into the Bay Ridge firmament of auto shops and dive bars, just around the corner from the busy 86thStreet shopping district. We were in the midst of a Bay Ridge run the morning we stopped by – and to be honest, it was more of a last-minute call – but we were happy to have tried a few bites of the regular slice. It’s no surprise to see this neighborhood favorite has been around since 1966. Slices are just $2.50, reheated in about two minutes in one of their deck ovens.
At first glance, it looks as if there’s going to be too much cheese, but the bite ratio is actually pretty decent. There are a few splotches of browned, caramelized cheese across the top and an exposed lip of about an inch. Even after a reheating, there’s an audible crunch beneath the salty cheese and rich-yet-thin tomato sauce, which manages to maintain a gorgeous undercarriage as tan as George Hamilton.
A whopping seven booths grace the “dining room” with the sole decoration a Freedom Tower-esque stack of pizza boxes up along the back wall. There are also a few newspaper reviews hung up, naming the famous slice joint as a top 5 or top 10 in the city. Note: there are also Sicilian slices here (and Paulie Gee encouraged me to try them) but alas, when I asked the guy behind the counter what they were known for, regular slices were the first thing out of his mouth.
8610 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn | 718-836-5725
Roman al Taglio
There are only a couple of Roman al taglio-style pizzerias in all of New York City – Mani in Pasta (with two locations) and PQR, which stands for Pizza Quadrata Romana. These rectangular slices have become fashionable in Chicago, where Bonci is crushing it. But the problem with the slices in New York is that they lack complexity and the most important factor: a proper crunch-to-chew ratio. Unlike the supple, crispy-crunchy slices from Bonci, where you tell the person behind the counter how much from the pan you want, then see them cut it off with a scissors, weigh it, and then reheat it for eating, both of the New York City options only sell you a pre-determined size, oftentimes, lacking in deliciousness. They are serviceable slices, fine if you’re really hungry, but they can’t hold a candle to Bonci.
A Moretti Forni oven serves as the reheating element here, where my burrata and tomato slice is set next to another jammed with thinly-sliced potatoes and shredded pork. There’s also a tuna, mayo and artichoke version, as well as a tempting one with porcinis and mozzarella. The toppings are delicious, no doubt about it. There are slight ridges and dips in the undercarriage, with the faintest hint of charring. If you choose a slice with no sauce on it, the dough will actually proof and rise a bit higher, resulting in a very bready, doughy slice, although they’ll also have larger air pockets, if you like that sort of thing in your pizza.
1631 2nd Ave., Manhattan | 646-449-0889
Prince Street Pizza
New Yorkers rarely let a long line go to waste (what’s up Cronut) so when you’re walking down Prince Street in Soho in search of this Sicilian slice joint, you’ll easily spot it by the line snaking out the front door. My wait was only about 15 minutes, just long enough to see the signed pictures of “pizza experts” like Adrien Grenier or some member of a reality show who dined there once. My theory on celebrity pics goes something like this: the more pictures you see framed on the wall, the less likely it is the food will be amazing (the only exception to this rule is at Park’s BBQ in L.A.’s Koreatown). I don’t know about these “experts,” but my slice was greasy AF, topped with plenty of pepperoni discs (almost overwhelmingly so) the dough is soft and pliable, like a roll of Charmin. There is a slightly crispy bottom and a few blobs of fresh mozzarella across the surface, but not enough to redeem it for me. From what I gather, consistency is a problem here, so you never know if your slice is going to be life-changing or just a greasy, flaccid bummer.
27 Prince St., Manhattan | 212-966-4100
Razza Pizza Artigianale
Dan Richer’s personal little pizzeria is a six-year overnight success story. I had been hearing from my good friend Anthony Giglio (a good Italian Jersey boy) about the wonders of this place, which were only confirmed after Pete Wells gave it a glowing 3-star review in the Times in early ’18. Since then, it’s been almost impossible to score a seat here, and I will hold this over the heads of my New York-based colleagues, who can never seem to find the time to take the Path train a few stops to Grove, and walk the two blocks to get there. Get off your collective asses and go here for the best pizza in NY/NJ (I’ve been twice already).
There’s something strangely psychological about the un-coolness of taking the Path to Jersey rather than taking a much longer MTA subway ride East to Brooklyn or Queens. People just don’t do it. But Razza should be reason enough. Richer has been a student of pizza making for years, and he reminds me of the first time I met Chris Bianco, back in the early aughts. His passion and enthusiasm for Alta Cucina tomatoes, flours (he blends two, which are milled nearby) and fermentation (his doughs rest about 28 hours) is palpable.
Emerging from his ash and birch wood-fueled insulated oven are pizzas that defy description and leave most neo-Neapolitan/artisan pies in the dust. The key is really that dough. And the cheese (the mozzarella is made in-house, of course). When you lift up an impossibly thin slice, it holds its shape, as firm as an iPhone. The gorgeous, lightly charred cornicione is crunchy, airy and chewy all-at-once. The middle maintains its shape, never sagging beneath the weight of the seasonal ingredients (we had Spring ramps, stinging nettles, pesto and asparagus, tucked within low moisture mozz one night). I didn’t even mention the naturally fermented bread with the housemade salted butter, or the citrus salad. But just go, and do what I say, and order as many pizzas as you possibly can.
275 Grove St., Jersey City, NJ | 201-356-9348
Truly one of the best pizzas in all of New York City. The breathless praise and media attention is warranted. Among the best examples of leopard spotting on the lip, anywhere, this is a pizza that would make a Naples pizzaiolo weep. Here’s the best part: lift a slice of this ridiculously thin pizza and witness its structure. No drooping! The chew is as pleasing as any I’ve had in the five boroughs. In my notes, I see that I’ve written “naan-like,” which seems odd for the usual 00 flour dough, but their long fermentation is likely the difference.
BelGioioso mozzarella hails from Wisconsin, the tomatoes are classic San Marzanos and the heating source is wood. Toppings range from the simple to the sublime – I’d throw the housemade coppa, taleggio, pork sausage or cremini mushrooms on a few different pies just to experiment. Be sure to spend a few minutes watching the pizzaiolos do their thing before heading back to watch the podcasters host their shows on Heritage Radio. You realize this is a special place, where the staff, despite the occasional surly hostess, believes in its mission like an evangelist abroad. This is a pizza you’ll be thinking about on the train ride back to wherever you came from.
261 Moore St., Brooklyn | 718-417-1118
The metal decked, rotating FISH brand gas oven, tucked away in the back of this Soho pizzeria, gives absolutely no indication of the thin and elegant pies that will eventually emerge. As thin as frisbees and as wide as a manhole cover, Rubirosa manages to create pies that have heft and structure while remaining impossibly thin.
Nine pizzas grace the menu, but our server recommends two: a vodka sauce with mozzarella and a sweet sausage with broccoli rabe. There are some pastas and panini on the menu as well, plus some charcuterie, but this being stop #3 of a 6-stop day, I’m not biting. The oven maintains a constant temperature of around 550 degrees. When pizzas emerge, the sauce runs almost all the way to the edge, and I keep thinking of how good this vodka sauce would be on a plate of fusilli or ravioli. There are enormous blobs of snow-white fresh mozzarella. The heel is a lovely, crispy deep brown hue; the bottom as evenly tanned as a retiree in Boca.
A bubbly edge on the sausage – and this is actually crumbled, as opposed to the usual slices or “coins” – is pleasant for texture, but the mild sausage is disappointing. Not much fennel, not much garlic, and not much flavor. The generous broccoli rabe application, however, gives the pie some freshness and breaks up the rich whole milk mozz from Grande in Wisconsin. I will give them this – the crispy, crunchy dough is an absolute pleasure to eat, and the OBR (optimal bite ratio) is just right. Not too much cheese, not too much sauce, not too much dough. For a rotating deck oven not made from stone, this is one impressive pie.
235 Mulberry St., Manhattan | 212-965-0500
Sal & Carmine
This Upper West Side staple has been slinging pies since 1959. At $3.00 a slice, they’re nearly twice as much as Patsy’s, and for my money, about half as good. Greasy, floppy pieces (what too many New Yorkers praise as “delicious”) are just sad, and when I try to ask the pizzaiolos a few questions about the cheese or the resting time for the dough, they blow me off. Like most NYC pizza joints, there are several large pies behind a front case. You choose a slice, they heat it up in a gas oven (in this case, at 420 degrees) then four minutes later you get it hot, served on a flimsy paper plate.
The front room is pretty narrow – I make due with a narrow counter for my slice while standing. As I wait, I notice a review they got from a New York City Dining Guide in the 80s, written by Ed Levine (Founder of Serious Eats). He laments in the blurb how it’s a shame that Sal & Carmine’s doesn’t deliver, no matter what. I’d hate to see what the delivery box looks like after spending 10 minutes in a cardboard box. My reheated slice is as orange as Trump’s face, and as greasy as a teenager’s. I post a short video on an Instagram story, showing how, when I fold it, grease just drips into a disgusting pool on the paper plate, as if a car had sprung a leak from its oil filter. This is one of the city’s best slices? If that’s the consensus among the city’s pizza critics, then they need to get out more, like west of the Hudson River. They also offer a Sicilian slice here, but the overzealousness with which they apply the cheese is either a nod to Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, or a pizzamaker trying to cover up an inferior dough.
2671 Broadway, Manhattan | 212-663-7651
Since 1930, this Cobble Hill restaurant has been serving up its red sauce Italian and gargantuan pizzas to families in the neighborhood with aplomb. Sam’s came highly recommended from a friend who, I now believe, was under the influence of nostalgia, and perhaps a few glasses of vino. The gas-fired brick oven was converted from coal in the 1940s, and if you’re thinking of swinging by for a slice, go elsewhere. It’s full pies only here. $23 for an 18” sausage, which is steep, considering the quality.
Décor is straight out of the Italian-American New York movie playbook: the shiny, red pleather booths, tables covered with red cloth and plastic, splotched ceiling tiles and random pictures of Italian scenes (framed pages from travel magazines?) go hand-in-hand with the miniscule bar. Although it’s a little unsettling to hear “Always Something There to Remind Me” playing on the speakers, the front door – some type of reinforced steel – looking like someone took a ballpeen hammer to it, is right out of a “Goodfellas” montage.
Unfortunately, the pizza doesn’t match the nostalgia on display. My sausage is as soggy as a soaked dish towel. The kitchen must feel that adding more cheese and sauce than necessary will somehow improve the bland crust. They don’t.
238 Court St., Brooklyn | 718-596-3458
Is this an antiques shop plucked down in the middle of Bed-Stuy? Based on the tchochkes along the walls and the vintage hodgepodge of brick, wood, plaster and plate glass, the space feels, at the very least, like an ancient dry goods store from the turn-of-the-century. The walls in the dining room boast old ads for country inns and roadside motels. Take a closer look in the bar though – that’s a tapas bar plying the beautiful rainbow of multicultural guests with Spanish wines, sherry, hipster cocktails and aged ham beneath the soft glow of Edison lightbulbs. You want to like a place where they have no problem playing Motown or old Billy Joel hits. But you want to shake the dudes in the kitchen who are careless with their pizzas, clearly not timing them well and rushing them out.
We tried two pizzas, both of which looked Instagram-ready with their leopard spotting, but despite a chewy, puffy lip, there was just no flavor in the crust; meanwhile, the middle of the pie was underdone. It’s pretty thin in the middle, and both versions we tried were just too chewy. A combo of aged coppa and artichoke had far too much real estate exposed on the perimeter, meaning not only was the middle of the pie inedible, but so was the outer 25%. I saw plenty of tables leaving those dough scraps on their plates. Our server and busboy looked at us like we were crazy, eating a slice and tossing the rest (“don’t you want a box?”) But when the dough is this bland, why would I want to waste precious stomach space? Even if I lived in the neighborhood, not sure I’d go out of my way to wait 45 minutes for one of these pies.
435 Halsey St., Brooklyn | 718-574-0010
Sauce is part of the new wave of NYC slice joints, where chefs with pedigrees are using their skills and know-how to create slices that have so much more character and chew than their sad, $1 slice imitators. Adam Elzer, who owns Sauce restaurant, collaborated with pizza guru/consultant Anthony Falco (Roberta’s) to create a magnificent slice joint.
Elzer is one of the few pizzaiolos using an all-natural sourdough starter, feeding it every day, as well as Grande mozzarella from Wisconsin. He offers an upside down here, and as a result cranks up the upper heating element in his Pizza Master oven, which concentrates the heat and reduces the sauce on top. There is a nice crumb along the perimeter of the heel, offering just the right amount of crunch and chew. Totally foldable, as is the local custom, and I think it’s so good, the sidecar of sauce they offer with your slice for dipping is totally superfluous. Some might consider this area of the LES a “pizza row” with Luzzo’s coal-fired oven just around the block on First Ave., and Motorino’s artisan/neo-Neapolitan pies just a few doors away. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.
345 E. 12th St., Manhattan | 646-983-4007
Scarr Pimentel has some seriously strong opinions about pizza. A veteran of the kitchens at Joe’s, Artichoke and Lombardi’s (which he admittedly thinks has gone through a TGI Friday’s sort of dumbing down), the Dominican chef took over this cozy pizza spot on the Lower East Side in March of 2016. A tiny, narrow counter up front is provided if you’re in a hurry, but if you can, grab one of the hard booths in back, set among the same sort of wood paneled walls I had as a kid in my basement, or better yet, one of the seven bar stools. If Scarr is around, he’ll shoot the shit with you, talking about other pizzas around the city and generally lamenting the loss of the city’s once-great pizza pillars, such as Lombardi’s.
The décor might imply they do things on the cheap, but there’s nothing here that doesn’t require a lot of extra work. He mills his own flour (which contains some whole grain) and uses three different types for his blend. Dough gets a four to five-day fermentation. His Sicilian contains three types of cheese (two parts whole, one part skim, plus fresh mozzarella); the sauce he scatters over the top is 100% DiNapoli tomatoes. It could have been because this was my final stop of the day, after tasting about four different pizzas, but I thought the Sicilian was good, not great. Not as great as, say, the version I had earlier that morning at Gino’s on Long Island.
For his regular slice, he goes with part skim mozz, then two different whole milk versions, plus Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano. The evenly browned splotches across the top attest to a pizza maker who knows when to pull the slices from the oven in the nick of time, and the OBR here is pretty magical. I managed to polish off my slice here, which was roughly the fifth or sixth of the day for me.
A grandma-style is available on weekends only, containing buffalo mozzarella andfior di latte (talk about gilding the lily).
22 Orchard St., Manhattan | 212-334-3481
Sofia Pizza Shoppe
Matthew Porter and Tom DeGrezia opened their Sutton Place pizzeria in 2016. Along a busy stretch of First Avenue, just a few minutes north of the United Nations, the partners have created one of the better grandma slices in the city. But they’re not content with just one style, as they also seem to sell as many round pies as square ones. A giant open-air window welcomes you in, and you can’t miss it, with their enormous, illuminated “PIZZA” sitting directly behind the counter. A few stools are available, giving you a front row seat to the action along First Ave. All of the pizzas are baked in a double decker Marsal & Sons oven, keeping it around 550 degrees, depending on how busy they get.
I’m with my son and my friend Dana on this visit, as well as Dana’s son, so we opt for a few slices to try. The grandma, for sure, plus a standard margherita slice (wedge cut), a basic cheese slice and a Sicilian. The Sicilian, at least to me, is the least impressive. It’s bulky, doughy and just too cheesy. No such thing as an optimal bite ratio here. Things improve dramatically with the standard slice – a huge blob of fresh mozzarella dominates, but it also has an even layer of thin tomato sauce that burts with acidity, cutting through the richness of the cheese. The crust is pitch-perfect, allowing for just the right amount of chew with each bite. Meanwhile, the margherita slice is covered in an even layer of tomato sauce – it’s completely red – and it hides the creamiest fresh mozzarella and basil, all on top of a beautiful crust that isn’t necessarily foldable, but rather, more sturdy and slightly crisp, with an audible crunch when you bite into it. Locals might call this an “upside down,” since the cheese is beneath the sauce.
The flagship slice is the Spinach Dip. It has three cheeses in the blend and then two more added in addition to the Spinach Dip, which really makes it stand out as a fan favorite, including a Red Cow 36-month Reggiano as a finisher. It’s truly decadent.
The grandma-style is where you want to go. Plum tomato sauce, fresh mozz and a bit of garlic highlight this magnificent crust that is simultaneously soft, crispy, chewy and utterly devourable. They use the thinnest coating of an imported Italian EVOO on their grandma pans to impart a little bit of texture and great flavor.This is a denser, crispier square than the ones at Ivan Orkin’s Corner Slice, and so good in fact, that we ordered a second slice, which is practically unheard of on my pizza crawls.
989 1st Ave., Manhattan | 212-888-8816
Since 1935, Gino and Toto Sorbillo’s family has been making pizzas in their hometown of Naples. In a city where “Neapolitan” pizza and “traditional” is bandied about with ease, New York City sure has a lot of pizza prepared in this style. But what they all lack is Sorbillo’s pedigree and commitment. He’s the only one doing everything by-the-book and to the letter, making essentially the same pizza you’d have at his other restaurants in Naples or Milan. But I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
The problem I, and many other U.S.-based pizza fans might have with “true” Neapolitan pizza is that the middle is extremely wet, compared to most versions stateside. In fact, the fior di latte on our pie (delivered to our table less than five minutes after it was ordered) visibly slides off to one side as the pizza is set onto the table. Don’t even think about using your hands to eat this soft, white dough. You’ll have it all over yourself. Knife and fork is required for these pies. While we enjoyed the richness from the splendid mozzarella and appreciated the even leopard spotting along the cornicione that the pizzaiolo crafted, I’m afraid I’m just not a convert to this soupy style just yet.
334 Bowery, Manhattan | 646-476-8049
(also have a location at 63 Clinton St., Manhattan | 212-529-6300)
This Clinton Hill pizzeria features what I would call “Artisan Neapolitan” pies. That is, classic Neapolitan dough recipes made with “00” flour, with the requisite wood-burning ovens, but with a variety of upmarket toppings (some made in-house) and in some cases, longer fermentation times for the doughs. Other people call these “Neo-Neapolitan.” They also have a location on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Seeing the stacks of hardwood everywhere is a beacon for pizza lovers, like a bourbon freak stepping foot into a Rickhouse. But be forewarned, this is not a traditional slice joint. It’s whole pies only.
Chef-owner Justin Bazdarich is from St. Louis, so it’s no surprise to see him using The Gateway City’s beloved Provel cheese here on the “St. Louie,” which also has Italian sausage, hot soppressata, fennel and pickled chilies. It’s also the only pizza they cut into squares. Be sure your table tries at least one of these. Since the mix of hardwoods, including oak, burns quite hot, the 48-hour fermentation on the dough results in crusts with a sexy, blistered edge. Bazdarich purees Gusta Rosso brand tomato sauce with salt for most of his pizzas, topping many with Pecorino Romano-Parmesan blends, and topping them with housemade mozzarella. Every morning they receive soft curds from Lionis in Bensonhurst, allowing them to make 20 pounds of fresh mozz each day.
376 Classon Ave., Brooklyn | 718-230-0061
Like so many of the great pizzerias in New York City, Totonno’s has a long and storied past. Opened in 1924 – just 19 years after America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, in Manhattan – the narrow store in Coney Island has walls jammed with nostalgia. Just a 7-minute walk from the MTA subway stop and not much further from the boardwalk, it has drawn families and pizza lovers from all over the region with its impressive coal-fired oven. Sitting at one of the tables, waiting for my friend Alan Richman to join us (yes, the same Richman who wrote about the greatest pizzas in the U.S. for GQ) I noticed reviews from previous years, a James Beard award as one of America’s Classics, signed headshots by local TV anchors, athletes and Yankees. Like so much of the landscape in this part of Brooklyn (Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Coney Island) there are a preponderance of auto body shops. Do that many people drive? I thought everyone took the train.
Louise “Cookie” Ciminieri is the granddaughter of Anthony (Totonno) Pero, who got his start in the kitchen at Lombardi’s in 1905, after moving to New York from Naples. She is clearly the matriarch here, walking beneath the ancient, white pressed tin ceiling to all of the tables, greeting regulars. An older guy with a NYFD hat sits by himself, drinking red wine and polishing off most of a pie all by himself (although he noticeably leaves behind the dry, tasteless edges of the dough heels on the plate). The place is only open Thursday to Sunday, and with only a handful of tables, it tends to be busy most of the hours it’s open.
There are only a few choices here – small or large, sausage, mushroom, maybe pepperoni. We get a large, about 23 inches across, and notice the high lip curl. Remarkably, it’s pretty even all the way around, even though it’s been fired in a coal oven. I forget that the sausage in New York is a joke compared to Chicago. Just like Nunzio’s on Staten Island, it’s sliced into supermarket-esque slices, from the edge of an encased link. But the generous blanket of fresh mozzarella combined with the zesty sauce forms an almost psychedelic mural of red and white. The pepperoni side is generous, covering nearly all of the real estate; underneath, there are a few black splotch marks, indicating intense heat pockets, but it’s not as charred as I’d like; certainly not as charred as coal-fired pie from Pepe’s in New Haven or Coalfire in Chicago. Looks aside – and it certainly does look good – there is little, if any flavor in the crust. The lip is bready and bland (no surprise that guy sitting by himself left the sauce and cheeseless parts untouched). You gotta respect the longevity, but you don’t have to make the trek.
1524 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn | 718-372-8606
Una Pizza Napoletana
As I got further into this New York City Pizza Crawl, my friends and colleagues in the business – the real pizzaiolos – kept urging that I visit the newly re-opened Una Pizza Napoletana, which had just come back from a hiatus in San Francisco (after originally being in New York) and had reestablished itself on the Lower East Side. This was true Neapolitan, they told me. As true as Sorbillo, but not as wet in the middle. Turned out I got in pretty easily, as they had only recently opened in NYC and still didn’t have their liquor license the night I visited.
The room is spare, like a Milan shoe store, lots of glass and cement and a showcase kitchen in back of the space where the tattoo-clad pizzaiolo works efficiently and methodically. Bufala mozzarella is standard issue here, on a margherita that costs $25. The oven is white-tiled, proudly proclaiming “una” on it, while chords of wood are stacked below the work tables.
Dough is stretched, pulled and quickly transferred to the wooden peel, where it is rapidly loaded into the oven. At this point, the pizzaiolo switches to a metal peel, and begins to work the pizza around the inside of the stone and tile dome. A stack of white plates is located next to the mouth of the oven, for easy transfer once the pies are finished. Someone clearly has thought of every move and every variable while baking pizza. I notice the pizzaiolo works a bit rougher and faster than the guys at Razza; they push, press, tap and stretch with more vigorous motions.
In either case, the pizza here is not what I expected after my visit to Neapolitan legend Sorbillo. First of all, the center isn’t nearly as wet, but you will need a knife to cut a slice, since the pies are served uncut. I like this tradition. But the problem is this is the highest cornicione I’ve ever seen, a good two to three inches high. There are just a few blackened basil leaves on top, with plenty of small blobs of mozzarella. The sides are as soft as a Canadian goose down vest, with an undercarriage littered with charring. You need cutlery to eat these pizzas and I’m sorry, purists, but this pizza is way too chewy for me. The San Marzanos and cheese in the middle are fine. Nothing I haven’t had before. Yes, it has a more pronounced sour tang than any pizza I’ve had in New York, which I sort of appreciate, but the chew is too much. I didn’t come here to eat bread, I came for the pizza, and I’m afraid there are just too many other great places to go in this city for me to blow $25 on this one.
175 Orchard St., Manhattan | 646-692-3475
My son and I walk over to this boisterous, gorgeous restaurant on a Saturday morning, not realizing a reservation is probably required. Brunch here is a contact sport, with every seat taken beneath the impressive wall lined with preserved fruit and bottles of wine; several tables are imbibing with mimosas or bloodys. We snag two seats at the bar, and our solicitous bartender is surprised we order so quickly. While we wait for our margherita, I walk back to take a peek at the oven. It’s a commercial Wood Stone, but despite the name, there is no wood in site, just a blazing gas flame. I’m worried.
We almost ordered the smoked salmon pizza, with it’s nod to Wolfgang Puck, I’m guessing, but stick with my margherita/baseline rule. The pizza arrives significantly blistered and charred around the edges, bubbly and pudgy. Almost too puffy for me, actually, with a chew that borders on dough overkill (much like a Pequod’s pie in Chicago). The center is delicious, with its smattering of chiles, esplette pepper, oregano and sea salt, but sadly, there is little to no flavor in the heel, and as a result, we leave much of that charred dough sitting on our plates. At least a dozen fresh basil leaves grace the middle, perfuming the pizza (and the baked-in tomato sauce certainly adds acidity) but they can’t save the border. Because despite a proper crunch there, if there is no flavor, there is no OBR (optimal bite ratio). On a positive note, the cacio e pepe we ordered alongside was spot-on, reminding us of a dinner we had in Rome once. It took all our willpower to eat only half of it, since we had another six places to go on this particular day.
345 Park Ave. S, Manhattan | 212-686-1006