Totonno's Pizzeria. Photo: Julienne Schaer
New York City certainly isn’t the only place you can get a pizza. The stuff was invented in Naples, Italy. When it’s on a bagel, you can have it anytime. And it’s ubiquitous: American pizza restaurants did more than $38 million in business during 2015 alone.
But the pizza here is transcendent, rendering most other pies pale imitations of the real thing. Why? To answer this question, we turned to two of NYC’s foremost pizza experts: Tony Muia of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours and Scott Wiener of Scott’s Pizza Tours.
“Pizza is an integral part of life here,” Muia says.
“We have a cultural attachment to pizza that goes further back than any other city’s besides Naples,” Wiener says.
Wiener goes on to say that pizza is essential to any NYC trip. “You must have a full-body experience. You have to hang out where the people live. Don’t stick to just the tourist spots. Living that New York lifestyle is all about being in motion constantly, and part of that is eating a slice on a plate while you’re walking around. If you don’t do that, you’re just observing—you’re not participating.”
Muia describes pizza as something that ties the different periods of a New Yorker’s life together. He remembers visiting J&V Pizzeria in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood as a little kid and having his mom cut the slices up into tiny pieces. He’ll still go there with friends today, in his 50s, after a night out. Taking part in those rituals is one way to really understand what it’s like to be a New Yorker.
There are also physical qualities that distinguish a New York City pizza. Wiener identifies two major New York City pizza styles:
When you go out for coal-oven NYC pizza, he explains, “you can only get a whole pie—you can’t get it by the slice. It’s in a coal-fired oven for three to five minutes, lightly charred on the edge.” He calls this “sedentary pizza,” best enjoyed with a group of friends.
Photo: Phil Kline
New York slice
To buy a New York slice, says Wiener, “you walk in, up to the counter. They reheat your slice unless it just came out of the oven 10 seconds ago, then you eat it off of a paper plate and you’re on your way.” He calls this “pizza in transit.” While there’s the prototypical image of a New York slice—something like Joe’s in Greenwich Village—it can also be a Sicilian (square) specimen like at L&B in Bensonhurst or the gigantic, dip-topped monstrosity at Artichoke in the East Village.
Of course, there’s also other pizza made in New York City:
“There’s some new stuff coming out, a new movement of pizza,” Wiener says. “It’s these small pizzas that are very similar to what you’d get in Naples, Italy, but they’re sort of taking their ingredients to the next level.” Wiener and Muia both offer Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint as a shining example of new-school Neapolitan.
Other styles outside the classic NYC range include bar pies (very thin, almost cracker-like, crust, plenty of cheese—something you’d have to eat sitting down at a table—exemplified by the work of NYCgo’s very own Adam Kuban), vegan pizza (like at Screamer’s in Williamsburg) and deep dish (what you’d traditionally get in Chicago).
Photo: Joe Buglewicz
With that out of the way, how should you pick your first NYC pizza place?
Muia says: “Ask police officers where they get their slice. Ask firefighters. That’s the best way to do it.”
Wiener agrees that, with a little guidance, any tourist can become a real NYC pizza snob: “If I introduce someone new to J&V or to Nino’s or [another] neighborhood place, it’ll suddenly become their new favorite.”
Of course, for a visitor, location matters too. That’s one reason Muia chose Grimaldi’s, under the Brooklyn Bridge, and L&B Spumoni Gardens—with its picturesque outdoor seating—as the pillars of his own tour.
Muia tells the story of one Australian teenager who came into his tour boasting that he really knew pizza but found himself despairing after a visit to L&B—which serves the Sicilian slice by which all others in NYC are judged—because he feared he’d never get such great slice again in his home country, halfway around the world. “He looks at me and shrugs,” says Muia, “and goes, ‘Now what am I supposed to do?’”
As is the case with preeminent NYC breadstuff the bagel, our city’s pizza legend includes the claim that one needs New York City water to make a truly excellent pizza crust. Muia’s and Wiener’s answers on this front are similar: highly skeptical, but with nods to those unique New York City qualities that make true believers think it's the only place one can make a real pizza.
“Our water happens to be pretty low in chlorine,” Wiener says. “It happens to be really soft.” He continues, “Does having [good water and ovens] make you make great pizza? The answer is no. It’s more of that cultural attachment.”
Muia appeared on a Food Network program during which he blind taste-tested dough made with water from different cities; and he did prefer the New York dough, as did the rest of the judges. “There’s no dispelling that there’s different mineral content in New York water,” he says, and goes on to point out that out-of-state Grimaldi’s branches use expensive machinery in an attempt to alter local water to New York standards.
But Muia still isn't totally convinced NYC water is essential to good pizza. In citing the success of pizza makers like Chris Bianco, who moved from the Bronx to Arizona, Muia says that “ultimately, sometimes what you need to do is transplant the New Yorker.”
New York’s economic conditions also contribute to the proliferation of great pizza in the five boroughs.
Wiener puts it this way: “We, as the consumers, treat pizza differently. São Paulo, Brazil, has had pizza for about the same amount of time as New York City has. But culturally, it’s very much a pizza dinner town. We treat pizza as a constant. If you are awake, there should be pizza to be eaten. You know, ten o’clock in the morning, Joe’s has a pizza sitting out on the tray, and at five in the morning they probably bake their last one.”
He says, “That classic slice shop is based on the foot traffic that you have on all these New York streets.” New York is America’s largest city, and other municipalities simply cannot support so much pizza on demand.
Wiener also talks about how seriously New Yorkers take pizza, even chefs. “[For chefs in] other parts of the country, pizza is just a means to an end. It’s just a job. I think in New York it tends to be more of a career.”
As for NYC’s pies-only dominance, Wiener says the ovens are key: New York City (along with New Haven, Connecticut) has big, old coal ovens and easy access to coal from northeastern Pennsylvania. While coal-oven pizza is now a trend across the United States, Scott says the versions you find outside of the five boroughs are usually “much smaller modifications of wood fired ovens.”
And New York City needs its pizza. As Wiener remembers it, after the financial crisis of 2008, dollar-slice joints—which, as their name suggests, prioritize affordability above all—proliferated. “We said, ‘You can take our jobs, you can take our Wall Street, but you cannot take our pizza.’ And I think that’s beautiful.”
Here are Wiener’s favorites from each major NYC category:
Photo: Peter Borghard
Dani’s House of Pizza, Queens
Joe and Pat’s, Staten Island
Joe’s Pizza, Greenwich Village
Lou and Ernie’s, The Bronx
Luigi’s, Park Slope
New Park Pizza, Queens
New York Pizza Suprema, Midtown West
Photo: Adam Kuban
During our talk, Muia recommended:
Photo: Daniel Krieger