New York-Style Pizza
Ever since Gennaro Lombardi opened Lombardi’s, New York City’s first pizzeria (also America’s first) in 1905, New Yorkers have been fascinated with the simple culinary pleasure. A century removed from that humble beginning, you’ll find that New York pizza has moved past a copy of Neapolitan-style pizza and grown into a category all its own.
Just like the inhabitants of the Big Apple, this pizza style is a descendant from other parts of the world, and has developed a personality that is as big as the city it is named after. Today there is hardly a two-block radius in the city that doesn’t have a pizzeria slinging the iconic, large single slices of foldable pizza with pronounced edges. And if you want to start a heated debate, ask any group of three or more New Yorkers where to find the best slice in town.
HISTORY OF THE SLICE
Pizza in America started on the corner of Spring and Mott street in Little Italy. This is where Lombardi was making a coal-fired Neapolitan-style pizza. However, this is not the New York-style pizza of today. It didn’t take long for city-dwellers to grow out of the Neapolitan-style pizza that the immigrants were familiar with. Pizzerias around town began to create something that they not only loved but could call their own. Shortly after opening, the team at Lombardi’s recognized a need for low-cost meals to feed the working-class masses walking by daily. Realizing these were also potential customers, Lombardi’s made a larger pizza to cut and sell by the slice – and at only five cents a slice, it didn’t take long to gain popularity.
One of Lombardi’s cooks, Antonio “Totonno” Pero, left after a few years and started his own pizza restaurant located in Coney Island called Totonno’s. This establishment focused on pizza by the slice and became instantly popular.
Both original pizzerias used coal-fired ovens and are both still operating today. This started the mass influx of pizza by the slice operations that you now find all over the city, and across the U.S.
New York-style pizza is a large, 18 – 20 inch pizza cut into eight slices. While New Yorkers will argue over who makes the best pizza, there are a few fundamentals that they will almost all agree upon. The slice has to be thin, foldable and crisp all at the same time, it is to be expected to have a little grease on top and all other ingredients kept simple. Here, we discuss the more traditional-styles and just touch on the outliers.
THE DOUGH AND THE CRUST
The dough is a very basic pizza dough: flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, water, not much more than that. The moderate yeast activity is primarily noted in the pronounced crust. It is proofed as dough balls, commonly in individual containers. Small, metal proofing pans were born out of necessity. These pizzerias live in old buildings, many much older than 100 years and real estate inside the small locations is a premium. Often times, the dough will be held in a basement with old, creaky, narrow wooden stairs. So, carrying a bulky proofing tray is not as easy in New York as it might be for pizza makers in other states with more space. The dough is allowed to develop between eight and 48 hours. The dough ball is hand tossed into a large 20-inch pizza crust with cornmeal on the bottom. Cornmeal prevents sticking to surfaces through-out the entire pizza making process.
The end result is a thin, hand-stretched crust with a pronounced edge and random air pockets. It is foldable, yet crisp at the same time.
The pizzas are baked in a deck oven either coal, wood, or gas fired; impingement style ovens do not produce the desired crisp, yet foldable, crust. Coal-fired ovens were considered the norm for decades, but that has evolved over the years. Now, there seems to be no clear heat source needed to be deemed New York-style. There is a rumor that coal-fired ovens have been outlawed in the city for air-quality. Currently, regulations state that coal is acceptable, they just have stricter regulations requiring them to use newer technology to control the emissions.
This pie is not for squares – it is mandatory for the round pizza to be divided up in triangular slices to be deemed New York-style.
New York-style pizza calls for a traditional American-Italian red sauce. It can be cooked or fresh, but is normally made from canned crushed tomatoes. The common spices and herbs added to the sauce include garlic, salt, sugar, oregano and basil. Oil in the sauce is not common, but also not unheard of.
A blend of shredded, low-moisture whole milk and part skim mozzarella is by far the most common cheese used to make New York-style pizza. The hallmark of any NYC pizzeria is their cheese pizza, so this has to done be correctly. The cheese pizza is typically also called, “a regular” or “a plain”.
They really can be anything here. They are placed on top of the cheese and it is not normally a heavily-topped pizza. There seems to be a city ordinance that in order to sell pizza by the slice in NYC, your establishment must have a shaker of cheap parmesan, red chili flakes and oregano available at every countertop or table to doctor your piece up.
Here is just a small sampling of the places I explored for this post:
- ADDRESS: 7 Carmine St., New York, NY, 10014
- WEBSITE: http://www.joespizzanyc.com/
- WHAT TO GET: The classic cheese slice.
- NOTES: This is a true no frills hole-in-the-wall, with no place to sit. It is located in Greenwich Village, this is the true essence of NYC slices. There may be a line out the door, but it will move quick. A must for anyone looking to try the real thing. It has been around since 1975.
- ADDRESS: 32 Spring St., New York, NY, 10012
- WEBSITE: https://www.firstpizza.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Original Margherita.
- NOTES: Started in 1905, this is the landmark pizzeria for America and a pilgrimage for any serious pizza buff. It is a classic Neapolitan pizza and not a true New York-style.
- ADDRESS: 750 Port Richmond Ave., Staten Island, New York, NY, 10302
- WEBSITE: https://www.facebook.com/Brothers-Pizza-260150540331/
- WHAT TO GET: A Cheese Slice.
- NOTES: Pizza was great.
Famous Original Ray’s Pizza
- ADDRESS: Various locations
- WEBSITE: https://rayspizza.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Cheese Slice.
- NOTES: I would just keep moving, just ok at best.
Di Fara Pizza
- ADDRESS: 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY, 11230
- WEBSITE: https://www.difarapizzany.com/
- WHAT TO GET: A regular slice.
- NOTES: I went here years ago, but have always remembered that it was pretty amazing.
Enzo Bruni / Gansevoort Market
- ADDRESS: 353 W. 14th St., New York, NY, 10014
- WEBSITE: https://enzobrunigourmet.com/
- WHAT TO GET: Piccante.
- NOTES: Using quality, imported ingredients, melting the basic American slice with Italian heritage.
Today, after a century from when the first pizzeria opened, you’ll find hundreds of pizzas by the slice shops open all over in the city that never sleeps. In fact, it is so common it begs the questions – is there anything more New York than grabbing a slice of pizza folding it up and keep moving?