New York City:
Growing up in New York, grabbing a slice of pizza for lunch, a snack or dinner was a simple and commonplace thing to do. What started in places like Little Italy, Bensonhurst, Arthur Avenue and Howard Beach branched out, so that nearly every neighborhood in New York had a few pizza joints with Italian sounding names like Sal’s Place, Carmine’s, Tony’s and Big John’s Pizzeria. These small restaurants were the descendants of places begun by immigrants who years ago brought their version of pizza to New York and saw it morph into the sturdy slice we know today. Most pizzerias weren’t sit down restaurants but brightly lit shops with counter service only. There might be a few small tables down the side and room for six standing by a tiny counter along the window. The large horizontal pizza ovens emitted quite a bit of heat while aromas of slightly burnt bread, tomato sauce and garlic permeated the air. People, both customers and staff – spoke loudly, in typical New York fashion.
“New York pizza began as a straightforward version of the original pizza alla margherita from Naples via Neapolitan immigrants,” said John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire Magazine and author of How Italian Food Conquered the World. He said, “Later versions lacked the crispness, bubbling and charring of the originals and were baked a lighter color. New Yorkers knew to ask them to cook it more to give it some char.”
Grabbing a slice meant no muss, no fuss; the pizzeria itself and the act of getting a slice of pizza was a part of everyday life and an integral part of the neighborhood. Yet in true capitalistic fashion, if the food wasn’t any good, the customers would soon disappear. Slices were almost always plain; the only toppings the occasional pepperoni, slivers of onion, mushroom or maybe some green pepper. A slice of pizza was modest, tasty, somewhat greasy yet filling and inexpensive. (Since 1960 the price of a NY slice of pizza has more or less equaled the price of a NY subway token. Fares are now $2.75 for single ride) Importantly, the typical New Yorker learned at a young age to fold the slice in one hand and eat it while walking down the street. This was and still is a classic street food. “There’s nothing as fundamental and ubiquitous as bread and cheese and sauce,” said Brooklyn resident Lou Camporeale, the Parking Pal, a NYC Parking Expert.
The pizza paradigm however is changing. The humble pie is fast becoming the darling of the gourmet set and has become a chic item, catering to haute whims and trendy ingredients. In fact, some Manhattan and chic Brooklyn pizzerias don’t offer slices at all; instead sit down pies feature exotic ingredients and eye popping prices. Make no mistake, many of today’s chefs really do celebrate pizza and provide their customers wonderful versions of the dish, but the superb, simple slice is getting harder to find.
A Pizza Quest
I set out to find the best slices and sampled scores all over the New York City’s boroughs, traveling to pizzerias by subway, car, bus and on foot. (New York City is officially made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island) Sometimes called “plain” or “cheese,” sometimes “Margherita,” but most often “regular,” I only compared similar cheese-tomato sauce-dough, wedge shaped slices. Unfortunately I left out many highly rated and places such as Don Antonio by Starita, Grimaldi’s, Zero Otto Nove, John’s and Roberta’s because they don’t, or won’t, serve pizza-by-the-slice. Too bad for them. Pizzerias that produced slices that satisfied my standards made my Best in Borough list followed by New York’s very best pizza-by-the-slice. To evaluate, I used my own 5-tool Pizza criteria to evaluate the slices.
Bob’s 5-tool Pizza Criteria
Crust: How is the crust? Too pale, burned or just the right amount of charring? Thick or thin? Does the point flop over when you pick it up? Too limp or too rigid? Can you taste leftover flour?
Sauce: Are the tomatoes fresh or if canned, are they San Marzano style? Seasoned with how much salt, too much, not enough? Preponderance of other spices like oregano, garlic and basil? Did one flavor overpower?
Cheese: Is it processed or fresh mozzarella cheese? Whole milk? The right amount? When melted does it get too greasy?
Balance: Are all the ingredients in harmony or does one element outweigh the other?
Appearance: How does the slice look? Does it have the classic wedge shape? Color? Red, yellow, orange or spotty? Does it just lie there or does it stand up straight?
My Borough by Borough list of great spots and overall New York City winner.
For the best non-stop flight from SFO to JFK, fly Virgin America. www.virginamerica.com
c. Bob Ecker 2013