Making Hot and Fresh Pizza at Lombardi's Pizza Restaurant

The best historic pizza restaurants in New York

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By Stephen Keeling
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Spend more than five minutes in New York and you’ll start to understand how much the locals love pizza. There are more pizza joints on a typical block than garbage cans, mailboxes and parking spaces. So as you’d expect, this is one town where pizza genealogy is taken very seriously, and title of best pizza restaurant in New York hotly contended.

These days quality pizza is having a renaissance in the Big Apple: relative newcomers Artichoke, Kesté Pizza & Vino, Motorino, Paulie Gee’s  and the crazy good fried-pizza of Forcella are all excellent, but this is not about them. This is about the old school. If you manage to visit all these pizza joints (preferably over a few days, unless you have a heart the size of a Grand National winner), congratulations – you’ll be able to claim an advanced diploma in NYC pizza lore. (Quoted prices are for large pizzas, unless otherwise noted).

New York pizza

1: Lombardi’s

32 Spring St, Nolita (Manhattan); http://www.firstpizza.com

New York’s pizza odyssey begins with Neapolitan immigrant Gennaro Lombardi, who sold the first pizza (or at least received the city’s first ever pizzeria licence) in Little Italy in 1905 (his original store opened in 1897, down the street from the current location) – he also helped train a whole generation of pizzaioli at his brick-walled coal oven. Today, despite the tourists, the pizzas still deliver – the white clam version is a thin-crust delight (small only; US$28), though beginners should stick with the original, made with fresh mozzarella and a San Marzano tomato sauce (US$20.50). Cash only, no slices.

2: Totonno’s

1524 Neptune Ave, Coney Island (Brooklyn). No website.

Lombardi’s employee (and fellow Neapolitan) Antonio Totonno Pero perfected the pizza recipe, and in 1924 he opened his own place. Totonno’s is still owned by the same family, though temporarily closed by Hurricane Sandy. It uses tomatoes imported from Italy, handmade mozzarella cheese and dough made daily on the premises – but the crust is puffy and thick, rather than the usual wafer thin (from US$19.95). Totonno’s should reopen in the next couple of months. Cash only, no slices.

3: John’s Pizzeria

278 Bleecker St, West Village (Manhattan); http://www.johnsbrickovenpizza.com

OK, this is another tourist bottle-neck, but the worn-wooden booths, bright neon-red sign and ramshackle floors are dripping with atmosphere. Lombardi’s graduate John Sasso opened up here in 1929 – his coal-fired brick oven is still knocking out superb pies. Expect real old-school super-thin crust, sweet tomato sauce and blistered, gooey cheese (US$16.50). Cash only, no slices.

Brick Oven Pizza from Lombardi's, New York
4: Patsy’s Pizzeria

2287 First Ave, East Harlem (Manhattan); http://www.thepatsyspizza.com

The final Lombardi’s alum, Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri opened this lauded East Harlem joint in 1933, later a haunt for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (legend has it was also the first place in New York to sell pizza by the slice). The thin-crust pies (from US$12) are still pulled from a coal-fired oven, topped with tangy sauce, creamy mozzarella and salty parmesan. In 1991, Patsy’s wife Carmela Lancieri sold the restaurant along with its naming rights to a corporation that franchised the Patsy’s brand to other Manhattan restaurants. Don’t be fooled – the poorer versions at the newer locations don’t compare. Cash only, slices available.

Lombardi's pizza, New York (image by Simon Doggett on Flickr)

Lombardi’s pizza (Flickr photo by Simon Doggett)

5: L&B Spumoni Gardens

2725 86th St,  Brooklyn; http://www.spumonigardens.com

The square pie at Spumoni is a Bensonhurst classic, one of the best Sicilian slices in the city. Ludovico Barbati immigrated to the US in 1917, from Torella Dei Lombardi, Italy. In 1939 he purchased a property on 86th street in Brooklyn, so he could sell his spumoni (Italian ices); in the 1950s his business expanded into a second building, which is now the pizzeria.

The pizza is still exquisite: sweet tomato sauce slathered over doughy rectangles with a crunchy browned bottom, finished with melted mozzarella and strands of parmesan. Slice $2.25, half tray $19, full tray $36. Credit cards, slices available.

6: Denino’s Pizzeria & Tavern

524 Port Richmond Ave (Staten Island); http://www.deninos.com

Meanwhile, in Staten Island, John (Giovanni) Denino was building a local legend – he opened a tavern in 1937 (where the present business is still located). But it was his son Carlo that introduced pizza in 1951 (after his father died) – it was a huge hit. Carlo himself passed away in 2000, but his classic pizzas are just as good; the Italian sausage pizza features a fabulous crust, browned in a searing brick oven (from US$14.50). Cash only, no slices.

7: Ray’s Prince Street Pizza

27 Prince St, Nolita (Manhattan); http://www.princestpizza.com

The post-Lombardi wave of pizza joints hit NYC in the 1940s and 1950s – Nunzio’s (1942), J&V Pizzeria (1950), House of Pizza and Calzone (1952), Arturo’s (1957) and Rizzo’s (1959) among them (all still here). But nothing quite gets a New Yorker confused like the topic of Ray’s Pizza.

Today you’ll see “Ray’s Pizza” and variants of the name all over the city (and throughout the US) – Famous, Original, Original Famous, ad nauseum (fifty in the city alone, at last count). Ralph Cuomo (who died in 2008), opened the genuine, official, there-really-is-no-other-original Ray’s Pizza here in 1959. Tragically, his old place was forced to close in 2011 due to a legal dispute with the building’s landlord, but fear not: his legacy is being upheld (and maybe even surpassed) by Frank Morano’s Prince Street Pizza, whose signature slice is the SoHo Square (fresh mozzarella topped with the Morano family’s ‘secret homemade sauce’; $3.75, whole pie US$26). Credit cards and slices.

8: Di Fara Pizza

1424 Ave J at 15th St, Midwood (Brooklyn); http://www.difara.com

It’s not the oldest pizza joint in town, but for many New Yorkers, this really is it. Domenico DeMarco immigrated to New York from the Province of Caserta in Italy as a young man in 1959, hailing from a family of bakers and master pizziaolos. He worked as a farmer on Long Island before opening Di Fara in Brooklyn in 1964. Today folks make the pilgrimage out here to watch DeMarco work, as much as to taste his wonderful pies. Slice US$5, pie US$28. Cash only.

Pizza delivery man shielding himself from blizzard, New York

9: Famous Ray’s to Famous Roio’s

465 Sixth Ave, West Village (Manhattan); http://www.famousroiospizza.com

Some of the Ray’s imitators were pretty good. ‘Famous Ray’s’ was opened in 1973 in the West Village by Mario DiRienzo and his brother Lamberto – their pizza quickly gained a cult following. In 1980 Mario sold the brand but the pizzeria carried on; in 2012 Mario came out of retirement to re-occupy his old space, this time with a new name (honouring the town of Roio del Sangro in Abruzzo, Italy). Are these slices too cheesy? Maybe, but this is the essence of the NYC slice-on-the-fly – it’s not a meal, it’s an afternoon or late-night snack. Credit cards, slices available (US$2.75; pizza US$18).

10: Grimaldi’s - or is it Juliana’s?

19 Old Fulton St, Dumbo (Brooklyn); http://www.julianaspizza.com

Since 1990 tourists and locals alike having been lining up under the Brooklyn Bridge to sample Patsy Grimaldi’s lauded coal-oven pizzas (US$18) – Patsy is Patsy Lancieri’s nephew (remember him?), and learned his craft at his uncle’s pizzeria, where he started working in 1941 at the age of ten. In 1998 Grimaldi sold his restaurant, along with the naming rights, to Frank Ciolli – the pizzas continued to sell just as well.

Here’s where it gets complicated: following numerous disagreements between Ciolli and his Brooklyn landlord, Ciolli’s lease was not renewed in 2012. As a result, Ciolli moved Grimaldi’s next door, while Patsy Grimaldi came out of retirement to re-occupy the old location – his new restaurant is named Juliana’s, a tribute to his late mother, but it still has the original coal-oven, which Ciolli left behind. So Juliana’s is technically the ‘real’ Grimaldi’s. But hey, this is New York – it’s all good.

Credit cards, no slices.

 Another Lombardi creation

Stephen Keeling, co-author of Rough Guide to New York, lives in the East Village above a Papa John’s and a Joey Pepperoni Pizza, opposite Motorino, Vinny Vincenz and 2 Bros Pizza, and, thankfully, around the corner from Artichoke Pizza.