Pizza is one of the most recognisable and well loved foods across the western world. There is no doubt that Italy and in particular Naples is the birthplace of the humble pizza, but you wouldn't think so when wandering around New York. There is pizza everywhere you look, literally. In fact a quick search shows around 800 establishments that sell pizza in Manhattan and if you extend that search to the greater New York area, its over 2,200! That is significantly more than the 500 pizza restaurants in Rome....
What is it about the humble pizza that makes it so overwhelmingly popular in the US and in particular New York? It seems as if the simple answer is that pizza is accessible and it's cheap. I've been staggered walking around Manhattan and seeing all of the 'hole-in-the-wall' pizza joints offering pizza by the slice for $1.99, and the slices are huge! Pizza by the slice is the predominant approach to selling pizza here and it can largely be credited to the first pizza joint in New York, Lombardi's, which opened in 1905. Lombardi's made the very large and wide pizzas that can be folded up, which has now famously referred to as New York-Style pizza.
While there are many pizza joints that sell pizza by the slice, there are still many that prefer only to sell whole pizzas and not by the slice. These pizza restaurants are generally proud of the fact that they sell whole pizza and advertise it clearly. For my time looking for great pizza in New York I have avoided pizza by the slice and have looked for more traditional pizza restaurants. Given the very large number of pizza joints in New York and the fact that I didn't want to put on too much weight on my trip to New York, I have limited my search for New York's best pizza to the better known pizza joints.
Lombardi's - http://www.firstpizza.com/
Lombardi's opened it's doors in 1905 and is acknowledged by the Pizza Hall of Fame (there's a pizza hall of fame?!) as being the first pizzeria in the United States. Located in Nolita or Northern Little Italy, we had always planned to go to Lombardi's as part of our search for great pizza, but happened to stumbled upon it on our first night in Little Italy. Many people rate Lombardi's as still the best pizza in New York, so we were keen to get in and check it out. We didn't have a reservation, but it was still early in the evening, so we managed to get a table without waiting.
Lombardi's offers two pizza types, a large at 18" and eight slices and a small at 14" and six slices. SC and I stupidly ordered a small pizza each, not knowing small is a relative term and the small was still huge to our Aussie eyes. Of course I ordered the standard pizza which was made with fresh mozzarella and a San Marzano tomato sauce and topped with romano and fresh basil. SC ordered the same but had pepperoni added. Starting off, the bases of Lombardi's pizzas were well cooked but were a little thick, so had the texture of cardboard and were a little hard to eat. There was only a light covering of mozzarella cheese, so the ratio of tomato base to cheese was poor and it lacked a little flavour. The tomato sauce was a little bland and without the right amount of cheese, it just tasted flat. Overall, I was not very impressed with the 'best' pizza in America.
Il Piccolo Bufalo - http://ilpiccolobufalo.net/new/index2.html#!/home
Not to be deterred by our first pizza experience, I completed a little more research for our next pizza experience in New York's Little Italy. As you would expect from a district called Little Italy, there were a large number of pizza restaurants and only a limited amount of time to get the right one. A Google search for 'best pizza in Little Italy' pulled up four hits, with one of the four being Lombardi's. However, the other three looked promising, with all three meeting the 'DOC' or denominazione d'origine controllata' standard, which denotes a government standardised quality level for margherita pizzas by the socianzione della Vera Pizza Napoletana standard. That sounded good to me, so we picked Il Piccolo Bufalo as the next pizza restaurant to visit.
It was clear that Il Piccolo Bufalo was not your typical tourist trap pizza place, it didn't have big signs everywhere saying 'the best pizza in America' like so many other pizza joints did. Again I ordered the margherita and had a pretty good idea that I was in for a great pizza when I saw the pizza set in front of me. It was still a really large pizza, but it had a much better ratio of cheese to tomato base, with just the right amount of fresh mozzarella cheese. The base was thin and very crispy, although it did start to get a little soggy in the very centre after a few minutes, but the majority of the base remained crispy. What was so superb about this pizza was the wonderful flavour from the tomato base, which was sweet and full of flavour and matched perfectly with the 'just right' melted cheese. For me, this was by far the best Pizza I had in New York.
Co. - http://www.co-pane.com/
After our time in Little Italy, we move from our hotel to an apartment we found on airBNB in Chelsea, which is a cool but central spot on the West Side of Manhattan. We were given a hot tip by our host that there was a great pizza place just across the street called Co. that had great pizza. Co had been open since 2009 and was just starting to build a great reputation having appeared on TV shows such as Anthony Bourdain's 'No Reservations, ABC's 'Nightline' and 'The Martha Stewart Show'. It also had a great little tag line - 'Our Pies are not always round'. I still find it funny that a lot of places call pizzas 'pies', I'm just not sure why!
We found ourselves in Co. on a day where there was a bit of a thunderstorm outside and we didn't want to venture too far away from home. I was really surprised with the pizzas from Co, they were the first pizzas that we came across that were a normal size (by Aussie Standards) and one pizza was just enough for one person and not a whole family! The margherita pizza had a really good covering of cheese and the tomato base was tasty and had a little bit of a zing to it. The crust was lovely and thin and had a nice organic feel to it by being an irregular shape. The combination of flavours from the mozzarella cheese and a little drizzle of olive oil was really nice. This was my second favourite pizza on the whole trip.
John's Pizza - http://www.johnspizzerianyc.com/
Another of New York's best known pizza restaurants is John's Pizza, which has a few locations around Manhattan, but we ended up visiting the Times Square restaurant. John's Pizzeria in Times Square is apparently the largest Pizza restaurant in the US, it sure did have a lot of seats! We actually tried to get into John's in the first couple of days in Manhattan, but after waiting in a queue for a while decided that we would go elsewhere and try again another day. We ended up going to John's early one day for lunch and managed to beat the huge queues that form each day.
By this time, SC was pretty much over pizza, so while I ordered a margherita pizza, SC went for a chicken panini, which was just a massive sandwich. I was a bit confused with the pizza menu at Johns, with two pizzas that looked the same, the traditional and the margherita and when I asked with the difference was, could not get a coherent answer. Once the pizza was delivered, I finally understood that the margherita had a LOT of basil included, so much in fact that it looked like a green pizza! After taking most of the basil off, the pizza was pretty good. The crust was thin and crunchy and the mozzarella was fresh and nicely melted, although there was simply not enough of the mozzarella on the pizza. My main issue with John's pizza, which really detracted from the quality, was the tomato base was a little bland, otherwise, this pizza would have been right up with the best.
Grimaldi's Pizza - http://www.grimaldis.com/
One of the pizza restaurants that is in every guide book as a 'must visit' is Grimaldi's, which is also one of the early pizza restaurants in New York, most famous for their coal fired pizza ovens. Grimaldi's is over the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, specifically Dumbo (seriously, that's a suburb of Brooklyn). We had intended to walk over the bridge to Brooklyn but the day we planned to go to Grimaldi's was wet and overcast, so we caught the trusty underground and got there a little bit before opening. It gave us a chance to have a look around a part of New York outside of Manhattan, which was cool. By the time we finished wandering around and went back to Grimaldi's, there was a massive queue formed pretty much exclusively by tourists! This should have been a warning for us, but we waited in the queue and managed to get a seat without too much fuss.
Grimaldi's looks like an old style pizza place with red and white checkered tablecloths that were tightly packed around the pizza oven, so you could watch the pizzas being made and cooked. The place was a bit 'grotty' to be honest and could have used a good clean. Our pizzas were delivered fairly quickly and were massive, definitely a case of one pizza for two people here and not one each. The pizza itself was pretty ordinary, with only a light covering of mozzarella cheese and a tomato base that had no flavour at all. The pizza was crispy and thin, but there was no real flavour in the pizzas. Even SC, who had pepperoni, struggled to get much flavour from her pizza. Grimaldi's was packed and there was a queue most of the time, but I think this is a case of being a tourist trap more than a great pizza restaurant.
The interesting thing about Grimaldi's is that the original owners sold it off a few years back and then opened up a pizza joint called Juliana's Pizza. We did get along to Juliana's Pizzeria on another day to check out the pizzas, which were more authentic that the Grimaldi's pizza, but I lost the photos :(
It is truly amazing how much pizza is around New York and while I only sampled a small amount of pizza in my time, it was clear that not all pizza is created equal. Given the simple concept of the margherita pizza, you would think that there wouldn't be such a variance in the flavours of the pizza. What I found was that the bigger and better known pizza restaurants had fairly average pizza and the smaller and less well known places had really wonderful pizza.
I am sure that I would have found a few more places that sold amazing pizza if I had more time, but given the number of calories in the average pizza in the US, I don't think my waistline could have handled too many more..... My one regret about pizza while in New York is that I didn't get back to Il Piccolo Bufalo for another pizza. I have to say that it was the second best pizza I have ever eaten (just behind da Buffetta in Rome).