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Pizza, coal-oven (whole)

A coal-oven pizza pie from John's of Bleeker Street in New York City.

What: Pizza came to New York—and, indeed, the wider United States—via Italian immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century (Lombardi’s on Spring St. was the first licensed pizzeria to open in the country, in 1905). They brought their thin-crust Neapolitan pies and ingredients (San Marzano tomatoes are still the norm today) and adapted them to New York, which meant coal-fed, instead of wood-fired, ovens—though the requirement of cooking quickly at very high temperatures is satisfied either way. Over time the Neapolitan tradition evolved in New York, creating what the city’s coal-fired brick-oven pizzerias still produce today: larger, rounder, crispier pies with a thinner (yet still supple), slightly smoky crust, some char underneath, and a great, generous cheese-sauce ratio. Interestingly, there’s a finite number of these pies in town: Due to environmental regulations, the city allows only existing coal ovens to operate; no new ones can be installed.

Where: One of the treasured old-school purveyors of this New York-ified Neapolitan pizza is John’s of Bleecker Street (278 Bleecker St. betw. Sixth & Seventh Aves., map), operating in the West Village since 1929. Its no-frills, booth-crammed dining room is often crowded, and for good reason.

When: Mon-Thurs, 11:30am-11:30pm; Fri, 11:30am-midnight; Sat, 11:30am-12:30am; Sun, noon-11:30pm. Weeknights are a good bet to avoid much of a table wait.

Order: A small 14-inch ($14.50) or large 16-inch ($16.50) pie. Toppings are $3 apiece but we recommend you try this pizza plain to really taste the slightly sweet, fresh-tasting house-made tomato sauce, the fresh mozzarella, and the crispy, slightly blackened crust. Simple, traditional, and delicious. Also: You won’t go wrong with a pitcher of beer. Cash only.

Good to know: As at most coal-oven spots, with the exception of Patsy’s in East Harlem, slices are not available at John’s. And though there are two other branches of John’s in the city (and one in Jersey City), the original on Bleecker is the best.

Alternatively: The other coal-oven pizza institutions in NYC are well documented, and if you look into their histories, you’ll find most of them are somehow related. There’s the original, Lombardi’s (32 Spring St. at Mott St., map)—it actually closed in 1984 and reopened 10 years later in a new location on the same street—where you can expect good pies at higher prices (a large is $22.50) accompanied by a long wait. We have always loved Grimaldi’s (multiple locations including 1 Front St., map), in Dumbo near the Brooklyn Bridge (the perfect reward for walking over it, we think), but we have not been able to visit it since it moved from its original location a few doors down—nor have we yet tried the pizza at Juliana’s, now (controversially) inhabiting the old Grimaldi’s space (19 Old Fulton St.) and opened by the original Grimaldi’s owner, Patsy Grimaldi (both pizzerias claim coal-fired ovens, bafflingly). Also in Brooklyn is the excellent Totonno’s (718-372-8606; 1524 Neptune Ave., map); established in 1924, the Coney Island pizzeria was awarded a James Beard “America’s Classic” award in 2009. In East Harlem, there’s the storied 1933-born Patsy’s (2287-91 First Ave. nr. 118th St., map), where, as noted earlier, you can order by the slice (cash only). A special mention goes to Nick’s Pizza (718-263-1126; 108-26 Ascan Ave., map) in Forest Hills, Queens—the pies are so good, the place so low-key and neighborhoody—but though the style is classic New York-Neapolitan hybrid, the restaurant joined the NYC pizza party only in 1994 and therefore employs a gas oven instead (much like the legendary Di Fara in Brooklyn; see also: pizza slice).

New York’s new-school pizza: A wave of artisanal pizzerias has washed over the city in recent years, most of them hewing closer to Neapolitan pizza traditions (including wood-fired ovens and a smaller, individual pie size) than their New York adaptation. This is a whole other school of pizza, of course, but is worth mentioning here as a huge, mouth-watering citywide trend. Of these pizzerias, we love Lucali (718-858-4086; 575 Henry St., map) in Carroll Gardens—expensive, but BYOB at least, and the calzones are to die for—and, in Williamsburg and the East Village, Motorino (349 E. 12th St. nr. First Ave., map), where the Margherita DOC pie is wonderfully light and airy. Most authentic to Italy are the West Village’s Keste (271 Bleecker St. nr. Morton St., map), whose pizzaiolo presides over the U.S. branch of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, an organization that certifies pizza makers as Neapolitan adherents; and the less hip but eminently tasty La Pizza Fresca (31 E. 20th St. betw. Broadway and Park Ave. South, map), one of the few pizzerias in the city to be certified by another Italian trade group that requires restaurants to use specific Neapolitan pizza-making techniques and ingredients. Taking more creative liberties but still remarkably delicious is Co. (230 Ninth Ave. at 24th St., map) in Chelsea, known for fluffy, doughy pies devised by the famous NYC breadmaker behind it; and Roberta’s (261 Moore St., map) in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where a hipster-meets-farmhouse vibe collides with 20-plus available toppings and a great beer/wine/coffee list.

Whew. Is that enough pizza for you?


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