Old Friends, Old Pizza

THERE AND HERE Lombardi's, at 32 Spring Street in Manhattan, is both old and new. The original Lombardi's, licensed to sell pizza in 1905, was located at 53½ Spring Street. It closed some time ago and was reopened by the the original Lombardi's grandson in 1994 at 32 Spring Street.

2004_06_20_Lombardis_Oven.jpgSometimes the Slice editorial team gets so caught up in search of the consummate New York pie, we often lose sight of how pampered pizza life in this town can be. Not that the arcana of turning coals (Lombardi's coal-fired oven is pictured at right) to produce a consistently charred crust isn't worthy of discussion; obviously it is, or none of us would be here. But every now and then, it's nice to get a kick in the tuches from outside the concrete jungle to remind us of the suffering that pizza lovers endure in much of the country.

Such was my experience after dining at Lombardi's a few weeks ago. Last month, my family was paid a visit by some of our oldest companeros, who flew three thousand miles with the stated goal of eating well—or at least well enough—for one week. New Yorkers by pedigree, all granted me a few hours' reprieve from suburban ennui to indulge, among other things, their taste buds.

If you find opinion polls accurate and important, then Lombardi's serves up as fine a pie as you're ever likely to slide onto your palate: Seven of the group's eight eaters are still salivating. If you're a skeptic by nature, or can't distinguish Gallup from a gallop or a galop, then perhaps you'll join me in taking the road less traveled. For the purists among us, sadly, Lombardi's has become another frayed page in Gotham's gastronomic history book.

As loyal Slice readers know, Lombardi's is the elder statesman of New York pizza. Founded by Gennaro Lombardi nearly one hundred years ago, this is America's original pizzeria (even if it is a few doors down from the patriarch's famed beginnings). Genetically speaking, every pizzeria is indebted to it. Culinarily speaking, this grande dame has seen better days. Its sons and grandsons—Patsy's, Totonno's, and Nick's among them—may be younger, but most of them are also much wiser, at least at making pizza.

We ordered three pies (see photo at left), sampling an array of toppings: sausage, mushrooms, and meatballs, in addition to the standard variety. None of the toppings jumps out as especially abundant or tasty, with the exception of fresh garlic (there's no charge; just ask). As for the basics, the fresh mozzarella is the highlight of the Lombardi's pie: smooth, sumptuous, and stellar—and it comes standard on all pies. The sauce was slightly tangy but lacked spice. I wonder if they've heard of oregano and basil, a few delicate herbs that might have elevated an otherwise average sauce beyond just "simply red."

There may be a more logical explanation for our pies' mediocrity. The crust was so unusually thick it made for a doughy delivery that distracted from the other flavors. And it got worse with each pie; number three was one of the thickest I've had in a while, and was even tough to chew in places. Even the vaunted coal-fired char couldn't outweigh these pies' rubber bottoms.

Why the disparity between my opinion and others'? Who can say. I recall Lombardi's serving a solid pie as recently as three years ago; this was the others' inaugural sampling. I have eaten more pies than I care to count from places like Di Fara; most members of my group are normally content driving through Fast Food Nation. (As family friend RL noted while his slice dripped olive-oil tears, "The only oil we get in California is from Jiffy Lube.")

So perhaps Lombardi's does serve a need. Most visitors are desperate to get their hands around a supple slice but aren't eager to stray far from downtown. Tucked into a charming double storefront just a stone's throw from Ethnictown, Lombardi's is convenient, inexpensive, and friendly. For those with just a few hours or even a few days to see the sights, Lombardi's has held up much better than its Little Italy famiglia and offers a solid if spare representation from the canon of New York pizza. But for locals and intrepid visitors interested in maximizing their exposure to pizza perfection, just a slight sleuthing of the streets will reap much greater rewards.

THUMBPRINT Twenty-seven years ago, after Seltzerboy broke his right arm, RL (above left) gave the 4-year-old tyke and his mom a lift to the hospital. Seltzerboy returned the favor last month by giving RL and his clan a ride to the pizza place of his dreams. PLIGHT AT THE ROUND TABLE Seltzerboy, his family, and a few lifelong friends (above right) enjoy an afternoon at Lombardi's last month. While the company was great, the pies at the Little Italy pizzeria were uneven.


Location: 32 Spring Street, Manhattan NY 10012
Phone: 212-941-7994
Payment accepted: Cash, checks

New York Pizza, The Real Thing, Makes A Comeback
Chowhound on Lombardi's: here and here.
What folks on eGullet are saying about Lombardi's.