In mid June, Slice reader Lance Roberts emailed me, asking if I'd help him complete his pizza itinerary. He was visiting New York City from Los Angeles, and he wanted to pack in as much pizza as he could--but only the best. I gave him some recs. He came, he ate, and then he wrote. What follows is a wonderful tale of 2.5 days of pizza mania. Buon appetito! --The Mgmt.
An NYC Pizza Tour from an LA Perspective
As a Los Angeleno who grew up in Detroit, it's a little odd that I love pizza so much. Neither city is known for great pies, but as someone who fell in love with the stuff from an early age, I learned to make do. I grew up on Little Caesars, and when I turned 15, I got a job at Toarmina's Pizza in Michigan so I could learn how to make my own pies (and eat pizza five days a week).
When I reached the peak of my limited powers in the kitchen and was looking for better pizza, I took trips to Chicago, where I fell in love with deep dish. It took a few years of living in Los Angeles (and hitting up 50-some different places) to make me realize that thin crust was the way to go. I found some pizza I really liked liked. Then I climbed what I consider the Mount Everest of pizza—Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, where I hope someday to have my last meal.
Finally I felt like I "knew" pizza. But there was one big gap on my resume. I'd never had a slice in New York. That all changed earlier this month.
With Adam Kuban's help and some suggestions from Slice fans and friends, I made up a very aggressive itinerary designed to give me the best pizza New York City had to offer. Whenever I try a new place I get a plain cheese or Margherita pie to get a baseline, so it was only fair I practiced the same methodology in New York (with a few exceptions). The results of the experiment? To put it mildly, my head nearly exploded. Here, after the jump,seven of New York's best pizzas--and one overhyped stinker you might want to steer clear of.
John's of Bleecker
John's had the benefit of being first, but it's also a style of pizza I have a real soft spot for: lots of robust, tasty red sauce and loads of globby cheese. I loved it. I know the history behind the place, but to me John's serves the greatest mom-and-pop pie in the universe. The cheese in particular had a lot of flavor—very salty and bold. I don't know the mix of what goes in there, but we don't have anything like it in L.A. or at any other pizzeria I've been to. John's was the last-minute add to the itinerary, so when I liked it as much as I did, I knew I had a great couple days in front of me. 278 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014 (at Jones Street; map)
Una Pizza Napoletana [NOW CLOSED]
"Integrity" is the buzz word at UPN. It's on the wall, it's on the shirts, and it's undoubtedly in the pizza. I was interested in comparing it to the other titans of new pizza, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Mozza in L.A. It stands tall. A big knock on Mozza is that it's not real pizza. That's not the case at UPN; if anything, it's pizza in its purest form. The naturally leavened dough had a rustic taste I've never experienced before, and the ingredients were fresh, delicious, and completely balanced. Still, as good as it was, it didn't top the mind-blowing pies I've had at Pizzeria Bianco. Not that it mattered. Anthony Mangieri is making exactly what he wants, and it's spectacular. UPN may not be the best pizza I've had, but it was probably the most authentic, and the experience of being in a true temple of pizza was one I won't soon forget. 349 East 12th Street, New York NY 10003 (at First Avenue; map)
[Note: Una Pizza Napoletana has since closed (July 2009) but has been replaced—same location as UPN—by a very worthy successor, Motorino. It should be on your itinerary. —The Mgmt.]
My wife and I boozed it up with some friends until 2:30 a.m., and one of the more sober natives led everyone over to Artichoke. They had three pies rolling for slices: tomato-basil, the signature artichoke-spinach, and crab. That crab pie just didn't look right so my wife and I split a couple tomato slices and an artichoke. The fact that none of it tasted that good after 8 beers was a very clear sign that something was not right. That said, the size and girth of the slices probably saved me from a serious hangover and made the following day—one of the most memorable of my life—possible. 328 East 14th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n First and Second avenues; map)
It might just be me, but when I saw all the auto repair shops in Coney Island, I knew I was going to be in good shape. My intuition was right. It was great. The majesty of the coal-oven crust, the chewy, blistery goodness--you guys are so lucky. And the ingredients were spare but blended together perfectly. I would eat silently for five minutes, then spend five talking about how good it was, then eat for another five. How in the hell is the sauce and cheese in New York so different from anywhere else? And I know it's a cliché to talk up the "colorful staff," but they were almost too good to be real. 1524 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11224 (b/n West 15th and West 16th streets; map)
Ten of the best minutes of my life were spent inside Di Fara. I had never seen pictures of the interior or Dom DeMarco, so you can imagine my surprise when all of a sudden I'm two feet away from the master himself as he grated cheese and constructed pies. Dom pulled a fresh cheese pie out of the oven and cut a bushel of fresh basil over it before asking if anyone wanted slices. The pies there are sizable, and I didn't want to write a check my stomach couldn't cash so we jumped at the slices. A minute later I was enjoying my favorite pizza of the weekend. The mixture of cheeses, the gobs of olive oil, the crackery crust—pizza at a higher level.
But however great the pizza was (and it was), I was most struck by the experience of being able to watch DeMarco do his life's work while I ate the fruits of his labor. It took Di Fara to another level for me. After enjoying the best slices of the weekend, I got back in line, and after a few minutes I walked out empty-handed. I had experienced perfection and there was no sense in pushing my luck. Plus I had two more pizzas and a dinner reservation waiting on me. I needed to have discipline if I was going to get through the day. I've gone back and forth since, wondering if I was right to leave or if I made a huge mistake. The only thing comforting me is that I now have a reason to get back to New York as soon as possible. 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn NY 11230 (at East 15th Street; map)
Adam suggested the clam pie, but they weren't on the menu so we got the Margherita and the house-made sausage. Both were fantastic. There isn't much to critique since they were probably the most balanced out of all the pizza I had, yet they were somehow a little less memorable than some of the others. Part of it was that Franny's doesn't have the history of Di Fara or Totonno's, but part of it was that it all seemed so effortless. Great pizza shouldn't look that easy. That said, if we had something like Franny's in Los Angeles, I would be there twice a week. 295 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11217 (b/n Prospect Place and St. Marks Avenue; map)
Everything about Lucali was almost too perfect. Though I know it's somewhat new, the building had the character of a place that had been there forever. The space was small and softly lit and the exposed (and breathtakingly beautiful) oven and kitchen made it feel even more intimate. Toss in a waitstaff that couldn't be more Brooklyn (or at least my idea of it) and chef Mark Iacono, who looks like he walked out of an Italian movie, and you're off to a great start.
And then the pizza came. It was so, so great. Sauce in New York is on another level from what I'm used to, but Lucali was the one place where I found myself looking for pieces with no cheese and lots of red. I could go on and on, but the fact that it tasted so good following Totonno's, Di Fara, and Franny's says enough.
We ate quickly because we had to rush back to the hotel and change for dinner at Peter Luger--but that's for another site. 575 Henry Street, Brooklyn NY 11231 (b/n Carroll Street and 1st Place; map)
We had time to get one more place in before getting on a plane. And after reading about DJ Bubbles' love for it, I felt strongly that it should be Patsy's. I'm really happy I made the trip. Coal-oven pizza is a luxury New Yorkers take for granted, and Patsy's was what I hoped the quintessential New York pie would be. A friend the night before suggested I get the sausage, and it only added to what was a truly great pie. While it probably wasn't my favorite in New York, a even a "slipping" Patsy's destroys anything L.A. has to offer (sans Mozza, but Mozza's not pizza, remember?). Knowing that great pizza was going to be a memory in a few hours, you can bet your ass I finished off the pie before I got on the plane. 2287 First Avenue, New York NY 10035 (b/n East 117th and East 118th streets; map)
If you live in New York, you don't know how good you have it. I used to get so annoyed with guys from New York and New Jersey throwing their weight around and telling me that there's no good pizza anywhere else but there. They're not exactly right (the best pizza in the country is still in Phoenix), but they're very, very close. New York pizza is on another level than L.A., Detroit—even Chicago. The ingredients are superior, the wood and coal ovens are a pipeline to greatness, and the history and tradition put the experience over the top. But in the end I think the real key is the man in front of the oven. At Mozza, line cooks are making the pies. The guys at UPN, Di Fara, Lucali, and some other joints in New York aren't on the clock. They're people who have their whole lives invested in their pizza. Believe me, you can taste it in the food.
Chris Bianco may still be my personal pizza god and savior, but New York City (and Brooklyn, in particular) is truly the Kingdom of Pizza Heaven. It's a good thing heaven is only 3,000 miles away.
Editor's note: And I had to pop back in again to say WOW. That Sunday itinerary looked amazing, Lance. But more important, I never imagined when I started Slice that anyone would ever listen to my blatherings about pizza much less take my advice on where to eat it here. That you did, and that most of these places worked out for you, really makes editing Slice worthwhile. I'm really happy you had a good time eating some of what New York does best. --Adam