Manhattan: Fanelli's Cafe (Yes, It Serves Pizza)
94 Prince Street, New York NY 10012 (between Greene St & Mercer St); 212-226-9412; Pizza Style: Bar
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny?Classic New York City watering hole serves a not-so-classic pizza
Price: 9-inch personal pie, $11
Fanelli's Cafe has been around in its current form since Michael Fanelli bought it in 1922 and, in defiance of the Prohibition laws that went into effect that year, turned his new "cafe" into a speakeasy and gin mill under the guise of selling food. But the building itself has an even more storied past, dating back to at least 1847 as a grocery and liquor store, and at one time the site housed a brothel. It is a quintessential New York institution, and, despite being surrounded by the glitz and glam of contemporary Soho, it remains a touchstone of the city's past.
Stepping through the doors, underneath Fanelli's iconic but battered neon sign, and into the cozy bar room is like stepping back in time. The worn wood, dim lighting, and invariably jam-packed bar all have the feel of a bygone age. The small kitchen in the back cranks out some decent pub grub, such as burgers, sandwiches, and fries. I had often wondered what the pizza might be like.
Fanelli's is situated near Little Italy. It has existed almost since the official birth of pizza in America (1905, when the original Lombardi's was granted the city's—and the nation's—first pizza license). I wondered if some of this might have had an effect on the pizza here. Certainly with such an Italian sounding name one might expect Fanelli's to serve a decent pie. I wasn't expecting anything transcendental, but I was hoping to find a good bar pizza.
Unfortunately, the pizza I sampled was worse than middling. The crust was a dense disk. It had no elasticity, no sponginess, no life. Textural contrast? None to be found, the crust was soggy and overcooked all at once. The deluge of commercial grade cheese that topped the pie was blistered and had a crust better suited to mac and cheese. I prefer my blisters on the crust, the Fanelli's pie got it upside down. There was a generally innocuous red sauce lurking underneath the blanket of cheese, but it did not make a significant contribution, save dying the cheese an eerie orange color.
There is much to like about Fanelli's—a rich history, an ambiance untouched by trendy Soho, a decent pint of beer and a more-than-decent hamburger. Unfortunately the pie I had hoped for—an exalted form of bar pizza —does not exist there. What they do serve is less than appealing; I only managed to eat a slice before venturing out onto Prince Street and heading over to Ray's Pizza. I'll tell you about that visit next week.