Patsy's Pizza, East Harlem
2287 First Avenue, New York NY 10035 (117/118; map); 212-534-9783
Pizza Style: New York–Neapolitan
Oven Type: Coal
The Skinny: Classic New York pizzeria offers a taste of history but has declined since the death of long time pieman José Jiminez
Price: $1.75 a slice, $11 a pie, pie toppings $3 each
For most of the time that I have lived in New York (which is going on a quarter century) my answer Favorite pizza in the city? has remained the same: Patsy's of East Harlem.
That has not been the case for a few years because I have become a devotee of the church of VPN, gravitating toward the original style of pizza as we know it to the point of making a pilgrimage to Naples.
The aficionado of the Neapolitan pie lives in a gilded age with new spots opening weekly. But what of the roots of New York (and indeed, American) pizza? I had not visited Patsy's since the death of José Jiminez, the master pie man who had worked the oven since 1977, and I worried that the pies would not be the same without him.
There are few pizzerias with a more storied past than Patsy's. Dating back to 1933 Patsy's was founded by Pasquale "Patsy" Lanceri, who had learned the art of pizza-making while working for Gennaro Lombardi, founder of America's first licensed pizzeria. The pies at Patsy's are cooked in a coal oven, one of the few remaining in the city, grandfathered in when environmental regulations banned the use of the fuel. It is said to reach 1,100 degrees and at its best can mottle the crust with black blisters.
The Plain Pie
The plain pie is the reason for visiting Patsy's. If nothing else it is a historical document, printed on dough and inked with sauce and cheese. The pies architecture harks back to the original New York pizza—born of austerity and designed to offer bang for the buck. It was originally sold to factory workers who would put the pies that came wrapped in paper and tied with string on top of the machines they manned to keep them warm for lunch.
The crust was stretched so much that it can barely support the cheese and sauce, let alone toppings, which came later, gaining currency in a time when they could be afforded. Compared to a Chicago deep dish pie which was born in the post war boom years when the country was flush with cash and cheap ingredients the New York pie is a pauper's supper.
I doubt that the pizza has changed much since then. The red sauce (sweet, vibrant and rather under seasoned) and the mozzarella cheese (mild to the point of innocuousness) are applied in sparring amounts. The pizza at Patsy's is one of the few pies in my experience that doesn't benefit from being served fresh from the oven, it needs to cool and congeal slightly to achieve synergy. Some of the best slices I have had there emerge from the vintage display box that is one of the few objects in the otherwise spartan take-out section. The cooler the cheese gets, the more flavor it imparts. A cold slice out of the fridge the next day will have some tang not apparent when it is piping hot.
The crust at Patsy's is so thin that light passes through it. It is soft, the cornicione has an airy inner core. But it was not blistered in the least on my most recent visit. Patsy's never offered the deeply sooted crusts of some of the other coal oven pizzerias but there was still some crunch imbued by the dusting of char. The omission of this dusting of soot and the lack of blisters took the crust down several grades, lacking a textural contrast that was intriguing.
Tip sag is unavoidable, even when a slice is folded. It will sag the next day even when it is cold. It is not as amorphous as a true Neapolitan pie, but the similarity is apparent. Indeed the pizza at Patsy's is only separated from Naples by two degrees—Patsy worked for Lombardi, who pioneered pizza in America.
As a nod to Adam I tried a pie with sausage, mushrooms, and onions. It was a mistake, the crust that could barely hold the cheese and sauce was no match for the toppings, which were littered over the pie in an irregular fashion. Sloppy pie-making was evident in the way the pizza was apportioned as well—none of the slices were evenly cut.
The sausage pie did have a crisper crust, although not enough to avoid tip sag, but still not the level of char that I expected. The quality of the sausage was also not the highest. It had a dull flavor and was rather tepid. I think that plain pie is the way to go at Patsy's, and not from the restaurant side. For some reason, even though they emerge from the same oven, I find the pizza from the take-out side to be superior.
Remembering a great pie man
I shot these photos of José Jiminez and his pizza a few years ago. He was a one of a kind and I don't think the pies at Patsy's are the same without him.
These slices were made by Jiminez.
I don't want Patsy's to ever disappear. It may no longer be at the highest expression of pizza in New York City and it has slipped over the years, suffering a major blow with the loss of Jiminez last year. The pies I most recently tried were rather unremarkable. But I can think of only one pizzeria that sells pizza by the slice that I would rather eat from and that is the legendary Di Fara. At its heart Patsy's remains an unpretentious neighborhood pizzeria that has not devolved into self-parody. Here's to the next 76 years.