NYC Pizza Culture: What to Expect
When I first washed up on the greasy streets of NYC and bellied up to my first real NYC pizza counter, someone might easily have remarked, "You're not in Kansas anymore." Never mind that even though I grew up in Kansas I had arrived in NYC after living in Oregon for a spell, the phrase* was not unwarranted: New Yorkers do pizza differently than anywhere else.
By the Slice
Despite the trend toward Neapolitan-style, Neapolitan-inspired, and artisanal pizza (something I call "Neapartisanal" and that Scott Wiener of Scott's New York Pizza Tour calls "Neo-politan"), NYC is still predominately a by-the-slice pizza kinda town. If you're talking sheer numbers, the majority of pizzerias here are nondescript hole-in-the-wall pizzerias where you can buy single pieces of pizza for a quick meal. Our man Ed Levine, who has a penchant for puns and neologisms, calls these places slicerias.
For New Yorkers, a slice to go, served on a paper plate with a stack of napkins, is our version of fast food. While folks in other parts of the U.S. might do the drive-thru thing and slam a burger and fries in the car,** we grab a slice, shake on some seasonings (or not), and walk down the street cramming grease-laden cheese bombs down our gullets. It looks weird at first to see someone walking down Fifth Avenue with a piece of pizza as if it's no big thing, but you get used to it and, soon enough, it becomes, well, no big thing.***
A Typical 'New York Slice'
I might be getting ahead of myself here, though. You might want to know exactly what you'll get when you order a slice. To quote our own "Pizza Style Guide," New York style pizza is:
The round, thin-crust stuff that most people in the U.S. think of as "pizza." And don't anyone give me guff on this. Go ahead and think of a pizza. Nine out of ten of you thought of something round and more on the thin side than the thick side, right? Even the major chain stuff, with all their variations in crust style, I'd say that their default pizza is closer to regular NY-style than, say, deep dish or Sicilian or what not. A true New York-style pizza ideally has a crust that's at once crisp and chewy. It can be topped with whatever you want but is best with only one or two toppings applied (so crust remains crisp). New Yorkers generally fold it while eating.
A typical New York slice is uncomplicated and unfussy. It will always be there for you, whether you need a quick lunch or dinner or something to soak up the booze on a weekend night.
It's easy to lose sight of that fact during the pizza boom that's going on around us here, but the classic slice is what keeps many a New Yorker running day in and day out.
Whole Pies Only — The Mafia-Mozzarella Connection
Yes, while the NYC pizza scene is still largely slice-driven by volume of pizza consumed, you might also encounter the "Whole Pies Only" shops in your pizza adventuring. You will know you're in a WPO establishment because proprietors there seem to be fond of brash signage screaming, "NO SLICES!" Also because they're sit-down, waiter-service kinda places.
When I first moved to NYC in 2000, the majority of WPO pizzerias I encountered were the venerable old coal-oven pizzerias. (Coal oven, you say? I'll get to that later.) During the pizza boom of the mid-2000s, however, a number of Neapartisanal joints joined the "Whole Pie Only" ranks, though these places are not quick to scream "NO SLICES" like their cousins.
That's because the newer Neapolitan-style pizzerias were born in gentler times. You see, there's a fascinating story behind the coal-oven WPO pizzerias and it involves the mafia. It's a tale that the Village Voice's Robert Sietsema ferreted out of Jonathan Kwitny's book Vicious Circles: The Mafia in the Marketplace.
Apparently, at one point, Al Capone came to control the manufacture of "pizza cheese" out of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and the mob pressured slice joints into using it. The old coal-oven places like Lombardi's, Totonno's, and John's of Bleecker were given exemptions and allowed to keep using locally made fresh mozz — as long as they didn't sell it by the slice.
Of course, this doesn't explain Patsy's in East Harlem, which sells coal-oven pizza in whole-pie and slice configuration. (Then again, the by-the-slice take-out counter at Patsy's doesn't sell fresh mozz slices.)
So, yes, for years "upscale," "special occasion" pizza in NYC remained the domain of the coal-oven pizzerias. Until ...
The Wood-Fired Revolution of the 2000s
The one major thing that I've seen change during my time bloggoblabbin' on Slice has been the rise of the wood-fired oven. You can't throw a stick these days without hitting one. (And when you do hit one, the pizzamaker there can just use that stick as fuel for the fire.) I can't even keep track of how many have opened in the nearly 7 years this site has existed.
One thing to know when you're dealing with wood-fired-oven (WFO) pizzerias is that the majority of them are going to be making Neapolitan-style pizza or Neapolitan-influenced pizza. So if you're a Neapolitan aficionado, you'll know what you're in for.
That said, another thing to know is that just because a place has a wood oven doesn't mean it's great. That probably goes without saying, but it's worth the reminder. It seems that a lot of folks get rally jazzed about where the oven comes from and who built it, but in the end, it's always the skill of the pizza-maker in front of the oven that's going to determine greatness. Though, yeah, a great oven does help!
Are We Seeing the Beginnings of a Post-Neapolitan Pizza Boom?
I don't know.
One thing I hate about trends is that they're trends. I hate writing the word trend when it comes to pizza, because I would hate to look back ten or 15 years from now and be like, "Neo-politan pizza? The 2000s called; they want their food back." Pizza is my favorite food, and I want to see the focus on good pizza — whatever the style — continue unabated.
But I have noticed that some newish pizzerias are opening with pizza styles that are anything but Neapolitan. Take Pulino's for instance (Nate Appleman calls it "Bowery style") or Pizzeria Veloce, which is doing a sort of highbrow take on Sicilian pizza.
Yeah, I know that's only two places, and that for media types "three makes a trend," but who knows. It's worth thinking about.
There's a Lot of Ground to Cover
Anyway, those are some of the things and some of the styles to expect when you first arrive in NYC. There's a lot of pizza already here and more coming every month. Over the week, I'll try to help give you some pointers to navigate it.
* A phrase that I still find funny after all these years ... NOT.
** I've been there myself plenty of times.
*** In fact, I've often thought of doing a column for Slice whose premise is just stopping pizza-totin' people on the street and doing wo/man-on-the-street interviews about the pizza they're eating.