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Scott's Pizza Chronicles: Searching for New York's Hidden Coal Ovens

"The fact is that New York City has more coal-burning ovens than it knows what to do with."

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My journey into one of NYC's salvaged bakery ovens. [Photographs: Scott Wiener]

The subject of coal-burning ovens seems to be popping up a lot lately and I have a feeling it's at least partially because of the recent Grimaldi's relocation. To sum it up, Grimaldi's recently moved up the block from its original location after lease problems with their landlord but had to leave the oven behind. Not a huge problem because all they had to do was to build another one in the new location. This sent the press and public into a tizzy because, even though we covered the history of coal-fired ovens just a few months back, people still believe the myth that they are on the endangered species list. The fact is that New York City has more coal-burning ovens than it knows what to do with.

Coal ovens come in several formats, but the oldest are the cavernous mason-built bread ovens from the turn of last century. These beasts are so massive that they were either built out into a building's back yard or into the foundation itself, extending beyond the building's footprint. When a bakery went out of business, it was much easier (and cheaper) to slap a wall in front of the oven than doing any kind of demolition. This means that old bakery ovens are very likely still in place, just waiting to be discovered. Here's a quick rundown of five dormant coal-burning ovens in New York.

Patsy's Pizzeria

Everybody knows that Patsy's has been making some of the city's best pizza in a coal-burning oven since 1933, but not many are aware of the huge bakery oven in the basement of 2287 1st Ave. I only learned about it recently while talking to one of the owners about the history of the building. East Harlem became an Italian enclave in the early 20th century and this block was comparable to Manhattan's Mulberry Street and the Bronx's Arthur Ave at the time.

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NYC took a photo of every building for tax assessment between 1939 and 1941. Patsy's is indicated by the white arrow.

As indicated by the building's tax photo (circa 1940), the restaurant with the apron-clad man outside was flanked by a cheese maker, butcher and bakery. Reverse directories that let you look up a building's occupant by address don't go earlier than 1929, but I have a feeling Patsy's location was a bakery before it became a restaurant.

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Beneath Patsy's Pizzeria in East Harlem.

The adjacent Frank's Bakery may have baked their breads in the oven beneath 2287 1st Ave for sale in their storefront one building down. This subterranean oven wouldn't have been ideal for a pizzeria, so they shifted to a more compact unit that better suited their needs. Now the old oven sits waiting, but the building's owners have no immediate plans to revive it.

8 Mile Creek

Continuing with our theme of underground coal ovens, we head down to Mulberry Street just north of Little Italy's current boundary. There used to be one bakery per block in this neighborhood, and the building at 240 Mulberry Street was direct competition for the Roma Bakery on Spring and the Parisi Bakery on Mott Street. Although it hasn't been a bakery for quite some time, the oven remains as a quirky piece of decor for what is currently a bar called 8 Mile Creek.

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Enjoy the beautiful oven view whilst sipping your drink at the bar!

Entering the building through its main upstairs door will do you no good, but the descending stairs out front will take you into the heart of an old Italian bread bakery. This place fits the pattern perfectly, with an oven that begins at the rear wall of the building. It extends about 20 feet deep, which you can easily see by opening the old steel door and shining a flashlight inside. It's beautiful.

Pizza Roma

After Zito's Bakery closed in 2004, the ovens in the basement were abandoned. I kept pretty close tabs on the space and at least two people planned to resurrect them for use in a pizzeria. One company eventually succeeded in securing the space, but decided not to use the old ovens. Pizza Roma (reviewed here) makes Roman pizza al taglio, so coal ovens would be too hot an unwieldy for this application. They brought in an Italian electric oven, which currently sits in front of the old coal burner. Actually, there's a whole line of new restaurant equipment backed by a stainless steel wall blocking the oven from view altogether.

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These ovens are currently hidden behind the modern kitchen setup.

I had a great opportunity to get into the basement before Roma's owners installed all the new kitchen gear. What you see is actually two ovens in mirrored configuration. The coal boxes are toward the center and the exhausts are on the extreme sides. It may seem like a waste of old coal-burning ovens but Pizza Roma is actually helping preserve them by shielding them from the chaos of a kitchen.

Birdbath Bakery

The last of our downstairs ovens is located at 160 Prince Street in the old Vesuvio Bakery space. The current tenant is Birdbath Bakery, which serves fantastic cookies, muffins, scones and various other baked goods. This is another instance in which a coal oven just isn't ideal. A post from Eater quotes a Craigslist ad that offers the space with "two 400 square foot coal bread ovens."

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Shots of the underground oven right next to the coffee station!

It was apparently built around 1920 and only went out of commission in 2008. The lovely folks at Birdbath were kind enough to post some great photos of the oven for the viewing pleasure of their customers.

Best Pizza

This last one is a bit funky. After Saviano's Bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn shuttered, its coal-burning oven was left to fend for itself. The folks who took over the space at 33 Havemeyer Street decided to install a wood-burning oven instead of using the oven that was already in place. But instead of demolishing the existing oven, they built the new one inside of it.

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Inside the coal chamber at Best Pizza. The pit in the photo's center is for air flow, to its left is the side of the WFO.

So this coal oven is hidden completely in pain sight surrounding the wood-fired oven that's still in use today by the folks at Best Pizza. Besides the six foot diameter low-domed oven, the 15x20 bread oven is completely empty. Next time you're at Best Pizza, check out the back yard and you'll see the structure that extends behind the building. There's your coal-burning oven!

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Best Pizza's oven is obviously built for coal, but the smaller oven within it is designed to burn wood.

Of course some of the city's old bread ovens have been recovered or removed. The folks at Lombardi's found one behind a wall at what used to be the Albert Parisi bakery at 32 Spring Street and they've been using it since1994. The Parisi family's current bakery still has a pair of huge coal-burners on Elizabeth Street, one of which is out of service due to being blocked by a more efficient gas oven. Their retail spot on Mott Street had an oven in the basement but it appears as though it was recently removed, leaving a pit in their back yard that lines up with the depth of the basement floor. I have a feeling this list is just the tip of the iceberg, but suffice it to say there are plenty more coal-burning ovens lingering beneath and behind inconspicuous buildings in every city with a Southern Italian immigrant population dating back to the early 1900s.

About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour

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