Workers on Manhattan's West Side: are you suffering from Midtown-food-choice blues? Wanna sit (not-stand), eat pizza civilized-like, and not pay a fortune for it? Do you think, like I do, that we should pay more attention to things founded in the '80's? If you answered yes to any of the above, then head to Lazzara's.
Hidden in plain sight up some stairs on a side street, Lazzara's offers toppings à la carte or as named combinations—all of which derive from names of actual people. Attribute "Sebastian's Seafood" (sautéed garlic with baby shrimp, clams, and calamari) and "Tony's Anchovies with a Twist" (onions with anchovies) to Lazzara's two owners—who happen to be brothers. "John's Special" (mushrooms, peppers, and pepperoni) pays homage to the restaurant's previous owner, from whom the brothers bought the business in 1985. I don't know who "Danny's Delight" is named after, but it has sautéed onions and red potatoes.
After gorging on a Caesar salad (standard creamy dressing, good croutons, uniformly cut bite-size pieces of romaine, no brown leaves :-), we received our half "John's Special," half plain ($15.25). It comes served on translucent parchment paper on top of a cafeteria tray; perfect old school stuff.
A Lazzara's pie is a nearly square affair. It measures 11-inches by 12-inches and arrives cut into six rectangular pieces. Sebastian and Tony grew up with pizza in the family: their father owned a number of shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan over the years. So in a way, they followed in his footsteps. Except that he made round pies and they make square ones.
"Why'd you decide to make square pizzas when round is in your blood?" I asked Sebastian. "Because," he told me, "the restaurant before us was called 'The Heroine' and they made these square pies. When we took it over, we just kept [making] them the same way."
Indeed, the method by which Lazzara's prepares its pizza differs from that which I've witnessed at other places. Lazzara's cuts pepperoni (Hormel brand) into tiny strips of about matchstick-width. Green peppers are segmented into one-inch-wide pieces and placed onto a pie at a rate of exactly one piece per future square slice. Same with the mozzarella (Lazzara's uses sliced, not shredded, cheese): one per eventual slice of pie.
I spent a few minutes watching pizza production in the kitchen and was impressed by Lazzara's ability to make many pizzas in advance. I saw stacks of black trays already layered with dough, sauce and cheese—ready for additional toppings and their forthcoming trips to the oven—650°F, 7-8 minutes.
The net effect of all this for customers is that, with prep time so short, Lazzara's can fill new orders quickly. In fact, they can bake up to 32 pizzas at once. Nice perk if you're throwing a party.
When eating Lazarra's pizza, the first thing you notice is the crust. It reminds me of pizza I grew up eating in the DC area—a wee bit in the direction of pastry-like, but sturdy enough. However, Sebastian swears there is no butter, oil, or shortening in the dough. It does not get a lot of rise (it is made fresh every day and not proofed overnight) so I assume this is why it does not have a pillowy or airy texture. But it's crispy on the bottom—especially toward the edges. It's a saucy pizza, and the cheese on top gets browned and crisp in spots. The overall impression is pizza that's good in a comfort-food-makes-me-happy kind of way. As a testament to this, my pal Chris, in an uncharacteristic move, polished off the meal by picking up his plastic white plate, holding it up to his mouth, and licking it clean. (Sorry, no photo.)
I find it refreshing to eat at a place that dates back to one of New York's least appreciated eras for pizza: the 1980s. Add to this a style of pie that evades the standard categories, and the result is a gem of a place—tin ceilings and all—that cranks out a lot of pies, especially during lunch.
Michael Berman is a photographer and writer based in New York. He publishes multimedia food stories on his blog www.pizzacentric.com; and more frequent, sometimes mundane Twitter observations at @michaelberman.