COURTESY JQ MCSORLEY
Writer Jefferson Finney tries a coal-oven cooked mozzarella cheese pizza at Lombardi's Pizza, America's first pizzeria.
Quest for the Big Apple’s finest slices
Forget Phoenix and Chicago, New York's brick ovens turn out a pizza-lover's dream
There's been much hoopla in the pizza world lately over the announcement in noted pizza connoisseur Ed Levine's new book, "Pizza, a Slice of Heaven," that Bianco's Pizzeria in Phoenix makes the best pizza in the country. Soon afterward, Oprah Winfrey jumped on the pizza bandwagon, declaring (via her pal Carol King) that she also thought Bianco's Arizona pie was "amazing."
Food critics have been known to blunder on occasion (how hot was it when he was there?), and Oprah? Well, you have to wonder about her pizza credentials.
When it comes to pizza, it's hard to find someone who doesn't have his or her own opinion as to what's best. Some prefer Chicago-style deep-dish, thick-crust pizza, loaded with chunky tomato sauce and stringy cheese, the "one-slice-might-fill-you-up" kind of pizza. Others prefer the nonconforming California-style pizza, the best of which are baked in wood ovens (some tout multiple wood-pairings for unique smoky flavors) by pizzaiolos (pizza makers) who often devise exotic topping combinations such as organic wilted greens, roasted yellow peppers and goat cheese.
And then there are people from the East Coast who tout New York City's foldable crust pizza as the nation's finest, perhaps with good reason, as they've had a lot of practice.
The first licensed pizzeria in the United States was in New York. Immigrants from the Naples region of Italy opened Lombardi's and began serving pies in 1905.
I appreciate a good slice of pizza, not from the numerous places that hawk rubbery yellow cheese-topped pies found under heat lamps, but those baked to order with fresh ingredients. Knowing I would be in Manhattan, I called a college buddy, JQ McSorley, to see if she'd join me in seeking out some of the cities finest. Was she up for it?
"You bet," she replied, without hesitation. "I've got the pizza instinct. Don't let the Irish name fool you, I was raised in an Italian neighborhood. Pizza was my mother's milk and I know what I like."
There are nearly 500 pizzerias listed in the New York City phone book, and I had a mere seven days in the city. So, to narrow the list, we choose to sample only cheese pizzas from Manhattan pizzerias that baked their pies in coal-heated brick ovens. All had been listed at one time or another among the top 10 New York City pizzerias in reputable foodie publications.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City bakers, primarily of Italian decent, used coal to fuel their ovens because it was cheaper and more portable than wood.
The temperature of the fire pit of a coal oven hovers at around 2,500 degrees; the oven itself, 800 to 900 degrees. The great thing about an oven this hot is that the pies cook quickly, between three to six minutes, meaning rapid "please bring me another pie" service.
Wondering about the affects of coal-heated brick pizza ovens and their effect on global warming? Fuhgeddabouddit. The Clean Air Act of 1972 banned the creating of new coal-burning ovens, and in Manhattan there are only about 14 of these ovens still in use.
Pizza lovers agree that the three most important components of a good pie are its crust, sauce and cheese.
A New York style pizza crust ideally is thin and crispy on the exterior with small char marks from the oven's searing heat. The interior is more breadlike, with just enough yeast to create small pockets of air. This combination allows the pizza eater to experience a satisfying crunch with his first bite, not a brazen dry tortilla chip crunch, but a more demure crunch followed by a fresh bread-like chewy sensation.
The recipe for the dough isn't all that complicated -- flour, water, yeast, a pinch of salt and drizzle of olive oil -- so why does New York pizza crust taste so delicious?
The secret is said to be the mineral content of the city's tap water. While this is a topic of debate for pizza connoisseurs (see chowhound.com under the heading, "Does local tap water matter for cooking?"), I tend to side with those who say yes. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that New York City water, which comes from reservoirs in the Catskills area, which provides mineral-rich unfiltered water to more than 9 million New York City residents daily (1.4 billion gallons a day), could very well affect the taste of the crust, just as San Francisco's Sierra Nevada snow-melt water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir near Yosemite might add to the taste of their famous sourdough bread.
A tasty sauce should be tangy, aromatic and bright red. San Marzano tomatoes (plum tomatoes), named after the region of San Marzano near Naples, Italy, are just the tomatoes to fit this bill. Famous for their fragrance, low sugar content and richness in flavor, San Marzano tomatoes are the primary sauce ingredient, to which is added a dash of salt and perhaps a sprinkle of oregano.
In the pizza places we frequented, I asked about their sauce, and although several showed me the fresh tomatoes from which they made their sauce, none would reveal their exact recipes.
Cow's milk mozzarella preferably made that day. The flavor of fresh mozzarella changes rapidly as it ages, taking on a sour tinge within eight hours of being made. Many pizzerias use a combination of cheeses. For the sake of consistency, during our pizza appraisals we chose to eat only mozzarella pies.
During lunch last week, I was telling an Italian friend of mine, Dialta Alliata di Montereale, about my New York City pizza experiences and how pleasurable it was to eat such fine examples of legendary pie.
"But you haven't had the BEST pizza," she said with exasperation. "You must go to Ciro a Mergellina in Naples, where the mozzarella is made fresh each morning from the milk of happy cows, and the tomatoes are vine-ripened in the warm Mediterranean sun."
I realized at that moment that my quest for the BEST pizza must surely continue. And, with no disrespect to Levine's palate or that of any talk-show host who's seemingly too busy to taste her own pizza, I'm skipping Phoenix and heading to Naples.
BACK TO TOP
32 Spring St. between Mott and Mulberry
Gennaro Lombardi began serving pies here in 1905. Lombardi's Pizza is the oldest known pizzeria in the United States. When asked how many pizzas Lombardi's makes in a day, pizzaiolo Victor Minchala, quipped, "We don't count 'em."
Cheerful red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and a helpful staff await. Dean Martin crooned "Volare" on the radio as we sat down at our table.
Excellent crust texture, rich fleshy tomato sauce.
Inconsistent cheese coverage.
117 West 57th St. at 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas
First opened in 1933, this is a cozy place with dim lighting. Walls are adorned with yellowed black-and-white paparazzi photos of the likes of Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra.
Noisy crowd, could be a movie set for popular organized crime series. Viviana, our waitress, proudly showed us a bowl of fresh San Marzano tomatoes when asked about the sauce.
Crust was appropriately chewy and flavorful; the sauce, refreshingly tangy.
Like Lombardi's, not enough cheese coverage on all slices.
Johns' of Bleecker Street
278 Bleecker St., between 6th and 7th avenues
Serving piping-hot pizza since 1929. The room has a pressed-tin ceiling and dark paneled walls with period stiff-backed wooden booths. Walls are adorned with the art of David and Daniel Frank, with contemporary outer-space outlandishness in Emilio Pucci colors.
Following what we considered to be the best pizza we'd eaten in our seven days of indulgence, JQ asked if tiramisu was on the menu. Jana, our waitress whose mannerisms were very "matter of fact" retorted, "Don't got no desserts here; we keep it simple."
A crust that makes my mouth water thinking about it; the sauce, perfectly tomatoey with ample covering of fresh mozzarella.
We only managed to eat two pies, and wish we had room for more.
Jefferson Finney is the director of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's Newspapers in Education program.