Could there be a single food that is quintessentially New York City?
Maybe a hot dog from the cart on the corner, or a sandwich piled high with pastrami from the deli defines The Big Apple.
No, if there is one food that screams New York from the top of the Empire State Building, it has got to be pizza.
How did this happen? We didn’t know, but we do now. The Crosstown Pizza Walking Tour took us right to the source. We got to spend an afternoon with an expert exploring the area where it all began, Little Italy and Greenwich Village.
We met Cedric (and yes, he was entertaining), our tour guide/pizza aficionado extraordinaire, at the site of the first pizzeria ever opened outside of Italy, Lombardi’s.
The Spring Street location was a bakery, then the original Lombardi’s, and is now home to Gatsby’s, a neighborhood bar. While there are no longer hot, delicious pies flying out the door, the historic spot still occupies a big slice of pizza history.
We were issued “pizza survival kits!”
Before we bit into the crust of the matter, Cedric gave us the lowdown on how pizza migrated from Naples to New York.
Back in 1904, a teenaged Gennaro Lombardi came across the Atlantic and found work as a baker.
Since he was from Naples, he knew how to make his hometown favorite, pizza.
Soon he was baking a few in the big coal fired oven at the old bakery. The new taste sensation was a big hit, and became the bread and butter of the business.
But in 1970 the huge brick oven collapsed from the vibrations of the subway running underneath it and, without his signature pies, Lombardi’s soon went out of business.
That triggered a search for a similar oven. After several years a giant, 1890s vintage, brick coal-fired oven just like the old bakery had was discovered only two blocks up Spring Street. A new Lombardi’s was opened, with Gennaro’s grandson Gerry at the helm, and pizza lovers started flocking in just like the good old days.
To demonstrate the difference between a regular oven and these classic stone behemoths, Cedric whipped out his handy dandy laser thermometer. The big coal oven was burning at over 900 degrees–regular gas or electric runs about half that.
The pies cook in a matter of minutes and have a chewy, fiery flavor that is unlike any pizza most Americans have ever experienced. While we ate, we discussed the reasons why.
High-protein wheat gives the crust a more chewy body, uncooked crushed tomatoes give the sauce a tangy zip, and soft, fresh mozzarella adds a mild sweetness.
Somehow these qualities have been long lost in most fast-food versions.
After tasting the New World original, the pie-o-neer, we figuratively stepped back in time to give the old Neapolitan style pizza that started it all a try.
At Forcella, the pizzas are cooked in a smaller wood-fired oven, just like back in the old country.
Cedric’s magic laser hit 1000 degrees inside their oven, which cooked the pizza in just two minutes, and made for a slightly crispier, smoky flavored crust.
We have enjoyed many a pizza Margherita in Italy, and this was the closest we’ve experienced in the States.
As wonderful as those two notable offerings were, they did not embody the classic New York slice, a big greasy wedge of cheesy, saucy goodness that has to be folded to be eaten properly.
For that experience, we headed toward Joe’s in Greenwich Village.
The Village is packed with great pizza places, but its real claim to fame are the nightclubs that helped launch the careers of some of the world’s top musicians and comedians.
Since Joe’s has been around for almost forty years, some of those stars must have snagged a slice from time to time.
How could they resist?
This is the grab and go pizza that New York has become famous for, no fancy brick ovens, definitely no knives and forks–just a soft, chewy crust, some sauce, and lots and lots of cheese served on a paper plate.
It’s a style of pizza that caught on in the sixties and seventies, after the advent of a low-moisture type of mozzarella.
The old soft, high-moisture cheese had a short shelf life and was next to impossible to shred, but as the harder, drier variety became common, pizza ingredients were much easier to ship and store.
Hundreds of little walk-up, by-the-slice pizza joints sprung up throughout the city. These are the pies that became synonymous with The Big Apple, and Joe’s is widely considered to make one of the best.
Cedric’s final performance as our guide was to pass around the giant slices that topped off our tour, and our bellies.
It was enough to quell our craving for John’s of Bleeker Street — just down the block — and home of our favorite pizza in New York.
We asked Cedric what he thought about John’s and it is high on his list too. It is also often included in the tour as the stops rotate among a group of Manhattan’s best pizzerias.
We felt good that our top choice got the expert’s seal of approval, but mostly we felt full after taking some big bites out of the Big Apple’s favorite food.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
YOUR TURN: Could there BE a better day than walking off pizza around New York City? Where would YOU start?