A Slice of New York City: An Iconic Pizza Tour

Who doesn’t love pizza? If there is anybody out there, we haven’t met them yet. With that in mind we present this story from our tour a few years ago.

Veronica loves Lombardi's pizza in New York City! GypsyNester.com

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. The tasty pies are so popular that even the boxes have become iconic and spawned the genre of Pizza Box Advertising.

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.

Gatsby's in New York City, the home of the original Lombardi's Pizza

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!
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.

The history of pizza in New York City can be traced to Genaro Lombardi
The history of pizza in New York City can be traced to
Genaro Lombardi,
click to enlarge

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.

Lombardi's Pizza in New York City

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.

The coal fired pizza oven at Lombardi's Pizza in New York City

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.

Lombardi's Pizza in New York City

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.

The wood-fired pizza oven at Forcella in New York City

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.

Checking the temperature of the wood-fired pizza oven at Forcella in New York City

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.

The wood-fired pizza oven at Forcella in New York City

We have enjoyed many a pizza Margherita in Italy, and this was the closest we’ve experienced in the States.

Pizza at Forcella in New York City

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.

David grabs a slice at Joe's Pizza in New York City! GypsyNester.com

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.

Famous Joe's Pizza in New York City

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.

Pizza from Famous Joe's Pizza in New York City

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.

Pizza at the park by Joe's Pizza in NYC

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

Big thanks to Viator for providing this delicious adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. To see more about this tour, click here.

See all of our adventures in New York City!

YOUR TURN: Could there BE a better day than walking off pizza around New York City? Where would YOU start?

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42 thoughts on “A Slice of New York City: An Iconic Pizza Tour”

  1. Omg Lombardis pizza. I have searched and searched and nobody but nobody makes it as good. Mmmmmmm I would drive the 12 hours just for a slice

  2. You really covered all the best pizza pies in NYC and I’m impressed. We loved the sidewalk, buying a slice, pizza places. Although these weren’t the oven fired bestest pizza.

    In Wisconsin, Lombardi is linked to the Green Bay Packers so this is a famous name for many achievements.

  3. Hard to argue with your premise after that tour! I love the fact that entrepreneurs are really embracing tours of a city they know and love so well all over the country. And a pizza survival kit, well Cedric sounds like he really did his job-what fun!

  4. A pizza history lesson sounds delicious!! This is a great way to taste the old recipes from a classic oven and also try some more modern slices. Thanks for sharing your tour!

  5. Mmmm a NYC pizza tour is a great idea, and your photos are making me so hungry. Doesn’t that fountain in the last photo look like it should be full of chocolate?

  6. There are SO many pizza places in NYC that most visitors have no idea where to start. This Pizza Walking Tour is a fantastic idea. (and naturally you have to walk, otherwise you’d never fit through the door of the final destination!)

  7. Thank you so much for the kind words! It was great to meet you both, and I’m glad you had fun on the tour!

  8. A pizza walking tour sounds wonderful. I enjoyed reading the history of the pizzerias and the pizza making. Such subtle but important variations on the ingredients and process. The pictures made my mouth water.

  9. We are BIG fans of Lombardi’s, but had absolutely no idea it was their second oven! I couldn’t convince Pete that John’s is the better pie. First went to John’s back in the 70’s, and so happy to learn we are kindred pizza spirits!

  10. According to Jon Stewart, it’s maddening for New Yorkers to see out-of-towners eat pizza with a knife and fork. Based on your photos, it doesn’t look like there were a knife and fork in sight on your tour.

  11. What a fabulous idea! A walking pizza tour–and of NYC yet! That would be such an awesome experience. You’d be able to wear off the slice by the time you get to the next venue! Count me in.

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