Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Paleo Retiree should probably avert his eyes from this post. See, he had the inspired idea of going on a pizza walking tour and made the reservations for us, then — tragically! — the day before the glorious event he got so sick he was unable to attend. A good friend probably would’ve insisted that we reschedule for another time, but I am not a good friend. No, I soldiered on bravely without him because I care about you, the reader. (I choose that word deliberately as I realize there’s only one reader out there. Hi Mom.)
Thus, on a recent Friday morning, a friend who was more than happy to attend in PR’s place accompanied me to the Lower East Side for one of Scott’s famous tours to learn about New York City’s storied pizza history while eating our way through it.
We started in Little Italy, just off the corner of Spring and Mulberry.
Our tour guide was the enthusiastic and outgoing Joseph Garreffa. Joe grew up in the pizza biz and has worked at joints in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — everything from Lou Malnati’s to Domino’s. (NB: the dude with me, a native New Yorker, vociferously maintains that deep dish pizza, while undeniably delicious, doesn’t deserve to be mentioned alongside his beloved thin crust slices. “Have you ever tried to eat a deep dish pizza while walking? Forty percent of it will wind up on the ground. If you can’t eat it while walking, IT’S NOT REAL PIZZA!” he says.)
The tour met in front of Gatsby’s, which used to be the original location of Lombardi’s. In the late 19th century Signor Lombardi brought the tradition of pizza making to New York from Naples. He used to cook the pies in a brick oven in the backyard, but when the nearby 6 train subway opened, the resulting vibrations damaged his oven, so he had to relocate his shop about a block and a half away.
The current location of Lombardi’s was the first eating stop on our tour. Considered the first pizzeria in America, they’ve been making classic Neapolitan-style pies in their coal-fired oven for over a century. The oven is fed by a 5-gallon drum of coal three times a day and kept hot around the clock. In the shot of the kitchen below, notice the metal flap hanging from the ceiling above the guy’s head. The peel that he uses is so long that a hole needed to be cut in the ceiling so it can stand upright.
Throughout our pizzacation (yes, Joe the tour guide used that term repeatedly) we were asked to notice how each style used the three ingredients of The Trinity: cheese, sauce, and crust. In a Neapolitan pizza, the cheese is fresh whole cow’s milk mozzarella. In Naples they use water buffalo milk for their mozzarella, but given that water buffalo are in short supply in New York, adjustments must be made. The sauce on a Neapolitan pizza isn’t really a sauce at all — it’s nothing more than fresh tomatoes ground in a food mill. The dough is allowed to proof sufficiently so that abundant air pockets form, giving the crust a light texture. The green garnish is of course basil.
The Lombardi’s slice — the Urtext from which all American pizza descends.
Along with the composition of the pizza itself, Joe emphasized how oven technology evolved. Coal ovens like the one at Lombardi’s are relatively difficult and dangerous to maintain. Operating a pizzeria became safer and more economical when the Bari family developed the modern deck oven. The family-owned business still operates a store just south of Houston and Bowery that sells to pizzerias all over NYC and America.
We then walked crosstown down Houston, to Broadway, then down Bleecker to Greenwich Village. We paused at the corner of Bleecker and LaGuardia for Joe to point out how NYU destroyed part of the neighborhood to build some awful dorms. On the plus side, the student population drives demand for cheap eats like pizza.
Our next stop was Fiore’s, a Staten Island-style shop located on Bleeker. Cooked in a ferris-wheel style oven, their cheese caramelized more than fresh mozzarella, they use a true sauce with herbs and seasoning instead of just milled tomatoes, and the crust is crispy but not as airy as Lombardi’s. My friend said this was the kind of pizza he grew up with in Long Island.
Due to the higher fat content of this cheese, it needs to cool for a bit to prevent pizza palate.
Our final stop was Joe’s Pizza on Carmine. Joe’s pies, cooked in a Bari-style deck oven, are traditional snag-n’-grab, eat-while-you-walk New York street slices. However, it was a beautiful fall day, so we ate them al fresco while seated on the benches in Father Demo Square.
Two of these and you have a meal. The crust had a nice soft crunch to it.
All in all, not a bad way to spend a late morning/early afternoon. My favorites, in order, were Lombardi’s, Joe’s, then Fiore’s. Lombardi’s not only had the best overall flavor, IMO, it also had the best balance of ingredients and the tastiest crust. Many thanks to Joe the tour guide and the people at Scott’s Pizza Tours for an excellent time. If you’re going to be in New York and you have a real interest in pizza (and who doesn’t?), I highly recommend them.
Full but not stuffed, my friend and I headed to Caffe Reggio for a latte…
…then Murray’s Cheeses for some take-home goodies.