Ever since I was a little boy, pizza has always had a special place in my heart. From pizza day in the school cafeteria to pizza parties at sleep away camp, there was nothing more exciting than when that cardboard box was opened to reveal a round pie with eight delicious slices waiting to be devoured.
Early on I learned that everybody eats their pizza differently. There are those who fold their slices in half, those who eat their slices with two hands, and those who (dare I say) like to cut their pizza with a fork and knife. Some people soak up the olive oil with a napkin, while others don’t mind a greasy slice. Some people like the crust, while others live for that first bite. Some people decorate their slices with spices, while others like it plain.
Nearly any ingredient can be put on pizza. From pepperoni and anchovies to barbecue chicken and pineapple, every pizza pie is like a unique work of art. Every pie is a different shape and size. There are thin crust pies, deep dish pies, and everything in between. There are pies with different cheeses and tomato sauce, or even pies with a completely different base altogether.
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC there weren’t so many great options for pizza. Ordering in from Domino’s and Pizza Hut was a weekly occurrence. But when I arrived in New York in 2002, I was thrust into an entirely new pizza universe.
Living at an NYU dorm by Washington Square Park, I developed a quick allegiance with my local pizzerias. I could barely walk a block without passing by a shop — many of them claiming to serve up the best slice in the city. There was Joe’s on the corner of Bleecker Street and Carmine Street (which closed it’s doors in 2004) where tipsy students, homeless people, and even celebrities made their way to the counter through the wee hours of the morning. I remember eating a slice of pizza with Dave Chappelle one evening after he’d finished up a set at the nearby Comedy Cellar. Joe’s served up a good slice, but it was about more than the food. Going there was an adventure. It was where old friends would run into each other and new friends were made. You couldn’t help but notice the non-stop hustle and bustle around you — but at the same time there was sense satisfaction once you took your first bite of their delicious slices.
Within a five minute walk from my dorm, there were dozens of pizza places and I intended to try them all. I fell in love with many including Pizza Booth on Bleecker Street and The Pizzeria on MacDougal Street. I remember the night I ran into Adam Sandler at Ben’s Pizza on the corner of MacDougal and 3rd Street and the first time I went to Pasty’s Pizzeria on University Place — the final meal I ate in 2002.
Patsy’s opened my eyes to a whole other world of pizza — the upscale pie. I had always thought that a New York slice was served on a paper plate — intended for a quick late night bite on your way between watering holes. But I soon came to learn that many of city’s best pizza places didn’t serve slices and that eating their pizza involved a great deal of patience while your custom pie was prepared.
The fall of 2003 took me to what is still one of my favorite pizza places in the New York: Grimaldi’s. Although there is a subway stop a few blocks from this Brooklyn pizzeria, the only true way to get there is by walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, arguably the most picturesque ways to take in New York’s sprawling skyline. To me, a walk over the bridge and Grimaldi’s have become synonymous with one another. I can’t walk across the bridge without stopping at Grimaldi’s and I can’t stop at Grimaldi’s without walking across the bridge. This is the first thing I do with any out-of-town guest. It’s just off the beaten path enough to make a tourist feel like a New Yorker, yet not so touristy that a New Yorker feels out of place. It is the quintessential New York experience.
There have been days when I’ve been seated at Grimaldi’s right away and other times where I’ve waited behind hundreds of people outside in the cold. When you’re inside, the best view of the action is in the bathroom line, adjacent to the brick ovens where pies are constantly being removed, put on a platter, and placed on a nearby table as the steam still rises off the top. The pizza is thin enough that two people can split a large pie. In fact, ordering the small pie for $2 less is not even economical.
There is no better place to digest Grimaldi’s than on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade overlooking lower Manhattan. It’s the only place in the city that I can be assured to find at least one bride and groom snapping photos every time I’m there. On weekend afternoons it’s common to see five or six couples taking wedding photos. Walking back on the bridge, one feels content, satisfied, accomplished, and [insert positive feeling here]. There are few experiences that rival this.
The spring of 2004 took me to Italy where I spent a semester studying in Florence. At the time, I was not a big foodie, so I rarely kept track of where I ate. Today, however, if I was to return, my entire trip would be dictated by food. Although Florence is a very Americanized city, my apartment was a 20 minute walk from the center of town. One evening, while exploring the area around our apartment, my roommates and I discovered a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a hidden side street. There wasn’t a single English speaking person in the entire place and there was no English version of the menu. Although I have no idea what this place was named, I know how to get back there and one day plan to return. Their pizza pies were large, but so thin that everyone needed their own. Their pies were more closely resembled the shape of a puddle in the street than a geometric figure. Of the dozen times I dined there, my pizza never looked the same. I think about this place a lot — whether it still exists, what it was actually called, whether any other tourists every discovered it. But most of all, I’m upset that I can’t tell people traveling to Florence how to find it. I need to get back there for the sake of this pizza place.
Upon returning from Italy, I moved to the east side of Manhattan where I inherited a completely new set of local pizza places. Nino’s Pizza on the corner of St. Marks Place and Avenue A became a favorite along with Pizzanini on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Marks Place. There were drunken nights spent in Due Amici on 3rd Avenue and 12th Street and Two Boots on Avenue A and 3rd Street. I never really developed a favorite place in the East Village. All these pizzerias served solid New York slices. Pizza continued to remain an important part of my diet and determining which place to eat at was solely based on where I was when my pizza craving hit.
As my love for pizza deepened, I began to do more research online about where I could find the city’s best pie. All sources pointed to the same place – Di Fara – a modest shop in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn that has been serving its heavenly pizza for more than 40 years. It’s owned and run by Dom De Marco. He makes every single pie himself, working 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. Apparently he takes 3 ½ days off a year. If he’s sick, the shop is closed. It shut its door for a few weeks in 1988 when De Marco went to Italy and another time in 2006 when he had foot surgery. The lines have been known to stretch for hours as he gives every single pie his undivided attention. He likes to know who every pizza is for before serving it to them. Watching him make a pie is like watching an artist paint a painting – in slow motion. He uses a hand grater for the cheese and meticulously smears the tomato sauce on the dough.
I made my first trip out there in the fall of 2006 and taking my first bit of pizza at Di Fara changed my life forever. Not only was it the best slice of pizza I’d ever eaten (and still remains so), but I honestly can say it was the best food I’d ever consumed. There is no description that could do each bite justice. Only a few steps away from the Flatbush Avenue stop on the Q train, it’s about 45 minutes from Midtown Manhattan. It’s a place that every New Yorker should go. I can only hope that De Marco continues to churn out his mouth watering pies for years to come. For weeks after my visit I had dreams about the pizza on a nightly basis and only wish I could return there more often that I currently do.
In the spring of 2007 the blogosphere started to buzz about a new pizza place that opened on 14th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. Lines were forming around the corner. And during peak hours, it’d be common to wait for more than an hour for a slice of the city’s most talked about new pizzeria. Artichoke Basille’s Pizza & Brewery reinvented my notion of a local pizzeria – primarily because it’s about a 60 second walk from my apartment. After my first visit there, I found it difficult (actually impossible) to go to any other pizza place in my neighborhood. Once that Artichoke craving hit, I knew where my last stop of the night would be before heading home. In fact, I still find it difficult to even walk by the shop without stopping in for a slice. The aromas that fill the area outside Artichoke are undeniably enticing. When I pass people on the street who are eating pizza, I lean over and take a big sniff of their slice – hoping to fill my sinuses with that signature Artichoke smell. If you couldn’t tell I’m a little obsessed.
Artichoke does it right. They have four kinds of slices – a square Sicilian slice, a classic Neapolitan slice, an artichoke-spinach slice, and a crab slice. All are delicious and so think and cheesy that they’re as filling as an entire meal. Now that the hype has dwindled down, so have the lines. A good thing for my taste buds, but a bad thing for my arteries.
Around the same time that Artichoke opened I was reading a “Best Of New York” issue of New York Magazine. They listed what they believed to be the best pizza place in each of the five boroughs. Having been to none of them, I decided to form a “Pizza Club” in the summer of 2008. The mission was simple: every other weekend we’d venture to a different pizza place on the list in an attempt to determine which borough truly has the best pizza. I couldn’t possibly imagine finding a better place than Di Fara in Brooklyn or Artichoke in Manhattan. Here’s where we went:
Brooklyn: Our first trip was to Franny’s on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights. Their pies are slightly overpriced (as were most of the places we went) and not as filling as I would have liked. But tasty they were. I had the tomato and buffalo mozzarella pie. Not one of the best in Brooklyn, but a nice restaurant in a cute neighborhood that’s worth checking out.
Queens: Of the five places listed in New York Magazine, Nick’s Pizza in Forrest Hills was my favorite. Their pies were simple, yet uniformly excellent – a crispy crust, gooey mozzarella cheese, tangy marinara sauce, and a touch of fresh basil. We ordered one with mushrooms on top as well, a nice touch to an already solid pie.
The Bronx: It’s a trek up to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, but once you reach this strip of authentic Italian restaurants, you’ll feel like you’ve been thrust in the center of a quaint town in Tuscany. At Zero Otto Nove, we tried three pies: Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil), Patate E Porcini (mozzarella, sliced potatoes and porcini mushrooms), and Quattro Formaggi (smoked mozzarella, gorgonzola, provolone and fresh mozzarella). I particularly enjoyed the last two which were more unusual combinations – a nice paring with the traditional Margherita pie.
Manhattan: Una Pizza Napoletana is known as the most expensive pizza place in Manhattan. At $21.95 for a 12-inch personal pizza, it’s hard to feel like you’re not getting ripped off. Our group tried all four pies they serve: bianca, marinara, margherita, and filetti. The bianca (buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, basil, and sea salt) was my favorite, but the steep prices make Artichoke, which is right around the corner, a more appealing option.
Staten Island: After a ride on the subway, ferry, and bus, we finally made our way to Joe & Pat’s, a famous establishment in the city’s forgotten borough. In addition to a traditional cheese pie, we tried a vodka pie, and a pesto pie with fresh tomatoes. Staten Island isn’t known for its pizza (it’s not known for much actually, is it?), so I would say the highlight was the adventure out there, not necessarily the pizza itself. Nevertheless, it was fun to dine alongside locals in one of the Island’s most famous pizza places.
The Pizza Club visited two other pizzerias at the end of the summer: L&B Spumoni Gardens in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn and Di Fara. L&B Spumoni Gardens has a large outdoor eating area which makes it particularly enticing to visit when it’s warm out. They’re known for their Sicilian slices which the group overwhelming enjoyed more than the regular slices. The thick square slices are overloaded with tomato sauce and are definitely worth the trip out there.
Little did I know I’d return to Staten Island for pizza in the fall of 2008 as part of a Staten Island pizza tour. This tour is one of the first offerings by a newly formed tourism department which was created in order to bring more New Yorkers out to the Island. In addition to stopping at four pizza places, we visit the Staten Island Zoo, the Wagner campus, and various historical sites on the Island. Our first pizza stop was at Jimmy Max, my favorite of the afternoon. Their pizza was served with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil leaves – pretty standard, but delicious nonetheless. After visiting Joe & Pat’s we made our way to Denino’s which reminded me of one of those sit-down Pizza Hut restaurants with waiter service. Not to compare their pies with those of Pizza Hut, but in a blind taste test, I’m not so sure Denino’s would stick out in my mind. The final stop was Lee’s Tavern, an unassuming bar on the corner of a quiet street. There isn’t even a name on the outside. We made our way to a backroom of the place where our already stuffed stomachs were filled with a final serving of pizza. At this point of the day it was hard to really rate the pies at Lee’s, but they seemed to be just as tasty as the rest of the pizza we’d been eating all afternoon. And with one final bite of crust, I was back on the ferry to Manhattan.
Pizza has obviously played a big role in my life. I eat it almost everyday and continue to keep my eyes and ears open for new places I’ve yet to try. Totonno’s in Coney Island is at the top of my list as far as New York pizza places go, after which I hope to work my way through some of the smaller neighborhoods of the outer boroughs in hopes of discovering some hidden gems. And one day I hope to visit Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona where Pizzaiolo Chris Bianco makes pies that are considered by many to be the best in the country. But in the meantime, I’ve created this blog for pizza lovers. I’ll post any pizza content I come across, which is a lot, in hopes of creating the go-to website for all pizza related content for those who love pizza as much as I do.
Di Fara (Brooklyn, New York)
Artichoke (Manhattan, New York)
L&B Spumoni Gardens (Brooklyn, New York)
Grimaldi’s (Brooklyn, New York)