NEW YORK -- The Statue of Liberty is all right. Times Square is rather impressive. Greenwich Village, Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Bridge, these attractions are all well and good. But an even better reason to tour this city is to experience the taste of a true New York-style pizza. One of our country's great culinary treasures, this delicious pie is worth planning a weekend around.
New York-style pizza began with a good baker. The crust is paramount. At once crunchy and doughy, paper-thin yet substantial, it is worth seeking out in its own right. "You ever break open a hot roll, fresh from the oven, and it's nice and airy?" asks New York pizza revivalist John Brescio, who co-owns Lombardi's Pizzeria. "There's air pockets. That's how the crust comes." Hundreds of pizzerias lay claim to the name, but only a few still make a true New York-style pizza. Lombardi's was the first American pizzeria, in 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi, a grocer and baker in the East Village, began making the pies with his leftover bread dough. Almost 100 years later, he is universally recognized as the man who invented New York-style pizza. Lombardi's Pizza, reopened in 1994 by Brescio, a Lombardi family friend, and his wife, Joan, should be the first stop on any pizza-eating itinerary. The restaurant is a few doors down from Lombardi's original bakery, which closed in the 1980s. Brescio opened shop in this former bakery because, like the original Lombardi's, it has an old coal-burning oven. Inside, Lombardi's looks just as you would expect: busy, crowded, and candle-lit, with pictures of famous people dotting the long brick walls. Harried waiters lay down pies on chrome pedestals, where for a short while they sit elevated before hungry diners. The place has a New York neighborhood feel and was a treat after our long drive from Boston.
And on a Friday night, Lombardi's location is ideal for kicking off a round of bar-hopping. The Mercury Lounge, one of New York's best rock clubs, is around the corner in the East Village. After a few hours of sightseeing, Saturday offers further pizza-sampling possibilities and a chance to learn more about the New York-style technique.
Coal-fired pizza kitchens are enjoying a renaissance in the city. Only coal can bring the oven floor to the blistering 800-degree heat required to turn out perfect crusts, say pizza makers who cook with it. Environmental restrictions on building new coal ovens have made preservationists out of some of these entrepreneurs, as they seek out old ovens to restore.
Patsy Grimaldi is largely recognized as a pioneer of this renaissance, and his Brooklyn pizzeria is a good reason to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. A wooden deck above traffic makes it a pleasant walk, and the views and architecture are spectacular. Grimaldi's Pizza is literally right under the bridge. If it's open, there's a line -- so you might as well go for lunch. Inside, the setting is open, sunny, and pleasant. Again, photographs of famous people deck the walls: Billie Holiday, Luciano Pavarotti, Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Frank Sinatra is on the wall and on the jukebox. And the pizza is delicious.
Brescio was inspired to reopen Lombardi's after tasting the pizza Grimaldi began making here in 1989. This crust is little more than a crispy underpinning to a light, straightforward sauce. It provides a perfect balance for the fresh mozzarella, hands-down the best in the city, which dots the pie in ivory-white circles. The cheese is rich and milky and resists the teeth just slightly.
By dinnertime, we discovered that not every pizza place in the city has a picture of Ol' Blue Eyes on the wall. At an East Village hipster haunt called Li'l Frankie's, the mood is stylish and casual, and there is more than pizza on the menu. The ceilings are high and hung with iron chandeliers. But the waiters wear jeans. Some in our party were tiring of pizza, and Li'l Frankie's was the answer. An oven-braised whole fish silenced their complaints. We watched as one of the waiters, about 25, in a tight-fitting T-shirt and coolly unkempt hair, nonchalantly sliced open a whole roasted eggplant at the next table. He raised a silver pitcher and drizzled on oil infused with orange zest and red pepper. In the world of New York-style pizza, Li'l Frankie's is something of an upstart since it uses wood instead of charcoal in the big stone oven. Its pies, too, are a little different. The crust is thin and crispy, to be sure, but it does not have that perfect combination of mellow charcoal and refreshing sauce that is the hallmark of the best New York-style pizza. The toppings, though, are varied and delicious, as on the pizza salsiccia with homemade sausage, which is delightfully spicy; the pizza lorenzina, made with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, arugula, and no sauce, is light as a salad.
After all that, we considered taking it easy on day three, but there was one more stop on our list. Luckily, Patsy's Pizzeria is on the way out of town, in East Harlem. And, unlike the other old-school coal-oven pizzerias, Patsy's sells pizza by the slice. (It claims to have originated the idea.) Patsy's is not to be missed. In business since 1933 at the same address, it may not have been the first pizzeria, but it is now the city's oldest. And you can taste that in the pizza. It is a straightforward trio of charcoal crust, sauce, and fresh mozzarella. In fact, Patsy's reminded us a little of the pizza pies at Boston's Pizzeria Regina. Mmmmm. . . . We knew where we were stopping when we got home.