Scott’s Pizza Tour (New York, NY)

Anyone knows me knows that I love pizza. I’ll further admit that I’m a pizza snob. Growing up, I was taught by my Connecticut-raised father that there is One True Pizza, and that’s the pizza (err, Apizza) from Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana in New Haven, CT, with begrudging acceptance of a choice few other places on the planet (most of them near New Haven, like Sally’s, and The Modern). Over the years, I’ve learned that there are a lot of other good pizza places hiding out there, turning out pizzas whose crust, sauce, or cheese (mostly the crust) are head-and-shoulders above the rest. Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco. American Flatbread in Waitsfield, VT. Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. Patsy’s in Harlem. Lombardi’s in New York City. The last two of these show that if there’s a home to pizza in America that’s not New Haven, it’s New York.

Well, a little over a year ago, I had noticed an article on Serious Eat’s Slice blog that an enterprising guy in New York City was renting a school bus and going around to different New York City pizzerias as “Scott’s Pizza Tours”. Showing it to Carol, her first response was the gentle eye roll that she gets when I start going off on one of these food obsessions. Her second response was to promise that she’d take me on a pizza tour some point during 2009. Well, 2009 has been a spectacularly busy year, but in October we were finally able to carve a weekend out of our busy schedule and head down to New York City for a weekend of food and pizza tourism, with my friend Matt from New Jersey turning out for the event as well. We chose the October 4th tour featuring stops in Manhattan and the Bronx.

First stop was the famous Lombardi’s in Little Italy. NYC’s oldest licensed pizzeria, it was founded in 1897 and first licensed in 1905. It’s generally considered the home of pizza in New York City. It’s also been one of my favorite pizza places for years, having been here several times since the 80s. It’s consistently good pizza, made in a coal-fired brick oven like most (but not all) of my favorite pizzas, and despite being good pizza in New York, getting in generally isn’t too difficult.

One of the major attractions of the pizza tour is that our host Scott was really into not just the pizza, but spending a lot of time discussing the production of the pizza, with many discussions of different pizza ovens, fuels, and cooking techniques (indeed, one of the frequent destinations of his walking tour is the nearby pizza oven factory). Scott ended up taking us back into the kitchen at Lombardi’s so we we could look at their coal-fired oven, including a discussion of how coal-fired ovens are no longer allowed in New York City (the one at Lombardi’s is grandfathered), and the drama that resulted in the 1980s when the oven at the original Lombardi’s location broke and they had to find another location with an existing coal-fired oven (ending up taking over a bakery down the way). The oven is a classic flat-roofed side-drafting coal-fired oven (smaller but not unlike the fixture obvious to any visitor to Pepe’s in New Haven), generally running a little over 900 degrees. They were even kind enough to let us look inside the oven.

As we left the kitchen to get seated, the last thing Scott did was place the order for the pizza tour pizzas, pointing out that the high temperatures of the coal-fired oven allow the pizza to cook very quickly, meaning that from the time we ordered the pizzas until the final pizzas were delivered would be around 6 minutes later. Indeed, 6 minutes after seating, the pizzas were delivered to the table. Our pizza was a classic margherita pizza (for reasons of both logistics and comparative pizza tasting, all the pizzas on the tour were cheese pizzas). Lombardi’s uses a fairly thin crust, crushed uncooked San Marzano tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, and basil applied after cooking. The result is a nicely toasted slice with perfect crust. Since it’s fresh mozzarella, it’s not very oily, and doesn’t tend to burn your mouth.

Scott was very animated about the pizza discussion, encouraging us to really inspect each slice before eating it. Turn it over to look at the crust (an activity that I’ve always used to tell a good slice from a mediocre one). Holding the pizza vertically to make sure it’s not overly sauced or cheesed, so that the toppings still cling to the crust. Looking at the side view of the crust. And looking at the overall toasting of the cheese. Then we ate the pizza. Lombardi’s excels at the three factors I enjoy most in a top-tier pizza: Good cheese quality (they use fresh mozzarella from down the street), good sauce (the Lombardi’s sauce is crushed San Marzano tomatoes, not your regular sugared sauce, a feature of many of my favorite pizzas), and a nicely toasted and caramelized (bordering on, but not crossing too far into, territory that many people call “burnt”).

After finishing at Lombardi’s, we walked down the street past Ray’s Pizza. While not stopping in (honestly, there are better pizza places than Ray’s), Scott spent several minutes giving the sordid history of the “Ray’s Pizza” name, showing menus from most of the 40+ “Ray’s Pizza” places in New York City, and discussing how the location was actually the original. He also discussed the historical shift of pizza in New York from niche food to food for the masses, and how it shifted from the Lombardi’s style Neapolitan pizzas into the more typical cheese-laden New York Slices we all know. We then boarded the school bus and headed up to Harlem.

Our stop in Harlem was at Patsy’s. Founded just after the close of Prohibition (in 1933), Patsy’s originally started as a bar that served brick-oven pizza. Over the years, they absorbed the business next door and expanded, concentrating on the pizza business. Overall, the brick oven is really similar to Lombardi’s, being an old coal-fired brick oven, albeit with a slightly arched roof and a slightly cooler operating temperature (around 850 degrees). And for those familiar with Pepe’s, the overall look and feel of Patsy’s is similar. Similar tile work and woodwork. Similar seating areas. The prominent bar. The felt-and-white-letter menu boards.

Unlike the Lombardi’s pizza, the Patsy’s pizza uses aged parmesan, and has a thinner crust (so the sauce seeps most of the way into the crust).

The sauce is more mellow, and the aged mozzarella also gives a lot of flavor to the resulting pizza, making the overall result a pizza that is definitely more about the cheese than the sauce. Still an excellent slice, however, with stunningly good crust. Myself, I found my pizza at Patsy’s to be very remiscent Frank Pepe’s. The establishment is from the same era, the pizza is cooked from similar ingredients using a similar oven, and the clientele has a similar loyalty.

Stops 3 and 4 on the Pizza Tour were in the Bronx, and focused on “New York Style” pizza, producing very good but not exceptional pizzas.

The first Bronx place was Patricia’s on Morris Park Avenue. Patricia’s was useful for a pizza tour, since they have both a wood-fired brick oven, and a gas-fired deck oven. They use the same sauce and dough for each, so you can compare pizzas made with each technique (see the top of the article). At right I’ve got a nice picture of Scott doing “comparative pizza anatomy”. Both pizzas were good, although I vastly preferred the wood-fired pizza, having a much better crust, a the basil (which was cooked into the pizza here, unlike Lombardi’s who adds it to the hot pizza coming out of the oven) gives it a bit of an extra kick.

The second place in The Bronx was Louie and Ernie’s, which is one of the quainter pizza places I’ve seen. Literally built in a house’s basement, it’s got a tiny kitchen that is overwhelmingly dominated by a gas-fired deck oven. The pizza itself, for me, was just your standard well-executed New York Slice, but where Louie and Ernie’s excelled was in their sausage, obtained from a local butcher shop. The sausage was delicious, flavorful, and juicy. One odd note is that for slices, Louie and Ernie’s just makes up cheese pies and adds the condiments when rewarming the slices. Don’t try the vertical hold test with this one…

So, it was an excellent pizza tour, and I’d highly recommend his tour to other interested pizza buffs, especially if you can time it to land on one of his “New York and Brooklyn” dates.

The full set of pictures is here.

32 Spring St
New York, NY 10012-4173
(212) 941-7994

2287 1 Ave
New York, NY 10035

Patricia’s Pizza & Pasta
1080 Morris Park Ave
Bronx, NY 10461
(718) 409-9069

Louie and Ernie’s
1300 Crosby Avenue
The Bronx, NY 10461

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