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Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

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June 10, 1998, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section F; Page 1; Column 2; Dining In, Dining Out/Style Desk 

LENGTH: 1966 words

HEADLINE: New York Pizza, the Real Thing, Makes a Comeback


NEW YORK pizza is a phrase synonymous with pizza greatness, yet for years New Yorkers could find the genuine article in only a few isolated spots. Now pizza lovers can rejoice: the true New York pizza is back in town.

I'm not talking about the by-the-slice pies congealing in neighborhood display windows as they await reheating or the sodden boxes delivered to the door. I'm talking about classic New York pizza: pies cooked quickly in extremely hot ovens, generally coal-fired, until the thin crust achieves a gloriously charred, smoky crispness. The dough is prepared daily; the mozzarella is real, not packaged; tomatoes are the best quality, and toppings are simple and used in moderation -- no pineapple or Thai chicken. The pizzas are cooked to order and never sold by the slice. As recently as 10 years ago, the classic pizza was on the endangered list, treasured as an artifact of old New York but bypassed by a culture that preferred its pizzas fast, cheap and delivered. Just a few pizza landmarks, most famously John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street, Patsy's Pizza in East Harlem and Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano in Coney Island -- all presided over by rival clans -- zealously preserved the traditions. Disciples were required to make pilgrimages to these hallowed halls for a taste.

Today, those three families, plus a newcomer, are almost entirely responsible for a pizza renaissance in New York. The landmarks have been joined by a new set of great names: Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge; Lombardi's on Spring Street; Nick's in Forest Hills, Queens, and Rockville Centre, on Long Island; Candido on the Upper East Side; Polistina's on the Upper West Side; Zito's in the East Village and, most recently, Angelo's on West 57th Street. What's more, the landmarks have themselves branched out. There are now John's, Patsy's and Totonno's in many Manhattan neighborhoods.

Why the renaissance? It's driven, I think, by the same sense of renewed connoisseurship that gave rise to the microbrewery boom, for example. And as with the ponds of microbrews measured against oceans of Budweiser, it's easy to forget that the number of classic pizzerias amounts to no more than a leaf of fresh basil in a sea of canned tomato sauce.

At its highest level, pizza making is a labor-intensive, artisanal craft requiring dedication and training. The coal ovens, more than twice as hot as the gas oven at the corner pizzeria, demand an apprenticeship to master their intricacies. Good pizza makers, or "stick men," are artists, shifting and moving the pies within the oven as they cook, equalizing the effects of hot spots.

Ferreting out the freshest mozzarella cheese, building relationships with tomato suppliers and sausage makers, starting dough fresh each day, rather than in advance, being willing to jettison ingredients past their prime -- all this takes rare dedication when it's so much easier to buy long-lasting factory-made mozzarella or to make a week's supply of dough and freeze it.

Environmental regulations also make it hard to build new coal ovens. Nowadays in New York City, coal ovens can only be rebuilt or replaced under an environmental grandfather clause -- not installed from scratch. Pizza makers have become architectural historians, seeking out spaces that once housed a coal-burning oven, like old bakeries or restaurants.

The determination to make pizza the hard way seems to come from being born and bred into a pizza-making tradition. New York pizza did not exist before 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi, a Neapolitan immigrant, began to sell pies in his grocery store in Little Italy. Lombardi's was by most accounts the first New York pizzeria, and Mr. Lombardi, who hired and trained a series of other immigrants, became the sturdy tap root of a tree of family and acquaintances that would go on to define great New York pizza.

The legendary pizza makers -- John Sasso of John's, Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's and Anthony (Totonno) Pero of Totonno's -- are all said to have learned their craft at Lombardi's brick-walled coal oven. Nearly a century later, their descendants, including Lombardi's grandson, are fueling the expansion. New York's pizza dynasties are now in their third and fourth generations, and counting.

Yet, a lot of the energy has come from new blood, the Angelis-Tsoulos clan, which joined the pizza pantheon just a few years ago. In 1994, Nick Angelis, the son of a Greek pizza maker who learned the art in Naples, opened Nick's Pizza in Forest Hills. It is dedicated to preserving the tradition of New York's great pie men. Paradoxically, he uses a new kind of gas oven that can achieve the high heat necessary for the best pies. No matter. It's hard to imagine a better crust than Nick's: blackened and barely crisp, glistening and golden, with a faintly smoky flavor. The crust is matched by the other ingredients: pure, creamy mozzarella, delicious roasted peppers, terrific sausage. Mr. Angelis has since opened a second branch in Rockville Centre.

Meanwhile, Nick Tsoulos, his brother-in-law, seeing how well Mr. Angelis was doing, decided to bring such a pizzeria to Manhattan. He made an arrangement with the owners of the East Harlem Patsy's to use that name and in 1995 opened Patsy's Pizza at 509 Third Avenue, near 34th Street. The smooth, blackened crust lacks that classic smoky flavor, but the toppings are superb: wonderfully mellow mozzarella and excellent sauce made of plum tomatoes. The three other Patsy's that have since opened in Manhattan are just as good.

In April, the clan combined forces and opened Angelo's at 117 West 57th Street, named after Mr. Angelis's father and run by Nick and John Pashalis, Mr. Angelis's cousins. The pizzas are excellent, very much like the Patsy's pies.

Not surprisingly, these new pizzerias have heightened tensions among old-line pizza dynasties, which regard one another with all the sunny warmth of rival boxing promoters. Yet, faced with newcomers, they band together with a universal sneer at Mr. Angelis and Mr. Tsoulos as imitators.

More serious is the battle over the name Patsy's. The original Patsy died in the 1970's, and his widow sold the East Harlem pizzeria to longtime employees in 1991, to the chagrin of Patsy Grimaldi, her nephew, who opened a Patsy's in Brooklyn in 1990. He got even angrier when the Tsoulos Patsy's began to open in Manhattan. Finally, in a fit of independence -- not, he insists, through any legal coercion -- he changed the name of his pizzeria to Grimaldi's. Nor is there any love lost between the East Harlem Patsy's and all the others.

If the mantle of Patsy Lancieri were awarded on quality alone, Grimaldi's, at 19 Old Fulton Street, near Front Street, under the Brooklyn Bridge, would win hands down. The crust, bready and dense, is excellent, and the fragrant tomato sauce, the fresh mozzarella and the home-roasted peppers are spectacular. Sadly, the original Patsy's, in a picturesque storefront in a remnant of an Italian neighborhood at 2287-91 First Avenue, near 118th Street, has not kept up with its estranged cousins. The pizza is good, but the crust lacks snap, and the flavors lack liveliness.

In addition to Nick's and Grimaldi's, my favorite pizzerias include the original John's at 278 Bleecker Street, and Lombardi's at 32 Spring Street. John's has three other branches in Manhattan, but the ramshackle Bleecker Street site is best for the expert economy of its pizza: crust just crisp enough, with a wonderful smoky flavor, creamy mozzarella and perfectly spiced tomato sauce. There is no excess.

At Lombardi's, opened by old Gennaro Lombardi's grandson and namesake, diners revel in tradition. The handsome brick and stucco dining room is adorned with old photographs, and when you eat the pizza, with its gloriously light, thin, crisp yet elastic crust, you feel you are devouring history.

What's more, Lombardi's also serves great clam pizza, a style original to New Haven that is a worthy departure from New York traditions.

Totonno's, the third of the old New York institutions, offers a slightly different style of pizza, whether at its simple bastion in Coney Island or its duded-up new quarters at 1544 Second Avenue, near 80th Street. The crust is puffy and thick, bready, rather than thin. I'm not the biggest fan of this style, but its partisans love it. Totonno's is planning to open an Upper West Side branch in the fall.

The newcomers have all added their distinctive notes to the chorus. Zito's, 211-13 First Avenue, near 13th Street, comes from the bread-making tradition of Zito's bakery on Bleecker Street. Its crust is smooth and proper, without the slightly gritty quality of the traditional style, but superb just the same. Candido, at 1606 First Avenue, near 83d Street, produces a terrific thin-crusted pizza that is most distinctive for its lightness. You can easily put away three slices without the overstuffed feeling that comes with an ordinary pizza. The hallmark of the pie at Polistina's, which opened over the winter at 2275 Broadway, near 82d Street, is a thin crust that achieves a consistent crispness and pleasantly grainy texture.

Ultimately, in the pizza-making stratosphere, it may be nitpicking to quarrel over whose mozzarella is the freshest or whether the billowy Totonno's pie is better than the thinner John's crust. But it sure is great to have so much to choose from.
A Geography of Pizza: Simple, Stuffed and Carried Away

New York is not the only place that has given its name to a style of pizza. Following are some others.

New Haven's claim to pizza fame is the clam pie. As made at Frank Pepe's, it is elemental and delicious: whole clams with garlic, olive oil and oregano, on a thin, brittle crust. Many New Haven pizzerias call their pies "apizza," pronounced a-BEETS. Jesse Sheidlower, a slang specialist in the reference division of Random House, suggests that comes from a dialect spoken in Catania in Sicily, where Frank Pepe was from. In Manhattan, Lombardi's at 32 Spring Street, serves a superb version.

Pizzas made according to the rules of the Naples Pizza Association, a trade group based in Italy, are different from New York pies. They are smaller, 9 to 10 inches in diameter, and the crust is softer and breadier than the crisp New York version. Neapolitan pizzas must also be made with buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and a special flour, and baked in a wood-burning oven. In the United States, only La Pizza Fresca, at 31 East 20th Street, and Antica Pizzeria Napoletano in Los Angeles have received the association's certificate of authenticity. Many designer pizzas made in fancy restaurants are closer to Neapolitan pizza than to New York pizza.

These pizzas, traditionally rectangular, are significantly thicker than the Neapolitan versions, with typically puffy, breadlike dough. In New York, Sicilian pizza can be sampled at Matese Pizzeria, 26-15 Francis Lewis Boulevard, Whitestone, Queens.

Deep-dish pizzas, as made famous by the original Pizzeria Uno and still served at the chain, are Chicago's signature. They have thick, bready crusts and chunky toppings and may be of Sicilian origin. They have grown baroque, with double crusts encasing all manner of foods.

Wolfgang Puck, the Los Angeles chef, must take both the credit and the blame for California pizza. In his hands, crisp, thin-crusted pizza became a vehicle for unusual and delicious toppings like duck sausage and goat cheese and sun-dried tomato. But in less tasteful hands, the California pizza has become a cliche for bad marriages, like ham and pineapple. California Pizza Kitchen, 201 East 60th Street, serves many examples of the genre.

GRAPHIC: Chart/Illustration: "Classic New York Pizza: The Dynasties"
Most true New York pizzas, baked in intensely hot ovens, can be traced to Gennaro Lombardi.
Opened Lombardi's, perhaps the first pizzeria in the United States, in 1905.
Opened John's Pizzeria in 1929, after being trained by Gennaro Lombardi.
Sasso's nephews. Took over John's in 1947.
Sasso's grand-nephews. With Pete's wife, Madeline, took over John's in the mid 1970's.
Sasso's great-grand nephew and niece. Share ownership of four John's in Manhattan with the previous generation since the 1980's.
Opened Totonno's in Coney Island in 1924, after being trained by Gennaro Lombardi.
Anthony's son. Took over Totonno's in the 1940's.
Jerry's daughter and son-in-law. Took over Totonno's in the 1980's, and opened a second branch in Manhattan last year.
Cookie and Joel's son. Has managed both Totonno's since 1994.
Grandson of the original Gennaro. Opened a new Lombardi's in 1994 in Manhattan.
Opened the original Patsy's in East Harlem in 1933, after, some say, working with Gennaro Lombardi.
Nephew of the original Patsy. Opened his own place in Brooklyn, now called Grimaldi's, in 1990. Patsy Grimaldi also learned by watching Jerry Pero at Totonno's.
Employees of Patsy Lancieri. Bought the original Patsy's in 1991.
Opened Pizza Chef, a successful pizzeria in downtown Brooklyn, in the 1960's.
Angelo's sons. Operate Nick's Pizza in Forest Hills (1994) and Rockville Center (1997). Nick Angelis also observed Patsy Grimaldi's operation.
Angelo's daughter and son-in-law. They licensed the Patsy's name from John Brecevich and Frank Brija, and opened four Patsy's Pizzas in Manhattan in the 1990's.
Angelo's nephews. Trained with Nick Angelis, and just opened Angelo's in Manhattan.
Restaurateurs. Opened Polistina's in Manhattan (1998), with advice from Nick Angelis.
(Jody Emery/The New York Times)(pg. F6)

LOAD-DATE: June 10, 1998

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