Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
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June 10, 1998, Wednesday, Late Edition -
SECTION: Section F; Page 1; Column
2; Dining In, Dining Out/Style Desk
HEADLINE: New York Pizza,
the Real Thing, Makes a Comeback
BYLINE: By ERIC
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
AUGUSTINE and PATRICK VESCE
Sasso's nephews. Took over John's in 1947.
and BOB VITTORIA
Sasso's grand-nephews. With Pete's wife, Madeline, took
over John's in the mid 1970's.
PETE JR. and LISA CASTELLOTTI
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.
COOKIE and JOEL CIMINIERI
daughter and son-in-law. Took over Totonno's in the 1980's, and opened a second
branch in Manhattan last year.
Joel's son. Has managed both Totonno's since 1994.
Grandson of the original Gennaro. Opened a new Lombardi's in 1994
PASQUALE (PATSY) LANCIERI
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.
JOHN BRECEVICH and FRANK
Employees of Patsy Lancieri. Bought the original Patsy's in 1991.
Opened Pizza Chef, a successful pizzeria in
downtown Brooklyn, in the 1960's.
NICK and JOHN ANGELIS
Angelo's sons. Operate Nick's Pizza in Forest Hills (1994) and Rockville
Center (1997). Nick Angelis also observed Patsy Grimaldi's operation.
MIRENE ANGELIS and NICK TSOULIS
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.
JOHN and NICK PASHALIS
Angelo's nephews. Trained with Nick Angelis, and just opened Angelo's in
GODFREY POLISTINA, RALPH SCAMARDELLA, MICHAEL RONIS
and JOHN DeLOACH
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