New York pizza really is a cut above. We tried six slice shops that confirm it.
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No one personifies the bridge between the first wave of Brooklyn pizzaiolos and the new school like Pinello, 41. An alumnus of both the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park and Roberta’s in Bushwick, he’s also an Italian American kid from Bensonhurst. Pinello, who hosted “The Pizza Show” on Vice, has long looked up to the slice shop operators from “the old country,” uncompromising guys like the late Dom DeMarco at Di Fara or Luigi Lanzo at Luigi’s.
“They would never cheap out. You had to do it this way. You had to follow the rules,” Pinello said. “People are back to using only the best ingredients,” he added.
I came to Brooklyn because I wanted to judge New York’s pizza superiority for myself. Living in D.C. for a dozen years, I’ve heard my share of snobbish complaints from New York City expats; it gets grating. I’ve spent years writing about food, and I was still skeptical the gap between New York and everywhere else could be so large.
Passionate pizzamakers like Pinello helped me see the light. This is convenience food, yes, but in many cases, it’s also a life’s work.
To plan my pizza pilgrimage, I read all the big NYC lists, then solicited input from pizza chefs in D.C. and New York. Restricting the crawl to Brooklyn would help me pack my tasting into a day. To further trim the field and minimize indigestion, I committed to only buy pizza by the slice (my apologies to Totonno’s, Lucali and Juliana’s). My list would feature a balance of decades-old slice joints and members of a contemporary class of dough whisperers.
After visiting six pizzerias in one day, I can say it: They were right. Consider this crawl my capitulation. If you want to take a Brooklyn pizza tour, there are a number of local companies you could hire to guide you. Or you could follow this list, ranging from South Brooklyn to South Slope to the high-pizzeria-density confines of Williamsburg.
Lucia Pizza of Avenue X, Sheepshead Bay
After taking the train from D.C. to NYC, I hopped on the subway headed toward Coney Island for another hour, walked through a neighborhood of brown brick houses and finally arrived at my first pizzeria of the day. Although Lucia Pizza opened only last year, there are multigenerational traditions here, like the vodka sauce that owner Salvatore Carlino’s parents served at the now-closed Manhattan Beach pizzeria Papa Leone.
“That’s like gold in a bottle,” managing partner Jeff Todd says of the orange-tinted sauce spiked with clear liquor, which could be seen as a metaphorical nod to the neighborhood presence of Russian families like his own.
I recommend tasting the vodka sauce slice before the “NY plain” as a rich foil to the pomodoro bomb that explodes as soon as you take a bite. This regular slice has a restrained serving of low-moisture cheese, made by Lioni Latticini Mozzarella Company in Bensonhurst.
“I know a lot of New York pizzerias, they love cheese. It’s cheese cheese. I think it’s the opposite,” Todd said. “If you have an amazing dough, amazing tomato sauce and you just give it that light sprinkle of cheese? That’s more than enough. You don’t need that whole (cheese) pull. Who needs that?”
2201 Avenue X, Brooklyn; 718-313-0999; lucia.pizza
DeMarco died last year, but you can still feel his presence inside the Avenue J slice shop as it approaches its 58th anniversary in September. His image is all over the orange wood-paneled walls, posing for photographs with Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill de Blasio.
Since 1965, he had built a reputation as a pizza titan with meticulous standards. He didn’t acquiesce to requests. He created the best pizza he could imagine and labored over it himself, even if it meant some customers had to wait two hours to eat.
Dom Jr. said he always thought his dad was a superhero because of the way he snatched pans out of the oven with his bare hands and stayed on his feet all day. By the end of the night, when he’d roll up his pants and drink a whole bottle of wine, his legs resembled gnarled tree trunks.
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Last year, at the end of his father’s wake, Dom Jr. said he leaned into the casket, kissed his father on the forehead and reassured him his legacy would continue. All seven DeMarco siblings are involved with family businesses now. Michael, the oldest, makes dough in the mornings. Sister Maggie Mieles manages the ordering, social media and clerical duties. Dom Jr. and Harry form and cook pizzas before applying their father’s trademark garnishes: the clippings of fresh basil, fistfuls of salty grana Padano cheese and swirls of extra virgin olive oil.
When customers say the pizza tastes the same, “that’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Harry DeMarco said.
The old, ink-black pans at Di Fara still turn out an exceptional Sicilian slice ($6), with a thick, sturdy base baked hard in generous glugs of olive oil giving way to a light, puffy skin blanketed in bright tomato sauce. Di Fara’s regular slices ($5), glistening with oil and cheeses, tilt the balance of flavors toward rich and salty atop a thin, crackly crust.
You may not have to wait as long as you used to, which could make a visit to Midwood even more appealing.
1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn; 718-258-1367; difarapizzany.com
Luigi’s Pizza, South Slope
Imagine a New York pizzeria and you’re likely to paint a mental picture of Luigi’s: the lipstick-red countertop, the red-and-cream stained-glass light fixtures, the Coca-Cola branded peg board menu that still lists a “reg slice” and a “square slice” for $2.75. Other slice shops may adopt the 1970s basement aesthetic, but they can’t replicate the neighborhood atmosphere you’ll feel in conversations with Giovanni Lanzo, who works in a black hairnet, white Luigi’s T-shirt and apron.
“I believe in a fair price and a great product, and the people will come back,” said Lanzo, 59, the son of a Luigi from Calabria whose name is painted in green cursive letters on the sign out front.
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The frank-but-friendly pizzamaker has plenty of opinions about what makes a good slice. It can’t be white on the bottom, it has to be crisp. Sicilian slices (his favorite) should have a long-simmered Sunday sauce. There shouldn’t be globs of cheese. He prefers “of-season” Italian tomatoes, opened within a year of canning, from Mutti or Sclafani. He says he still does things the way his father did them since the shop opened in 1973.
Some slices come with a swirl of basil oil. The fresh mozzarella slice is a signature. On the day I came into the shop, his grandma pie produced a remarkable bite with a multifaceted crust that crunched moderately, then yielded at the top like a restaurant-made crouton.
686 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn; 718-499-3857; luigispizzabrooklyn.com
F&F Pizzeria, Carroll Gardens
If you couldn’t tell from the black-and-white headshot of a young Bob Dylan on the wall or the sticker of a Grateful Dead skull on a stand for the cashier’s iPad, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli are a little counterculture. At F&F, the Carroll Gardens restaurateurs known collectively as “the Franks” offer a wholesome, 21st century take on New York slices: free of potassium bromate and baked in an electric oven at around 650 degrees.
“The dough and the ingredients are obviously way updated,” Falcinelli said, adding “Our goal is to make the most delicious, healthiest pizza” that still looks like a Disco-era slice.
F&F employs natural leavening techniques and sources as locally as possible, except for Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes (California) and their own organic Frankies 457 olive oil (Sicily). Hotter than gas, the electric oven toasts the bottom of airy Sicilian slices ($4.50), leaving a bronzed layer of texture that’s more shard-like than the pencil-thin layer. Pungent Sicilian oregano leaves a lasting impression. The Franks are from Queens, but Falcinelli’s father had a taste for New Haven-style pizza, which explains the presence of a clam slice ($6) bolstered with breadcrumbs that act as a sponge for soaking up lemon juice and mollusk brine.
After being cooped up in tight, wood-paneled slice shops that absorb ovens’ heat, I exhaled walking up to the airy counter at F&F, where a triangular skylight looks down on the pizzamakers and real green grapes hang on the back of the building.
459 Court St., Brooklyn; 718-407-6575; franks.pizza
Best Pizza, Williamsburg
When Pinello opened Best Pizza in the old Brooklyn Star space, he inherited a 100-year-old wood-burning oven. In the ancient bakery climate, he threw flour and water on a shelf and found it was easy to capture wild yeast that was “really active.”
“A strand of that yeast is in every batch 13 years later,” Pinello said.
Inside, it’s dark, it’s narrow, it’s crowded; there’s a quick-moving line for dinner and a yellow menu listing five different slices for less than $5. Out front, there are the type of $30 lawn chairs that have been appearing on Brooklyn stoops for millennia.
Best Pizza is know for its white pie, and for good reason. Sweet, caramelized onions and lemon zest add just the right amount of zip to small pools of ricotta, sesame seeds add a different dimension of roasted flavor, and a svelte crust somehow leaves me feeling lighter than before I scarfed it down on the street.
33 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn; 718-599-2210; bestpizzawilliamsburg.com
L’industrie Pizzeria, Williamsburg
The line outside L’industrie Pizzeria confirmed what I’d heard: The little joint that serves extra-large slices on metal trays is at the top of its game. By my sixth and final stop, I should not have had room for another slice. But the queue gave me time to gird my stomach.
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Once the crowd moved indoors, my eyes were drawn to green bin filled with six orbs of pizza dough that would prove to be L’industrie’s greatest asset. After I ordered and sat at a sidewalk table, a man named Manny dropped off two triangles of enormous proportions. When I held my hand out for scale, it felt as small as a Ken doll’s.
The deeply browned crust on a slice topped with roasted vegetables ($5.50) was thin enough to see through in some spots and sturdy enough to pierce the air with a sharp point as I folded it in half and chowed down. The burrata slice, owner Massimo Laveglia’s two-cheese alternative to a “regular” option, kept me bouncing between flavors in each bite.
I was exhausted, punchy, sweaty and dehydrated. I couldn’t get enough.
254 S. Second St., Brooklyn; 718-599-0002; lindustriebk.com
When my day began, I was worried my expectations were too high. It took one bite of my first regular slice to obliterate that notion. The quality of all six pizzerias left me awestruck, each one better than the last. Any skepticism I had was replaced with a newfound respect.
By the end of my tour, I realized the secret sauce in the New York slice goes beyond a taste for well-done crust or carefully calibrated sauce-to-cheese ratios. It’s not about the water, or a certain brand of canned tomatoes, or what method of power heats the ovens.
Direct the credit to craftsmanship and decades of repetition, the handiwork that’s been carried across continents and passed down through generations. Considering how cooks throughout the borough keep raising the bar, the future looks bright.
“It’s different,” Pinello said. “We’re not immigrants, but we’re young, and we’re interested in the culture and the science of it.”