The Best Pizza in New York City
Photo By: Brandon Corey ©Brandon Corey
Photo By: Jill Futter ©2014 Jill Futter for The Little Photography Company
Take a Slice
New York City has a lot of classic foods to its name: bagels, corned beef and cabbage, black-and-white cookies, hot dogs. But no food item is more symbolic of the NYC food experience than pizza. Though there may be a pizzeria on nearly every corner of the Big Apple, not all pies are created equal. Here are the best places to fold up a slice.
L&B Spumoni Gardens
If a pizza joint is a favorite in a historically Italian neighborhood, it’s likely legit. Established in Bensonhurst in 1939, L&B has been serving adoring crowds for over 70 years now. A three-in-one setup, it offers an ice cream parlor (thus the namesake spumoni), a casual red-sauce restaurant and a pizzeria. All are worth a trip, but the World Famous L&B Sicilian pie is unlike any other slice. The upside-down pie is prepared with the cheese right on top of the dough, and the sweet tomato sauce on top. Crumbly flakes of salty Parmesan are sprinkled above. The thick crust is pulled out of the oven just shy of being fully cooked through, so the bottom layer is slightly springy in the middle with lightly browned edges. It’s not a thin-crust classic, but its flavor is enticing enough to convert even the most-die-hard square-pie-into believers.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Corey
Old-time Italian enclave Carroll Gardens was once mostly blue-collar workers and some Mafiosi, and the neighborhood is where famed gangster Al Capone was married. So when former marble worker and local Mark Iacono got news that an old-fashioned candy store had closed and the landlord was searching for a new tenant, he decided to give pizza a whirl. Fueled by a love of his grandmother’s cooking, Iacono created a dimly lit, romantic BYO restaurant. The cash-only pizzeria consistently attracts A-listers ranging from Jay-Z and Beyonce to the Beckhams. Iacono, however, is now famous himself, for his rustic wood-fired pies and calzones. His New York-style plain pizza is consistently hailed as one of the best in the city and even the U.S.
Photo courtesy of John Marolakos
Set among graffiti-scrawled warehouses, this hipster-approved restaurant is as nouveau Brooklyn as it gets, with a rooftop garden, a bread bakery, an apiary and a radio station blasting from a recycled shipping container. Waits for seats often exceed two hours on weekends, and many diners make special trips to the Morgantown neighborhood from throughout the city. There’s good reason: The food is killer. The menu includes impeccable vegetables, world-class charcuterie and, of course, New York-Neapolitan hybrid-style pies. The Famous Original features tomato sauce, mozzarella, complex caciocavallo cheese (it’s like mozzarella's more sophisticated sibling), oregano and a dash of chile, all on a thin, crisp crust. The result is an earthy, elaborate cheese pie that’s out of this world. The Beastmaster adds gorgonzola, pork sausage, onion, capers and jalapeno to its tomato and mozzarella base. Each pie is completely unique and affordable. The most-expensive option rings in at $18.
Staking its claim as America’s first pizzeria, the history of Lombardi’s goes back more than a century. As the godfather of coal-fired pies, Lombardi’s has influenced the upper echelon of the city’s pizzerias since its opening in 1905, and is perpetually packed with tourists and locals eager for a taste. Founder Gennaro Lombardi taught John Sasso of John’s and Anthony Pero of Totonno’s how to hone their skills. The cash-only spot serves an array of classics, and no slices. The original margherita is exemplary, with a bright San Marzano sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese, finished with a bit of romano and basil chiffonade. The clam pie is another top seller. Freshly shucked clams are layered on dough with pepper, oregano, garlic, parsley and pecorino. There’s no sauce or cheese, just loads of seafood on a super-crisp crust.
Since 1964, Domenico DeMarco has rolled out dough in this Midwood, Brooklyn, storefront. Not much has changed since those early days. The fluorescent sign out front is a retro throwback. The Formica-filled dining room feels like a church dining hall. Every Wednesday through Sunday guests can spot the octogenarian proprietor working behind the counter. His presence and mastery is the real draw. For the past 50 years, he’s made the pies in same deliberate fashion for adoring crowds. DeMarco’s Neapolitan pies are not fired in wood, but he still manages to obtain a paper-thin crust with supple edges and a slightly soggy center. They're topped with sugary tomato sauce enriched with extra-virgin olive oil, then finished with homegrown basil and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. The only inconsistent aspects are the prices and the lines. Slices now go for $5 apiece (the pies are a better deal), and waits are guaranteed.
Opened in 2010, Paulie Gee’s is something of a newcomer to the long-established Brooklyn pizza scene. What it lacks in longevity it makes up for in quality and esteem. The joint is so popular that waits can stretch beyond 90 minutes for tables to try the blistered, char-covered crusts. With a crisp circumference and soft center, these Neapolitan-style pies come with clever names and creative toppings. Ricotta Be Kiddin’ Me is one, with fresh mozzarella, Canadian bacon and sweet Italian fennel sausage topped with basil and fresh ricotta straight out of the oven. There are even top-notch vegan options like Red, White and Greenpeace, a pie with baby arugula and olive oil that's finished with house-pickled red onion and cashew ricotta once it’s pulled from the heat. Prepare to hang: There’s no pickup or delivery.
Pizza has been a recurring theme in the history of Matt and Emily Hyland’s relationship. It was the first meal they shared together. On their first proper date, the young couple ate a grilled pie in Providence. So it’s really no surprise that the husband-and-wife team found their way into the industry. At their Clinton Hill restaurant, they serve an array of bubbly modern American-style pies. The dough is hand-mixed and the mozzarella is prepared in-house. High-quality ingredients are integral, and the Hylands strive to use local products whenever possible. On the seasonal menu, pies are broken down into four sections: red (tomato sauce), green (tomatillo), pink (vodka) and white (sauce-free). Expect to see classics with numerous inventive options, such as the namesake Emily with mozzarella, pistachios, truffled cheese and a drizzle of honey. The meat lovers’ must-try is the RM3! with pepperoni, sausage and Mangalitsa ham from New Jersey.
Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano
Any trip on the classic NYC pizza train must include a stop at this coal-oven pizzeria. Founder Antonio “Totonno” Pero got his start at Lombardi’s shortly after arriving from Italy. A Coney Island institution since 1924, Totonno’s has racked up most every accolade, including a prestigious America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation, and a nod as one of the best pizzas on Top 5 Restaurants. Current owners Antoinette Balzano and Louise “Cookie” Cimineri are so secretive about their grandfather’s dough recipe that they wouldn’t allow cameras to film the prep process. The dough is made daily, never refrigerated, then topped with handmade mozzarella and fine ingredients, many sourced straight from the motherland. It’s no joke. The restaurant stays open only until the day’s batch of dough is gone, so it’s best to go early.
John’s of Bleecker Street
Italian immigrant John Sasso was another alumnus of Lombardi’s. In 1929, Sasso ventured out on his own with his eponymous joint on Sullivan Street. Much has changed since then: Sasso lost his lease and moved his coal-fired brick oven to Bleecker Street. In the '50s, he sold the business to the Vesce family. The pizza, however, is just as good as it has always been. Yes, the line is frequently filled with tourists, but locals are just as entranced by the history — and the product. It’s the epitome of the New York pie. A thin, springy crust is topped by a layer of tangy sauce and a good serving of mozzarella. Small and large pies — no slices — are finished with your choice of standard accoutrements: sliced meatballs, pepperoni, ground sausage, onions, anchovies. John’s isn’t about local greens or rare, artisanal cheese. Here, it’s all about honoring tradition with simple, classic pies.