Yesterday my teenage son and I ventured to NYC to grab a slice of pizza, well actually three slices. Checking off an item from My 2014 NYC Bucket List and sometimes scoring with my son on our once a month “forced family fun day,” we were led by self-declared “Pizza Enthusiast,” Miriam Weiskind from Scott’s Pizza Tours. Miriam lead us through the streets of Little Italy, Soho and Greenwich Village to learn why we love pizza and to sample some of the city’s best slices.
We met Miriam and twelve others who were also joining us on the pizza lunch and learn in front of Gatsby’s Bar & Restaurant at 53 Spring Street. Initially, I was wondering if we had the correct meeting place since it wasn’t a pizzeria, but I soon found out that we were indeed in the right location because we were standing in front of the building that was once a grocery store in what use to be a thriving Italian-American neighborhood. It was at this grocery store in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied to the New York City government for the first license to make and sell pizza in the United States. Miriam continued with the history lesson of pizza informing us about the origins of pizza. We learned how pizza was once food for the poor in Naples, Italy and the tale of Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples in 1889. She apparently loved the pizza that consisted of mozzarella, crushed tomato and basil which represented the colors of the Italian flag. The Pizzaioli (pizza maker) Raffaele Esposito named it Pizza Margherita in her honor.
After the quick history lesson, we took off on foot down Spring Street to head to the new location of Lombardi’s pizza at 32 Spring Street. The original location closed down in the 1970′s when the coal oven broke at 53 Spring Street. The oven was not on a foundation and over time the subway running underground nearby caused it to collapse. On our way we took a quick detour and headed into the two block radius that encompasses Little Italy today. Most people visit Little Italy not to eat, but to buy ingredients and attend the San Gennaro Festival. As we turned off Mulberry onto Grand, Miriam pointed out Alleva Dairy where Lombardi’s buys their mozzarella cheese. Also, on the corner, I noticed that crews were at work assembling the red, white and green decorative arches down Mulberry in preparation for the Feast of San Gennaro that kicks off at the end of September. After peaking in windows of a pasta shop and an olive oil shop we walked up Mott Street to the corner of Spring where entered Lombardi’s for our first slice of pizza.
We took our seats at Lombardi’s and were welcomed by the Pizzaiolis when we passed the famous coal oven. The oven is heated to 800 degrees and is never turned off. The oven is from the former bakery, but the tiles came from the original location. Once we were seated, we received a gift that included a Pocket Pizza Journal that would allow us to record our taste and observations. I quickly learned there is a lot to observe when eating a slice of pizza, like whether the sauce is sweet or savory or the crust is buttery, spongy or chewy. In the gift bag, we also found lemon candies to cleanse our palate, mints for afterward and gummy pizza.
While we waited for our pizza, we learned about different ingredients that change the taste of a pizza pie, and we all realized that it’s hard to determine the best pizza, because everyone has different taste. We were educated on using Italian tomatoes vs. California tomatoes, and the various types of mozzarella. Lombardi’s uses fresh mozzarella. The crust can differ based on what type of oven it is cooked. We were also able to visit the kitchen where the pizzaiolos worked there magic. All the talk about pizza sure made our mouths water, so when we were able to sample a Neapolitan slice of pizza, I savored the taste and realized that I no longer can buy a frozen pizza again.
Moving on from the country’s first pizzeria, we worked our way to Greenwich Village stopping along the way on Bowery and peaked inside Bari’s where Patsy was working on fixing a pizza oven. We then ventured into the store and learned more about the pizza ovens found in the majority of pizza parlors today. Unlike the coal ovens, gas ovens are usually somewhere between 300 and 400 degrees and usually cook from 10 to 12 minutes.
We ended up sampling our second slice from a rotating gas oven at Fiore’s on Bleeker Street. Fiore’s is an example of a typical New York City Pizzeria. You could taste the difference in the crust from the first slice, but the Fiore’s slice was superb. The crust was made from “in store” grown yeast from the island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples). The cheese was also distributed in squares since they make the pizza with cubes instead of being shredded which was a technique from the 1960s.
Our final stop on tour was John’s of Bleeker Street. Founded in 1929 by John Sasso who was trained by Lombardi and established his first business on Sullivan Street, but lost his lease; therefore, he had to dismantle his original coal-fired brick oven and moved it to 278 Bleeker Street where he grew his business and perfected his pizza recipe. In 1947, his company was taken over by nephews and is still a family run business. This famous pizzeria was very busy, and we ended up conversing and eating our pizza outside on the sidewalk. John’s pizza was a combination of the two slices that we enjoyed before. The crust was similar to Lombardi’s, but it had a layered sauce (not crushed tomatoes) over the cheese and no shredded basil.
When the tour was officially over, the group didn’t scatter quickly and continued to ask Miriam questions and she advised us about other great places to grab a slice in the city. Miriam’s enthusiasm and passion about pizza really changed my perspective about one of my favorite foods. My favorite was the first pizza from Lombardi’s, but my son’s favorite was from John’s of Bleeker Street (not to be confused with the John’s in Mid-town). I am now tempted to try my hand at making a coal-fired pizza at home. I’ll be picking up fresh mozzarella from the cheese shop, making my sauce from crushed Italian tomatoes and using the Easy Dough Recipe that was provided on the back of the Pocket Pizza Journal. Considering I don’t have a coal-fired oven in my home, I’ll give it a go on the outside grill. Hopefully, the Brick Oven Pizza on the Grill video I found on eHow will be a useful guide. I’ll keep you posted if I am able to come close to replicating Lombardi’s pizza. Wish me luck and many thanks to Scott, Miriam and of course Gennaro Lombardi for the inspiration.
Have you ever learned something on tour or by visiting a destination that made you want to whip something up in the kitchen?