Saturday, July 5, 2008

New York Pizza

In reading about the New Haven pizza places in the days before I went there to see what they were all about, I came across an old New York Times article that gave a history, or really more of a genealogy, of the pizzerias in New York that make the style of pizza that is my favorite in the city. The story can be a little confusing, especially regarding the pizza places called "Patsy's" -- Patsy's was some of the best and most famous pizza in New York for several generations, and there is more than one Patsy's pizza restaurant in the city today, but it is often unclear what relationship the current Patsy's has to the original, if any. At one extreme, you sometimes hear that it is still family owned, and at the other extreme you often hear that the name was bought out by a corporation that now keeps the restaurants going. The truth is a little of both.

The article had this nice "family tree" of New York pizzas, available online courtesy of the folks at Slice, the pizza blog. My favorite New York pizza, Angelo's, appears at the top of the tree, second from the left. Angelo Angelis opened a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn in the 1960s called Pizza Chef, and the current Angelo's in Manhattan was started by Angelo's nephews who had been trained by Angelo's son Nick of Nick's Pizza, which was run by Nick and another son of Angelo, John.

At the bottom of the tree you'll find the original New York pizza place (thought by many to be the first pizzeria in the United States), Lombardi's. I had heard of Lombardi's, but I didn't realize until looking into it over this past week that it is only a couple of blocks from school, and it is open until midnight on Saturdays, late enough to get there after we leave class. So on Saturday, I headed right there after we got out of the kitchen and back into our street clothes. Based on that one pizza, it looks like Lombardi's might have eclipsed Angelo's as my favorite pizza in the city.

The two places make a similar style of pizza, as do most of the places in the family tree from that New York Times article. They use a very light tomato sauce, usually made with crushed San Marzano canned tomatoes from Italy, and little or no herbs or spices in the sauce. The cheese is fresh mozzarella, which is too soft and wet to be grated, and is instead cut into round slices and placed on top of the pizza. Unlike most pizzas found across the United States, these pizzas do not have a solid covering of cheese; instead, the sliced rounds of cheese, about two or three inches in diameter, are placed on top of the sauce so that they cover about two-thirds of the surface area, leaving the sauce exposed on the rest. Many of the first pizza joints to open didn't call their product "pizza" in their name, but instead used the term "tomato pie," so instead of "Jack's Pizzeria," in the 1920s the place would be named "Jack's Tomato Pies." And tomato pie is exactly what I'm looking for -- I'm not in the majority when it comes to how I evaluate a pizza, but the most important thing to me is that it taste in some way like good tomatoes. (In fact, the thing I dislike about most Chicago pizza is not that it's thick or greasy or cheesey or bready, but that it arrives covered in a tomato sauce on top and yet somehow they've managed to cook all of the taste out of the sauce -- it is truly a red sauce, in the sense that all it gives the pizza is a red finish, and very little or no flavor of tomatoes. It is, to me, a bad joke.)

Lombardi's pizza. You can see here how the melted rounds
of fresh mozzarella don't completely cover the pizza.
Most New York pizza uses slightly less cheese than this,
leaving even more exposed areas of just tomato sauce.

In addition to the light tomato sauce and splotches of fresh mozzarella, another characteristic of that style of New York pizza is that it is baked in an impossibly hot oven, usually at 900F or more. The classic pizzas are made in coal-burning ovens, which are hotter than wood ovens, which in turn are hotter than gas ovens. The floor of the oven is made of smooth brick, and the pizza is placed directly on the brick floor, which has been thoroughly heated by the coal burning in the oven all day. The result is that the pizza goes from completely raw to completely cooked in just a few minutes. Often less than ten minutes elapses from the time you order a full pizza until the time it arrives at your table, because they can make it in two or three minutes and then bake it in only four minutes or so. The result of the hot oven and the superheated brick floor is that the thin crust gets slightly charred on the bottom, with a bit of grilled flavor to it, but is still soft on the top, and overall it is not at all brittle like a cracker even though it is crunchy underneath. The cheese just barely melts all the way in the short time it takes to cook the pizza, so that even though it arrives steaming hot, you can eat it immediately without getting burned because the heat has not really built up throughout the thickness of the pizza.

This is the pizza that Gennaro Lombardi made when he opened in the very early 1900s, and he passed his tradition on to some new pizza places opened by people who had worked for him, and those places are still around today: Totonno's, opened near Coney Island in 1924 and in recent years at another location in Manhattan; John's of Bleecker Street, opened in 1929, also with additional locations in the last few years (their web site now promotes the Times Square location, which probably generates the most money); and possibly Patsy's, opened in East Harlem by Patsy Lancieri in 1933 (it is uncertain whether he ever worked for Lombardi's), ultimately becoming the most ambiguous brand name on the New York pizza scene.

The name "Patsy's" first gets muddled with the opening of Patsy Grimaldi's pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge. Patsy Grimaldi is a newphew of the original Patsy Lancieri. I've read various accounts of the opening of Grimaldi's restaurant, and so far can't really find one that looks authoritative. Some say he called the place "Patsy's," and others say "Patsy Grimaldi's." Some say the name later changed because of a legal dispute about the right to use the name "Patsy's," and others say that he either sold the name or simply changed it. In any event, the restaurant was renamed "Grimaldi's," and remains under the bridge in Brooklyn today. A couple of additional locations have opened in New Jersey and on Long Island, owned and operated by relatives of Patsy Grimaldi.

Meanwhile, a couple of the original Patsy's employees bought the Patsy's pizzeria in East Harlem, presumably from Patsy or his heirs. Not long after that, they licensed the Patsy's name to the daugher and son-in-law of Angelo Angelis, the namesake (though never owner or operator) of my favorite pizza place for the past couple of years, Angelo's. The licensees opened several additional Patsy's, but although the bought the right to use the name, they apparently did not buy the original restaurant, which remains a separate business from the newer ones opened under the license. (You might notice that the original restaurant is not listed on the Patsy's website, which is run by the licensees.) So none of the Patsy's pizzerias today is owned or run by the Patsy Lancieri family, but the original location in East Harlem can still claim a pretty direct descent from the business as it originally existed in 1933.

One obstacle to opening a new pizza restaurant in New York making the original Lombardi's style of pizza is that it is now illegal to build a new coal-burning oven in Manhattan. That is probably why Patsy Grimaldi chose to open in Brooklyn, just across the bridge. More recently, Angelo's was opened in the 1990s by newphews of Angelo Angelis, who happened to find a vacant location near Carnegie Hall on 57th Street that already had a coal furnace installed.

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