Pizza as the world knows it was invented in New York City, not Naples. Here, in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi opened America's first pizza parlor. He'd been a grocer on the Lower East Side since 1897, when he'd arrived from Naples, and he noticed that the pizzas he was selling cold in his shop were doing so well, he decided to chuck the food store and start a pizzeria. Those pies were being made – probably in a neighborhood bakery — by one Antonio Pero, known to his pals by the nickname "Totonno." He'd arrived from Naples in 1903. The pizzeria started by Lombardi as owner and Pero as pizziaolo, or pizza maker, still stands on Spring Street in Soho.
What were the differences between our pizzas of the time and the Naples ones that provided inspiration? While Naples pizzas were cooked in a wood-burning oven, and were basically made to satisfy one person (and were thus delivered uncut), ours were made using a coal-fired oven that burned 200 degrees hotter, and thus required the pie to have a thinner crust, since it cooked faster and you didn't want it to be burned on the outside or still doughy in the middle. American pizza had a stiffer crust, so that you could hold a slice and eat it, rather than attacking with a knife and fork as they did in Italy. And consistent with the bounty of the New World (and this may be the most important innovation), our pies were bigger, and intended for communal consumption. So every pizza became a de facto party.
Pero left Lombardi's in 1924 to start his own coal-oven pizzeria in Coney Island, Brooklyn, which was just then becoming an Italian community. Indeed, with the outstretched arms of Sandy Hook, New Jersey and the Rockaways visible on either side, it must have reminded our first pizzaiolo of the Bay of Naples. Other pizza makers took Pero's place at Lombardi's, and they, too, eventually left to start their own coal oven parlors. John Sasso departed in 1929 to found John's Pizzeria, which still stands on Bleecker Street in the Village, while Pasquale "Patsy" Lancieri created Patsy's in 1933 in the bourgeoning Italian community of East Harlem. Taken together, these four pizzerias constitute the city's oldest and greatest pizza legacy, and if you haven't yet tried all four, you should. And though these places have sold franchise rights, never go to any but the original locations, because the pies will be distinctly inferior, and made in a conventional oven.
Lombardi's Pizza — Acknowledged as the country's first pizzeria, Lombardi's is now a tourist trap of major proportions. And sadly, the restaurant can no longer be found at its original address — about 20 years ago, Lombardi's moved from the old grocery store space at 53 1/2 Spring to its current home at 32 Spring. Go early, or late — say 9:30 or 10 p.m., when the tourists are snoring in their hotel beds — and enjoy two basic pies, the margherita with fresh mozza and tomato sauce, or the white pie, gobbed with cheese and not much else. These may be customized with a list of extra ingredients, but better stay on the plainish side for your first taste. You'll find the crust here a little harder and less yielding than at the other joints. Remember, Lombardi was not a pizza maker himself, and this is the least good of the city's coal oven parlors. Nevertheless, the tiled oven emblazoned "1905 Lombardi 1905" is a thing to behold, and the clam pie, a later Sicilian interpolation on the menu, is often extoled. 32 Spring St.; 212-941-7994.
Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano — This place is simply the best pizzeria in the world, and well worth the sojourn on a whole host of trains to Coney Island. Go mid-afternoon on a weekday for immediate seating, or prepare to wait in line. The crust is tender, but not too tender, charred in places, the tomato sauce plain, and the cheese tasting as if it had been made moments before. The waitress/manager/co-owner is gruff but lovable Louise "Cookie" Cimineri, who is directly descended from Antonio Pero. The place serves only Wednesday through Sunday, beginning at lunchtime, till the dough runs out. 1524 Neptune Ave.; Brooklyn, 718-372-8606
John's of Bleecker Street: — Decorated with smeary murals of the Bay of Naples and the Blue Grotto of Capri, John's is very much a part of the Greenwich Village where it anchors (along with Faicco's) what was at one time one of the city's most important Italian communities. The pies are perhaps lusher than those at the other coal-oven establishments, the cheese slightly more profuse, and the pies sail from a pair of ovens, one in each dining room. The calzone is big enough to feed an army, and this place actually offers a salad, tap beer, and wine. The crust is perfection, and few bones (the circumferential edge) go uneaten: it's that good. 278 Bleecker St.; 212-243-1680.
Patsy's Pizza — Go to the northernmost storefront of the sprawling Patsy's empire and behold the coal oven right before you, which glows like some pagan god. The pies come out, they're sliced up, and distributed to the neighborhood. Yes, this is the only one of the four New York ur-pizzerie to sell slices. The tomato sauce is plain and well-pureed, the cheese is plain, and the taste is as wonderfully bland as bland can be. The crust is the softest and most glove-like of all the coal-oven places, and if you close your eyes, you might as well be in Naples. 2287 1st Ave; 212-534-9783.
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