In the not too distant past, it appeared that New York pizza was headed the way of the burger. That is to say, it would remain somewhat static as a street snack while evolving more meaningfully as a restaurant foodstuff — a dish designed for elevation and refinement.
In the mid ‘aughts and beyond, a Brooklyn-centric pizza culture focused on honoring the ways of the past slowly gave way to a more ambitious Neo-New York Neapolitan style, with a spotlight on artisanal boulangerie, cheffed-up toppings, and sit-down settings. Pies were paired with composed plates and dry-aged strip loins. This was, without question, a vital progression of pizza: The fancy cocktails, feathery zalto stems (see: Pasquale Jones), truffle shavings (Marta), no-substitution policies, and technical blogging would force a consumer class to take pizza as seriously as they would any other ambitious cuisine.
But in another sense, it felt as if a larger class of pizza eating humans were being left out. That is, until the recently. The city’s best new pizzerias are now slice pizzerias — or close equivalents — from PQR, to the new incarnation of Sullivan Street, to Corner Slice.
Even Midwood’s historic Di Fara has cloned itself, hawking $5 slices at a hip Brooklyn food hall. “No takeout” man Paulie Gee is prepping his own slice joint on Franklin Avenue. And Santa Panza at the Bushwick and Bed-Stuy border, one of the finest modern pizzerias in Kings County, hawks stunning six-inch margherita pies for just $7. Perhaps chefs finally saw a quality gap in the slice market; perhaps they saw slices as a low-cost alternative to sit-down restaurants in this fast-casual era; or perhaps they simply wanted to make delicious tasting food that folks could eat everyday.
While the city’s haute-Neapolitan trend remains strong — Anthony Mangieri charges $25 for his natural wine-paired margherita — the supremacy of Naples-leaning pies has given way to a pizza zeitgeist that embraces diversity more. Venues specializing in Roman pies, Detroit pies, bar pies, and hybrid pies (Razza’s), are attracting the type of waits that in the past would’ve gone to more classical practitioners.
It would be absurd to think that diners care so much about pizza taxonomy (“Let me consult this pie flowchart to decide where I’ll eat tonight”). But these developments are important — good delicious, affordable, and diverse pizza is increasingly available throughout the city.
So without further ado, here’s a list of the best (and not quite best) pizzerias that have opened, re-opened, or spun-off in the past year or so.
Sullivan Street Bakery 2.0: Jim Lahey’s Hell’s Kitchen flagship reopened following a year-long renovation this spring, having transformed itself from a humble takeout spot to a sleek all-day cafe. Put simply: It’s a place for patrons to sit down and relax while enjoying a $3.75 masterpiece. Using winter wheat harvested in the Dakotas and milled in Massachusetts, the kitchen makes an overnight bianca dough, tops it with milled tomatoes — 75 percent fresh and domestic with the other 25 percent coming from San Marzano — and bakes it for 22 minutes.
This is pizza as minimalism. There is no garlic and no oregano, and although the tomatoes are cooked in olive oil, that aromatic fat is imperceptible. The flavor is pure tomato, with an acidity that recalls good Champagne and a fragrance that is best described as distillate of a summertime garden. The crust, in turn, is a sweet counterpoint to the tangy fruit. The interior isn’t feathery like at PQR or Corner Slice; it’s more restrained softness with a notable crunch, plus notes of profound nuttiness. It is, in my book, the city’s single best slice. 533 W. 47th. near 11th Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen
Corner Slice: The pizza here speaks more to the culture of the greater New York metropolitan area than it does to rigid traditions from abroad — or the vicissitudes of the modern food world. It’s simply an exalted version of a classic pizza parlor. The bakers purvey a tomato slice that’s truly a work of art, packed with Jersey and California tomatoes that electrify the tongue with their sweet acid balance, and sporting a low-gluten crust that allows the user to keep eating and eating. 600 11th Avenue near 45th Street, Midtown West
PQR: This is the stateside debut of Angelo Iezzi, the Roman pizzaiolo who rose to fame with the long-fermented, high-hydration style of pie-making that is characteristic of many of today’s slices. I had good things to say after it opened in March; four months later, it’s easily producing some of the city’s finest pizza. The crust, while not as flavorful as at Corner Slice or Sullivan, boasts an interior so light that it almost seems to hover above the gently crisp underskirt.
The fantastic stracciatella is a smart summertime order, a polychromatic slice dotted with orbs of fat, juicy cherry tomatoes, strips of the same fruit that have been cooked down, and a layer of custardy cow’s milk cheese from Puglia. Then again, the squash slice is just a impressive: a silky layer of pumpkin adding a sweet, vegetal counterpoint to translucent sheets of porky pancetta. There are few other dishes that blend gourd and swine with such a light touch that they still feel summer-y. And if anyone is scared off by such high-minded pizza making, keep in mind that the drink cooler up front is stacked with bottles of Fanta. 1631 Second Ave near 85th Street, Upper East Side
The Others: Sometimes Fantastic, Sometimes Not
Una Pizza: Anthony Mangieri is to pizza what Jiro Ono is to sushi — a craftsman with an unquestionable work ethic and an unwavering dedication to quality. Whether those efforts necessarily result in world class pies, which they should be at $25, is a different story. That said, partners Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone have nonetheless given the city something important here. They pair Mangieri’s rustically-elevated pizza with modern antipasti — there’s a ‘nduja and turnip plate that belongs in a museum — as well as forward-looking desserts, like a salted vanilla ice cream that should be taught in culinary school. The juxtaposition of new and old is what makes Una such a compelling institution, even if the signature product isn’t quite ready for primetime. 175 Orchard near Stanton Street, Lower East Side
Joe & Pat’s: This is the deserved Manhattan debut of the Staten Island institution, which has been slinging ultra-thin crust pizza in Castleton Corners since the 1960s. The chief draw is the vodka pie, and with good reason. It’s about on par with the excellent version at Rubirosa, whose founder was a member of the family behind Joe & Pat’s. The brilliance of the vodka cream is that it cuts down on the acidity of the tomatoes without stifling them. The union of dairy and fruit — not to mention salt and spice, if one adds the requisite chile flakes — results in an absolutely majestic pizza, and one that’s entirely inhale-able thanks to its cracker-like crust and 10-inch size ($18). 168 First Ave. near 10th Street, East Village
Emily West Village: A chain is to be judged not on the basis of its well-regarded flagship but rather on its multiplying outposts, which, statistically, more folks will end up patronizing. I praised the New Haven-tinged pizzas during a review of the original Emily in Clinton Hill, but the West Village spinoff sends out round pies that feel more in conversation with the kitchens at Domino’s or Cheesecake Factory. The marinara is sauced so heavily, it’s as if the kitchen were making tomato soup; it’s also topped, improbably, with kimchi daikon, pickles, and anchovies. Another pie is laden so heavy with chorizo, sour cream, and green salsa that its weight is closer to a basket of loaded nachos than an actual pizza.
The good news, however, is that Emily West Village makes Detroit-style pizza as expertly as at the original Emmy Squared. The toppings are forgettable enough, but the nuts and bolts of the pie are spectacular: a chewy, pan-fried underskirt, a soft interior, and an exterior rim that consists of perfectly-cooked frico — cheese that’s been crisped from the heat of the pan. Emily definitely has something going for it. 35 Downing St. near Bedford Street, West Village
Lions & Tigers & Squares: Artichoke Basille’s doesn’t make very good pizza, but that’s never stopped them expanding. By that logic, it’s likely we’ll see more of Lions, Tigers, and Squares, the chain’s new Detroit-style concept. Individual pies, priced at $5 for a margherita, or $9 with olives or any other topping, are baked in cast iron pans to order. After standing in the sweltering room for about seven minutes, you get your pie, wait for it to cool down, and start eating. The frico crust isn’t as crisp as at Emmy Squared — in fact it’s barely noticeable. But the mozzarella is sufficiently creamy, and the marinara is pleasingly spiced. The dough, in turn, has the insubstantial, almost spongy consistency of Ellio’s frozen pizza. Maybe eat somewhere else? 268 W 23rd St. near Eighth Avenue, Chelsea
Di Fara spin-off: Long before there was such thing waking up at 5 a.m. to order a Cronut, New Yorkers would wait two hours or more for a pie a Dom DeMarco’s Di Fara in Midwood. It was, and still is, a venue so legendary that the local TV news would report on price increases. Half the fun at the original isn’t just eating, but watching DeMarco drizzle olive oil from his cruet and snip basil over the pies.
When I visited the spinoff location at the North 3rd Market in Williamsburg, there was no one on line, and no one was snipping basil. The mozzarella on my $5 slice was lukewarm and mealy, with the tip of the pizza missing. On another night, the cheese was blistering hot and milky. But wow, the two gobs of tomato sauce fully justified the price. It was as if someone had stewed a perfectly sun-ripened tomato and laced it with enough pepper to make carbonara. My brain’s acid, spice, and umami detectors shot through the roof. Flaws notwithstanding, Di Fara has still got it. 103 North 3rd St., near Berry Street, Williamsburg
Mother Dough: Near the intersection of Berkeley and 7th Avenue, there’s an ice cream parlor (rad), a real estate broker (boo), and an outpost of Krav Maga Experts, which teaches the deadly Israeli art of self defense (lolz). And then there’s Mother Dough, a small bakery and pizzeria that also showcases books highlighting the forgotten storefronts of old New York.
This is the work of Elisa Rizzi, who’s given this city a very personalized style of pizza: A naturally leavened crust that’s fat all the way through — about the thickness of two decks of cards — from the center to the rim. The prices are high ($18 to $23), and the margherita is a bit of a work in progress, with aggressively acidic tomatoes, ultra-milky mozz, and a shower of olive oil that turns the dough soggy a bit too quickly. No matter; the outer lip of bread is what makes this pie special. The golden crust packs a gentle sourdough tang. It crackles like a good baguette, and it’s perfect for dredging through a pool of EVOO sprinkled with umami-rich grana padano. Park Slope residents are lucky. 72 Seventh Ave., near Berkeley Place, Park Slope