The founder of Pizza a Casa Pizza School offers an ultimate guide to New York-style pizza with tips on where to find the best coal oven pies and how to order at neighborhood slice joints. Plus: secrets to making amazing pizza at home.
Few outside the five boroughs know that Mark Bello is the authority on how to make New York-style pizza at home—the thin-crust, crispy-chewy kind sold as whole pies out of coal-fired ovens and by the slice. Bello teaches out of a storefront in New York’s Lower East Side called, appropriately enough, Pizza a Casa Pizza School (“pizza at home” in Italian ). There, he also sells his favorite ingredients and tools, which will soon be available online at pizzaschool.com. Students willing to spend four hours and $150 to master the craft come from as far away as Australia, and range from amateurs to restaurateurs. This fall Bello will even release a home-pizza-making app. Here, he explains what’s so great about NYC pizza, how to identify really good pizza, and why you should never use a rolling pin on your crust.
What is New York-style pizza?
To me, New York-style means two things: coal-oven pizzerias and the corner slice places.
Coal-Oven Pizza: Back when pizza came to the United States, the first licensed pizzeria was Lombardi’s on Spring Street in 1905—not the original location, but a grocery store down the block with a wood-burning brick oven where they were making bread and then made pizzas in it. But after that, a lot of the pizzerias in New York and New Haven, like Pepe’s and Sally’s, used coal as fuel because wood, which was the traditional fuel in Italy, wasn’t as abundant and was expensive. Coal-oven places include Lombardi’s, John’s, and Totonno’s. None of those places sell slices; they all sell pies. The oven gets blistering hot, like 800 or 900 degrees hot. The crust is lightly charred, not burnt. They also cover the mozzarella with the tomato sauce to protect it so that it doesn’t get toasted.
New York-Slice Joints: Post-World War II, there was this huge proliferation of a new gas deck oven called Baker’s Pride. From what I understand, the company was founded by a G.I. who came back from Italy talking about this amazing thing called pizza. To me the New York slice is the place you walk in, there’s often nowhere to sit, just a counter wrapped around the outside, and they’ve got all these pizza slices on display. Where the coal-oven places protect the mozzarella with the sauce, at the slice places the sauce goes first, then a scattering of shredded whole-milk mozzarella on top. The crusts at the slice places have no char. You order a slice, they throw it into the oven for a moment, then pull it out and set it on that classic white fluted paper plate. A New York-slice is better the second time it goes in the oven. If I’m at a slice place and a pie is coming out, I’ll tell them I don’t want the hot slice; I ask for the cold slice and ask them to heat it up a second time. That’s when it really crisps up. You fold it in half, and if it’s done right, the tip of the pizza doesn’t drop down. Then there’s this magical oil from the cheese and tomato sauce that runs down your arm and you eat it like that.
What distinguishes an extraordinary pizza from a mediocre one?
If the crust is terrible, you can put the best topping on it, and nothing can save it. So the crust is the main event. That’s the Italian viewpoint for sure, the Neapolitan viewpoint, I think, too.
Texture and taste: We teach a pizza that’s bready, chewy, crispy—an interplay of textures. It’s something that wants to be folded in half. I’m not going to name names, but I went to a hallowed institution here in New York and the crust had the texture and flavor of what I imagine the foam would taste like in seat cushions. And I could tell, instead of using some good all-purpose flour, they were using some bleached variety. The quality of your ingredients is so important.
Thickness: In our classes, we teach people to think about how the crust can complement their toppings. When I make a potato and rosemary pizza, I’ll stretch that crust super thin, because potatoes on top of bread is a starchy nightmare. But I make a thicker crust for a pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, garlic and oil, because the breadier crust will support those richer ingredients.
Unevenness: We show people how to stretch by hand, using their fingers and knuckles, not a rolling pin. Rolling pins slam out the pizza so you’re left with nothing but a tough, flat sheet. And throwing dough, as cool as it is, makes it too uniform because of the centrifugal force. The human touch gives the pizza its character, its soul. It gets a little thinner here, a little thicker there, so each bite has this capriciousness to it that makes the pizza all the more special. The New York slice also has a slightly puffier edge that really sets it apart. They call it the corniccione, the collar or the handle—that’s important.
Char: If it’s coming out of a coal oven, the crust should be lightly charred—not burnt, but with black spots. Sadly, a lot of New York coal-oven legends have dumbed down their pizzas for the pizza tourism that now exists. These days someone gets a pizza that’s properly charred and they think someone’s trying to pull a New York fast one and sell them a burnt pizza. Students in my own classes will even complain a pizza looks burnt. And I’m like, taste it. Definitely there is burn, but it’s a char, which is something that we like on our steaks and our vegetables. But it also depends on the style—a New York slice is not a charred thing.
The sauce should taste bright and like a ripe, sunny tomato. I like a little sweetness, but it’s from the tomatoes, not added sweetness. It’s all about using the right ingredients in the proper balance. Everybody’s got their way of doing it—go to Naples and you can watch these guys barely touching the dough, squishing a couple of blobs of mozzarella and a couple of tomatoes, and boom in the oven it’s done.
The cheese will vary with the style of pizza. In general, less is more. It would make the world’s pizzas better if everyone could just adopt that as their mantra.