The Rise of the Neo-Neighborhood Pizzeria
New York City’s bond with pizza is long, storied, and preserved, mosquito-in-amber style, under layers of glistening auburn grease. It’s a relationship that stretches farther than the most epic Instagram-ready “cheese pull,” to the coal-fired ovens of early twentieth-century Italian immigrants like Gennaro Lombardi, who opened what is widely considered America’s first pizzeria on Spring Street in downtown Manhattan (purportedly in 1905). Several of these relics are still standing, from Coney Island landmark Totonno’s, to John’s in the West Village, to the original Patsy’s in Harlem, one of the few spots around town to find coal oven-cooked pizza by the slice.
The flavors of history are also conjured inside the tiered, gas-powered deck ovens of old-school slice shops like Di Fara in Midwood, Brooklyn, where grated hard cheeses, hand-snipped basil, and a garnish of olive oil lend the pizzas an air of gravitas; Howard Beach, Queens’ New Park Pizza, which anoints its white pies with veritable lakes of smooth ricotta; and Louie & Ernie’s in the Bronx, which imports its full-cream mozzarella from Wisconsin and its incredible fennel-accented pork sausage from S&D deli right down the street. Enterprises like these helped turn pizza into a ubiquitous convenience food, establishing the New York-style slice as an iconic foodstuff indelibly tied to the city’s cultural identity.
Lest anyone wax too nostalgic, however, Brooklyn-born chef Nino Coniglio (of exemplary throwback shops Williamsburg Pizza and the Brooklyn Pizza Crew) is quick to point out, “just like there’s shitty pizza in Naples, there’s plenty of shitty pizza in New York, too.”
At the same time, there’s a cheesy, saucy galaxy between the NYC pizza landscape of today and that of even twenty years ago. In that time, we’ve seen booms in both dollar slices and the char speckled rounds of wood-fired Neapolitan-style operations like Una Pizza Napoletana, Roberta’s, and Ops; not to mention the introduction of an increasing number of regional styles, including Chicago deep dish, rectangular Roman pizza al taglio, thin and crusty Roman round pies, and the crunchy, pillowy, cheese-encrusted squares made popular in Detroit. This pizza proliferation shows no signs of stopping, either. Next year, Emily and Matt Hyland of ultra-popular Emily and Emmy Squared plan to open a restaurant devoted to Rhode Island-style grilled pizza, while the namesake owners of Frankie’s 457 will team up with Long Island’s grandma pizza legend Umberto Corteo for a slice joint of their own.
Recently, another pizza revolution has been brewing, with many of the city’s most forward-thinking pizzaioli trying their flour-dusted hands at revamping the archetypal New York slice. Like the neo-bistros of Paris, these neo-neighborhood pizzerias champion a similar ethos of toying with traditions and using the highest quality ingredients available while refining their baking and dough fermentation techniques to achieve supernal results. One of the first was Frank Pinello, who opened Best Pizza in Williamsburg nearly a decade ago, kicking off a wave that’s steadily spreading through the five boroughs.
Some, like Coniglio, have dedicated themselves to honoring their dough-tossing predecessors, eager to recreate the definitive pies of their youth yet still embracing experimentation. At nouveau-retro gem Scarr’s on the Lower East Side, the eponymous Scarr Pimentel mills some of the flour for his dough on-site. In South Williamsburg, L’Industrie’s Florentine expat owner Massimo Laveglia takes a different approach, sourcing primarily Italian ingredients but baking and selling his pies in classic NYC fashion.
And then there’s the brothers Bergemann, Mike and Pete, who spent a year testing dough recipes before opening Corner Slice in the Gotham West Market with ramen savant Ivan Orkin. The efforts paid off: their squares are among the finest you’re likely to encounter. Even St. Louis pizza specialists Speedy Romeo have gotten in on the game, launching a late-night gonzo pop-up called Stiletto’s from their Lower East Side location, where you’ll find Provel cheese slices nestled with broccoli or lashed with black truffle ranch dressing.
This fall, “international pizza consultant” Anthony Falco helped Adam Elzer launch Sauce Pizzeria, which serves its slices with little cups of sauce intended for dipping any leftover crusts. An offshoot of Elzer’s Sauce restaurant on the Lower East Side, the East Village shop cranks out phenomenal thin crust pies, pairing textbook cheese and upside-down (cheese first, then sauce) slices with saucers of “Grandmother’s tomato gravy.” The vodka pizza competes with Staten Island’s Joe & Pat’s (which conveniently opened a branch around the corner should you wish to do a taste test), and the homemade sausage is made with heritage pork. An unexpected standout is Elzer’s homage to tacos al pastor – and his past as a onetime partner in Empellon – which brings together chile-rubbed roast pork, pink pickled onions, and roasted pineapple sauce.
A third-generation pizza maker, Frank Tuttolomondo runs the year-old Mama’s Too a block away from his family’s nearly 50-year-old shop Mama’s Pizzeria on the Upper West Side. While he hasn’t strayed far from the nest physically, his pizza is leagues above most of the competition. Like Dom DeMarco of Di Fara, Tuttolomondo blesses his burnished, puffy-rimmed house pies, which sport a collage of aged mozzarella and tomato pulp, with two-year aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. Then come the basil leaves. Falling somewhere between pillowy Sicilian and sturdier Roman pan pizza, his lofty squares are hefty enough to stand up to all manner of toppings, from sauteed crimini mushrooms to fennel-packed sausage braised in red wine.
Fanatic turned prolific pizza pro Paul Giannone opened Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop this past summer in tribute to his favorite childhood pie parlors. There, he and head chef Andrew Brown bake gorgeous, crisp-bottomed rounds and exceptional squares with fragrant sesame seed-paved crusts in a Wes Anderson-level detailed space decorated with black-and-white checkerboard floors, vintage video games, and bright orange formica banquettes outfitted with faux-wood grain tabletops. If Prince Street Pizza’s “spicy spring” is one of the city’s best pepperoni-topped square slices, then Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop’s Hellboy – dappled with hot honey and ‘roni cups so oily they practically sparkle – is surely its triangular, by-the-slice equal.
It’s also worth noting that some of Giannone’s best efforts also happen to be vegan, as with the “supreme” scattered with roasted peppers, fake pepperoni, and Brooklyn-based NUMU mozzarella made from coconut oil, or a square showered with Follow Your Heart vegan parmesan swirled with shimmering pools of caramelized Vidalia onions. It’s a bold move that would probably earn him the ire of his idols – at least until their first bite.