Cutting fresh basil on a pizza at Di Fara in Brooklyn (Photo: Carey Reilly)
Who doesn’t have a love affair with those three simple ingredients; dough, sauce, and cheese? I’ve never met a pizza I didn’t love, Sicilian, Neapolitan, New York City-style, pepperoni, fresh mozzarella — you name it, I’ll eat it. When I was in high school I even got a job working at a Little Caesars pizzeria, hoping it would cure my obsession, but it only made it worse (and I gained 15 pounds).
Now, I am lucky enough to live right outside of New York City, the epicenter of the best pizza in the world. So a few weeks ago I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to pile my family and friends into my minivan and explore New York’s pizza landscape?”
When I told my husband, his eyes lit up — he had so many NYC landmarks he’d always wanted to try — and my kids were thrilled! They’re little foodies who love pizza and love giving their opinions. My friends Rob and Kim caught wind of our day trip and pulled up in their car, saying, “Let’s gooooooo!”
Off we went with our curious tastebuds and growling stomachs on a weekend excursion, following our own little makeshift pizza tour. Now, I’m not a food critic or a chef so I wasn’t surprised when a manager at one pizzeria challenged me, “What are your credentials for judging pizza?” I told him, “Credentials? Ah… I’m a human being? Come on doesn’t everyone have an opinion on pizza?”
My friend Anthony Fiorentino certainly has an opinion: he’s a third-generation pizza maker and pizza consultant. His advice: “A great pizza is all in the dough; the water used should be from Brooklyn. There’s something about that Brooklyn water.”
This Bensonhurst native’s other tip: “A good crust should be crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle; the slice should be able to stand up when I lift it, not flop over.”
We took Fiorentino’s advice and headed out to some of the city’s best-known and not-so-known pizza joints. Is this a tough job or what?
DAY ONE: Staten Island and Brooklyn
Denino’s clam pie (Photo: Krista/Flickr)
First stop: Staten Island!
Most people refer to the pizzerias in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but you don’t hear as much about the places in Staten Island. I’ve only been to SI a few times and never thought to add it to our tour until my friend Rob said, “Come on! We have to go to Deninos and Joe and Pat’s!”
Boy, was he right. From New Jersey it took us about 25 minutes to get to Denino’s in Staten Island (from lower Manhattan, it’s an easy ferry ride, then a short walk). This family-owned Staten Island standby has been around since 1937 but only slinging pies since 1951. We tried their cheese pie and the M.O.R. pie (meatball, fresh onion, and ricotta). The cheese pie was crunchy, with a superb amount of sauce and stringy mozzarella. The M.O.R. pie was a delicious mix of sweet onions with a lightly spiced meatball covered in creamy ricotta cheese. This was my husband’s favorite, and it naturally made him ask for M.O.R… sorry couldn’t resist.
My children loved the video games in the lobby and the cheese pizza. It was tough for them to understand that they couldn’t eat a second slice. I tried to teach them that we had to pace ourselves, as we had a long day of pizza tastings ahead of us.
The simple offerings at Joe and Pat’s (Photo: Carey Reilly)
Our next stop on the tour, Joe and Pat’s Pizzeria, is not even two miles away from Denino’s. And it’s worth the trek to try this tasty pie. This family-owned and operated pizzeria is known for its thin and crispy variety. The sauce is light and sweet, with a perfectly baked cracker-like crust. If you want to eat a couple of slices without feeling like an Oompa Loompa, this is the place for you. There’s a comfortable dining room with table service. Or you can just grab a slice to go at the counter.
Next up: BROOKLYN!!!!!
We piled back into the car and drove about 20 minutes to one of Brooklyn’s greatest hotspots: L&B Spumoni Gardens.
The author and her children at L&B Spumoni Gardens (Photo: Carey Reilly)
This fourth-generation Brooklyn landmark is popular with most New Yorkers. Originally, L&B’s products were peddled by horse and carriage through the streets of Brooklyn, which explains their logo. L&B’s Sicilian-like pizza sits on the outer spectrum of the pizza wheel. The square pies have a chewy, focaccia-like crust thick enough to handle gratuitous amounts of tomato sauce. The mozzarella is layered first on the crust, then the sauce, then it’s finished with a sprinkling of Sharp Pecorino Romano cheese.
We took our pie to go and ate on one of the outdoor tables, which wasn’t ideal in the cold weather. But who cares because the children LOVED this saucy square pie. I was licking my fingers and ate two slices.
After L&B, the pizza started to weigh on me. We almost thought we should call it a day. But we knew the day wouldn’t be complete without sampling one of the oldest pizzerias in NYC: Totonno’s of Coney Island. After only a few more minutes in the car we were there.
The classic exterior of Totonno’s (Photo: Carey Reilly)
To-to-nno’s… the name rolls right off your tongue. This family-owned pizzeria located a few blocks from Coney Island Amusement Park and the NY Aquarium has been open for over 85 years. This landmark has only been closed twice in the last decade: in 2009 due to a fire and again in 2012 because of Hurricane Sandy. The ingredients are simple but made-to-order in a coal-fired brick oven; the owner even told me she has the mozzarella crafted by a secret supplier. The earthiness of the brick oven can be tasted throughout the charred crust. The perfect amount of sauce is applied and the “secret” cheese is delish. I’m still thinking about this slice of heaven, I mean, pizza. It’s no wonder Totonno’s won a James Beard American Classics Award in 2009.
About four miles north of Totonno’s you will find one of Brooklyn’s culinary landmarks, hailed by many as the best pizza ever: Di Fara Pizza.
Dom Demarco at the controls of Di Fara (Photo: Carey Reilly)
The owner and pizza master of the Di Fara empire is Dom Demarco. He is the only person who makes the pizza at this Midwood landmark. Because Dom makes each pie himself, you could wait over an hour for a slice that will set you back $5. We arrived at 1 p.m. and there were only a few people ahead of us. It took me about 25 minutes to get a slice, but I enjoyed watching Dom make pizzas behind the counter. It was like watching Picasso paint.
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Difara — topped with green basil (Photo: Carey Reilly)
Demarco crafts each pie with skill and precision. The thin, crispy crust is perfectly seasoned with salt, San Marzano tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. After the pizza comes out of the oven, Demarco chops fresh basil and drizzles Italian olive oil on top. There few tables inside were taken and it was crowded, so we took our slices to go. The kids still ask me: “Can we go to that place again with the green stuff on the pizza?”
This is one of the best slices I’ve ever tasted.
Five pizzerias and four hours later we were all pooped and had lost our friends Rob and Kim, who were too full to continue. However, we knew we wanted to try the old Brooklyn gem, Grimaldi’s, which is right under the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo.
Pizza joy at Grimaldi’s (Photo: Carey Reilly)
You’ll recognize Grimaldi’s by the line of people waiting outside. When we arrived, it was 5 p.m. and my kids were exhausted, tired of riding in the car, and ready to head home. So I called and in 20 minutes got a pie from Grimaldi’s to go. Grimaldi’s best asset is its dough: it’s made twice a day and cooked in a 1200-degree brick coal oven heated by 100 pounds of eco-friendly coals. With the first bite, you’ll recognize the appeal: the creamy mozzarella pairs perfectly with the bright tomato sauce.
DAY TWO: Manhattan
The artichoke pie at Artichoke Basille’s (Photo: Carey Reilly)
Our next day of pizza touring started at Artichoke Basille’s Pizza in Chelsea, which opened fairly recently (2008). It’s in a great location right off the High Line and next to Chelsea Market. I ordered the namesake, the Artichoke Pizza. My slice was so huge it could have easily fed two hungry eaters. This hearty slice is chuck full of artichoke hearts, spinach, cream sauce, mozzarella, and pecorino Romano cheese. It’s like a very rich artichoke dip poured onto a pizza, minus the tortilla chips. Thick, rich, and creamy, the hearty crust holds the weight of its hefty toppings and leaves you very full. My husband — who is a big guy — could barely finish one slice.
Just six blocks south of Artichoke is a place that reminds me of a slice I used to get in college after a night out on the town, Village Pizza.
Village Pizza — nothing fancy (Photo: Carey Reilly)
No coal brick ovens or hundred-year lineage at this classic New York-style pizzeria. This pizza is cooked in a regular gas oven. The crust is crispy, yet thick enough to be a little doughy. The sauce is well seasoned and there’s lots of cheese on this pie. At just a few dollars a slice, the price is right. We each grabbed a slice and headed to the park across the street and chowed down. My son loved the generous amounts of cheese and that you could fold the slice perfectly for eating. Afterward, we walked just a few blocks south to Magnolia Bakery and enjoyed a sugary sweet cupcake.
We then headed just a half a mile south to an old neighborhood mainstay, John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker.
John’s, a Village mainstay since 1929 (Photo: MsSaraKelly/Flickr)
Family-owned and operated, this place has been around since 1929. The dining room is comfortable and warm, a perfect place to take your family. John’s has perfectly mastered cooking a thin, crispy crust without too much of a brittle crunch. The sauce tasted like it was just picked off the vine. The fresh mozzarella was placed on the pie in perfect proportion. The manager told me they pride themselves in using only the freshest of ingredients. He also said that they coal-fired brick oven helps achieve that delectable crust.
Not far from John’s is Lombardi’s, the oldest pizzeria in America. We really wanted to try it, but with my family in tow the line was just too long. So I asked my friend Ken, who lives in the neighborhood, if he could recommend another place. He said, “L’Asso has amazing pizza.” So off we went to L’Asso on Mott Street.
The exterior of L’Asso (Photo: L’Asso/Facebook)
Missing Lombardi’s was worth it when we bit into L’Asso’s light and crispy crust. This Mott Street favorite is a hit, thanks to its zippy tomato sauce and dollops of fresh mozzarella baked to a perfect crispness in a brick wood-burning oven that glows like a fireplace. The dining room is dimly lit, creating a cozy place to relax with the family.
So there you have it: my family’s two-day pizza tour of New York City. Of course, we could only hit so many pizzerias in a matter of two days — and I know there were some major heavy hitters we missed that we’ll hit on our next tour.
Heading out on a pizza tour of your own? I would suggest you pick just three pizzerias at a time. Call ahead so that you know which places sell whole pies or slices. And bring lots of cash, since most of these places don’t accept credit cards. Eat pizza and be merry!
Catch Comedian Carey Reilly at www.notsoskinnymom.com. Reilly has served as a judge on Food Network’s Rewrapped. She is currently the creator and host of www.ulive.com’s new show, Dear Buddha. She hosted How Are You So Sexy? for Berman Braun’s 3v Channel. She conducts celebrity interviews for Aol.com and is a recurring comic/contributor on NBC’s Today Show, VH-1, HLN’s Showbiz Tonight, and The Joy Behar Show, as well as being a guest on The Wendy Williams Show. She has also contributed to InTouch Weekly and US Weekly.
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