New York Pizza: What Makes It So Special?

Eating real New York pizza is an iconic food experience that almost everyone tries while visiting. And there’s nothing like it. The crust, the sauce, and the overall experience are truly one of a kind…

If you go somewhere good…

As soon as you enter the city you’ll be overwhelmed with pizza options on virtually every block. Most will claim to be the first, the best, or in some way better than everything else out there.

Most are not, of course, but you’ll struggle to separate the imitators from the real deal.

Well, we’re going to help you with that.

(If it’s your first time in the city and you want to know about more than New York pizza, be sure to check out our intro.)

You’ll learn:

  • What New York style pizza is all about
  • A little New York pizza history
  • Our recommendations

Why You Should Start With The Classics

Pizza started in NYC and remains an important part of the culture. These old-school pizzerias will give you of the early immigrant community that’s so profoundly shaped the city. Many have stayed at their original location and gone out of their way to maintain the traditional atmosphere.

You’ll also taste fantastic pizza. Stepping into one of these old shops where everything is made fresh by hand will teach you what great New York style pizza should taste like.

What is New York pizza?

Each pizzeria has its own style, but generally, New York pizza has a thin crust and is cooked in a coal-fired oven at a very high temperature. The crust is crispy on the outside but softer toward the middle.

The crust has a slightly bitter taste, which is balanced out by the sweetness of the tomato sauce.

When cut into slices, each slice will flop down near the point so you should fold it in half to keep the tip from falling down. This will give you extra sauce and cheese in the middle which leads to a flavor explosion in your mouth.

What about the water?

NYC tap water is another important part of the taste.

It’s been called the Champaign of tap water, due to its natural source in the Catskill mountains. Water is piped into the city using a gravity-based tunnel system. The natural source gives the water a unique mineral composition, which is why it makes such great pizza.

The water is so important that some pizzeria’s in other parts of the world actually import city water to recreate the taste.

Slice or pie?

Most of the best pizzeria’s do not serve slices. There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, the best pizza is served in whole pies only. This guarantees that it’s always fresh.

This is extremely important because fresh pizza tastes so much better than reheated pizza, but serving fresh pizza in individual slices is very difficult. Usually, a large amount of pizza ends up sitting under a heat lamp until someone orders it. Then, it’s put back into the oven to be reheated.

A Little Pizza History

Pizza first came to the United States in the early 1900’s and in 1905, Lombardi’s got the first license to make and sell pizza. It was the oldest continually operating pizzeria until 1984 when it closed. It reopened ten years later, but Papa’s Tomato Pies, in Trenton, New Jersey, is now the oldest.

Back in the early 1900’s, Lombardi’s was in the heart of what’s now Little Italy. They served the Italian immigrants in the neighborhood.

After WWII, demand for pizza grew as soldiers who tried it during the war wanted it back home. They started going to traditional pizzerias and started new ones. This demand spread all over the country.

Now, here’s what’s interesting about Lombardi’s…

Not only did they introduce pizza to New York City through their pizzeria, but they also spurred the growth of others throughout the city as employee’s left and opened their own shops. Totonno’s, on Coney Island, John’s, in Greenwich Village, and Patsy’s in East Harlem were all started by former employees of Lombardi’s.

(For more pizza history, here’s a great article from Serious Eats and one from the NYTimes)

The Original’s

Lombardi’s started it all and is still going strong. After their ten year absence, they’ve come back and become one of the most famous pizza joints in the city. Their pies are still fresh, simple, and cooked in a coal-fired oven.

Totonno’s is a bit doughier than the others, but it’s fantastic and unique. The location on Coney Island makes them stand out even more compared to the Manhattan shops. Put this all together and you get one of the best shops in the city for anyone willing to make the trip.

John’s Of Bleecker Street, started by a former Lombardi’s employee, is going strong, too. They still are in their original location and making pies in a similar style.

Patsy’s is the third of Lombardi’s former employees and their claim to fame is the slice. While most old-school pizzerias only offer whole pies, Patsy’s offers both and claims to be the first place to do so.

Which pizzeria should you choose?

New York pizza: Totonno's (C)EatTalkTravelWe’ve already narrowed this down to the pizza essentials and all of them are fantastic, but if you can only choose one, we recommend Totonno’s.

But, be aware that it’s quite a trip to get out there. Coney Island is the last stop on the F train, so if you’re in Manhattan it may take you an hour to get out there.

But, that’s also part of the appeal. While the others have gotten more touristy over the years, Totonno’s has kept things mostly the same and their out of the way location makes them more of an effort to try. They still get their fair share of tourists, of course, but not compared to the others.

The place is small, the hours are limited, and you shouldn’t expect cheerful service. They just make simple, fantastic pizza the same way they have since the 1920’s.

Whether it’s worth the trip to Coney Island is up to you, but do yourself a favor and start with one of these classic pizzerias:

32 Spring St.
New York, NY 10012
Sun-Thurs 11:30-11PMFri-Sat 11:30-Midnight
278 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
Sun-Thurs 11:30-11PMFri-Sat 11:30-Midnight
1524 Neptune Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11224
Thurs-Sun Noon-8PM
2287 First Ave
New York, NY 10035
Mon-Sat 11-MidnightSun 11-11