I traveled to NYC for the weekend and managed to stop by Patsy’s Pizzeria on the way to the hotel. As background, I consider Patsy’s to be the finest example of coal-fired elite pizza in the city and perhaps the world.
Lucky for me John, the owner, was there and seemed willing to share his knowledge and history of Patsy’s so I went on a fascinating journey with him. Apparently John was a history major in college and history is his passion. What makes him unique is that he knows very little about pizza, if anything. Unlike most pizzerias, Patsy’s exists due to John’s love of history not his love of pizza. It was a good story for him, and he decided to buy the place. Due to his keen sense of history, Patsy’s is in great hands as a result. John wants to redecorate Patsy’s one day with the original artifacts found throughout the building. He owns nearly the entire block lest the convenience store (which is owned by a Chinese family who got their first break in America by getting a job with Patsy Lancieri many years ago). So he has gobs and gobs of historical artifacts from which to pay tribute to the history of the place. You could sum up his approach as not wanting to change a thing for fear of screwing something up. He wants it to be an original.
Our conversation covered other areas I never thought would be shared. For instance, I had always wondered if the current coal-fired oven was the original so I steered the conversation there. It seemed to be constructed in a way which didn’t look like it came from 1933, the year Patsy’s opened, so I wandered down the uncertain path of questioning the very thing which makes Patsy’s special.
Unfortunately the answer was no. It was not the original. I felt somewhat dejected. Everything about Patsy’s was original except for the one thing that really counted. My mind was racing about how to delicately question the original’s fate. He explained the current oven was located originally in the far left hand side of the building and was relocated to its current position on the far right of the building. “The current oven?" I inquired, "what about the original?”
Much to my surprise, John asked if I would be interested in seeing the original. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it still existed and thanked the heavens I brought my trusty Cyber-shot to memorialize the moment. We went outside and opened up a pair of large metal doors built into the sidewalk, then down a flight of stairs we went leading to the basement.
Ah yes, the basement. It was like hopping into a DeLorean and time warping back to 1933. Every sense I had was yelling that something very special was about to happen. We were guided only by the thin light of John’s flashlight and a mysterious gravitational pull from the rear of the building. It was like I had walked down the hallway a thousand times, yet I am certain I have never been there before. The long and dark corridor featured 6’ high ceilings which were oozing pure history. I swear I could smell the yeasty scent of the Varazano preferment. I was on sensory overload and loving every moment.
We then went through another doorway and John pointed out a true relic to his left - the original pedal operated cheese grater Patsy’s wife used to grate balls of mozzarella. It looked like a cross between a heavy duty Singer sewing machine and a mid-evil torture device. The belt drive had long rotted away but the unit itself was in operable condition. What a sight to see. I had never even imagined such a device even existed. My heart was fluttering with anticipation when John said to look at the back wall. He shined his light along the building’s back wall and asked what I thought. There it was. There I stood at the altar of an original coal-fired NYC pizza oven. I was speechless!
The entire back wall, measuring some twenty feet across, was a brick oven. While words cannot adequately describe my sense of excitement, I Immediately thought of Pepe’s in New Haven. John agreed that Pepe’s is the closest he has ever seen to his mammoth oven. I had to touch the bricks. I had to inspect the inside of the oven. What old world craftsmanship!
The facing bricks were white porcelain and in excellent condition, once you smeared the layers of dirt from their face. The corners featured curved bricks. The inside of the oven was caked with mounds of dirt but the structure seemed intact. John was passionate about his intention of restoring this beast of an oven to its original glory. I have no doubt that one day he will. He thinks it could be a five year project to make all the building changes necessary to run a commercial operation.
He then went on to show another brick oven in the basement of his apartment located next store. This oven was found concealed behind the hot water heater and was blocked over. John, sensing what might lie beyond the cinder block took a claw hammer and revealed the truth. Another brick oven. This oven was not commercial and was perhaps 48” in diameter. It seems as if the entire block had brick ovens. Italians back in the 1930’s, living on 1st avenue, must have cooked everything in a brick oven. A chicken in every pot and a brick oven in every home!
I spent a while longer with John investigating the stuff strewn about his basement. The proudest of which was a picture of his father. It was from 1940. The photo showed his father being awarded the gold medal from the 1940 pre-Olympics. A humble man John explained. He further explained that the 1940 Olympics never came about due to the sober realities of WWII, so his father never got the chance to be the world’s best athlete in his sport.
At this point I had to have a Patsy’s Pizza pie. So we ended our sojourn and went upstairs to the restaurant where I ordered a plain cheese. I ended up adding another slice before whipping out my trusty MT-6 non contact thermometer. John smiled and gently warned me that the oven hadn’t reached its desired operating temperature yet but that it was sufficient for the lunch volume. I learned the oven is fired at about 9am every day and it really takes until 5pm before it reaches full temperature. I measured the oven at exactly high noon. It was discovered that the deck temperature where the pizzaiolo normally bakes the pie (on the far left side which is away from the coal), registered a mere 756 degrees. The ceiling came in at 920 degrees. About halfway from where the pies are normally cooked to the mass of coal measured 837 degrees. In all fairness, the pizzaiolo stated that the temperature was only warm. He claims it takes three minutes to bake a pie when the oven is warm and only 90 seconds when it is hot. He rotates the pie just once whether the oven is warm or hot during the bake so as to not burn one side or the other. He also confirmed that hot is right around 5pm – just before the dinner crowd.
I have pictures of my amazing adventure and trust the membership will enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them. They will be posted upon my return on Monday.