Last week I had a NY pizza marathon here are the places I visited and some notes about each. All pies or slices were plain cheese to try to keep my assessments fair.
I decided to start my trip by enjoying some of the typical street pizza that the city is so famous for. My first stop was Ben's pizza at 3rd and McDougall. This was the classic NY street pizza, with very little sauce and lots of grande cheese. The crust was really great, but a tad airy for me. Overall a really great slice.
On my way to rays pizza I drove past another Ben's pizza, and it was much busier than the first, so I had to try it. I am not sure of the address, but it was very close to the first Ben's and the rays I visited next. All three of the street pizzas I tried were very very similar, but if I had to pick, this Ben's had the slight edge. The crust was a little thicker and chewier than the others, and there was a little more sauce than the other places. Again, Grande mozzarella.
The third slice joint I tried was the Ray's near prince and Mott. This could have been from the first Ben's, it tasted exactly the same, with maybe just a tad more sauce. Once again Grande for sure.
I had planned on only hitting the above three places on my first day, but when I realized that the rays was in the same neighborhood as Lombardi's I had to go. Lombardi's had the most char of any pizzeria I hit all week, but was not brittle at all. They have a really great balance of softness, but with lots of char flavor. I am guessing they had a dough with a higher hydration percentage than most other coal oven places. Also, it seems like their oven has a higher ambient temperature than some of the others. The whole pie chars equally even the top of the crust. Unfortunately compared to many of the other coal oven places the crust was somewhat breadlike possibly from a long mix. The used a cryo pack, or fresh not in water mozzarella, and were a little lighter on the cheese than other coal oven places. Lombardi's was really great, after trying the first three pizzas it was really apparent how much the high heat can help the crust texture and flavor. So much so that I decide to stick to coal/woodfired ovens for the rest of the trip. Lombardi's pizza had more sauce on it than any pie I tried all week. Although the sauce did not taste like san marzano's, it did seem to be an Italian style tomato rather than a California style like escalon or stanislaus.
On day two I decided to make the trek over to Brooklyn to try Grimaldi's since it was my favorite pizzeria from my last NY visit. Again this place did not disappoint. This crust might have been my second favorite of the trip. It is so chewy, light, puffy, and crispy all at the same time. Somehow it is not airy or breadlike. I still can't figure out why this place sometimes gets a bad rap. I would say it had medium to light char. Last time I was there it had quite a bit more char, almost like Lombardi's, so maybe they are a little inconsistent. They use a more cheese than Lombardi's, and a less sauce, which is more splotchy in application. To me this was one of the most balanced pies of the trip. Overall it is a very fresh tasting pie with a really good dough flavor. I could taste the slight tang of fermentation in the crust unlike many of the other coal places. I suspect I got there at the perfect time, just at the end of the lunch batch of dough. When I was walking out there were bags of Blooming Best flour being brought in the door.
Day three, aah day three, If I could only go back in time (or back to NY!). This was a magical day. On day three I had not only the best pizza, but the best food I have ever eaten in my life. I suspect that after trying all of these places I will mostly be visiting Una Pizza Napolitana from now on. I must admit that I think he is charging way to much for these individual sized pies. I can see where many people would be turned off by this. He is only open Thurs through sunday, and only serves pies until the dough runs out. Some people in line were telling stories about the place only really being open for about four hours sometimes. It sure would be nice if the place could stay open a little longer and get the prices down a little, but who am I to complain. I will no doubt return every time I make it to NY. There was a TON of sourdough flavor in the crust. It was somehow incredibly strong, yet so delicate and pleasant at the same time. Everything that went on this pie was the best I have ever tasted. I know realize that I have to go do some serious olive oil taste testing to find something like what Una Pizza uses. I am craving that flavor right now. Totally addictive. Even the basil seemed to be something special, and the buffalo mozzarella was very mild. This pizza was more about the olive oil and basil flavors than the cheese or the sauce. The pies with no sauce and cherry tomatoes were just as good as the sauce pies. Anyone serious about pizza needs to visit this place next time they make it to NYC. I did notice that they removed all the talk on the menu about using the old dough method for dough leavening. I suspect that they may have changed the way they prepare the dough after Marco's visit with Anthony the owner.
By this time the band I was recording got wind of my pizza obsession. Although they were only 18 years old, they had some very strong opinions about pizza. They wanted me to try their favorite place where they grew up in Long Island called Anconas. I knew I was in good hands when two of the guys in the band started arguing with each other about wether pecorino romano, or Parmesan was the appropriate accompaniment to fresh mozzarella cheese on a pie! As it turns out, their Ancona's had the absolute best tasting sauce of the whole trip. They use a cryo pack fresh mozzarella, and have two styles of pie, round and grandma pizza. The grandma is a square Sicilian style pizza with the same fresh cheese, and a different sauce. I did prefer the sauce of the round pie, but they both were great. This place was using gas fired deck ovens, so the crust was much more similar to a typical street pizza than the coal joints.
There is a mini chain called Brooklyn Coal Fired Pizza that is popping up in New Jersey. In Jersey they are still allowed to build new coal fired ovens unlike New York. I tried the Edgewater location and it was really quite good. It was totally on par with all of the famous coal oven places in Brooklyn and NY that I have tried. Their pies seem to be a knock off of Grimaldi's, and I remember reading somewhere that the place does have some loose affiliation. To me the crust was the only real difference, but not by much. It seemed a little closer to the Lehmann doughs that I have made at home when I use the high temps from the cleaning cycle. It could be that it is all the same ingredients as Grimaldi's, but they use King Arthur flour instead of the Blooming Best. One thing I have noticed about this place is that they never really let the pies stay in long enough to get very much char. Some of my friends prefer this lack of char, and like this place better than all the coal oven places for this reason. like Grimaldi's, Brooklyn Coal Fired Pizza had one of the better crusts of the whole trip.
My last day was a big one for pies. I hit Totonno's, Patsy's, and Johnny's on my way out of town. I hit the Totonno's location on the upper east side of Manhattan. All the pies I had on this trip were really good, but if I had to pick, I would say that this was my least favorite crust of the trip as far as the coal oven joints go. They used more cryo pack fresh mozzarella, and WAY more grated cheese than any of the other places, so if you like extra cheese you might really like this place. The dough was actually quite similar to Lombardi's, but even more breadlike. It just didn't seem to have the magic of all the other coal or wood fired pies. This was only my first time here, so I have a feeling I could change my opinion with a few more tries. I have heard really good things about this pizza from people I really trust, so I will give it a second chance.
Just up the street from this Totonnos is the original Patsy's location. I would not have even stopped here if I had not been driving right past it to get out of town. I remembered that they sold slices, and figured I would give it one more try. The last time I was in NY I tried this Patsy's location and my pie was pure black on the bottom. Well, I am sure glad that I gave it a second shot. When I got in I noticed that the pie that was comming out of the oven looked perfectly cooked. It was not Jose making the pies, but one of the new guys. I decided to get a whole pie, as they are so thin and they were really looking good. Now I can say that I totally understand what all the Hype is about. This pie was marvelous. You can tell the cheese and the sauce are not really top quality, but it doesn't hold back the great crust. It is SOOOO thin, and really soft and easily foldable. It almost reminded me of a caputo type neapolitan dough even though I know that it isn't. I could totally see that if they used better ingredients, this could be some of the best pie of all time. Next time I will order my pie with the fresh mozzarella. Overall this was still one of the best pies of the trip.
My last stop was Johnny's in Mt. Vernon NY. Jeff Varasano loves this place, and I can see why. This got the award for being the most addictive pizza (other than Una) of the whole trip. I don't know how they do it, but I could not stop eating this pie, even long after I was stuffed. The crust is wafer thin like patsy's, but because of the lower oven temperatures that are used it is much crunchier,crispier, and almost cracker like. It reminds me of a thinner version of Pepe's in New Haven. The pies are made in a gas oven, but have more char than everything that I tried but Lombardi's. The combination of sauce and cheese is what made this pie impossible to stop eating. The sliced processed cheese sits under the sauce. To me the cheese tasted like Stella brand Whole Milk Mozzarella. I have noticed that Stella tends to burn quite easily, so this could explain why they are putting the cheese under the sauce.