What follows is my review of Lombardi's pizzeria in the Little Italy section of New York City.
By way of background, Lombardi's is one of the best known and most popular pizza establishments in New York City, if not the country. The original pizzeria, believed to be the first in the United States, opened at 53 1/2 Spring Street in 1905, shortly after Gennaro Lombardi emigrated to the United States from Italy. Much later, it closed down but was subsequently reopened at its present location at 32 Spring Street in 1994 when John Brescio, a friend of the Gennaro family, and his wife Joan joined with one of the Gennaro grandsons (now retired) to reestablish the pizzeria. To the best of my knowledge, the Brescio family is still in control. (John Brescio is the one you see in all the TV and cable programs featuring the restaurant).
When I visited Lombardi's (within the past year), I ordered a basic Margherita pizza--as I almost always do when I visit a new pizza establishment for the first time--because of the simplicity of the Margherita pizza. Also as I always try to do, while I was waiting for my pizza I asked the waitperson if I could see the pizza making operations in person. She was happy to oblige and led me to the kitchen area--and the famous, 1905 coal-fired oven--where the pizzas are made. There I met the chief pizza maker, a fellow who said he was from Guatamala. He clearly seemed flattered at the attention I was about to give him.
From the chief pizza maker, I learned that the pizzas made at Lombardi's use a high-gluten flour that is mixed and kneaded with municipal New York City water (which may just be the best tasting municipal water of any major city in the country), a dry yeast, and salt. And no olive oil or sugar or other sweetener. The dough is kneaded for about 15 minutes in commercial mixers, divided into individual dough balls, placed into stackable plastic containers, and placed in the cooler overnight. Once the dough balls have come to room temperature after being refrigerated (also affected by the closeness of the oven), they can be used to make pizzas.
I felt one of the dough balls and found it very pliable and easy to shape by hand. I asked the pizza maker to show me how to make a dough round. He took one of the dough balls, flattened it, dusted it in a pile of bench flour, and then slammed it down on the work surface. Using the palms of both hands, he pressed down hard on the dough while he repeatedly turned it on the work surface, forming a rim in the process. He then slapped the dough between both hands several times and used his knuckles to stretch the dough. I asked him about tossing the dough, and he obliged by tossing the dough high in the air several times, ending with spinning the dough around on one finger. At this point, the dough took the form of a large, thin, diaphanous disk that floated like a cloud. It was also a dead giveaway that the flour was a high-gluten flour. You can't toss doughs made with low-gluten flour, such as 00 flour. From what I saw, I concluded that the ingredients and techniques used at Lombardi's to make the pizza dough were pretty much standard for pizzas made with high-gluten flour.
The Lombardi pizza I saw being prepared was dressed by putting a tomato sauce and cheese and one or more herbs (my recollection is that they were dry) and other standard toppings on the prepared pizza round. The tomatoes used were San Marzano tomatoes, but it was unclear whether the tomatoes were the varietal or simply tomatoes grown in the San Marzano region (which would be cheaper). I was told that the tomatoes were pureed and left in the refrigerator overnight to "marinate". The sauce was not cooked and no herbs were added to the sauce itself. As for the cheese, it was a freshly made cow's milk mozzarella cheese. What surprised me was how firm the cheese was. It was cut into thin rectangular slices much like American cheese slices. I sampled some of the cheese and found it blander than I would have imagined (although some will argue that most mozzarella cheese is bland and should be so). The crust of the baked pizza that was prepared for me (at over 900 degrees F in the coal-fired oven), had a characteristic charred rim and bottom. Surprisingly, the charring did not produce a burnt flavor. A grated cheese, which I identified as a Romano cheese (later confirmed as pecorino Romano), completed the pizza. As an aside, a Neapolitan pizzaolo would have found the use of pecorino Romano cheese blasphemous. Parmiagiano-Reggiano or grana padano, yes. Romano--Never!! In any event, I thought too much tomato sauce and too much grated romano cheese were used on my pizza and overtook the other, more delicate flavors of the pizza. I did enjoy the crust, however, and especially the charred flavor imparted by the high oven temperatures.
I think the Lombardi pizza could have been improved by using a better mozzarella cheese, either a softer cow's milk mozzarella cheese or the buffalo mozzarella cheese, less tomato sauce (or in chunk form) and less grated Romano cheese. Yet, the pizza critics seem satisfied with the way things are. Lombardi's is always is at or near the top of all surveys for the best pizza in New York City.