As someone born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx a slice of pizza represents probably the most common food eaten by anyone who has ever grown up in one of New York’s five boroughs. Of course, Long Islanders are also accustomed to having great pizza because so many Long Islanders moved to Suffolk or Nassau County from the city. The same goes for the rest of the Tri-State area. We laugh at places like Dominos or Pizza Hut because that not’s real New York Pizza. I mean give me a break. And it’s so sad because long before Domino’s Pizza became a household name across North America outside of New York and the Tri-State Area, pizza first made its mark in New York City in the very early 1900s.
History, Sliced Up
While the first North American pizzeria has been credited to Gennaro Lombardi, there is also the story of another immigrant pizza maker from Naples, Italy that has recently challenged this statement. According to Chicago author, Peter Regas, Filippino Milone already had six pizzerias on the go before Lombardi’s opened up shop on 53 1/2 Spring Street.
The story has it that Milone first began in New York City in 1897 before it was officially licensed to sell pizza by New York State in 1905. According to Regas, he discovered an advertisement belonging to Filippo Milone on the May 9, 1903 issue of II Telegrafo. This was a New York City newspaper that catered to the Italian population, printed in their native language. Also according to Regas, the Brooklyn business directories were not very good at records keeping and often failed to pick up Italians as many names were misspelled during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There were also businesses not properly categorized at the time, including mistaking Milone as a pastry chef instead of a pizza pie maker. The pizzeria on the Bronx’s Spring Street is rumored to have belonged to Milano’s employer first, then Milano himself. It then belonged to Giovanni Santillo before Gennaro Lombardi took it over and named it Lombardi’s.
There is the story of Milone working for an Italian immigrant, Giovanni Albano, that moved to New York City from Campania, Italy. It was he and his associates who opened up a series of groceries and restaurants. It was rumored they made and sold pizzas with Milone as their pizza maker. According to Regas, there was an ad for “pizzeria Napoletana” from 1898 that had a connection to an 1894 directory of a possible pizzeria located in Manhattan. Regas believed the first pizzerias were primarily frequented by Italian immigrants before the rest of New York City learned anything about them. As time went on, the name of Milone slipped from public memory. The man had no children to carry on his legacy and his body was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens after he died in 1924.
While sites like Wikipedia credit Lombardi’s pizzeria starting in 1905, Peter Regas has publicly stated as of 2021 otherwise. According to his information, Lombardi was an employee of Giovanni Santillo’s pizzeria before briefly assuming ownership in 1908. He sold it, then repurchased it in 1918 from Francesco D’Errico and ran it until he died in 1958. During this timeline, it was called a few different names before the Lombardi family bought the building in 1939. It has been Lombardi’s ever since. Regardless, it’s the rich history of Lombardi’s that stands out as the earliest and most recognized pioneer of New York City-style pizza. Prior to Lombardi, pizzas were sold as a whole pie. Lombardi’s sold it by the slice, making it more affordable for the customers.
There is also Antonio Totonno Pero, a pizza maker that worked for Lombardi at the time. Back in the day, a slice of pizza pie sold for five cents. Each piece would be wrapped in paper and tied with a string. Totonno remained with Lombardi’s until he opted to open up his own pizzeria on Coney Island in 1924. Like his former employer, he named it after himself, Totonno’s.
Like Lombardi, Totonno became world-famous for his pizza pies. The appeal of their food was selling it cheap enough for everyday workers to pick up a piece on the way to work and eat it for lunch. In 1984, the original Spring Street location of Lombardi’s closed. Gennaro’s grandson, Jerry, reopened it further down the block in 1994 at 32 Spring Street.
Pizza Pop Culture
When pizzerias first began to spring up in New York City, they became a favorite evening hangout for men. After Totonno’s opened up on Coney Island in 1924, the push to win the women over included little signs on the restaurants, welcoming them inside. Starting in the 1930s, the popularity of pizzas began to reach people outside the Italian-American communities, starting in New York City. In 1947, The New York Times posted a prediction if the Americans knew more about pizzas they would become just as popular as hamburgers.
Sure enough, what the newspaper predicted came true as pizzas began to make their way throughout New York and across the nation. In film and television, it was featured in an I Love Lucy episode, as well as on The Honeymooners. There is also Dean Martin’s infamous “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie” quote from his song, “That’s Amore.”
There has been a surge of pizzerias that have sprung up in New York City that compete against each other as the ultimate New York-style pizza of choice. However, Totonno’s on Coney Island still holds the prize as the oldest continuous-running pizzeria in North America. The only time it was closed for business was after Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York City in 2012. After five months of fixing up the place, the doors were opened again. Totonno’s also holds the mantle as one of the best pizzerias to visit and has won a multitude of awards and critical acclaim by even the fussiest food critics. No visit to New York should ever go without sinking your teeth into a piece of Totonno’s sliced masterpiece.
In 1934, the sliced pizza movement got a major jumpstart with Frank Mastro. The immigrant from Italy was a salesman who ran a restaurant supply business on the Bowery. Located in Manhattan, Maestro took a used coal oven and installed a gas line into it. By 1934, the invention of the first-ever gas-fired pizza resulted in what would become an explosion of shops selling pizzas by the slice. He managed to convince the Blodgett oven company to make them for him so he could set up a model pizzeria on the Bowery to convince Italian-Americans to open up their own shops. His marketing strategy worked, even though the pizzas from these ovens were fundamentally different than the ones coming out of coal ovens.
First off, they took longer to cook and were coming out of the oven drier. They also sported darker crusts. However, they had a longer shelf life and were also reheatable. The ones from the coal oven were at their best when eaten fresh out of the oven. Although they could be eaten later, which was often the case as consumers would buy a slice in the morning on the way to work before eating it during their lunch break. By the 1940s, the custom of making pizzas by the slice by gas oven became a big part of the New York-style pizza scene.
In 1947, Louie and Ernie’s opened up a gas-oven pizzeria in Harlem before relocating to the Bronx in 1959. In 1950, J&V Pizzeria opened up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn as a shop that not only specialized in making pizzas but also delivered them. Louie and Ernie’s is still going strong and is a popular fixture in the Bronx’s Pelham Bay section, even after Ernie sold the business to his employees at the time, John and Cosimo Tiso. The brothers have stayed true to the old-school pizza-making methods and have since opened up another location. Cosimo & Johnny’s Pizza is located in Eastchester, New York. Like Louie and Ernie’s, J&V Pizzeria also remains Brooklyn’s answer to the ultimate pizzeria option.
Before the year of 1960 hit, shops selling pizza by the slice were becoming more commonplace in New York. In 1956, New Park in Howard Beach, Queens opened up. In 1957, Brooklyn witnessed the opening of Delmar in Sheepshead Bay. Rizzo’s in Astoria, Queens, sprouted in 1959. Also in 1959, Ray’s Pizza appeared on Manhattan’s Prince Street. Ray’s Pizza on Prince street is now called Prince Street Pizza which serves the most amazing Sicilian pepperoni slice we have ever tasted. Check out the video below to see it up close.
Sliced Golden Age
The pace of pizzerias opening up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s led to what was considered the Golden Age of the Slice. Of all the establishments that have come and gone during this time frame, Brooklyn’s collection of pizza eateries has become and remained the dominant force when it comes to delivering the best New York-style pizzas there is to offer.
Most tourists visit Manhattan and ignore the boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. That’s a shame because that’s where you find the real culture of New York City in the way people live and eat. Still, there are many great pizzerias in Manhattan once you get past the tourist hot spots like Times Square and most of Midtown. It’s in the Village in lower Manhattan and on the upper East side in the neighborhoods where you find some great pizzerias like Zazzy’s, Little Vincents, and many others.
The pizzerias mentioned each have a world-class reputation as a classic slice shop. Not only do they share the award-winning formula as the best New York-style pizzas a foodie can possibly sink their teeth into but also share the same 60s and 70s decor. Mostly wood paneled with a front cutout window where slices are sold, there are also contour booths with bright-orange plastic bench seats and faux-oak countertops. The Tiffany stained glass lamps also add to the charm.
How It’s Sliced
According to the foodies, a genuine New York-style pizza should be sold as a large, hand-tossed crust pizza pie. It should be thick and crisp along the edge while the rest of it soft and thin. This makes it easy to fold a slice of pizza over into a “V” shape while eating it. Traditionally, these pizzas were made with a light layer of tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.
The recipe of the crust used high gluten bread flour that earned its elasticity from the minerals in New York City’s water supply. It is only the New York City-style pizza that bears the closest resemblance to the pizzas sold in Naples, Italy. With an average size of eighteen inches in diameter, a whole pie would normally be cut into eight slices. It is quite different from the majority of North American pizzas elsewhere. Nowadays, pizzas are served with condiment options such as dips, dried red chili peppers, garlic powder, grated Parmesan cheese, and oregano.
They also now come as large as a twenty-four-inch pie and offer extra topping options according to an eater’s preferences. Speculation has also suggested chefs demanding the closest thing they can get to an authentic New York-style pizza will import the city’s water. They believe it serves as the key ingredient that makes this iconic food item so special. Speaking of ingredients, if you’re expecting to find pineapple or ziti as a topping on your pizza, this would be considered an insult to the New York-style pizza.
There are also square-shaped pizzas that are referred to as Sicilian slices that have also become a New York City staple. However, this is quite different from an authentic pizza from Sicily. As far as a food-loving New Yorker is concerned, as long as it tastes good, that’s what matters most. No other region can serve up a genuine New York-style pizza as NYC can. Even as new variations come about, there are little tricks done by the top pizzerias throughout New York City that keep them ahead of the competition.
One of the newest kids on the pizzeria block, Best Pizza, has managed to revolutionize New York-style pizzas even further from its Williamsburg, Brooklyn location. This began in the year 2010 as a cheffy-style slice shop that has served as a throwback to the classic slice places of old. This includes using the wood-burning oven method that originally made New York-style pizzas so popular in the beginning. Shops like Best Pizza represent what’s currently being deemed as the Second Golden Age of the Slice.