The Perfect Pie
New York pizza

The Ultimate, Everything Guide to New York’s Best Pizza from 1905 to Now

Pizza is serious business in the U.S. city where it all started. From a "pizza police"-run outfit to Jay-Z and Beyonce's favorite, here's where to go for the best NYC pies

If the history of New York pizza were a pie, it’d be sliced just three ways: early 20th century, Post-WWII and the modern era. It all started with Gennaro Lombardi, who opened New York City’s first pizzeria in 1905 in NoLIta. Without access to traditional ingredients such as buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, or a wood-fired oven from his birthplace of Naples, Italy, Lombardi improvised, making chewy, thin-crust pizza topped with local tomatoes and cow’s milk cheese and baking it in a coal oven. He also started slicing up pies into wedges for customers who couldn’t afford a whole one. Thus, New York-style pizza and “the slice” were born. The lineage of many of the city’s best pizzerias can be traced directly back to Lombardi’s as employees of the pizzeria branched out to open other classic coal oven eateries including Totonno’s (Coney Island, 1924), John’s on Bleecker Street (West Village, 1929), and Patsy’s (East Harlem, 1933).

Lombardi's

A pizzaiolo puts a pizza into the oven at Lombardi’s. (Photo: Snazzy54/Flickr)

Lombardi’s (NoLIta, Manhattan, 1905)
New York’s first pizzeria originally served up pies and slices to early generations of Italian immigrants at 53 Spring Street, although it’s long since moved down the block to 32 Spring and expanded. Based on Neapolitan-style pizza, proprietor Gennaro Lombardi created what the world now knows as New York-style pizza—chewy thin-crust pies that are topped with a perfect ratio of fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, which today comes from San Marzano tomatoes. Lombardi’s still bakes classic pies (no slices) in its massive coal oven for huge crowds that flock from all over the world. This cash-only, sit-down restaurant is the picture-perfect example of the New York pizzeria, complete with red checkered tablecloths, a long wooden bar and countless photos of its famous customers lining the walls. 32 Spring St., 212-941-7994, firstpizza.com

Totonno’s (Coney Island, Brooklyn, 1924)
Opened in 1924 by former Lombardi’s piazzolo, Anthony “Totonno” Pero, Totonno’s does one thing and one thing only: makes and sells some of New York’s best pizza. The menu is short but sweet with no slices and no frills, just perfectly charred pies from an old-school coal oven. Totonno’s was hit hard like the rest of Coney Island by 2012′s Hurricane Sandy, but it’s a testament to the city’s die-hard pizza legions that customers are once again crowding into this tiny spot to grab a table. It’s cash-only, and don’t even think of asking the notoriously curt staff for a menu (it’s on a board above the oven). Open Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 8pm with the last seating at 7:30pm. 1524 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn, 718-372-8606

Patsy’s (East Harlem, Manhattan, 1933)
In 1933, after learning the trade during a stint at Lombardi’s, piazzolo Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri and his wife Carmella opened their own pizzeria uptown in East Harlem, where a large Italian population had settled. Though there are six “Patsy’s” in the city, this is the original and it turns out glorious New York-style pizza from an ancient coal oven. Two connected storefronts allow for sit-down service with a larger menu of pizzas and pastas on one side, while a takeout counter next door doles out pies and slices for one of the best prices in town—just $1.75 for cheese. Bring cash as credit cards aren’t accepted. 2287 1st Ave., 212-534-9783, thepatsyspizza.com

 

Di Fara

Domenico “Dom” De Marco serving up a fresh pie at Di Fara (Photo: Paul_lowery/Flickr)

Post-WWII era pizzerias popped up across the city as American soldiers returning home from duty in Italy brought with them a craving for authentic pie. Indeed, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw a new generation of New York pizzerias born and among them came iconic brands, such as the famous Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street (NoLIta, 1959), which has spawned many a copycat over the years. Some of the best NYC pizzerias of that era are still going strong and include Arturo’s (West Village, 1957), Di Fara Pizza (Midwood, 1963), Joe and Pat’s (Staten Island, 1960) and Joe’s (West Village, 1975).

Denino’s Pizzeria & Tavern (Elm Park, Staten Island, 1951)
This Staten Island favorite got its start when Sicilian-born New York immigrant John (Giovanni) Denino opened a tavern in 1937. His son Carlo added pizza to the menu in 1951 when he took over the family business following Giovanni’s death and after his own stint in the U.S. Navy during WWII. Still run by the family, the restaurant turns out a brick oven-baked margherita with a crunchy crust and ample amounts of sauce to pair with the fresh mozzarella and pies topped with any number of ingredients, including meatballs, fresh onions and ricotta as on the signature M.O.R. pie. There’s nothing showy about the interior of the family-friendly Port Richmond Avenue spot, but there is plenty of table seating and a full bar. It’s on Staten Island, of course, so to get there you’ll either need a car or you’ll want to take the Staten Island Ferry and opt for the S44 bus to Hooker Place/Carlo Denino Way or a local cab. And do bring cash as cards aren’t taken here either. 524 Port Richmond Ave., Staten Island, 718-442-9401, deninos.com

Di Fara Pizza (Midwood, Brooklyn, 1964)
No matter the day, you’ll still find owner and legend Domenico “Dom” DeMarco behind the counter making his delicious pizzas by hand. DeMarco immigrated to New York from the Campania region of Italy in 1959 and opened Di Fara in 1964. Since then, he has continually earned a spot on just about every best New York pizza list around. You can’t go wrong with a regular pie or slice, but other favorites include the square pie or anything topped with artichokes. The sometimes hours-long wait is as legendary as the pizza since the crowds never stop coming and DeMarco takes his sweet time crafting each pie—he carefully hand-snips basil and drizzles each pizza generously with olive oil after it emerges crackling from the incredibly hot deck oven. The place is small and homely, with about five tables and well-worn floors, but you can also get whole pies and slices to go, which at $5 for a plain cheese slice are among the most expensive in the city. It almost goes without saying, but cash only here too. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 12 to 4:30pm and 6:30 to 9pm. 1424 Ave. J, Brooklyn, 718-258-1367, difara.com

 

Louie and Ernie's Pizza

The exterior of Louie and Ernie’s Pizza (Photo: Joebeone/Flickr)

The 1980s and 1990s brought a new wave of pizza across the boroughs including Louie & Ernie’s Pizza in the Bronx (1987), Nick’s in Queens (1993), and Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn (1990). Today, pizza is hotter than a direct-from-Italy-wood-fired-oven with new spots seemingly springing up monthly. It is Neapolitan-style pies that most capture the hearts of the fresh-faced piazzolos, and many of the newer pizzerias have gone so far as to build authentic ovens with bricks straight from Naples. They’ve also stretched the boundaries of the traditional pizza by adding creative elements such as vegan sausage, spicy honey and asparagus to pies. Most of the newcomers from the 2000s can be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn and include favorites Lucali (Carroll Gardens, 2006), Roberta’s (Bushwick, 2008), Franny’s (Prospect Heights, 2004) and Paulie Gee’s (Greenpoint, 2010).

Louie & Ernie’s Pizza (Schuylerville, Bronx, 1987)
Pizza lovers gladly make the trek to the Bronx for this classic, cash-only, hole-in-the-wall pizzeria that’s been serving up delicious, old-school pies since 1987. What it lacks in atmosphere, Louie & Ernie’s easily makes up for with piping hot thin-crust, cheesy pies that emerge from its gas oven. The sausage pizza, topped with chunks of fennel sausage made fresh daily at a neighborhood deli, draws praise and visitors from well beyond Schuylerville. Although the seating area is small, that doesn’t deter the friendly locals who consider it a neighborhood hangout. 1300 Crosby Ave., Bronx, 718-829-6230

Nick’s (Forest Hills, Queens, 1993)
Family trips to Totonno’s as a kid helped to shape Nick Angelis’s career choice. After earning a degree in journalism, Angelis decided to ditch newspapers and follow in the footsteps of the great NYC piazzolos. He opened his cash-only Queens pizzeria in 1993 for which pizza aficionados are thankful, as Nick’s turns out some of the city’s tastiest, traditional New York-style pizza from its gas-fired brick ovens. The pies are fresh and classic—thin-crusted, with red or white sauces—while the mozz and sausage are sourced from a Queens pork store. This medium-sized family restaurant has table seating along with a decent selection of beer and wine. There are also locations on the Upper East Side and on Long Island. 108-26 Ascan Ave., Forest Hills, 718- 263-1126

Fornino (Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2004)
A pioneer in bringing Neapolitan-style pies to New York, Fornino has been doling out pizza to the hipsters of Williamsburg long before the neighborhood turned condo. Chef Michael Ayoub uses a wood-fired oven to create thin-crust pies that are divided by pizza generation with the classic margherita from the first generation, a four-cheese from the second and an asparagus and prosciutto from the third. There’s a narrow dining room with exposed brick for in-house dining, but not everyone’s dining in as illustrated by its bustling delivery service. 187 Bedford Ave., 718-384-6004, forninopizza.com

Lucali

Mark Iacono at his pizza shop, Lucali (Photo: Pnoeric/Flickr)

Lucali (Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 2006)
This brick-walled storefront on a tree-lined residential street in Brooklyn may be the most unique and romantic pizzeria in New York. The real magic happens, however, past the cozy, candlelit wooden tables and in the open kitchen where diners can watch as owner and neighborhood stalwart Mark Iacono crafts each pizza by hand, in the spirit of the greats such as Di Fara. His devotion translates into magnificent thin-crust pies cooked in a blistering hot gas- and wood-fired oven, and they’re topped with first-rate ingredients such as sausage from nearby Esposito and Sons Pork store. The no-reservations policy can produce long wait times (although fans Beyonce and Jay-Z always seem to be able to snag a table), but the BYOB format and consistent pies guarantee it a spot on almost everyone’s tops list. Like many of the best, it’s also cash only. Closed Tuesday. 575 Henry St., Brooklyn, 718-858-4086

Keste (West Village, Manhattan, 2009)
There’s real talent behind the Neapolitan stamp at this West Village pizzeria just across the block from John’s. One of the owners, Roberto Caporuscio, is an official member of Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani (also known as the Italian “pizza police”), so you know the pies match the credentials. The modern, hallway-like space is nothing to get excited about, but no matter as the kitchen cranks out one of the best margheritas anywhere thanks to its top-notch ingredients (San Marzano tomatoes, doppio zero flour) and its top-of-the-line wood-fired brick oven. With 40 different pies on offer, including six on gluten-free crust, it’s hard to stop at just one. 271 Bleecker St., 212-243-1500, kestepizzeria.com

Motorino (East Village, Manhattan, 2009)
The original Motorino location in Brooklyn was a huge hit for its quality Neopolitan pies topped with out-of-this world mozzarella di bufala when it opened in 2008, but a tilting building (affectionately dubbed the leaning tower of pizza) forced it to close in 2011. Owner Mathieu Palombino got a break on a new space in Manhattan when foodie favorite Pizzeria Una Napoletana moved shop to San Francisco, leaving its brick oven hand-built with materials from Naples intact. There are only a handful of tables in the sliver of a storefront that’s as popular as the original, so get there early (like 5pm) if you want a seat for dinner, but the best deal is weekdays from 12 to 4pm when a mixed green salad and one pie go for a cool $12. There are delivery and to-go options as well. 349 East 12th St., 212-777-2644, motorinopizza.com

Paulie Gee’s (Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 2010)
Old-school meets new-school at this Greenpoint pizzeria that’s been packing in a young neighborhood crowd since it threw open its doors in 2010. Owner Paulie Gee gave up his day job as a software quality assurance engineer and opened his first pizzeria at the ripe age of 56, and his life-long passion for pizza shows in the consistently terrific rounds. Unusual ingredients such as spicy honey and vegan sausage top the pies that come piping hot from the brick oven he had shipped from Italy, and they’re well worth a trip on the notoriously slow G train. The rough-hewn wood tables, distressed brick walls and low lighting create a warm vibe, but come ready to wait as the pies’ perfection are no secret. Closed Monday. 60 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn, 347-987-3747, pauliegee.com

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