A Slice of New York Pizza History
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about pizza over the past several months. True, I spend a lot of time thinking about pizza as a matter of course, but the last few months have been different. I and my like-minded pizza-nerd friends, Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener, have been working on a definitive list of the best places to enjoy a slice of pizza in New York City and, in the process, have sought to determine what, exactly, the state of the NYC pizza slice is in 2018.
As we traveled all across town to hit pizza spots, and as we discussed our findings, including in three episodes for my podcast, Special Sauce, I realized just how much of NYC slice lore is apocryphal. I came to this realization in no small part because of Scott, whose idea of a good time is digging up old NYC Department of Finance tax photos featuring pizzerias. As Scott said in one episode of the podcast, he, and people like me and Adam, in our slice zealotry, have inadvertently peddled some of this apocrypha as if it were true.
So we decided to write up a brief history of the NYC slice before we put out our list of the slice shops that define the current slice era. Some of what you find written below may contradict things we’ve said in the past, collectively and individually, but we’ve done our best to give a general picture of how the New York City pizza slice evolved over the years, using the best of our current knowledge on the subject—all without introducing more confusion. Let’s go!
A Slice Timeline
At the beginning of the 20th century, pizza in New York was cooked in massive coal-fired masonry ovens originally built to bake bread. Lombardi’s, which claims 1905 as its founding date, making it allegedly “the first pizzeria in America,” used this type of oven at its first location at 53½ Spring Street, and still uses one in its present-day spot down the street.
Why coal? According to Scott, bakers used hard coal instead of wood to heat their ovens, which hit temperatures in the range of 800 to 1,000°F (427 to 538°C), because it took up less space and burned more efficiently.
By the 1920s, Scott says, smaller coal ovens were available with stainless steel frames and used for small bread-baking operations and pizza-making. Totonno’s and John’s—two of New York’s early seminal pizzerias, both opened by Lombardi’s alumni (in 1924 and 1929, respectively)—use this type of oven.
But the pizzas that were being baked in coal ovens were all sold whole, with perhaps one exception—Patsy’s in East Harlem, which uses a steel-frame coal oven and claims to have sold pizza by the slice around the neighborhood since its founding in 1933. We say “perhaps,” because Scott says he hasn’t seen any concrete evidence for that claim. Scott says he’s also read accounts of whole-pie places, like Lombardi’s, selling partial pies if customers were strapped for cash.
Nevertheless, whole pies were the norm at the time because coal-oven pizza, cooked at high temperatures and for a relatively short time, is best eaten quickly, since it tends to get tough and chewy after it’s cooled down. This was pre-slice-culture pizza, designed to be eaten hot out of the oven.
The slice movement really got its jump-start with an Italian immigrant named Frank Mastro, a consummate salesman who ran a restaurant-supply business on the Bowery. After buying a used coal oven, he installed a gas line in it and began playing around with baking pizza. By 1934, Mastro had invented* the first of the gas-fired pizza ovens that we now see in countless slice shops today, and had convinced the Blodgett oven company to manufacture them for him. Mastro even set up a model pizzeria on the Bowery to sell Italian-Americans on the concept of opening their own shops.
* That we know of Mastro at all is largely thanks to the work of Norma Knepp and Walter Tore, longtime OG Slice readers and community members. Norma and Walter met Mastro’s daughter, Madeline Mastro Ferrentino, and recorded her telling of the tale, which later helped shape the article about Mastro in PMQ magazine.
This oven was the slice-culture catalyst, because it produced pies that were fundamentally different from coal-oven pizza. Scott described the phenomenon this way on Special Sauce: “Suddenly the max oven temperature drops by 400°F. So now that you’re in the 500-to-550°F range, the pizzas take longer to bake and are baking up drier. But they also have a longer shelf life because more of the water is cooked out. So they’re reheatable. Pizza by the slice is—has to be—reheated most of the time. So that oven is a big deal.”
But attaching exact dates to the ascendancy of non-coal pizza by the slice is difficult because little hard evidence exists. It’s a safe bet that the custom of making pizzas specifically to sell by the slice began in the 1940s, thanks to Mastro’s 1934 oven.
Indeed, it was in the 1940s that some of the classic slice shops we know today began to appear, like Nunzio’s on Staten Island, which my book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven documents as having sold slices as early as 1943. Or Louie and Ernie’s, which opened in Harlem in 1947 before moving to the Bronx in 1959. And maybe even L&B Spumoni Gardens—one account dates the pizzeria part of the operation to 1942. In 1950 in Bensonhurst, J&V Pizzeria opened, which second-generation owner Joe DeGrezia says was among the first, at least in Brooklyn, to sell by the slice and even deliver it.
By the late 1950s, slice shops had become more and more common. Now on the scene: New Park in Howard Beach, Queens (1956); Delmar in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn (1957); Rizzo’s in Astoria, Queens (1959); and what’s now regarded as the actual, original Ray’s Pizza, on Prince Street in Manhattan (also 1959).
Growth continued apace in the 1960s and ‘70s, during what many lucky enough to be around at the time consider the First Golden Age of the Slice:**
- 1960: Joe & Pat’s (Castleton Corners, Staten Island)
- 1960: Elegante (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn)
- 1960: Gloria Pizza (originally in Flushing, Queens; recently reopened in Forest Hills, Queens)
- 1964: NY Pizza Suprema (near Penn Station on Eighth Avenue and 31st Street in Manhattan)
- 1964: Di Fara (Midwood, Brooklyn)
- 1965: Sal’s, later renamed Sal & Carmine’s (Upper West Side, Manhattan)
- 1966: DaVinci (Bensonhurst, Brooklyn)
- 1966: Pizza Wagon (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn)
- 1967: Krispy Pizza (Dyker Heights, Brooklyn)
- 1973: Luigi’s (Park Slope, Brooklyn)
- 1973: Nino’s (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn)
- 1975: Joe’s Pizza (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)
- 1976: Full Moon (Arthur Avenue, the Bronx)
** We say “first,” because we believe we’ve entered another golden age. Stay tuned for our forthcoming list of the NYC slice shops, both classic and modern, that make the case for us.
All of these places are what we now would think of as “classic slice shops,” and many of them were similarly decorated: wood paneling, a window out front from which slices were sold, Plymold contour booths with bright-orange plastic bench seats and faux-oak tabletops, Tiffany-style stained-glass lamps, and a small display of the different slices on offer—not a piece of pineapple or ziti-topped slice in sight.
The pies, too, were largely the same, possessed of attributes that we now consider standard for the classic New York slice: discrete areas of sauce and cheese, applied with a measured hand; a darker crust due to the longer bake time; a lightly seasoned, uncooked tomato “sauce” (really, crushed tomatoes with salt), often spiked with oregano; maybe a little Romano cheese sprinkled over the top for extra tang.
Between these classic shops, though, there are small variations, the kind of nuances that make a slice stand out from its peers. The most obvious example is Di Fara, since from the beginning Dom De Marco finished his slices with snips of fresh basil and dried oregano and used four different kinds of cheese on his slices, including buffalo-milk mozzarella. (Alas, he no longer does this, but instead uses low-moisture mozzarella and sprinkles on a mixture of Romano and Parmesan right at the end, and his slices are still pretty damn fine.)
But there are other examples: New Park’s method of salting the oven floor leads to some standout slices, if you can get the right pie at the right time; Pizza Suprema opts for a super-sweet sauce (which owner Joe Riggio swears contains no sugar); Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island combines vodka sauce with a cracker-thin crust on its most popular slice.
The amount of diversity contained under the umbrella of the classic New York slice is what made that era a golden age. By the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed that the evolution of the slice had stopped. Or should we say the slice devolved? In any case, slice places popped up on every corner, with nothing to differentiate one from another. Pizzerias started blanketing their pies with excessive amounts of bad mozzarella, and canned pizza sauce became ubiquitous, as did cardboard-like crusts made with inferior flour.
The era of the dollar slice, in the mid-2000s, further undermined the genre; slice places started using low-quality or near-expiration ingredients to keep costs low. Dollar-slice shops flourished after the Great Recession of 2008, as shops were able to pick up favorable leases in the down market—a market that also made their low prices appealing.
But it was also around the height of the dollar-slice proliferation that we saw the debut of what could be seen as its opposite. The first cheffy slice shop, Best Pizza, opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2010, and it was in many ways a throwback to the classic slice places of old. More attention was paid to the ingredients and how the pies were constructed, and deviations from the standard were made not with an eye to the bottom line, but with the idea of improving upon lessons learned from pizza-makers and bread-bakers of yore.
For us, Best Pizza typifies what we’ve come to think of as the slice “revivalists”—the shops that have resurrected pizza-making as an art and a craft, but often with their own educated spin on the product. The shops in this category, combined with the continued dedication of long-established classic-slice stalwarts, are what make this current moment a particularly great time in history to be eating a slice in New York. In our next installment, we’ll give you our full list of the shops that prove it—including the new-school revivalists, the stalwarts, and a few underappreciated neighborhood favorites for good measure.
Additional reporting for this piece provided by Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener.
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