The New York Pizza
Ever since Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzeria in the United States in the Little Italy neighbourhood of New York City, the New York style of pizza has grown into a global phenomenon unique in its flavour, detached from its Neapolitan origins.
From that first pizza place in 1905, the city now has close to 500 pizzeria's operating in the city. So what makes New York pizza so different? Firstly, there's a standardised size, 18 inches in diameter, secondly it uses a high gluten type of bread. I've tasted pizza in many parts of the world, but the New York style is definitely one of my favourites, in fact, I had a boss who would come from Washington DC, just for the pizza! So what else could make New York pizza so special? Some say its the evolution of the pizza through Gennaro Lombardi (many successful NYC pizzeria's can trace their origins directly to his pizza place), others say its the unique concentration of minerals in New York's famously high quality tap water.
Whatever the reason, you are never more than a couple of blocks from a good pizza place, and during my time in New York, I made it a mission to visit some of the best pizzeria's the city has to offer. After all of that, here are, in my opinion, the 5 best pizza places in New York City.
If you want the best pizza in New York, chances are you won't find it in Little Italy but places like the West Village or Greenwich Village. That's exactly where two of my favourite pizzeria's are.
Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street is your classic New York pizza place and has regularly been voted the best in the city. Small and unassuming, there is almost always a line in this cash only establishment which is over 30 years old. As with most classic New York pizzeria's, you can order by the slice, and the margarita pizza is very, very good. It's still independently owned, and has only one location in the city. There's a reason it is known as a Greenwich Village institution, but people come from all over the city (and world) to try it out.
Just down the road is John's pizza. Unlike Joe's, this pizzeria doesn't do pizza by the slice, but that doesn't make it any less good, or any less busy. Using coal fired ovens, John's of Bleecker Street (which is the one that I visited) makes some fantastic pizza's, however be prepared for a wait, no matter what time of the week you visit.
Just north of Spring Street, located in NoLita is Rubirosa, It has a menu more diverse than just pizza, but the pizza that it does is magnificent. It's thin crust pizza is not only competitively priced compared to others on the list, but is also very tasty, and definitely deserves an honourable mention. It can get a little loud and crowded on the evenings, but it has an energy unmatched when compared to some of the other pizzeria's.
If you want a really cheesy pizza, a visit to the orthodox Jewish run Bravo pizza in the financial district is well worth the time for their cheese and tomato pizza.
5. Lombardi's, Little Italy/NoLita
It's the granddaddy of New York pizza places, and arguably the most famous. Located in the NoLita district, just north of Little Italy, Lombardi's has been a New York institution since 1905. It's the pizza place that put New York on the world map when it comes to pizzas and it retains an appeal for both tourists and locals. It was both the first pizzeria in New York and also the first in the entire United States.
Put it this way, a number of pizza places on this list owe their place thanks to Lombardi's. John's, Juliana's and Grimaldi's can all trace their roots back to Lombardi's. Their founders learnt the tricks of the trade in this venerable pizzeria and to this day Lombardi's makes fantastic pizzas. Little did Gennaro Lombardi know what he was creating over 100 years ago; and the influence he would have when he first opened this restaurant.
Timing is everything, as queues can be long and form quickly (although they are shorter than the two pizzerias ranked first and second on my list). The service was a little slow, but the pizza was extremely good (if not a little burnt). Unlike some of the other places listed here, you can only buy a whole pie and not individual slices. The clam pizza is perhaps the establishment's most famous and it is a uniquely delicious pizza - unlike anything I had tasted before. The clam and lemon gave it a zesty flavour that wasn't too overpowering. I'm particular when it comes to pizza (having spent 5 years working in a pizza place myself) and I'm against strong flavours (I hate pineapples on pizza), but this worked very well.
I liked the building itself. It's old but also quirky. It has a great history, but doesn't seem to take itself too seriously (notice the large Mona Lisa out front).
Is it still the best pizza place in New York? That's arguable and for me it falls slightly short of some of the others on the list. But for its history, the undoubtable mark it has made on NYC and the number of pizzerias it has inspired and directly influenced, it certainly is worth the visit.
4. Picasso's Pizza, Battery Park
(Best for takeaway pizza)
The only entrant in the top 5 that does pizza by the slice, Picasso Pizza is also the best takeaway pizza that I have ever had. You can choose from a large selection of crusts (something most of the others in this list do not allow), and the bases tend to have a crispiness that I like. In fact, when it comes to the variety of options, this pizzeria might be the best on the list.
Unlike some of the more famous names on this list, there is hardly ever a queue and the Battery Park restaurant is also in a very nice part of the city, so there is plenty to do in the vicinity. Importantly, it's also one of the cheapest on this list.
Where this place really shines is when it comes to takeaways. As soon as a pizza leaves a restaurant it begins to deteriorate. Sometimes it loses its structural integrity, perhaps it gets too cold, the cheese begins to solidify and at times ingredients just fall off. I had many deliveries from Piccaso, and each time they were delivered to a good standard. It was leaps and bounds better than most pizza deliveries I had in New York.
Now, don't get me wrong. It's not perfect. They tend to go overboard with ingredients and it can be a bit much. The piling on of ingredients affects the texture of the pizza as well. The fact that they do it by the slice also means the pizza itself is never going to taste as fresh as somewhere like John's or Lombardi's or Juliana's where pizzas are made to order.
That being said, for variety, value for money and consistency of good pizza, there aren't many places in New York better than this. I would definitely recommend trying their buffalo slice.
3. Artichoke Basille's Pizza, Chelsea
Compared to some of the old and venerable institutions on this list, Artichoke Basille's is very much the disruptor. Unlike most of the others I've written about that have a southern Italian connection, this pizza place was founded by a couple of guys from Staten Island. But don't let that history fool you. In a very short space of time, Artichoke Basille's has become one of the 'must visit' pizzerias in New York City.
I visited the second of their many restaurants and the first to feature sit down seating. Located in Chelsea, just a short walk from Chelsea Market and under the shadow of the Highline, the first thing I noticed is just how different this pizzeria was. It certainly wasn't your traditional New York pizza place. A host greets you at the door and as I walked in I noticed the restaurant also had a bar where customers could sit and drink. You'd never find that in some of the older Italian inspired restaurants.
As with most others in this list, you can't purchase pizza by the slice, however you can buy a pizza wedge. Cost wise, it was fairly expensive, with most pies costing over $30. The service from seating to leaving was very good though, and the pizza's arrive relatively quickly.
It's the pizza itself where this restaurant scores most highly. It has a firm base and a good (but not exceptionally large) variety of toppings. It was ever so slightly soggy which let it down a little bit, but on the whole it was one of those meals where I wondered how I was going to eat a whole pizza and the next thing I know its gone.
I won't lie, at times, it felt a little too smooth, a little too corporate. It lacked the rustic charm of Grimaldi's, the history of Lombardi's or the value for money of Piccaso's. But that being said, there is a reason this franchise is expanding at a rapid pace and why it consistently ranks highly in NYC pizzeria lists. If you're taking a walk down the Highline, then definitely visit Artichoke Basille's.
2. Juliana's, Brooklyn
The Juliana's v Grimaldi rivalry is something that most New Yorkers know about, and it seems to be a frequent source of conversation.
The story goes that Patsy Grimaldi, the owner of Juliana's first started making pizza's in Lombardi's in the 1940's. Eventually, he opened up his own pizzeria, Patsy's, however a legal dispute over the name meant he rechristened his restaurant Grimaldi's.
In 1998, Patsy Grimaldi sold his restaurant to Frank Ciolli but stayed on as a consultant. Frank brought out the Grimaldi's name and the menu. Eventually a dispute led to a parting of ways, however due to a non-compete clause, Patsy Grimaldi was not allowed to open a pizzeria within a certain amount of time. As soon as that time elapsed, he opened up a new restaurant, Juliana's.
Importantly, he retained the famous coal-fired oven that had made his pizzas famous and new regulations around health and safety means its pretty much impossible to get one installed if you haven't had one for decades. What this all means is that the pizzas that made Grimaldi's the most famous name in New York pizza for at least the past quarter of a century are now made in Juliana's.
It was for this reason that I actually wanted Juliana's to be the best pizza place in New York. My friends and colleagues had told me it was better, and during my time in New York I noticed a shift in demand. Both Juliana's and Grimaldi's are famous for their long queues, its at least a half an hour wait on weeknights and longer on weekends. However, there was no doubt that the Juliana's line was getting longer, and the Grimaldi line was getting shorter.
I visited Juliana's twice, and on both occasions the pizza was excellent. The ingredients were fresh, and the pizza arrived quickly. The service was good and even waiting in line isn't a bad experience as everyone seemed excited to just want to get in.
However, as much as I wanted it to be the best, to me it fell a bit short of its neighbour. Part of the reason is personal preference - I don't like a soft base, and the pizza base in Juliana's is significantly softer than Grimaldi's. Second of all, the building just hasn't got the atmosphere of Grimaldi's. Whilst Grimaldi's has character and grit, Juliana's is still very new (even though paradoxically it could be described as older due to the founder and the oven).
The building itself hasn't had the time to make the stories and contain the history. It feels like it could be any other pizzeria. The pizzas are slightly more expensive, but perhaps more annoying than that is the table space. With so much demand, tables are crammed together really close and this takes away from the experience a little.
That being said, don't get me wrong, this is one phenomenally good pizza place and a place I would recommend in an instant.
1. Grimaldi's, Brooklyn
As my stay in New York progressed, I noticed that the queues for Juliana's were getting longer, and the queue's for Grimaldi's were getting shorter. This was good for me. Despite the story, despite knowing where the true expertise of New York pizza making lies, I preferred Grimaldi's.
Located on the same Brooklyn street as Juliana's (they are next door neighbours), Grimaldi's has, for decades, been the biggest name in New York pizza. Ever since Patsy Grimaldi first opened the restaurant, it has consistently been ranked the best in New York. Now granted, Juliana's is giving it a real run for its money, but I really liked this place for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the ambience. In terms of restaurant interiors, it was by far my favourite (although Lombardi's is spectacular too). The walls are covered in its history and successes. Pictures of celebrities and presidents visiting the establishment over the years cover the walls. It is very low key, very rustic and the pizza is made in view of pretty much everyone in the restaurant.
Where this pizzeria really shines, however, is in its products. It's the best pizza I have ever tasted. It tasted so good, that it made every pizza that I have tasted in England taste like cardboard with cheese on. This was real pizza. Service can take a little bit of time, but it only increases the excitement and expectations. And believe me, the pizza has been consistently excellent, during every visit. I brought my brother here when he visited, as well as my friends and they all agreed that this was the best pizza they had ever had. It's also ever so slightly cheaper than its neighbour, just remember to bring cash, as it doesn't accept cards.
For me it tops the list for a few reasons: (1) You get a decent amount of choice, (2) the pizza is consistently good over a number of visits, (3) the whole dining experience adds to the occasion and finally, (4) the ingredients taste very fresh. However, what really takes this over the top is the base. I'm not a base and crust connoisseur, however its firm and crispy. It doesnt fall apart, it holds the toppings and even manages to add to the taste of the pizza. In fact it's a combination of the base and the ambience of the building that makes me prefer Grimaldi's to Juliana's.
I'll be honest, as I was leaving, I noticed that locals were heading towards Juliana's more, although tourists were still coming to Grimaldi's. Both pizzerias are excellent, and perhaps over the coming years Patsy Grimaldi and Juliana's may take their crown back. But for now, Grimaldi's is undoubtedly the king of New York pizza places.
What do you think of the list? Any that you don't agree with? Any that I've missed out? Leave a comment below. And if you've visited some of the other highly rated NYC pizzeria's that I have missed (Numero 28, Rubirosa
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.