I recently visited New York City for the first time. It was an overwhelming experience – taking the subway, falling in with the crowds of people walking the street at all hours. Oddly, what stood out to me the most was the sheer number of pizza parlors. I was seemingly surrounded by several on every street.
Given the options at your disposal, I’ll submit three of my favorites.
32 Spring Street, NY, NY 10012
Our first stop is the granddaddy of them all – reportedly the first pizzeria established in the United States.
Since its founding in 1905 and barring a ten-year hiatus in the 80’s, this Little Italy landmark offers up authentic Italian pizza baked in coal-fired brick ovens. Let’s get to the main course.
I ordered the large margherita, which has a baseline of tomato sauce, fresh mozzarrella and fresh basil. Toppings (yes, even pepperoni) are extra. I added meatballs (beef and pork) for protein. Other selections include the “white” (no sauce, ricotta and romano cheeses, garlic and herb blend) and the clam pie with freshly shucked clams.
The style of “margherita” pizza varies from place to place. Here it means cheese dappled over roughly half of the pie, which meant that some bites were just sauce and crust. And that would be fine if the sauce wasn’t layered on so thick. I should have brought a bib because I ended up wearing a little bit of it on my shirt. Tomato stains aside, the sauce was tangy and the crust was fairly chewy and pleasantly charred in places from the coal-firing.
The look and feel of the place hearkens back to its early 20th century origins. Warm lighting, brick walls, red and white tablecloth, waiters with white aprons – all things that have become cliche for Italian eateries but given its history here, it feels real. Sit down at a table or booth or pull up a stool at the bar. I got a small table in the back across from the ATM. What it lacked in ambiance, it made up for in utility. Lombardi’s is cash-only, sells their pizzas by the pie and packs a punch to the wallet (the cheapest option is a small margherita at $21.50).
The portions are still great despite the price tag. The small comes out to 6 slices and the large comes out to 8. I was able to confidently eat half of the large before I needed to lie down, and even then I reached into the foil wrapping for a midnight snack.
The Little Italy location has a full bar selection with beer selections from local breweries like Six Point and Brooklyn Brewery. Non-pizza options include salads and calzones.
Limelight Shops, 656 6th Ave, New York, NY 10011
Established in 1991, Grimaldi’s offers a retro aesthetic and coal-fired brick oven pizzas.
Grimaldi’s has several locations in Queens and Brooklyn. I visited the Manhattan branch, situated in a cozy walkup in the Limelight Marketplace.
Initially I got the same traditional vibes as I did with Lombardi’s – the red and white table-cloths, the pizza pans propped up on the tables, well-dressed wait staff. It was only when I opened the menu that the differences appeared.
The toppings were cheaper than Lombardi’s and more experimental – sun-dried tomatoes, capers and grilled, BBQ and buffalo chicken make an appearance.
I ordered a small white pizza with pepperoni and Italian sausage. The coal-fired brick ovens gave the pizza a slight smokiness and the small pepperoni slices a little crunch on the edges. The char on the crust was more noticeable here than Lombardi’s but not overbearing. The sausage was mildly spicy with a hint of fennel. All in all, it was great.
The Manhattan location did not serve beer, wine or coffee but it did have a good selection of traditional New York sodas and desserts like gelato and cannoli. There were also more appetizer options here than Lombardi’s – salads, antipasto and bruschetta and meatball sliders.
If you’re willing to overlook the forsaking of tradition (Nutella pizza must taste like sacrilege), Grimaldi’s offers more options at a better price than Lombardi’s.
123 Macdougal St, New York, NY 10012
Ben’s Pizzeria may not have the pedigree or the presentation of the other parlors on the list but it was my personal favorite. The place proves that no-frills is fine when the pizza is this good.
Ben’s serves it up by the slice. You have the classics – pepperoni, cheese, supreme, the Sicilian with thick crust, crushed tomato and cheese. Breaking with the more traditional picks on this list, I said “aloha” to the Hawaiian.
The Hawaiian came with the prerequisite pineapple chunks and bite-sized ham pieces but the real MVP was the addition of creamy ricotta cheese. It stood out from the usual gooey mozzarella and provided a rich counterpart to the savory-sweet interplay between meat and unlikely pizza fruit. Another plus was a wonderful cheese to sauce to crust ratio. No bib needed here.
The pizzas sit in glass display cases. Two guys bake the pizzas, take your order and reheat the individual slices you want. The service is brusque but efficient and the line moves quickly. Take too long to decide and you might get skipped over for the next guy.
Eating space is limited. There were several booths and chairs. On a cold February night like the one when I visited, the ovens’ heat was a welcome relief but I can’t imagine how summer would feel. All of the doors were wide open, giving it an oddly communal feel. Ben’s might not be much to look at but people-watchers will love the front row seat to purveyors of the art scene.
Ben’s is located in the heart of Greenwich Village, where people from every walk of life converge to see the arts. Down the street you can find the famed music venue Café Wha? (where Bob Dylan and Bruce Springstreen played early gigs) and legendary stand-up club The Comedy Cellar (where you can see Dave Chappelle, Marc Maron and Amy Schumer if you’re lucky).
I knew I had to visit Ben’s when I saw Louis CK scarfing down a grandma’s slice in the title credits of his TV show “Louie.” I’m glad I did.
Ben’s Pizzeria: https://www.yelp.com/biz/bens-pizzeria-new-york
For a complete map of all locations featured in this blog, please follow this link: The Grand Appétit Map