The sun never sets on New York-style pizza. Shops boast about having the region’s best authentic NY pies across all five boroughs and all six continents for good reason (There are no pizzerias in Antarctica, but give global warming some time to work its, um, magic.). It’s a pizza that is prized and cherished by all.
So, what defines a New York-style pizza, exactly, and why is it so beloved? We’re here to give you the dish on this vaunted round thin-crust pizza in a New York minute:
The debate over the importance of New York’s water is rivaled only by the debate over its origins.
Here’s what historians and experts can say, with certainty: Pizza arrived in New York in the late 1800s/early 1900s, by way of Italian immigrants who were eager to bring their country’s most famed delicacy stateside.
After that, things get a little hairy. For years, Lombardi’s of Little Italy was credited as America’s first pizzeria. However, Chicago researcher Peter Regas recently found evidence to suggest that 53 ½ Spring Street was first home to a pizzeria owned by Filippo Milone, who was also the godfather of John’s of Bleecker Street, another New York institution.
Milone’s shop(s) predate Gennaro Lombardi’s arrival, though many still credit Lombardi as the first pizzaiolo to sell his pizza by the slice. In doing so, Lombardi made pizza the official foodstuff of New York’s working class – those who were short on time and spare cash could enjoy their delicious meal en route to the job site.
New York-style pizza crust is judged on its thinness, which gives it its trademark pliability and gives you the ability to put down as many slices as you please. New York has lots of love for other styles too, like its own Sicilian, but attempting to fold those squares or put away too many of them is guaranteed to result in frustration and belly aches.
To achieve NY’s signature thin crust, pizzaiolos toss the dough by hand, as opposed to other pizza styles which call for rolled dough. It takes lots of practice for chefs to get a feel for the right level of thickness and to toss the dough just shy of the ceiling tiles, but they’ve got it down pat. The end result is a thin crust with a thicker cornicione that is as round as Madison Square Garden or the number 0, as in the number of championship banners hoisted by the Knicks in the last 47 years.
Does every round and thin pizza qualify as a New York-style pie? Not quite. The true test comes in the fold. The lengthwise fold, which allows you to consume twice as much pizza per bite while on the go or hunched over a chairless two-top, must not compromise the integrity of the base.
If the crust is too crunchy, you’ll be left with a messy mashup of two 1/16th slices. If it’s too soft, it’ll lack texture, flop, wreck your shirt, and send you off running to Duane Reade for a supersized Tide stick. No one’s got time for that in New York, or anywhere else in the world.
This Goldilocks conundrum is solved by the hand-tossing and, usually, the use of a cold-rise dough. New York-style pizzerias typically proof their dough in the fridge overnight, though more and more shops are cold-curing their doughs for multiple days to achieve heighten the complexity of its flavors.
Oh, and one other thing..
How important is “New York water” when it comes to the dough? Does it play a major role in differentiating dinner rolls from bagels and subpar thin pizzas from the real deal?
Paul Errigo, who sells his “New York WaterMaker” to shops all around the country, says yes.
“Artisans in the beverage and the baking world are recognizing that water is an ingredient, and it changes everything, the texture, the flavor, the consistency,” Errigo told Forbes, shortly after selling Whole Foods on the concept.
There is science to back up the age-old wives’ tale: New York’s tap water has less calcium and magnesium than the H2O you’ll find elsewhere, plus an extra bit of sodium. Many chefs credit the springy/crunchy balance of NY crust to those ideal ratios.
On the other hand, there’s lots of delicious New York-style pizza to be had outside of the five boroughs, and most shops do not have a “New York WaterMaker” installed in their kitchen. Those who don’t buy into the water mishigas are quick to point out that New York’s higher concentration of quality shops can likely be attributed to its prized pizza culture. The pizza bakers in NYC, the nay-sayers say, get more reps than chefs from other locales, which results in tastier pizzas.
The New York-style pizza is an offshoot of the Neapolitan original that morphed from a sibling to more of a distant cousin. Among the key differences – the sauce.
Naples’ stern standards (backed by the sticklers at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) call for a sauce that showcases San Marzano tomatoes in their pure form. There’s plenty of merit to that approach, but that’s just not how it’s done in New York. NY pizza sauce balances out the tomato’s natural sweetness with a bit of sugar, intensifies its flavor with chopped fresh garlic, and rounds out its flavor with herbs and spices such as oregano and red pepper flakes.
The sauce is pureed thin and spread thin, achieving harmony with the crust.
The New York-style pizza is not overly saucy, but it’s certainly cheesy thanks to lots of shredded low-moisture mozzarella. This isn’t the high-falutin mozz you’d find on the appetizer menu, but the fresh stuff isn’t really suited for the high-temperature ovens that bake NY-style pies.
This also isn’t the same old cheese that you’ll find in most dairy cases at your local supermarket. Those shreds, usually, are sprinkled with corn or potato starch to prevent clumping, which has the unintended effect of messing up the melt. To solve for that, authentic New York-style pizzerias freshly grate their mozz from a block as a part of their daily miesenplas.
The Cheese, Pt. 2 (and fixins)
Of course, New York-style pizzas are not limited to any one cheese, and the cheesing process does not end after the pie is boxed or plated.
Need more cheese? No problem. The famed fixins of the New York pizzeria counter have you covered (and even smothered, if you wish) with the handy parmesan shaker. That’s also where you’ll find crushed red pepper to rev up the scovilles, plus dried oregano and garlic powder. In recent years, shops like Williamsburg’s fairly-named Best Pizza have gotten a bit more creative with the counter by adding a bottle of fermented Calabrian chili oil to the mix (We might be tempted to drink it by the glass if we didn’t have so much respect for Frank Pinello, the owner, chef, and Vice personality behind the Brooklyn staple.)
The simultaneously thin, sturdy, and springy miracle that is New York-style pizza can hold plenty of toppings. It’s no surprise that pepperoni ranks as the most popular topping for NY pies, but pizzaiolos put all sorts of veggies, meats, cheeses, and, occasionally, entire meals, on top of New York pies.
Take Brooklyn’s L’industrie Pizza, for example. Want a Margherita pizza atop a New York crust? They’ve got that. Or, a pie with mozz, prosciutto di Parma, and burrata? No prob – that’s their titular pie. Or, perhaps you want to draw from a never-ending list of toppings including bacon, onions, ricotta, brie, and hot honey to make your own custom combo. You get the idea – they’ll do it, and you can even dictate what goes where on a half-and-half pie by ordering on Slice.
The Size and The Slice
In true American fashion, the New York-style pizza dwarfs the Italian OG. The Neapolitan pizza, meant to serve one fork-and-knife brandishing diner, measures at roughly 12-inches in diameter. Meanwhile, the standard New York pie is an 18” behemoth and meant to be shared as a finger food.
In the good old U-S-of-A, we leave the carving up to the pros. New York-style pizzas are cut into eight slices, which can serve a family of four, a pair of hungry friends, or one truly awesome party of one.
New York-style pizzas are baked at temperatures ranging from 500-600 degrees, bestowing the very bottom of the crust with a perfect crisp and an ideal melt to its seemingly endless strands of cheese.
Many moons ago, New York pizzerias were powered by coal ovens. These days, most New York-style pizzerias – within and outside the city limits – use gas-powered ovens, which keep a consistent temperature on the oven floor with less day-to-day maintenance.
Where can I find authentic New York-style pizza near me?
The legend of New York City’s pizza is justified – it is, and always will be, America’s pizza capital.
Does that mean New York is the only place for delicious thin-crust New York-style pies? Absolutely not.
You don’t need spare PTO or piles of cash to enjoy the country’s most famed variation of ‘za. With the Slice app, you can find and order authentic New York-style pizza from exceptional mom & pop shops near you.
Great stuff! I moved to canada and crave a good slice. I’m working on perfecting my pie. Water is key, as well as an overnight ferment!