Growing up in New York, grabbing a slice of pizza was a simple and commonplace thing to do. Nearly every neighborhood had a few joints with Italian sounding names, like Sal's Place, Carmine's or Big John's. Most weren't sit-down restaurants but brightly lit shops with counter service only; there might be a few small tables down the side and room for standing by a tiny counter along the window.
Slices were almost always plain; the only toppings the occasional pepperoni, slivers of onion, mushroom, maybe some green pepper. They were modest, tasty and somewhat greasy, yet filling and inexpensive. (Since 1960 the price of a slice has more or less equalled the price of a subway token.)
"New York pizza began as a straightforward version of the original pizza alla margherita from Naples via Neapolitan immigrants," said John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire Magazine and author of How Italian Food Conquered the World.
"Later versions lacked the crispness, bubbling and charring of the originals and were baked a lighter colour. New Yorkers knew to ask them to cook it more to give it some char."
New Yorkers also learned at a young age to fold the slice in one hand and eat it while walking down the street. This was and still is a classic street food.
The pizza paradigm, however, is changing. The humble pie has become the darling of the gourmet set. The superb, simple slice is getting harder to find.
But it is out there. I travelled by subway, car and on foot to find the best, classic New York pizza offered by the slice. I compared basic cheese-and-tomato-sauce slices using five criteria: crust, sauce, cheese, balance and appearance. Here, after weeks of dripping cheese and greasy napkins is my best-of list, divided by borough.
Joe's Pizza Joe's slice ($2.25) offers a worthy balance between its slightly sweet sauce, cheese, thin crispy dough and gorgeous yellow-and-red appearance. This little spot in the middle of every-
thing is like a pizza respite in a sea of cacophony; slices are always hot and fresh due to the high number of customers. No matter that about a thousand people are walking by – grab a tiny seat if you can. 7 Carmine St., 212-366-1182
Patsy's On a quieter street in Harlem you'll find Patsy's. In the same location since 1933, Patsy's has a few other outlets but this is the original. Its slice ($1.75) is exquisite with a tangy tomato sauce, the correct amount of cheese and surgical charring in true Neapolitan style. To say this pizzeria has a Spartan decor, is an understatement; it's like an oven with seats. Still, I'm willing to crown it best in the entire city. 2287 1st Ave., 212-534-9783
Di Fara Pizza The Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Midwood is not a place I expected to find one of the top-rated pizza places. But Di Fara produces excellent slices – at a whopping $5 per. The texture and all around quality is the real deal, from its aromatic sauce to fresh mozzarella to more than slightly burned crust. Yet the appearance was uneven, some slices looking perfect and others all akimbo. It also loses points for its over-the-top price tag. 1424 Ave. J, 718-258-1367
Fascati Since 1971, this modest pizzeria has been serving the Brooklyn Heights. Today, plenty of highly rated pizza joints can be found nearby but Fascati does the best job at producing the quintessential New York slice ($2.75). The tomato sauce is right there – not too spicy or sweet; there's ample, appetizing fresh mozzarella cheese, the right amount of char on the crust and just a bit of grease. 80 Henry St., 718-237-1278
VIPizza Located in the busy, upper middle class Queens neighborhood of Bayside, VIPizza is still going strong after many decades in business. Its textbook slice ($2.60) exhibits proper cheese, excellent crust and respectable sauce. VIP exudes a positive vibe and the lines seem to move fast, even when crowded. You can't go wrong here. 43-02 Bell Blvd., 718-229-9311
Freddy's Pizzeria With its humble sign and Mediterranean-style roof, this Beechhurst spot looks sort of, well, cheesy. But inside customers will find a slice ($2.60) that satisfies on multiple levels. Freddy's makes pizza with a firm crust singed properly, a mild but tasty sauce and the precise amount of quality cheese. Little Freddy's deserves greater recognition. The gruff service and cash-only policy are minor irritants to an otherwise superlative experience. 12-66 150th St., 718-767-4502
Full Moon Situated in the venerable Italian-American, Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, Full Moon serves up a typical example ($3.00) with a full helping of attitude. Everyone's voice is set on loud here, and most folks wear requisite Yankee shirts and hats. Full Moon's slices display adequate cheese and a fragrant sauce; it's pretty good, though the crust is too doughy. 600 E. 187th St., 718-584-3451
Joe's Pizzeria This pizzeria in the suburban Country Club neighbourhood is a rare find. It's unassuming, yet its excellent slices ($2.75) are a cut above all others in the Bronx. The crust is a bit thicker than some, but the sauce is perfect blend of spices and the cheese bubbles just right. All is in harmony. Calabrian owner Robert Mazzotta believes in using only high-quality ingredients, such as fresh, whole milk mozzarella, and prepares his own sauce special daily. 3009 A Middletown Rd., 718-931-3145
Joe & Pat's Set in the tree-lined Castleton Corners neighborhood of Staten Island, this spot has been dishing out pizzas for more than 50 years. Their slices ($2.25) ooze with mozzarella, serious sauce and a thin crust dappled with char that manages to be crunchy and chewy at the same time. Drawbacks? Joe & Pat's isn't the prettiest place in the world, nor is the frenetic staff the most helpful. 1758 Victory Blvd., 718-981-0887
Nonna's Pizzeria Set in the Great Kills neighborhood, Nonna's utilizes premium ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes for its slices ($2). The mid-thin crust is done properly as the kitchen employs a piping hot, old bread oven that rotates its shelves, ensuring an even texture. Each slice is balanced and looks sensational. 27 Brower Crt., 718-227-8108