With a population of about 8.4 million, New York is home to a hell of a lot of people. But one thing is for certain: pretty much all of those people love pizza. And the pizza here, to be more specific.
It's no secret that New York City pizza is great. But there's not just one reason for its magnificence; there are many. From our hardworking pizza-makers to our unfettered delivery guys to the $1 slices that soak up all our bad behavior at 4 AM, there's a lot to love about New York's pizza culture.
All New York pizza is great, from the high-end masters with specially built ovens to the cheap stuff you eat off a paper plate on the sidewalk. Here's why.
There are no rules when it comes to pizza toppings in NYC, but we're kind of a bunch of purists when it comes down to it. How can you improve upon perfection? If you have an amazing cheese slice, why bog it down with piles of olives and chicken vindaloo and salsa or whatever else you're trying to clog up your pizza with in the name of originality? But with this in mind, New York pizzerias know that picking the right cheese(s) is crucial.
Growing up in wherever-the-hell suburbia (most people who live in New York, after all, aren't from New York), you might get pizza from your local family restaurant or your high-school cafeteria and think it's perfectly acceptable to top it with whatever powdery, shredded "mozzarella" you can find in the dairy aisle (or worse). In New York, this is not so, unless you're talking truly, truly bottom-of-the-barrel slice places. The stuff right next to the subway in Times Square, maybe.
Anyways, there are two pretty crucial varieties of cheese to be mindful of in NYC pizza: one is Mozzarella di Bufala, for obvious reasons, but another, should we talk shreds, is Grande Cheese East Coast Blend, which is the top-of-the-line bulk cheese for NYC's best slice spots. According to Grande's website, the East Coast Blend's features include "exceptional flavor," even melting, a high burn point, "outstanding reheat qualities," "excellent stretch and tender mouthfeel," among other things. You might not know when you're eating this specific cheese, but we all know when we're biting into a damn good slice of pizza.
The qualities of our tap water may or may not make New York pizza what it is (see below), but the water certainly has an effect on the texture. A dollar-slice joint serving pies with a thick, chewy crust is likely using a dough with somewhere around 67-percent hydration and a little bit of oil, giving it enough time to bake in the oven without drying out. That thin, Neapolitan-style dough at the high-end joints has a little less water, while the focaccia-like Sicilian slices have a bit more.
The other main difference between Neapolitan-style and dollar-slice style is the flour: The former often employs finely milled "00" flour, which helps it absorb more water, while the latter uses plain ol' all-purpose or bread flour.
New York City's water supply system is one of the most extensive municipal water systems in the world. It meets the daily needs of the city's millions of residents and visitors alike. There's been quite a bit of debate over whether the tap water really makes a big difference when it comes to our pizza dough or not, but it's almost as if it doesn't really matter anymore—if we want the water to be crucial so badly, the massive hivemind of NYC wills the pizza here to be better because of the water. It's the power of positive thinking combined with group telekinesis.
Pizza and bagel places in other states—Florida, for instance—have installed water filtration systems that they hope will replicate the water in Brooklyn, all in the name of better dough. Best Pizza's owner and pizza master, Frank Pinello, will tell you that our H2O has a perfect pH for quality dough.
Angela Dimayuga of Mission Chinese Food (which actually makes great pizza) once told us that she insisted on searching for pepperoni slices that would curl upward slightly during cooking, forming charming little cups full of spicy meat oil, like the kind you used to get on frozen pizzas. The type of pepperoni you go for can make a big difference, both aesthetically and in its effect on your pizza's flavor.
The classic big, bright-red slices remain many-a-New Yorkers' go-to, but these days you'll also see guanciale, soppressata, and other cured meats on your slice in a lot of joints. Depends on what you're going for. But one must always put thought into their pepperoni or meat topping of choice, and places in New York certainly do.
Coal ovens at spots like Lombardi's give New York pizza that crisp yet chewy texture. In the 1880s, coal was a dominant heating fuel in New York when Neapolitan immigrants landed in the US. Newly arrived bakers used hard coal instead of wood to heat their ovens because it took up less space and burned more efficiently. With the eventual adaptation of gas ovens after World War II, pizzerias quickly proliferated the city and were able to sell individual slices of pizza with ease. Coal pizza is now on the upswing again.
Everyone's inner pyro loves a quality pizza oven, but it's the scorching hot temperatures—500 to 700 degrees—that make wood ovens great. At places like Roberta's, Best Pizza, Motorino, Paulie Gee's, and Don Antonio by Starita, the wood-fired oven helps impart flavor and sharply cuts down on cooking time, ranging from two to five minutes.
Rappers call Jacob the Jeweler when they need some ice on their necks. Real Housewives look to Louis Vuitton. But in New York, pizza owners looking to showboat their ovens call up third-generation oven-maker Stefano Ferrara, who can make your kitchen equipment look like Liberace touched it.
Great pizza comes from a great oven—it's just a fact.
According to Artichoke Pizza co-owner Francis Garcia, "What makes the pizza great is the people and the hands that are making the pizza." DiFara's pizza master, Dom DeMarco, takes his time making each pie.
You can taste the love put into a slice of pizza, but you also need to be able to taste the borderline-freakish obsession from the pizzaiolo. And next to Italy, you won't find more people who think pizza is life anywhere than in New York City.
Pizza Delivery Guys
New York City pizza delivery guys are the unsung heroes in your life. They come to your doorstep in a snowpocalypse, during hurricanes, and on any number of days when you're so hungover you can barely move. You'll see these dudes whizzing down the street on their crazy electric scooters with a bunch of pizzas tied to the back—saviors that will show face even when your loved ones won't.
It's important to tip them well. If you tip less than 20 percent during a blizzard, you will die in a really embarrassing way and then immediately be teleported to the shittiest part of hell.
The $1 Slice
Of course, the great beauty of New York is that its pizza is so exceptional that even a slab of it purchased with pocket change from some no-name hole in the wall will still be great. Dollar-slice joints are everywhere, and the best one is always the one second-closest to your apartment or the first-closest to your work. This is just the way things work.
Something also to be observed: dollar-slice places after 1:30 AM are like the drunk tank, but a wonderful, comforting version of the drunk tank. Everyone is there in an attempt to become less drunk, but instead of it being because they got arrested, it's because they were wise enough to try to soak up the booze in their stomach with some 'za. The dudes (and dudettes) who work at dollar-slice places are the most patient and impervious people in the world, and for that, we salute them.
The Grandma Slice
The Grandma slice is a New York original. It's square, it's saucy, it's garlicky, it's Grandma pizza. It's Sicilian-style but not quite, cooked in a big pan, and the crust is raised and airy, kind of like a focaccia. It's its own thing.
No one knows exactly where it came from—probably Long Island—but we'll be damned if it doesn't make us appreciate our grandmas. And our access to great Grandma slices.
Give hipsters anything, and they'll get weird with it. But in New York, you'll find new-school pizza that is actually as traditional as it is innovative. New York has perfected the art of turning something as iconic as pizza—dense, chewy, mozzarella-laden—into an entirely new blank canvas, simply by returning to pizza's Neapolitan roots. For years, Roberta's has wooed cash-strapped hipsters out of dollar-slice joints and convinced them to pay a premium for thin, masterfully blistered crust, topped with a never-ending hodgepodge of ingredients both standard and surprising. From there, you have Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food serving cheese pizza alongside numbing mapo tofu. Why? Because pizza and Chinese food make perverse sense together, like when Britney Spears dated Fred Durst.
You can try to talk shit about hipster moves like putting honey on your pizza—à la Roberta's Bee Sting pizza, or the spicy honey at Paulie Gee's—but it's just a great fucking idea that happened to be popularized by hipsters. The pop-cultural relevance of pizza permeates in other ways. At Roberta's, you'll find a Brokeback Mountain painting on the wall wherein the faces of Gyllenhaal and Ledger are replaced by anthropomorphized pizza slices. At Artichoke, you can eat pizza underneath a portrait of Eddie Murphy that the owner found in a frat house and purchased from a "frat bro" because it was too beautiful to waste. Vinnie's makes pizza-topped pizza and Bill Clinton- and Bjork-themed slices just for the hell of it, and their specials boards are literally art.
Plus, these places all have dope shirts that give Thrasher tees a run for their money, and hell yes, your favorite pizza place should have a shirt so radical that you'll actually want to wear it in public and not just to bed. Roberta's, GG's, Paulie Gee's, Vinnie's, and all the rest: we salute you.
The Pizza Fold
Folding your pizza is a rite of passage into becoming a true New Yorker. The slice has to be symmetrical and the crust has to have the right level of thickness, chewiness, and give to get it just right.
The fold enables each bite to be a perfect synthesis of cheese, crust, sauce, and toppings. This type of distribution of flavor and components cannot be achieved without the fold. If you do not abide by the fold, consider yourself a n00b.
Fuck bagels. Pizza is the beating heart connecting the arteries of our great city's five-boroughs.
Besides our subway system, the pizza shop is the only democratic place where Pizza Rat, cops, the homeless, Bill de Blasio, drunks, goths, hedge-fund traders, hipsters, Hell's Angels, sorority girls, and scientists join together in a communion of sauce, cheese, dough, and grease in the name of hunger. Pizza shops forge bonds among strangers, if only for five minutes. Friends are made instantly and without discretion (though probably never seen again, since both parties are usually pretty drunk).
The reason that New York pizza is truly great is that it belongs to all of New York.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.