Off the Eaten Path

NYC’s History, Measured in Pizza Slices

Dollar slice joints may open on every corner every week, but the oldest pizzerias in each borough have stood the test of time.

Care for a slice? / Photo courtesy of Denino's

New York is arguably the pizza capital of the world, but it hasn’t always been. Before the Italian slice made its way to the Big Apple, the dining situation in the late 1800s and early 1900s was dominated by dishes like creamed artichokes, turtle soup, and boiled beef. Thankfully, the food scene—like the city itself—evolves every New York minute. Once the pizza pie hit the streets here, though, it never left, proving some culinary traditions are timeless. Take your taste buds on a trip through NYC pizza history at its oldest pizzerias.

Lombardi’s in Manhattan

The introduction of the city’s first subway lines in 1905 opened up a whole new world of culinary possibilities, stretching from the top of Manhattan to the bottom. Italian grocer Gennaro Lombardi acquired a business license to operate a pizzeria around the same time, making his Little Italy operation—appropriately named Lombardi’s—America’s first pizzeria. A few details have changed about the Spring Street pizza parlor over the years; aside from handing ownership over to a family friend and Lombardi’s grandson, John Brescio and Gennaro Lombardi III, its location moved down the block to a corner space with a labyrinth-style dining room and red sauce–inspired decor around every bend. Three vital aspects haven’t changed, though: its cash-only policy, the coal-burning pizza oven (which can reach temperatures up to 850 degrees Fahrenheit), and the simplistic Neapolitan recipe that is straight from Naples (crushed San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sprinklings of Romano, and torn basil). 32 Spring Street (at Mott Street), Soho

Photo by Fung T/Yelp

Totonnos in Brooklyn

1924 was a tumultuous time for the concrete jungle: New Yorkers were readily voting for a Republican (Calvin Coolidge); the Johnson-Reed Act severely halted emigration from several areas, including Africa and the Arab world (sound familiar?); and a Gennaro Lombardi protégé would become his rival across borough lines. Anthony Pero’s Coney Island pizza parlor, Totonno’s, has risen from the ashes like a phoenix time and time again, most specifically after a fire in 2009 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Walking through the unfettered dining room, however, indicates no semblance of destruction. White aluminum-tiled walls are covered in dozens of weathered newspaper clippings, and the checkerboard floors and vibrant red tables are lovingly worn. The menu—overseen by Pero’s granddaughter, Cookie Ciminieri—remains sparse, but the thin-crust pies stand strong on their own, with molten milky mozzarella, pizza dough with the occasional air bubble, and a drizzling of olive oil on top. 1524 Neptune Avenue, Coney Island

Deninos in Staten Island

Flash-forward a few years to 1937. New Yorkers were yearning for a standby watering hole after a span of dry years thanks to Prohibition. The same year the Yankees won their sixth World Series, the Denino family opened a full-service tavern on Port Richmond Avenue and named it, naturally, Denino’s. The first 14 years of business were ordinary for a neighborhood dive, with bar food and pool tables bringing in blue-collar locals. It wasn’t until 1951, when son Carlo Denino introduced Sicilian-style pies to the menu, that the red-brick establishment became a prefoodie destination. Pizza connoisseurs still make the pilgrimage on the Staten Island Ferry more than six decades later, thanks in part to slices stacked with bar snacks (fried shrimp, buffalo wings) and gourmet pies that cater to grease lovers and gourmands alike (the New Haven–style clam pie, the ill-named Garbage Pie topped with three types of meat). 524 Port Richmond Avenue

best nyc pizza
Slab-worthy. / Photo courtesy of Denino’s

Louie & Ernies in the Bronx

1959 was a big year for NYC. Against a backdrop of citywide blackouts, Lenny Bruce’s countercultural comedy, the rise of Malcolm X, and cool jazz tunes from Miles Davis and Charlie “Bird” Parker came the arrival of the Bronx’s oldest (and one of the city’s best) slice shops. Surprising to most, the borough’s original pizza parlor doesn’t reside along the red sauce–covered streets of Arthur Avenue. Instead, Louie & Ernie’s lies deep in the heart of Pelham Bay in the brick-covered basement of a house. The no-frills pizzeria is actually older than its 59-year-old appearance; its original location was in East Harlem before former owner Ernie Ottuso moved it deep into the Bronx. Despite the move, Ottuso ensured that the quality of its staple slices and deep-fried calzones remained intact. Whether you’re getting the hefty white pie slathered with a copious amount of ricotta or a saucy slice covered in fennel-laced sausage, the paper-thin crust guarantees a loud crunch that can be heard from its former Manhattan home.  1300 Crosby Avenue

Photo by Kara M./Yelp

Pizza Garden in Queens

1960 was a relatively tame year in NYC in comparison (although the civil rights movement across the nation and John F. Kennedy’s election win were the talk of the town), but Philip Ejnes and Tony Scarselli came out swinging with their family-friendly pizzeria in Flushing, Pizza Garden. While its storefront name glowing in rainbow neon was enough to stop Northern Boulevard drivers in their tracks, the standout grandma Sicilian slabs covered in thick mozzarella, chunky tomato sauce, and shredded basil were traffic stopping on their own. The recipe has remained the same since Richard Ejnes took over the business in the ’80s, although his team has gotten more ambitious and creative since then—lasagna pizza, anyone? 171-01 Northern Boulevard, Flushing

Read more of Jess‘ food adventures in NYC in her column, Off the Eaten Path.

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