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What My NY Pizzeria Safari Taught Me About Making Pizza

As a pizza making fanatic, I love visiting well-regarded pizzerias to observe and sample their handiwork, learn some tips, and gather inspiration. During my recent travels to New York City, I set out on a pilgrimage to eat at some of the top pizza on this side of the Atlantic.

My pizza safari focused primarily on Neapolitan pizza, a style that I absolutely fell in love with during a visit to Naples in 2003. A blazing hot wood fired oven cooks the pizza in 2-3 minutes (sometimes faster), leaving a slightly charred edge and bottom, but springy and chewy in the middle of the crust. For ease of comparison (and personal preference), I stuck to the basic and classic “marinara” style: sauce, basil, garlic.

In seven days I visited six pizzerias. There are many NY spots still on my list, including Di Fara, Luzzo, Lucali, Totonnos (Coney Island, closed for renovation – I unknowingly tried to go there), Roberta’s, Salvatore’s (Staten Island), among others.

The most surprising discovery on my trip is that while the wood-fired oven is a staple for good pizza, it is not the only fuel found. Some of the top rated spots in NY use coal burning, oil burning, or even electric ovens. Secondly, the reputation of the location’s oven doesn’t always correspond with the outcome of the pizza. You’ll see this in my notes below. And, the locations that touted their use of fresh, organic ingredients stood out for the richness of their pies.

I made a quick video for each spot, to preserve the memory, show the ambiance, and take a good look at the all-so-important pizza oven. Here are the six place I visited and some of my notes. Enjoy!

Motorino Manhattan (site): At the East Village old location of the legendary Una Pizza Napolitana, this is the second in the Motorino chain. The oven itself has been written up in NY magazine (an article I cut and taped to my refrigerator when it came out). Although I never got to try Anthony Mangieri’s pies, the new owners are still making some amazing pizza. All the places I tried were fantastic, but if someone said I could go back to just one before my flight home, it would have been here.

And good news for my San Francisco friends: word has it Mr. Mangieri is opening a new spot in SF.

franny’s (site): Focused on using local, natural ingredients, this Brooklyn pizzeria has been around since 2004, quickly establishing itself as a top spot on the scene. My pizza cooked quickly – it was out in under 4 minutes – and was topped with an absolutely amazing Olio Verde Novello. I actually asked if it’d be OK to lean my head back and have them pour it in my mouth, spring break style. Sadly, they didn’t say OK, nor did they laugh at my (half) joke. So I went online and ordered a bottle of it myself.

Side note: the chef is a longtime San Franciscan, and knows some of my friends. Interesting discovery.

Motorino Brooklyn (site): The first in the Motorino chain, located in Williamsburg. You can’t go wrong with a $10 lunch special that includes salad and a variety of pizzas to pick from. One thing I learned after my first visit is to ask for a touch extra sauce on the marinara. Did this on the second visit and the slightly too dry problem was eradicated, leaving a fantastic pizza experience. I’m lucky that this location isn’t as close to my house as it is to my friend – I started planning out an early/late lunch double visit idea that would likely become my daily ritual.

Co. (site): Another newcomer, Co. (pronounced “Company”) is the restaurant from the guy behind the Sullivan St. Bakery. NY mag calls the pies “Neapolitanish” and that’s about right – they’re smaller and thicker, and slightly less round. My pizza took me back to a place that I’ve only been a few times since my teenage years. The crunchy char on the bottom of the crust vibed well with the dense dough that was possibly undercooked a tad just below the sauce. In a very, very good way.

One downside: The name “Co” (or “company”) is very hard to Google. Remember this when you’re trying to find it: 9th Ave and 24th St.

Patsy’s (site): One of the older pizzerias in NY, with a legendary coal burning oven. For decades it had a reputation as one of the very top spots. Word has it that the pizzas have declined though, and although the pizza I ate would be one of the best available in Los Angeles, it would sadly have to go last on my list. The pie’s size is larger than that of the other pizzerias – about 16″ diameter vs. 12″ – but the dough was much thinner and lighter, as if they used the same amount of dough for each. The resulting slices didn’t retain much heat and were almost room temperature by the time I was halfway through.

I did eat the entire pizza though. And getting to see into their oven was a highlight. The worn brick floor and the low ceiling hight was a surprise, and the pizzas seemed to cook in 90 seconds.

Veloce Pizzeria (site): The only non-Neapolitan pizzeria on my trip, they make an upscale Sicilian pizza that is rich and flavorful, with a nicely textured pan crust (but uses a possibly non-vegan dough for those who are avoiding cheese). A hearty, filling pizza that was satisfying through the very last bite. And an enjoyable break from the Neapolitan pies that I had been eating the rest of the time.

(A very special thanks to Matt K. for sponsoring my visit and outings.)