On a typical day, Scott Wiener teaches children about the science of pizza at the New York Public Library, researches his forthcoming book on pizza boxes, and leads at least one of the pizza tours for which he’s most known. As Adam Brija, manager at the legendary Patsy’s Pizzeria, said of Scott, “He lives pizza.”
When I became friends with Scott about five years ago, his pizza tours were nothing more than an idea. Since then Scott’s Pizza Tours has evolved into a New York institution.
So, on a cold, sunny day in March, I finally got to try one on for size. While I came to the tour more pizza junkie than connoisseur, Scott approaches pizza as a science, studying the subtlest nuances of ovens, dough, sauce, and cheese. He also somehow manages to maintain a trim figure and boundless passion about the food that has become his lifeblood.
Here’s what I saw and tasted as I ate my way through one of the best pizza cities in the world:
Lombardi’s Pizza (Little Italy, Manhattan)
Appropriately, the tour started at the first pizza place in America. After we’d all filed inside, Scott drew our attention to a picture of the first owner, Gennaro Lombardi, with Anthony “Totonno” Pero (Lombardi’s employee who went on to found the storied Totonno’s on Coney Island) and began telling us the story of how American pizza was invented. Scott shared the nuances of how the fornaios or “stick men” move around as many as a dozen pies at a time, using a roughly 13-foot peel in an oven that reaches temperatures over 1,000° Fahrenheit. (Scott knows this because he’s always packing a thermometer gun.)
Shortly after we were seated at a table wearing a classic red-and-white checkered cloth, the first pie of the day arrived. My slice was beautiful, with tributaries of deep red sauce oozing between generous dollops of fresh mozzarella with strips of bright-green basil confetti sprinkled on top. Scott told us that the mozzarella was made three blocks away at the oldest cheese store in America, a place called Alleva. I loved the sauce, which Scott explained is nothing more than crushed California tomatoes and salt. “Everything about that pizza is simple,” he said. “Nothing is complicated.”
Patsy’s Pizzeria (East Harlem, Manhattan)
Scott calls Patsy’s a time capsule. The coal oven, the dough machine, and even the counters where slices are sold are the same ones they had when they opened in 1933. The original owner, Patsy Lancieri, is said to have learned the art of pizza-making from none other than Gennaro Lombardi. Eighty years later, manager Adam Brija says, “things haven’t changed.” The place is famous for making Frank Sinatra’s favorite slice, and a large painting of Ol’ Blue Eyes is proudly displayed on the wall.
Of all the places we visited that day, Patsy’s has what I most identify as a New York slice: a full bed of low-moisture mozzarella melted over a simple tomato sauce and a thin crust that folds with ease. The most distinguishing feature of this particular pie was the soft, charred crust. I loved it. Andy, one of the guys from Chicago, didn’t care for the blackened slice, but our server noticed his half-eaten piece and came back with another one.
Rizzo’s Fine Pizza (Astoria, Queens)
Our next stop has been a fixture in this now-gentrifying neighborhood since 1959, but it looks like any one of the 2,000+ pizza places in the city: a neon sign out front, some tile tables with wood trim and plastic booths inside, Andrea Bocelli playing on the radio, pizza under glass, and a couple of people working behind the counter. Yet Rizzo’s laid claim to its own piece of New York pizza history by pioneering the thin-crust Sicilian pie. Their long rectangular slice (also known as a “square”) has a sea of zesty tomato sauce surrounding one large island of mozzarella sprinkled with pecorino and parmigiano.
The manager, Frank Taormina, said: “For me, it’s all about the sauce.” And I agree. I enjoyed the potent tang of Rizzo’s sauce, which Taormina says is due to its oregano base (the sweeter sauces often have a basil base). But the crust was key, too. Rizzo’s’ rises above the rest of the slice like a popped collar, and has the satisfying crunch of a Sicilian slice while offering up the kind of crumble you get with a Chicago-style pie. I got some of what Scott described as the “slip-and-slide action” when I accidentally dragged all the cheese into one bite, burning the roof of my mouth. But the ricotta cannoli Frank handed me helped soothe some of the rawness.
Best Pizza (Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
The first three places we visited work hard to maintain their legacies, but Best Pizza has been carving out its place in the New York pizza story for less than three years. Despite an unassuming exterior, it was clear that this joint had a character all its own when you saw that the walls and ceiling were plastered with customer drawings on paper plates. There was no Sinatra or Bocelli playing in Best; instead, Kanye West and Ghostface Killah blared from the speakers.
Owner Frank Pinello comes from a Sicilian family and learned the art of French cuisine from the Culinary Institute. Both the Sicilian and French traditions were on dazzling display in our white pizza, the only pie of the day that blew me away. I’m a sauce guy, so it takes an extraordinary pizza to wow me without any tomato. But what he served us fit the bill: The pie’s caramelized onions and fresh ricotta were a perfect complement to the creamy fresh mozzarella, parsley, and sesame-seed-sprinkled crust. “I try to bring back great by-the-slice pizza in New York,” Frank said. “A lot of places started going downhill as the years went on.”
I have great praise for the slices I ate at Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and Rizzo’s, but it felt good for the last pizza place on the tour to be a new place that’s using a wood-burning oven to take the legacy of New York pizza in a fresh new direction.
Jared Gottlieb works for National Geographic and writes short fiction on the side. Follow him on Twitter: @JaredGottlieb.