New York Pizza: Opening a Pandora's Box

05/26/2010 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Avery Corman Author of "My Old Neighborhood Remembered. A Memoir."

Periodically, somebody runs a who-has-the-best pizza in New York list. But it's pizza, pizza is ubiquitous, anyone can have a valid opinion on pizza. So here is simply my choice of the pizza I like best. It requires a context.

Where I'm coming from on pizza is where I came from, the Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s, the Paradise Pizzeria, about a five minute walk from the Loew's Paradise Theater. Everyone who ate pizza, which wasn't everyone in this working class Jewish-Irish Catholic neighborhood -- pizza was still considered exotic to some -- but everyone who ate pizza ate there. You could have the humiliating experience of running into members of your family while you were there on a date. Or more humiliating, you could run into the girl who turned you down in life or for that evening -- sitting there eating pizza with some other guy.

This is total recall, the place has been gone from the neighborhood for decades and so have I, but I have confirmation from my sister who ate there on dates many times herself. The pizza was old-style New York pizza, the pizza of its day, meaning a balanced blend of tomato sauce and cheese, meaning you could actually taste the tomato sauce, meaning the tomato sauce wasn't overwhelmed by the cheese.

If this is the pizza by which I was imprinted, the pizza of my youth, if I prefer that kind of pizza, then I will necessarily eliminate nearly all the pizza currently made in New York, the myriad pizza joints and pizza restaurants, all the Ray's (original or otherwise), the newcomers like Artichoke Basille's on 14th Street in Manhattan, where the pizza is droopy with cheese. New York pizza today is all about maximum cheese; you can barely taste tomato sauce.

I have to stop here to say I understand pizza brings out people's passions and people can get competitive about their favorites. I respect that. And I offer my bona fides on respect for the rights of others on pizza. What I offer is how my wife and I and our two kids ate pizza. We would eat take-out from four different pizza places in the neighborhood. That's right, four people, four different places. One didn't like the pizza the other liked because it was too oily. The other didn't like the pizza the other liked because it was too spicy. You get the idea. I would walk around the neighborhood picking up slices from the different places and then we would eat together. So if you've got a favorite and it's not mine I'm happy for you that you've found something you like out of the vast, banal New York pizza universe.

I should include that nowadays fancy-pants restaurants serve designer pizzas. It's a bit of a reach for me, eating pizza in places like that. There's even an argument to be made that pizza tastes best while eaten standing. But for me those restaurants really serve pizza-type pizzas.

Joe's, at 7 Carmine Street, the corner of Carmine and Sixth, often makes it into the top pizza lists. Baked in a gas-fired oven, the pizza ($2.50 the slice) has an excellent crust, crispy, the crust alone raises it above most New York pizza places. Alas, the ingredients aren't as good as the crust, and it is not the ghost of my pizza past.

Di Fara in Brooklyn on Avenue J and East 15th has the press clippings to endorse its reputation. This is artisanal pizza, made slowly and carefully with superb ingredients. After baking in the gas-fired oven it is finished off with additional cheese and then with fresh basil cut by hand with scissors by the artisan, Dom DeMarco. Di Fara is famous beyond its excellence because of the price, reflected by the quality ingredients: $5 a slice, $25 for a pie. Even the making of the pie is a kind of food performance art. I wouldn't argue with anyone who thinks this is the best pizza in New York. And I'm sure other people's favorites have not been described, places like Grimaldi's, Lombardi's, Arturo's, John's on Bleeker Street, Lucali, Totonno.

But we're talking Paradise Lost here and for that old style pizza I go to Patsy's on First Avenue and 117th Street in Manhattan. There are other Patsy's, but this is the one to go to. Thin crust charred by the high heat of the coal-burning oven, (actually the Paradise was gas oven) but there it is, the distinctive taste of tomato sauce co-existing with the cheese, as it should, as it once did decades ago. A slice is $1.75, $11 for a pie. It's my best pizza in New York, and, who knows, it might even be outstanding if it didn't remind me of the Paradise. Adjacent to the by-the-slice store is Patsy's restaurant where you can order Italian food other than pizza, or the pizza, of course. The decor is so wonderfully no-frills it looks like the place where Michael Corleone bumped off Captain McCluskey.

Patsy's, 2287 First Avenue at 117th Street, various bus lines, nearest subway, 6 train to 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. 212-534-9783.
Di Fara 1424 Avenue J. 718-258-1367. Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Prospect Expressway which becomes Ocean Parkway, left at Avenue J. By subway, Q train to Avenue J.
Joe's, 7 Carmine Street, corner Avenue of the Americas. 212-255-3946. By subway, West 4th Station.