Pizza landed on American shores with Gennaro Lombardi, who began selling it from his Spring Street store in 1905. Subsequently a distinctive variety evolved, shaped by local ingredients and the use of coal-fire instead of wood-burning ovens, and what we recognize as New York-style pizza – a thin crust, tangy sauce and plenty of cheese – came into being.
Today the city hosts a dense concentration of superb pizzerias, with some masterful Neapolitan joints alongside the traditional New York outlets. If time is short and settling on a single choice is painful, you could always take a pizza tour of Brooklyn, which will take you to some of the borough’s most famous pizzerias and also teach you a little pizza history.
Totonno’s was established by Antonio Totonno, an Italian immigrant who worked for a while with Gennaro Lombardi before opening his own pizza joint out in Coney Island in 1924. It’s been run by the same family ever since, and is today owned by Totonno’s granddaughter, Antoinette. The pizzas are made with top-notch ingredients – tomatoes imported from Italy, handmade mozzarella – and baked in a brick coal-burning oven. The restaurant itself is unusually spacious and comfortable, too, with a panoply of family memorabilia enlivening the walls.
Motorino’s is a much newer kid on the New York pizza block, with locations in both Brooklyn and East Village. Both are tight, cramped spaces, throbbing with heat from the pizza oven, and serve the same small menu containing nine suggested pizzas and a single bottle of "the perfect pizza wine." The pizzas are perfect puffy-crusted Neapolitan, the toppings grounded in fine Italian ingredients, and there’s a particularly excellent two-course lunch deal for an astoundingly low price.
Roberta’s, located out in Bushwick, has a real homegrown, hipster vibe. Beers come served in jam jars, and behind the restaurant is a small vegetable and herb garden which supplies at least some of the ingredients. But Roberta’s is by no means stylish touches over substantive quality – it is serious about baking, both pizza and bread. Its pizza is Neapolitan, made in a traditional wood-fired oven, and the creative chefs have come up with a collection of inventive topping combinations. Try The Rapture, with kale, mozzarella, garlic, lemon and pecorino;or The Bee Sting, with tomato, mozzarella, spicy soppressata and honey.
L&B Spumoni Gardens is famous for several reasons, but most importantly for its Sicilian-style pizzas: thick-crust, square-cut, with mozzarella buried beneath the tangy tomato sauce and finished with a sprinkle of parmesan. It is on this basis that Spumoni’s has come to be perhaps the most adored Italian restaurant in New York, although it also does round pizza and a whole host of other Italian dishes. One further speciality that you should be sure not to miss is the spumoni itself: an ice cream with vanilla, pistachio and chocolate flavors. It’s so good that other pizzerias around New York have begun to offer it.
If one pizza-maker has gained a legendary reputation in New York, it is Dom DeMarco. Immigrating to the Big Apple from Italy in 1959, he worked as a farm laborer before opening Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn in 1964. Through subsequent decades he worked behind his counter, crafting square and regular pies, and slowly Di Fara’s reputation grew until, by the early 2000s, it was widely-regarded as the best pizzeria in New York. The pizzas lie somewhere between New York and Napoli, and DeMarco is generous with the olive oil and dapples his pizzas with chunks of sweet tomato. The queues are famously interminable, the decor looks unchanged since it opened, and the prices are, nowadays, pretty damn high for an over-the-counter pizza joint. But DeMarco’s been working ceaselessly for half a century now, and it’s hard to begrudge him filling his coffers – especially since once the pizza finally arrives you can taste for yourself what has earned Di Fara such adulation.