The Empire State of Pizza - Empire Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo by La Piazza Pizzeria.

According to rumors, some establishments in Los Angeles import tap water from New York City to use in making their pizzas. Why, if that allegation were true, would they go to such efforts? Further, why would such a rumor even exist in the first place?

Well, New York pizza is important to so many New Yorkers all throughout the five boroughs and for those who live in the greater metropolitan region. It’s a distinguishable regional fare that’s often difficult for chefs in other localities to get right.

Comprehensive guides exist telling people where to find New York style pizza in Los Angeles. Foodie journalists stake out pizzerias that claim to have authentic New York style pizza in order to test whether they’re legit. For instance, they check the telltale signs: a “crispy-chewy crust”, being “thin and round”, with “tangy sauce”, sans goat cheese. They have to point out places where you can only order a full pie, not a single slice, an unexpected concept to many visiting New Yorkers and transplants.

The City of Angels is certainly not the only place that hosts New York pizza replicators. There’s Escape from New York Pizza spots around San Francisco, Big Mario’s New York Style Pizza in Seattle,  plus a number of businesses throughout Florida, where New Yorkers who migrate south take it upon themselves to judge if a place’s product is worthy.

What is New York pizza, anyway?

New Yorkers know it when they taste it, but for explanation’s sake, what differentiates the New York style pizza is the thin crust, often created through the process of hand tossing the dough into a large, round shape. It’s then topped with tomato sauce and sprinkled with a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese before being baked sufficiently for a crispy bottom. Usual toppings include things like pepperoni, mushrooms, meatballs, or peppers, but it’s really about the pizza base itself–these are just enhancements.

The culture of casual pizzerias, like Ray’s or Joe’s, dates back to 1905, when Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi opened the first one in Manhattan neighborhood Little Italy. There’s still a Lombardi’s open today, but the concept of a casual pizza eatery has, since spread throughout countless neighborhoods, from commercial avenues in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, to suburban strip malls in Nassau County, Long Island.

In these pizzerias, pies are baked and cut into triangular slices, presenting an option to customers that’s cheap, quick, served on paper plates, and eaten with their hands. The hand norm, though, was recently defied by newly inaugurated NYC Mayor, Bill de Blasio, who was caught on camera at Staten Island’s Goodfellas consuming the food using a fork and knife. A scandal dubbed as “forkgate”, de Blasio then tried to defend himself by arguing his Italian heritage.

“Forkgate” humorously ricocheted through the media–such as The New York Daily News chronicling photos of Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, and David Dinkins eating pizza with their mayoral hands–and the Goodfellas staff have kept hold of the infamous de Blasio fork. As of Jan 15, the co-owner told DNAInfo he was planning on selling off the utensil for charity.

Perhaps the “forkgate” incident seems annoying or petty to some, but it doesn’t mean New Yorkers alarmed by de Blasio’s action are closed-minded prigs; there are countless comparable situations, for instance, an American ambassador to Japan wouldn’t eat sushi with a fork, while an Italian politician of Japanese heritage would appear just as foolish eating spaghetti with chopsticks.

Moreover, New York pizza unites New Yorkers be they at home or in diaspora. Several of my friends have relocated to California, and whenever I pick them up from Kennedy Airport, their first request is always pizza. On the way home, I can usually expect a pizza rant, like bashing Bronx Pizza in San Diego for not living up to its title, or ordering at a place in LA that uses BBQ sauce instead of tomato.

Missing New York pizza comes out especially when presented with bizarre appropriations elsewhere. During my yearlong residence in South Korea, sweet potato pizza was prevalent, while some other varieties included potato chips, shrimp, fried eggs, and kimchi. Canned corn and tuna placed on thick, oily pizza in Israel did not look appealing, either. At least I could always unite with fellow New Yorkers I’d meet over a sentimentally shared sense of pizza nostalgia.

Stateside, I’ve turned down pizza options that replace tomato sauce with squash sauce or even creamy ranch dressing. I’ve argued with many Americans from the Midwest or Western New York about how real pizza does not require a three-inch thick sludge of dough (as well as the correct pronunciation of “bagel”, another endemic food standard of New York), not to mention West Coasters who contend that Papa John’s or Pizza Hut is quality.

Even in the remainder of New York State, it’s not the same. I distinctly recall ordering pies my first few freshmen days in Binghamton University, and hearing fellow downstate students react with dissatisfied comparisons like, “This is not Long Island pizza.”

But around the tri-state area, local pizza appreciators can appease their cravings usually within a five-block walk in the city, or five-mile drive in the suburbs, with the endless options of local pizzerias. While a patron may encounter certain appropriations like Daiya-cheese and veggie sausage slices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or arugula-avocado Sicilian squares in Westchester County, these experimental pizzerias will always offer the classics – either plain cheese or topped with standard vegetables and meats.

Perhaps New York tap water is a key component, but really, the unique quality of New York pizza isn’t that it’s so outstandingly special, but rather, so accessible. Additionally, it’s so particular in the standard ingredients, casual dining parlors, and acknowledged appreciation.