(DL) – Today we pay homage to coal fired brick oven pizza. There is history behind pizza which I won’t bore you with but coal oven pizza is somewhat a dying breed.
Coal oven pizza should not to be confused with wood oven pizza. Both should be prepared in a brick oven but that is not always how they are prepared as modern technology likes to take shortcuts compromising authenticity.
Authenticity. Where does brick oven coal fired pizza originate? The lore of New Yorkers tells of a great pizza made in a small corner pizza shop in downtown Manhattan named Lombardi’s.
The Lombardi’s story is the coal fired brick oven story. Heck, Lombardi's is the story of Pizza's orgin in America. Legendary is a misnomer – it's a fact, Pizza began at Lombardi's grocery circa 1897. Currently located in Little Italy at the corner of Mott and Spring Streets, Lombardi's has become a pilgrimage for locals and tourists alike. I made my first visit it back in 2005 when my son and I dropped in on the recommendation of my then wife. She had eaten there prior. Who knows how she came about the place, yet in the end she told me how great it was and I had to know if she was right. Could a Ukrainian woman really knew pizza? Turns out she did. What she didn’t inform me of was Lombardi's history. It's rumored to be the oldest pizza parlor in Manhattan, and more specifically she did not tell me I would be dining on “coal oven” pizza. I must add some opinion to this piece. Lombardi's is special, but it is tainted by the experience. They know they have a unique history and charge a hefty price for pizza at Lombardi's. The staff are local and therefore have no patience with the touristy environment they operate in. Couple that with the overwhelming amount of photos of the owner on the walls and you find that Lombardi's is more of a life experience for the taste of coal fired pizza than it is for a great pizza date. You've been warned.
Brick Oven Pizza's History
Named after its owner Gennaro Lombardi wasn’t the actual maker (pizziolas) of the pizza. That honor goes to his grocery store employee Anthony Tontonno. It was later Gennaro opened Lombardi’s Pizza in 1905. As historical record, Lombardi's has the honor of being America's first pizzeria. Anthony Tontonno knew he was the reason for Gennaro's success.
Eventually he opened his own pizzeria on Coney Island. Thus Anthony stepped out from under the shadow of Gennaro Lombardi to open Totonno’s. While the Totonno’s location is still the original location opened in 1924, the Lombardi’s of today does not reside at its original location. The original Lombardi’s was a block off of 32nd and Spring Street. It's new location is crowded and tight, one has to wonder how much smaller was the original pizza shop?
Totonno’s now has multiple locations and you don’t have to trek over to Coney Island to try their pizza. They have two locations in Manhattan, one in Midtown at 2nd Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets and a second location downtown also on 2nd Avenue between 26th and 27th. It's safe to say both Lombardi's and Tontonno's have become a culinary institution to New Yorkers, where the most devout consider Tontonno's most true to it's roots. Make your way to Coney Island for a true step back in history. That history has taken a hit however when in 2009 a fire broke out from it's coal oven causing extenstive damage. Tontonno's is so beloved, over 100 fire fighters came its rescue. Gone are the older stools and tables and photos of celebrities from long long ago. Tontonna's had more than pizza as part of it's nostalgic appeal. Thankfully there is still the pizza.
Wood Fired Pizza vrs Coal Fired Pizza
While here in Delaware we don’t have “coal oven” pizza, we do have wood burning “brick oven” pizza in name as many ordinances prohibit real brick ovens. Aside from that small authentic necessity two places in my own driving range stand out. The Chesapeake Inn located just over the Delaware line in the quaint town of Chesapeake City and Elizabeth’s Pizza located in the upscale and hardly down to earth part of Delaware ...Greenville. I enjoy both of these wood fired pizzas. However I will admit they do lack the final something that Lombardi’s offers. Is the difference is in the coal verses wood? There is in fact aunique taste each oven produces. Try them both and you'll notice a difference in the texture and crispiness in the crust.
These pizza shops will swear it’s mostly the oven that produces the light inside texture with the crispy outside. That may be the truth. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in pizza making at home and have done everything from bringing home dough balls from local pizza shops to make my own pizza dough from scratch. Similar to the principal in using more cane sugar in chocolate chip cookie dough to make the cookie more crunchy and brown sugar to make them softer, a similar principal is applied to pizza dough. It's a moisture process. Coal fires a hotter oven by 100 degrees. The outside chares fast and if taken from the oven at the correct time the inside dough is cooked to a 'just right' texture as well. That is the difference between wood fired and coal fired pizza. Perhaps there is more. Perhaps Lombardi’s and Totonno’s has a secret ingredient for texture. I’m not merely speaking of flour high in protein. The wonders of working with gluten in baking is a complex art and to this end Lombardi’s brick oven or coal oven pizza is taste that literally smolders in your mouth.
Why Seek Out Coal Fired Pizza
What makes coal oven pizza’s special? The fact is the oven temperature is over 700 degree’s. It takes just a few minutes of pie turning to produce a finished pie. You just can’t compare brick oven pizza to its contemporary counterpart, pizza we eat from local pizza shops with our Blogden Ovens. Variety is great but coal fired pizza is unique and special, it's a treat.
I’ve tried St. Mark’s Pizza at 8th and 3rd. While it is damn good, I must confess the oven coal pizza at Lombardi’s makes for a treat. If you go to Lombardi's in lower Manhattan, be prepared. They do not accept any form of credit cards. It is a cash only establishment. For a couple, have fifty dollars cash handy. A family of four, you should have about seventy dollars. It's not a cheap outing at Lombardi's.
I visit Manhattan plenty. I have also made the pilgrimage to Patsy’s and become quite fond of their wood fired pizza too. It's magical with fresh basil. Oh… and if you don’t know… Patsy is a guy, in fact he’s a second Patsy. There is always a story to tell. You see, Patsy learned from his uncle Patsy, and that uncle learned from… did you guess it? …Gennaro Lombardi. The story comes full circle.
You won’t find any more “coal” oven pizza shop’s beyond this list below as New York law won’t allow any new coal burning pizza shops. These are grandfathered, if they close… you’ll have one less to choose from, permanently.
In fairness to the rest of Manhattan. Here are some more great Pizza Shops.
117 West 57th Street, New York NY 10019
106 West Houston, New York NY 10012
331 West 38th Street, New York NY 10018
John's (Greenwich Village)
278 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014
John's (Times Square)
260 West 44th Street, New York NY 10036
32 Spring Street, New York NY 10012 (Corner of Mott and Spring)
Luzzo's (coal and wood combined)
211 First Avenue, New York NY 10009
Patsy's (The Original: East Harlem)
2287 First Avenue, New York NY 10035
318 West 23rd Street, New York NY 10011
Patsy's (Lenox Hill)
206 East 60th Street, New York 10022
Patsy's (Upper East Side)
1312 Second Avenue, New York NY 10021
Patsy's (Union Square)
67 University Place, New York NY 10003
Patsy's (Upper West Side - My personal favorite Patsy's)
61 West 74th Street, New York NY 10023
Totonno's (Second Ave. and 26th Street)
462 Second Avenue, New York NY 10016
Totonno's (Upper East Side)
1544 Second Avenue, New York NY 10028