Pizza is no longer a humble business in New York. Although you will still find the dollar-a-slice joints on various corners of 8th Avenue, they fade into the background when you start looking at the serious pizza offerings now available – and these are definitely not a dollar a slice (this was a bit of a shock for my British wallet). As I write this, I read a comment from Infatuation NYC: ‘even our [NYC] trash pizza would be a treasure elsewhere’. I’m not sure if I agree, but I get the sentiment that pizza in NYC is a serious business indeed.
Good pizza here tends to fall into two categories: the old-school, traditional New York pies – floppy, huge proportions, the right amount of grease collecting in pools across the slice – made at the long-standing Italian-American pizza institutions – but even some of these have fallen behind their newer, shinier competitors; the ‘artisan’ pizzerias, which seek to make pizzas in the authentic, Napoli-style, in handsome wood-fired ovens roaring in the open kitchen for patrons to see where their pizza is being perfected. The former have been part of the New York food scene for decades; the latter only in the last few years, sprouting up like mushrooms over downtown Manhattan and hipsterville Brooklyn.
In my most recent trip to NYC, I was determined to find out where the best pizzas were now to be found, and how they compared to their competitors back home in London, where pizza is also extremely popular and of high quality. Writing this post, I am transported back to the numerous pizza joints I visited, both at daytime and evening, in rain and shine, the memories of glossy, invitingly hot pizzas and slices dancing before my eyes. It’s a joy to recall. My immediate observations were:
- The best pizza is to be found in downtown Manhattan but mainly Brooklyn, where the explosion of artisan pizzerias has really taken the area by storm;
- Good pizza is expensive, much more than it would be in London and (not surprisingly) Italy – the average price for a plain Margherita will set you back around $18 pre-tax, compared to an average of about £7 in London. I just couldn’t understand this.
- The best pizza isn’t necessarily the artisan, wood-fired kind – to my genuine surprise! Some of the old-school New York pizzerias still hold their own amongst the new wave of pizza places, and there was a real surprise discovery for me, too, which made it to my favourites list (read on).
Of course, pizza lovers will have their own preferences, but here is my summary of the best – and not so great – pizzas in New York…
1. Paulie Gee’s (60 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222), nearest Metro station Greenpoint Av (G line)
I don’t know whether Paulie Gee’s is strictly a New York pizza joint, or a small pizza chain which has a branch in Brooklyn (as well as Miami, Columbus (OH), Baltimore and Chicago). It doesn’t really matter, because the pizza is pretty fine, and surprisingly creative. The atmosphere is pretty much the standard for a Brooklyn pizzeria: dimly lit, casual dining, consciously shabby wooden tables, open kitchen at the back where the beautiful wood-fired oven – with ‘Napoli’ written boldly across the top – roars continuously as the pizzaolos do their whirling and twirling to prepare the pizzas before chucking them into the oven’s open mouth.
What really impressed me was the extensive menu, rich with really inventive flavours. Many of these cater for vegetarians and vegans, and you can sub any meat on the carnivorous options for house-made vegan fennel sausage. Their signature pizza is the Hellboy, with spicy soppressata and hot honey, but that wasn’t to my taste. My curiosity was piqued by the variety of the menu, so instead of going for the standard Margherita (actually, I don’t think they even have a standard Margherita – the closest options are the Brian de Parma, Greenpointer, and King Harry Classic without the prosciutto), I couldn’t resist trying one of their more creative options: the Spectacle Too (Italian tomatoes, Pecorino Romano, fresh mozzarella, sliced cremini mushrooms and post-oven speck), subbing out the speck for the vegan sausage.
The verdict: the base was a bit too much on the crisp side of the crisp/chewy scale for me, and I would have loved a bit more mozzarella on the pizza. Also, it wasn’t piping hot when it got to me, but I think this is because they were so busy and there’s only one person doing the slicing and serving. But the tomato sauce was tasty and juicy, the base wasn’t soggy, and the vegan sausage was delicious and packed with flavour. I was ogling other people’s pizzas (standard practice for me), and they all looked interesting and worth a try.
Would I come back? Yes. I’d love to try more of their pizzas. Oh, and the owner (is that Paulie? I didn’t ask) walks around and asks the patrons if everything is OK, which is a nice touch.
And they’ll be opening a slice shop round the corner from their restaurant soon…
2. Arcade Bakery (220 Church Street (between Worth and Thomas), Manhattan, NY 10013). Nearest Metro station Chambers St (A, C lines)
Yep, this is the surprise. If you were walking down the street, it would be easy to walk past this bakery, nestled inside an unassuming office building. Even if you happen to spot the building (with no external signage to tell you what’s inside – it just says ‘220’ in large numbers across the doorway) and walk inside, you might still be a bit confused about how a bakery could possibly be here – until you see the rather cute seating built into the alcoves on either side of the corridor, and then, on the right, a large glass window where you can see the goods being baked and then displayed, and an opening where you can order some goodies.
This is the renegade entry because it is a bakery, not a pizzeria, but they offer fresh flatbread pizzas for lunch from 12pm until they run out of dough or until 4.45pm, whichever comes earliest. The menu is limited: when I went, they had the regular margherita and a special, and that was it. But who cares when you can’t go wrong anyway? I ordered the special, which was goats’ cheese, asparagus, mushroom and rocket. And wow, was it delicious. Like, really delicious. The asparagus was well seasoned with a gentle zing of lemon, each topping was perfect in its own right, and the base was just perfect – it was a proper pizza in my opinion, calling it a flatbread is too humble. I got covetous looks as I ate this outside in a nearby seating area, with one woman asking me where I had got it from because it looked so good. And it’s well-priced, with the regular tomato, mozzarella and basil at $9 + tax, and the special at around $13 + tax. I wish I could have gone more than once. This place feels like a real bonus ‘secret’ find (although, clearly, it’s not a secret).
NOTE: this place is only open from Monday to Friday. If you want pizza at the weekend, you’ll have to look at one of the other options.
3. Emily’s (919 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11238) nearest Metro station Clinton-Washington (C line)
I committed pizza treachery here, and didn’t order pizza on my first trip to Emily’s. No. I ordered the burger instead, because it comes highly recommended, and there are limited supplies every night. And I do not regret my decision. Oh no. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, and when I came back for the pizza a couple of nights later, I noticed that several tables split a burger and a pizza for their meal. Just the fact that you can have a burger and a pizza in the same meal commends this place to me, but on top of that the pizza menu is unique and interesting. It’s divided into ‘reds’ (tomato base), ‘greens’ (tomatillo base – I have never seen this anywhere else and I loved the look of it as I shamelessly ogled others’ pizzas), ‘pinks’ (vodka sauce base – a base made with tomatoes, vodka, herbs and cream) and ‘whites’ (bianco base, no tomatoes). I ordered the ‘Emily’ from the ‘whites’, which is apparently the most popular. It’s the most expensive pizza ($22) because of the truffle, but it’s worth it: the taste that hit me in the first bite was exceptional. I was nervous that the honey would make it too sweet, but the other flavours were so strong that it was the perfect balance. But it wasn’t entirely perfect…
The base is not a fluffy, airy Neapolitan base; it definitely sits in the crispy camp. You might be disappointed if you’re a crust fan because these are edge-to-edge topping pizzas with little dough left visible. But the base is so thin it’s light, and it is not crispy hard like Rubirosa (which reminded me a bit of cardboard), but softer where the toppings are, and charred-crispy at the crust. However, the pizza started getting crunchy quite quickly as it cooled, which made it difficult to cut. If you’re a purist New Yorker and fold your pizza, you may be wondering why cutting utensils are even being mentioned, so this will be irrelevant. I think eating my pizza with a knife and fork makes it last longer, so I use them, but halfway through this became quite tricky as I struggled to cut the pizza.
Also, the flavour of this pizza is so punchy that I almost wished I had a milder, tomato-based pizza to go with it. The solution would be to order this as part of a group dinner where you can mix and share.
Would I come back? Yes, definitely. I was eyeing up other people’s pizzas with keen interest, and the ‘green’ pizzas and the classic margherita looked amazing – the tomato sauce looked vibrantly red and really juicy.
Tip – if you’re eating solo, do try and go early, because even on weeknights it gets busy really quickly and they don’t take reservations for parties of less than two people.
4. Roberta’s (261 Moore Street, Brooklyn 11206) nearest Metro station Morgan Avenue (L line)
Same vibe as Paulie Gee’s, and also offering decent pizza. I ordered the Nun on the Run ($19 + tax), which was a really punchy pizza on a good, light base. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed greens on my pizza as much as I did here – this had Alp blossom and Brussels sprouts (and caramelised onions, capers, lemon and chili), and it was really tasty. It was a bit pricy for the size of the pizza, and the menu isn’t quite as varied as Paulie Gee’s or Emily’s, but it’s still worth a visit.
Bonus entry: Juliana’s (19 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201) nearest Metro stations High Street (A, C lines), Clark Street (2, 3 lines), York Street (F line),
Although I didn’t manage to visit it this time, I was flicking through old photos and came across this…
This is what photos are for, to remind me of incredible food experiences. Look at that pie! This is definitely in my favourite list, and it is an old-school New York pizza that still holds its own against the others in this list.
Worth a try…
Rubirosa (235 Mulberry Street, NY 10012)
I’m going to say something controversial here, but I didn’t really enjoy the pizza at Rubirosa. I came for their Pizza Hour, where you can order four varieties of their pizzas (classic/Fresca, Vodka, Rubirosa Supreme and the Arugula) by the slice (between $3-4 each) between 4-5pm. I thought it would be a good opportunity to try the different pizzas without committing to a whole one. I ordered the Fresca, the Fresca with pesto, and a Vodka with pesto (to try and recreate their Tie Dye pizza, which is not included in the Pizza Hour). This is Italian American pizza at its thinnest. There was no crispy/chewy ratio to measure the base against: this was crispy to the point of being crunchy. I don’t know if this was because I had it by the slice, and they had been reheated; maybe the whole pizzas are softer? I was searching for the flavour, chewing each bite thoroughly to extract maximum taste, but it wasn’t there for me. The pesto topping was generous, so much so that it was a bit overwhelming after a few bites.
The service was friendly, though, and there was a great, warm atmosphere – like a party that was warming up.
Sorry, Rubirosa. You have many New Yorkers’ hearts, but you don’t have mine.
Artichoke Basille’s (114 10th Avenue, NY 10011, other branches downtown)
A New Yorker recommended this place to me, so I had to try it. Her favourite was the signature Artichoke slice, but just looking at it made me queasy (it’s a semi-deep-pan style base topped with artichoke hearts, a cream sauce, spinach, pecorino romano and mozzarella cheeses), so I opted for the Margherita slice, which had just come out of the oven. This was an expensive slice at $6, but it wasn’t just a slice, it was a meal. It was so laden with toppings that the only way you can eat it is with a knife and fork (lame, who does that with a slice?) or fold and eat. Even then, it was messy, but it was good. Not traditional pizza in any real sense, but I still enjoyed it.
Corner Slice (Gotham West Market, 600 11th Av between 44th and 45th Street)
This is a new kind of New York slice, where the hero is the base. A light, airy, focaccia-style base made in-house using artisan techniques, the team here are proud of what they offer, and it’s reasonably priced, too ($3-4 a slice). The slices are square not round (they make whole pies too), the toppings were fresh and juicy, and although it’s not my favourite, I’d certainly stop for a slice as a snack if I was passing through.
Best Pizza (33 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn 11211) nearest Metro Bedford Street (L line)
There was nothing best about the pizza here. I popped in to get a quick slice as I was famished after getting squashed in Smorgasburg – it was too hot and crowded to eat anything there. This place was quiet and I got a regular slice ($3.25) – and it tasted like cardboard with paste on top. I ate it because I was too hungry not to, but I was genuinely surprised at how this had made any recommended pizza lists – and if this is from the same team that founded Roberta’s, then sadly it doesn’t show. This, in my opinion, is trash pizza.
Kesté (271 Bleecker Street, NY 10014) nearest Metro station West 4th Street Washington Square (A, B, C, D, E, F, M lines)
To say this was plain ugly is unfair, but it was certainly a disappointment. This place had all the promise of a good pizza: nice setting, Italian staff (this could be controversial, but I always think it’s more authentic), and when my Margherita ($16 + tax) arrived it looked good – lovely rounds of mozzarella on generous amounts of tomato sauce and topped with basil. Sadly, the flavour was a real let down. The texture was good: fluffy, light base with an airy crust. However, there was no flavour in the sauce or the cheese, no matter how thoroughly I chewed (as if more chewing would release the flavour – it didn’t work). A shame.
For a comparison against the best pizzas in London, see my blog post here.