Ever since I took over the editing chair at Pizza Marketplace, a handful of names have kept popping up in connection with the phrase "world's best pizza." Quite a few of those names are attached to pizzerias in New York.
So, when I traveled to New York in mid-March to attend the 15th annual International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York, I thought I'd see for myself. When I wasn't busy walking the show floor, I was roaming the city in search of great pizza.
Di Fara Pizza 1424 Avenue J Brooklyn, N.Y.
We hear stories and see articles about Di Fara on a weekly basis here at Pizza Marketplace. Dominic DeMarco has been operating Di Fara for more than 40 years, and the story is that DeMarco is the only one who touches the pizzas before they're served.
Di Fara frequently makes "best of" lists around New York, and the tiny pizzeria is the subject of numerous Internet discussions.
Last year, health inspectors sparked outrage among pizza lovers for briefly shutting down the restaurant after it failed several health inspections. The inspections were part of a city-wide crackdown that followed the videotaping of rats cavorting at a Manhattan Taco Bell.
More recently, Di Fara was in the news for raising the price of a slice of pizza to $4, making it one of the most expensive slices in New York.
I hopped on the subway near Times Square on Sunday evening and headed out to Midwood, a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in the heart of Brooklyn. When I got off at the Avenue J stop, I already could smell the pizza.
Because the 71-year-old DeMarco is the sole pizza maker, the pace at which customers get their order has its limits. I wasn't surprised to see a line out the door of the restaurant when I arrived.
Once inside the small lobby, I exposed myself as a rube by snapping a few pictures. However, the regulars went easy on me.
"Don't worry about it," said a man standing in line next to me. "We've all done it at one time or another."
Other customers told me about their Di Fara experiences while we waited, and everyone seemed impressed that I had traveled from Kentucky to visit the shop. Even DeMarco himself asked where I was from.
There's no real system at Di Fara for placing your order, and in typical New York fashion how quickly you get to the front of the line depends on how aggressive you are. After about 30 minutes, I finally made it to the front of the line and ordered two plain slices.
"Better make it three," someone quipped, so three it was.
DeMarco makes the pizzas at Di Fara using fresh dough, sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes and three kinds of mozzarella imported from Italy. He drizzles each pie with olive oil before placing them in the oven and tops them with fresh Israeli basil, trimmed from plants growing in the window. A sprinkling of Parmigiano-reggiano completes the creation.
I took my three slices and found a chair in the tiny dining room, sat down and, with the crowd watching expectantly, I took my first bite. "How is it, Kentucky?" someone asked.
"Pretty darn good," I responded.
In fact, I was a little disappointed. My expectations of Di Fara's pizza were so high that the reality was a bit of a letdown. I didn't levitate out of my chair at the first bite and my hair didn't stand on end.
On the ride back to Manhattan, however, my mouth still was tingling with the spiciness of the sauce, the interplay between the flavors of the cheeses and the crispness of the slightly charred crust. By the time I got to Times Square, I was ready to head back for another couple of slices.
Grimaldi's Pizzeria 19 Old Fulton St. Brooklyn, N.Y.
Grimaldi's Pizzeria is underneath the Brooklyn Bridge just around the corner from the often-photographed Brooklyn Promenade. For years, the Zagat Survey has ranked Grimaldi's the No. 1 pizzeria in New York, and the Food Network lists the spot as one of the top five pizzerias in the country.
Founder Patsy Grimaldi, who learned the art of pizza making in the 1940s from his uncle, believed that the best pizzas came from a coal-fired oven. Although Grimaldi intended to open a pizzeria in Manhattan, zoning laws there prevented the building of new coal-fired ovens, so he opted for Brooklyn instead.
The restaurant opened in 1990 as Patsy's Pizzeria, although a lawsuit forced a name change in 1996 to Grimaldi's.
I arrived at Grimaldi's at about 5 p.m., early enough to beat the line that inevitably forms around dinnertime. A sign on the front door proclaims "No Slices," and the dining room features numerous autographed pictures of celebrities as well as a 1938 mug shot of Frank Sinatra.
Grimaldi's uses tomatoes imported from Italy, fresh dough and fresh mozzarella. The sausage topping also is made on-site, according to operator Joe Silvestri.
A plain 16-inch pizza is $12, with additional toppings $2 each. I opted for sausage on mine.
Grimaldi's pizza is made in a style prevalent in Brooklyn, with thin slices of mozzarella underneath the sauce, topped with fresh basil and Italian sausage. The crust is thin, soft around the edges and crisp, charred and smoky underneath.
I ate four of the six slices before throwing in the towel. The remaining slices served as a late-night treat back in my hotel room.
John's Pizzeria 278 Bleecker St. Greenwich Village
I wanted to give some play to a Manhattan pizzeria, although deciding on which one out of the dozens in the borough proved to be a daunting task. I settled on John's, located in one of the most colorful and historic neighborhoods in the city.
John Sasso opened his namesake pizzeria in 1929, and his family still operates the pizzeria. Sasso is said to have learned pizza-making from Gennaro Lombardi, who opened the country's first pizzeria in Little Italy in 1905.
As a side note, John's was another restaurant caught up in the Taco Bell video fallout and was shuttered for one day last year.
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For a change of pace I ordered a 14-inch "Pizza Bianca," or white pizza. John's also has a "no slices" policy, and for some reason I thought the absence of sauce would enable me to finish the entire pizza.
John's white pizza, which has a smooth, buttery flavor, is a mixture of cheese, garlic and olive oil on the type of thin, smoky-flavored crust I was quickly falling in love with. Again, I was able to finish only four slices before giving up.
The bottom line Were these the best pizzas in the country? I'll reserve judgment in that regard. While all of the pizzas I tried were excellent, I have a distinct feeling their flavors were further enhanced by the fact that they're in New York. Somehow, a slice of pizza eaten while sitting under a mug shot of Frank Sinatra, listening to the rattle of a passing subway and the blare of car horns, has its own unique flavor that can't be duplicated anywhere else.