If you were to ask the average American what style of pizza they would prefer, you would find that the New York-style pizza dominates all of the coastal regions of the United States. Chicago is the preference in the Midwest, while New Haven-style pizza has pockets of love in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
There are more than 500,000 pizzas consumed in New York every day, which means NYC can see over 3 billion pies made with its unique holdable style. The average person eats about 46 slices per year. Households that make more than $75,000 per year tend to consume the most pizza, but the figures are strong in every income demographic.
Most pizzerias will use more than 50 boxes per day, but the most popular establishments in the city can reach more than 1,000 of them. 94% of New Yorkers say that they regularly eat pizza, which is a rate that is consistent with what you will find with all Americans.
New York-style pizza is one of the most expensive options in the United States as well. You’ll pay an average of $16 for a pie in the city, which is double the cost that Midwesterners pay for their version. About 1 in 8 people in the U.S. eat pizza on any given day, and Americans are responsible for eating one-third of the pies in the world.
What Is New York-Style Pizza?
New York-style pizza features a large, hand-tossed thin crust. Operators often sell it in wide slices that you can fold because it stays crisp along the ends only. You can choose to place almost any toppings on this pie, although the traditional approach is to use a simple tomato sauce and some mozzarella cheese.
Like New Haven-style pizza, the approach in NYC takes a derivation from the Neapolitan styles that were first made in Italy in the 18th century. You can find this style available throughout the New England states, but it is also starting to spread across the U.S. for those who crave the fold-up flavors from the East Coast.
You can purchase New York-style pizza by the slice, but it is the whole pie experience that makes NYC feel like home. Look for pizzerias that feature family recipes, traditional preparation styles, and coal-fired ovens to experience the best flavors of this style.
History of New York-Style Pizza
The first pizzeria in the United States began serving large and full pies in the early 20th century. Lombardi’s is arguably the most well-known establishment in the industry, selling their first version of New York-style pizza in 1905. They sold slices for a nickel at the time.
One of the employees from Lombardi’s, Antonio Totonno Pero, decided to take his knowledge from the pizza business to open his own operation on Coney Island. Both of these original innovators used coal-fired ovens. Patsy’s joined these two in 1933 to serve the Harlem area, and you can still visit all three restaurants today.
If you want the New York-style pizza which routinely receives the designation as being the best in the city, then you’ll need to visit Di Fara Pizza, which began fusing the traditional style with some NYC flair in the 1960s.
There are also numerous restaurants which have the name of Ray in the title, but the first was opened in Little Italy in 1959. That location closed in 2011. Most of the names, which include World-Famous Original Ray’s Pizza, are independently owned and operated sites that have nothing to do with the first owner, who was actually named Ralph.
What Makes New York-Style Pizza Different?
New York-style pizza features a heavily-seasoned tomato sauce, using crushed red pepper, basil, oregano, salt, sugar, garlic, and olive oil as its base. Instead of using fresh produce for the foundation like most other styles, NYC pizzerias typically use canned tomatoes or sauces. That is quite different from the classic Neapolitan recipe that always uses uncooked crushed tomatoes and salt.
New York pizza always features a low-moisture mozzarella as its primary cheese topping as well, whereas Neapolitan pies use fresh slices of cheese, often made in-house on-the-spot, as part of the recipe.
You can add toppings to your New York-style pizza in whatever variation you desire based on what the operator provides. Most restaurants allow you to choose from pepperoni, sausage, and several different vegetables. You can add other kinds of cheese on top of the mozzarella as well.
What really makes the New York-style pizza different from all of the rest is the emphasis on condiments. When you order a slice or an entire pie, you can add numerous products to the surface, creating a flavor profile that’s uniquely your own. Common choices include grated Parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, dried oregano, and garlic powder.
Oh yeah, people also say it’s the minerals in the water that make the pizza so good.
The Most Well-Known New York-Style Pizza Restaurants
Below are examples of popular New York-style pizza restaurants.
Make your way down to Little Italy, and you will see the innovators who created New York-style pizza for the first time. Their coal oven is still baking pies at a fast clip, using fresh whole-milk mozzarella, basil and classic tomato sauces that they’ve featured since 1905.
You’ll find a variety of menu options that go beyond pizza today when you visit, including Grandma Grace’s meatballs that feature Sunday gravy and shaved Romano cheese. Whole toppings include wild mushrooms, extra tomato sauce, and anchovies. You can opt for a white variety as well.
If a slice doesn’t seem right, you can design a calzone with the same flavors that have made this restaurant an American icon for more than a century.
This family-owned establishment will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2021, often receiving awards for the quality of their homemade dough and approach to coal-based baking. Food Network named this operator as the best pizza in America. The James Beard Foundation, Zagat, and the New York Times have made similar recommendations.
You will still find them at their Coney Island location, even surviving Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – although they spent five months rebuilding their place. If you crave authentic flavors, you may not find a better spot outside of Little Italy than these folks.
Founder Patsy Lanceri was said to have learned the art of making New York-style pizza at the coal ovens of Lombardi’s once upon a time, but this establishment’s claim to fame is the pizza-by-the-slice approach to dining. Despite ownership battles over the years, this restaurant helped to keep the love of classic, traditional pizza alive in the city. It is now treated as a culinary landmark.
A 2019 story adds to the brand’s legacy as a waiter returned a cashier’s check valued at more than $423,000 to a customer who left it on their table. That person didn’t even leave a tip, claiming that women weren’t featured prominently enough in the restaurant.
4. Joe’s Pizza.
This place is where you want to be if a plain slice is what you fancy. The sauce and cheese are in the perfect combination. You can still fold-over the slices if you wish, but it comes out thinner so that you can eat like the other styles as well. You can add fresh mozzarella if you want to enjoy a luxurious experience. You’ll find them in the West Village.
5. New York Pizza Suprema.
If you prefer the white version of a New York-style pizza, then this Chelsea-based pizzeria is the place to be. The operators take a no-frills approach, arriving before Madison Square Garden set up shop. People used to visit this restaurant asking for toppings, to which the staff would often refuse.
Salvatore Riggio founded this restaurant in 1964 and refused requests to add items to his menu as well. The family belief was that if you wanted to be successful, you needed to do one thing, and do it better than anyone else. The sauce is made every morning, and just enough for the day comes through to guarantee perfect flavors.
6. John’s of Bleecker Street.
This establishment features a coal-fired brick oven that takes the traditional approach to New York-style pizza. Although this pizzeria is not treated as one of the originals in the city, it was founded in 1929 and still produces hundreds of pizzas per day.
Stepping into their restaurant is like taking a trip back through time. You will see the old wooden booths, art deco floors worn out by the footsteps of time, and a tin ceiling which speaks of a different era. When you are here, the pizza feels like it is an original.
Why People Love New York-Style Pizza
The reason why there is a love affair with New York-style pizza in the city and across the United States is that the flavor profile is a mystery. Some people say that the fluoride and mineral content of the city’s water creates a thin, airy crust provides the right amount of flexibility and support for firm dough.
Some customers think that the top pizzerias in NYC import their dough from Italy to provide consistent results.
The reasons why people love New York-style pizza can be very different, but there tends to be one common point of agreement: the coal ovens. NYC pizzerias often use coal-fired ovens that cook the pies at exceptionally high temperatures.
Most of the ovens are still the original ones that were used 50-100 years ago, depending on the restaurant you decide to visit. After making tens of thousands of pizzas, the seasoning processes create consistent results. All of the vapors from sauce and cheese over the decades contribute to something special.
Here are some of the other reasons why New York-style pizza is so loved.
1. There is more chewiness to the dough.
Thin-crust pizzas tend to provide a crisp, almost toast-like consistency when served. Pizzerias in New York who feature this style tend to knead the dough less, which means more air pockets form while baking. This process lends to more chewiness while still providing a crunchy edge.
2. Operators use family recipes.
There are plenty of places in NYC where you can get a slice of pizza for $1 – and sometimes less. What these cheap pizzerias don’t feature are time-honored family recipes that took decades to develop. You might pay a little more for better ingredients, but it is worth the investment once you take a bite.
3. It can be easier to eat than other pizza types.
What makes the New York-style pizza unique is the fact that it is such a flexible option. You can fold it over to eat while walking, riding in a taxi, or enjoying a quiet moment with a friend at a corner table. You can order takeout to eat at home while watching a movie or getting some work done. The options are almost endless.
4. The recipes are consistent, which means excellent flavors are always possible.
Although most pizzerias give you the option to add toppings today, you will still find the occasional operator providing mozzarella and sauce only. The recipes are simple, which makes them consistent. When you place an order with one of the best operators in the city, then you know what you are going to get with that pizza.
A Final Thought About New York-Style Pizza
The world might be changing, but New York-style pizza continues to provide outstanding slices or whole pies in the same way they did almost a century ago. Going to one of the best pizzerias in the city means more than getting a meal. It is an entire family experience.
Some places offer slices. Others let you make reservations. There are still some cash-only dives and takeout only establishments that you will find throughout the city as well. What they all have in common is hot pizza, the smell of simmering sauce, and the conversation and laughter of happy diners.
You can find New York-style pizza throughout the United States, but it is never better than when you can enjoy a slice or a whole pie in the city.
Photo: Bob Wong