New York pizza is often used in sentences that are accompanied by words like “delicious” or “the best.” But what really makes New York pizza so good?
Some say it is the minerals in the city’s water supply while others argue that it is a placebo effect driven by confirmation bias and emotional reasoning. According to studies, the answer may lie somewhere in between.
Theory #1: Water
New York City has long held the reputation of having “soft water” which theoretically influences the quality of bread, bagels, and most notably; pizza. The vast majority of city’s water comes from either the Delaware or Catskill watersheds and is then transferred to the Hillview Reservoir for chemical treatment and ph balance. From there it travels through a nearly 7,000 mile nexus of pipes (mostly iron & steel) to finally reach city residents after its 3-12 month journey. Whether exaggerated or not, NYC is said to have the champagne of tap water and the 2nd softest water in the country (behind only Boston). Its reputation doesn’t seem to be dissolving any time soon.
Is NYC’s water supply conducive to superior pizza dough? The answer according to Serious Eats is not really. The NY water theory states that the water’s mineral content (measured by PPM) lends itself to fresher crust but a study performed by Serious Eats appears to disprove it. Several other variables were found to have a greater influence over the perceived quality of the pizza. The results showed that crispiness was the prominent factor in determining pizza quality but that water was not directly responsible for achieving peak crispiness. Despite the in-depth look at this theory, the sample size was not large enough to be considered definitive either way.
Theory #2: Confirmation Bias
For New Yorkers, pizza quality is a subject held near and dear to their hearts. Not unlike their beloved Yankees, residents are going to have a superiority complex about their culinary excellence. Having been renowned for their pizza for so long, New Yorkers may have developed a subconscious superiority complex from this long standing belief. The aesthetics of the city might also facilitate this perception with the backdrop of the pizza experience being enhanced by an almost cliche environment. Much of the city’s culture has been connected to pizzerias. The presence of generational italian restaurants has made its way into the plot lines of iconic New York films like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing
Many transients push back against this theory having recognized a noticeable increase in New York pizza quality — even when their allegiance is to another city. Back in the late 90’s, New York Pizza was an unrivaled champion of pizza. However, recent polls (within the past 5 years) suggest the tide may be turning. New York City is no longer universally recognized as having the top slices in the country… at least according to some anonymous polls. The problem in concluding on this theory (either way) is that the subconscious can work in ways that are not quantifiable. Relying only on the subjective lens of an individual is far from an ideal method but in the case of pizza quality, it may play some role.
Theory #3: Tradition, Skill, & Expertise
When looking for reasons why a city’s pizza quality is superior to others, the most sensible place to look is at the people making it. New York City has a great tradition of pizzerias many of which have been passed down from generations prior… along with the techniques that helped popularize them. As is the case with any craft, perfecting it becomes easier when you’ve been around it your whole life. Understanding the subtleties of pie making, from fermentation to blending ingredients, is an art, a craft, and an indisputable skill. Many of the city’s top pie makers have lineage that traces back to the early 1900’s… when the city first started tapping its water from the Catskills. It’s not surprising to learn they have honed their craft well over time.
If it is only about tradition, skill, and expertise, a New York native would have no problem packing up and bringing his or her pizza making excellence to a different city, right? Yes and no. There are countless New Yorkers who have opened up shop in different parts of the country but to varying degrees of success. Many find that those who stayed within the tri-state region (NY, NJ, CT) have retained a higher quality than those who’ve migrated South or West. In some cases, pizzerias with roots in New York City have expanded into nationwide chains… including
into California, Louisiana and Texas. The most notable example of this is Grimaldi’s. Does every Grimaldi’s location have the same quality of pizza? No. And that goes back to who’s making it.
New York pizza is great for several reasons. The most likely factor in its greatness is the individuals who are making the pies themselves… especially their tradition, lineage, and long-honed craft. Still, there’s strong indicators that the quality is further enhanced by the water supply in the city. Although no one has been able to prove these factors as indisputable truths, the evidence suggests that they are at the very least; possible. As for the aesthetics of the city and the confirmation bias of those within it, the jury is still out. Your best chance at conclusive evidence will be to travel to NYC yourself and order a couple of slices on a summer afternoon.