New York Pizza - Round, Square, Grandma's and Ray's
New York pizza is probably the best known pizza "type" in the world - but it's evolved, grown, and spawned several important subtypes worthy of mentioning here.
NOTE: most pizzerias in New York City sell pizza either in whole pies or by the slice. If a New York pizza place doesn't sell slices, they'll let you know!
First, the basic NY Pie, usually known as Neapolitan, or 'round'. Referred to by several pizza writers and aficionados as "neo-Neapolitan", because it differs from the true Neapolitan pizza in many significant ways (see our page on Verace Pizza Napoletana). The New York pizza found on just about every street in the City and suburbs is round in shape with a reasonably thin crust (not wafer thin, maybe around 1/4"), with sauce, aged mozzarella cheese, garlic (usually pronounced gah-lick) powder, and various toppings. Usually made in a gas oven, the dough is stretched (occasionally tossed, but that's mostly for the tourists), covered with a sauce primarily made of canned tomatoes with spices or a cooked sauce, and liberally covered with cheese.
The second most common style of pizza in New York City is the Sicilian, or 'square' pie. Characterized by its thick crust, sicilian pizza is baked in an oiled pan, giving the crust a completely different taste from that of its round cousin. The crust of a sicilian pie is much more bready than the neopolitan, and usually has a tomato sauce that was more thoroughly cooked before the baking of the pie. Most places also use a lot of cheese on Sicilian pizza. More and more, it seems like New York pizza is defined by "a lotta cheese."
A notable exception is L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn. L & B grates their cheese over the sauce, producing a lighter slice. Not light, but lighter, and more balanced with less cheese, with a taste like no other.
Spumoni Gardens is more than just great and unique Sicilian pizza - it's a journey into a working class Italian-American Brooklyn that most Americans haven't seen outside the movies. If you visit Brookyn and you haven't been to L & B, go for the pizza, the spumoni (a delicious ice milk dessert) and for the overheard conversations! Just don't listen too closely, capisce?
On Long Island, and slowly entering New York City over the past decade or so, is the Grandma's pizza. Also square and pan-baked, but much thinner than Sicilian, using a fresher sauce (generally just canned tomatoes and spices) and often fresh mozzarella. Invented at Umberto's in New Hyde Park
, literally bursting with deliciousness and deviously light, Grandma's pizza has become one of our favorite pizza types.
The quintessential article on Grandma's pizza and its history was written by Erica Marcus for Newsday in 2003. The article was reprinted in Newsday's food blog in September 2008 and can be found here.
While it's not very difficult to find amazingly good pizza in New York City, many New Yorkers agree that the general quality of New York pizza has declined tremendously in our lifetime. The mere existence of chain and franchise pizza restaurants in NYC shows how things have changed - a Pizza Hut or even a Sbarro's trying to open in Manhattan, Brooklyn or The Bronx 25 years ago would have been met with a loud "getoutaheah" and "fuggedaboutit"; now they're everywhere! And many neighborhood pizzerias, traditionally the keepers of the flame, now produce an overcheesed and undercooked product, giving the consumer a feeling of fullness and a 'pizza-esque' taste, in some cases out-franchising the franchises!
How did this happen? The major cause is the shift in generations - the older pizzaioli are mostly out of the game and the younger generation doesn't want to make pizza - leaving the art and craft of pizza making in the hands of those who lack the skill and/or passion.
It seems to have been one or more of the Ray's Pizza places that began the 'cheesification' of New York pizza.
Who is Ray and what has he done to my pizza?
As you travel the streets of Manhattan, you'll see many pizzerias bearing the name "Ray's Pizza" or "Original Ray's Pizza," or most commonly, "Famous Original Ray's Pizza." In fact, an episode of The Simpsons that aired in the late 1990's featured a pizzeria with a sign that read, "Famous Original Ray's Pizza - Not Affiliated With Famous Original Ray's Pizza!"
All Ray's pizzas and slices, no matter where they are, are distinguished by a doughy undercooked crust, plentiful toppings, and mozzarella cheese both under and OVER the toppings! And some people just love it.
Who is Ray? Well, the question of Ray's identity has never been as important to New Yorkers as which was the first Ray's, or Famous Ray's, or Original Ray's, or Famous Original Ray's. Cary always thought it was the Ray's pictured above, the one on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, where he had OD'd on the mozzarella many times back in the '70's. Cary was incorrect.
Almost twenty years ago, there was a legal war among a number of pizzeria owners claiming to own the name Ray's Pizza. People still argue over this, although the mystery seems to have been solved in a 1991 New York Times article:
Documents gathered during the Rays' legal battle show that there was no Ray's Pizza listed in the 1959 Manhattan telephone book. That was the year Ralph Cuomo, the 22-year-old son of immigrants from southern Italy, opened a pizzeria in Little Italy, using his mother's recipe.
It was at 27 Prince Street, between Mott and Elizabeth Streets, on the first floor of a building that his family lived in and owned. The next year's telephone book listed the name: Ray's Pizza.
Could there have been a Ray's Pizza without a phone in the 1950's? Sure. But nobody has come forward to dispute Mr. Cuomo's place as the authentic original Ray. And he's still serving up the slices at 27 Prince Street.
Now if you're not confused enough, even though the Ray's at 27 Prince is the original Ray's Pizza, it's not one of the pizzerias known as Famous Original Ray's Pizza. In the same 1991 article, Ralph Cuomo says, "Their pizza gives us a bad name...I don't want to knock anyone else, but there's nothing like our Ray's."
In our opinion, if you really love your mozzarella, one Ray's is about as good as another. And for better or worse, it's New York pizza.
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