The Vanguard

Saraghina in Brooklyn.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

1. Kesté
271 Bleecker St., nr. Morton St.; 212-243-1500
At the risk of being run out of town by an angry, pizza-peel-wielding mob, we have to concede that the No. 1 pizza in New York is no longer Italian-American, but straight out of Naples. So much for 100 years of local tradition. Not only that, the top pie is made by a former cheese salesman from Italy named Roberto Caporuscio, who in his spare time serves as the American-chapter president of the Associazone Pizzaiouli Napoletana (an organization dedicated to teaching any pizza maker with ten days’ time and $4,000 to spare the error of his ways). Also, Caporuscio is on record as saying that “it’s not that New York pizza is bad, it’s just that it isn’t Neapolitan.” And did we mention that the name of his four-month-old pizzeria is Kesté? Translation from the native dialect: “This is it.” If all that sounds like a bit much, it’s not without merit. Tucking into Kesté’s “Regina Margherita” can seem like eating pizza for the first time. A few bites in, and you’re struck by the sensation that life, such as it is, may have nothing more to offer. Chalk it up to a superb Neapolitan crust—soft and tender, charred and chewy—with a mountainous cornicione (crust edge) full of the moist and wildly articulated pockets of air that aficionados associate with long fermentation and advanced dough-stretching techniques. (Despite the fact that he looks like he could bench-press a brick oven, Caporuscio is to the delicate art of stretching dough as Tiger Woods is to sinking putts. He has the touch.) More than that, credit this pizza’s remarkable balance of flavor. Never in this town have oozy blobs of melted buffalo mozzarella and brightly flavored San Marzano tomatoes frolicked in such ecstatic harmony.

2. Una Pizza Napoletana
49 E. 12th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-477-9950
No one is as passionate about pizza as Anthony Mangieri. No one in New York, and no one in Naples. He has his code, and he sticks to it—like glue. He won’t put anything on a pizza he doesn’t believe belongs on a pizza, and what he believes belongs on a pizza you can practically count on one hand. His ingredients are unsurpassed, and so are his prices ($21 a pie). His dough-making procedure takes 36 hours to complete, and since refrigeration would compromise his and its integrity, he makes only a limited amount each day. When he runs out, that’s it, shop closed. Naturally, this annoys people who have a more relaxed attitude about pizza. Mangieri ignores those people. He figures they’d be better off at Chuck E. Cheese. His is the only opinion that matters, and the proof, he knows, is in the pie. And what a pie it is—tender and juicy, the crust deeply flavored by its marathon fermentation. The cornicione has the right amount of soft chew, the outer surface a fleeting, paper-thin crackle. The cheese, tomato, and basil acquit themselves nicely, and the wood-fired char is so delicate it melts in your mouth the way Japanese bonito flakes do.

3. Franny’s
295 Flatbush Ave., nr. Prospect Pl., Prospect Heights; 718-230-0221
Franny’s might be New York’s most polarizing pizzeria. Either you’re for its Pollan-endorsed ecosustainable ingredient-fetishizing party line, or you’re eye-rollingly against it. Of course, for nonpartisan palates, pizza speaks louder than politics. A true hybrid, the Franny’s pie takes its inspiration from two sources: Campania, where self-trained pizzaiolo Andrew Feinberg procures not only his D.O.C. buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes, but the conviction to serve his pies unsliced; and California, wellspring of the local-and-seasonal spirit that imbues the menu. Interestingly, Feinberg had never stepped foot in Naples before opening Franny’s, which may be why he seems unbound by convention, happily swapping King Arthur flour from Vermont for the Neapolitan standard Caputo “00” and aspiring to a lighter, thinner crust than the Neapolitan norm, singed and bubbly with a notable chew. There are some who’d say the defining characteristic of a Franny’s pie is the quality of its impeccably sourced toppings, like the flowering broccoli that made a springtime cameo, or the miraculously unrubbery littlenecks that grace the white clam pie, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong—eye-rolling notwithstanding.

4. Co.
230 Ninth Ave., at 24th St.; 212-243-1105
Ever since Sullivan Street Bakery bread master Jim Lahey flung open its doors last January, there have been nasty comments about the name (pretentious), the room (stark), the service (snotty), even the salads (underdressed and wimpy). Of course, no one is going to Co. for the room or the service, or the leafy greens. They’re going for the round, rustic-looking pizzas that the voluble Lahey has gone to great lengths to dissociate from the Neapolitan ideal. How, precisely? By speaking out against the tyranny of the Italian tomato, a non-native New World export, and the “mozzarella cliché”; and, most brazenly, by using a gas-fired Earthstone oven (instead of a wood-burning one crafted painstakingly by ruddy Neapolitan peasants). But Lahey’s dough—the product of his signature “no-knead” technique—is delightfully different: salty, full of tiny nooks and crannies, with a nice airy chew and an almost uniform thickness from tip to rim. It’s supple and a bit bready, in a good way, and sturdy enough for inspired combos like the Ham and Cheese (a caraway-seeded mélange of Pecorino, Gruyère, and buffalo mozzarella draped with prosciutto), or our current favorite, the Stracciatella, a hot and cold, sweet and salty, raw and cooked union of chunky tomato, creamy cheese, and peppery Greenmarket arugula.

Adrienne's PizzabarPhoto: Hannah Whitaker

5. Zero Otto Nove
2357 Arthur Ave., nr. E. 186th St., Belmont, the Bronx; 718-220-1027
Most folks hereabouts swear the best pizza in the world hails from the 212 and 718 area codes. For Roberto Paciullo, it’s all about the 089—the area code of his Campanian hometown, Salerno. That city provided not only the name of his skylit Arthur Avenue trattoria, but the inspiration for its theatrical trompe l’oeil décor, its substantial menu, and, most important, the succession of young, moody pizzaioli taking turns at the gorgeous tile-fronted oven. Currently, Giuseppe Paciullo is manning the station, like Riccardo before him, with equal measures of apparent boredom and technical acumen. These guys have an innate feel for the dough and a knack with the peel, culminating in a textbook Neapolitan crust—soft and springy with an appealing char, topped with quality ingredients procured in neighborhood shops like the venerable Casa della Mozzarella around the corner. Speaking of cheese, the mozzarella on the Margherita is nice and fresh, a great foil for the bright, acidic sauce, while the La Riccardo pie winningly pairs smoked mozzarella with a squash cream, its potential sweetness countered by chile flakes and nubbins of pancetta.

6. Luzzo’s
211-213 First Ave., nr. 13th St.; 212-473-7447
Luzzo’s serves what its menu calls pizza Napoletana, but it’s not what you might think. In fact, style-wise, it’s pretty much in its own category. That’s because owner-pizzaiolo Michele Iuliano, while Naples born and bred, is unafraid to flout the rules. Sure, he flies in the buff mozz from Caserta like a good Italian pizzaiolo. And yes, he’s down with the San Marzano tomatoes. But he brazenly cooks in the coal-and-wood-fired oven (instead of the regulation wood-only) he inherited from Zito’s East, and he even disses the fetishized Neapolitan brand of flour called Caputo. “Caputo? I’m sorry, I no like,” he says. And that’s not all: He puts sugar in his dough, which among puritans is something like the equivalent of Alice Waters crop-dusting the Edible Schoolyard. Shocking, apocalyptic stuff. The result of all this roguish behavior is a crust that’s somewhere between the Neapolitan and Roman ideals. Like the Roman, it’s uniformly thin and crisp with only a modest cornicione, yet it has the silky, tender, inviting mouthfeel of the Neapolitan minus that style’s puffy, sometimes heavy chew.

7. Veloce Pizzeria
103 First Ave., nr. 6th St.; 212-777-6677
Not only has Sicilian-style pizza taken a decided backseat to its Neapolitan counterpart in the current pizza craze, but it turns out that it doesn’t even exist in Sicily—or so Sara Jenkins learned when seeking inspiration there for this new East Village joint. No matter: Sicilian is big in New York. Sometimes too big—doughy and undercooked, with no redeeming features other than sheer heft. Into this breach steps Jenkins, who is Italian by childhood residence and culinary inclination (see Porchetta, 50 Carmine, etc.) if not by blood, and her equally passionate partner, wine-and-atmosphere honcho Frederick Twomey. Their contribution to the new pizza landscape is a sophisticated stunner of a twelve-inch pan pie, distinguished by a shallow crust that’s at once springily tender and crisp (an unusual touch of potato in the dough sees to that). Toppings are of uniformly high quality, and generously applied, especially the hen-of-the-woods and oyster-mushroom combo on the funghi, and the pungent but harmonious marriage of anchovy, onion, tomato, bread crumbs, and caciocavallo in the Palermo specialty sfincione.

8. Motorino
319 Graham Ave., at Devoe St., Williamsburg; 718-599-8899
When Neapolitan pizzaioli engage in mine-is-bigger-than-yours trash talk, chances are they’re comparing cornicioni. On that front, Mathieu Palombino has nothing to be ashamed of. His crusts are so tall and puffy they should be tethered to ropes and paraded down Broadway like Bullwinkle on Thanksgiving Day. And that’s not the only thing the Belgian chef, who’s worked the fine-dining circuit from Bouley to BLT, has mastered: His tomatoes are bright, his buffalo mozzarella sweet, and his Margherita DOC a thing of beauty. The crust exhibits a range of appealing textures, from crisp and chewy to light and airy. Of the various other pies on offer, including seasonal specials like ramps and sweet peas, we like the spicy Pugliese with sausage, burrata, and broccolini. Nearly surpassing it, though, is a football-shaped behemoth called Rocky’s Grandfather’s calzone, a sometime special stuffed with spicy sausage from Emily’s Pork Store nearby. It’s meaty reassurance for the old-timers in the Italian-American neighborhood who believe that things like sweet peas and ramps have no place on a pizza.

9. La Pizza Fresca
31 E. 20th St., nr. Broadway; 212-598-0141
A dozen years ago, when New York pizza-making was a frenzy of willy-nilly twirling and outré toppings, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana gave its official blessing to this pioneering Gramercy ristorante, declaring it the city’s only bona fide purveyor of true Neapolitan pizza. (Since then, the number of AVPN-certified pizzerias here has doubled; midtown’s Naples 45 now passes muster, too.) Say what you will about the pizza police and their motivations—a power trip, xenophobia, membership dues—the organization knows its stuff, and so does the Ecuadoran pizzaiolo here. Even when distracted by the soap opera unfolding on a concealed iPod or chatting on his cell, he’s got the ritual down: the stretching of the dough, the ladling of the sweetly acidic San Marzano tomatoes, the careful application of the mozzarella di bufala. When the pizza Margherita emerges from the wood-burning oven after the allotted two minutes, its cornicione is airy and moderately high, and its crust chewy, pliant, and soft enough to double-fold without cracking—the mark of a vera pizza napoletana, according to AVPN propaganda cards displayed on every table.

Pies from Una Pizza Napoletana, Co., La Pizza Fresca, Franny's, Zero Otto Nove, Motorino, Luzzo's, and Kesté.Photo: Mitchell Feinberg; food styling by Jamie Kimm

10. Di Fara Pizza
1424 Ave. J, at E. 15th St., Midwood 718-258-1367
The place is a dump, the ordering system fraught with peril, and the wait for a slice, let alone a pie, a heroic journey into the unknown. Which isn’t to say a visit to Di Fara in the far reaches of Brooklyn isn’t worth the trip. On the contrary, no serious student of New York pizza has not been to Di Fara. True, both the round New York–Neapolitan hybrid and the Sicilian pies would be better if the crusts weren’t so stiff. But that’s a flaw that’s easily forgiven in light of what might be the most invigorating tomato sauce in town, combined with a knockout three-cheese combo. It’s pizza that’s big and bold, rough around the edges, and more than a little messy; it’s what New York–style pizza is all about. And yet the real star of the show here is not the pie but the pie man—septuagenarian Domenico DeMarco, a remarkable one-man pizza machine who produces every pie himself. This, despite the fact that he’s been on the job for 50 years, and that his movements behind the counter resemble those of a turtle with a hangover. Although DeMarco works his magic for most of his fourteen-hour day with his back turned to his audience, like some kind of pizzaiolo Miles Davis in comfortable, flour-caked shoes, he has his own humble way of playing to the crowd. “Whose pizza is this?” he mutters shyly as he cuts through the thing with an old pizza cutter. “That’s mine,” comes a rejuvenated voice from the weary mob. “Okay,” says Dom, lifting his usual downward gaze for the split second it takes to make a maestro-disciple connection, the bubbling pie its own delicious benediction.

11. Nick’s Pizza
108-26 Ascan Ave., nr. Austin St., Forest Hills; 718-263-1126
Although Nick’s Pizza of Forest Hills, Queens, served its first pie in 1993, many recall eating there long before that. “When I say the store is only fifteen years old, they say, ‘Nah, I’ve been going there forever,’” says owner Nick Angelis, and it’s easy to see why: The tin-ceilinged, arch-windowed restaurant has plenty of old-world charm. The oven, as seen through the open kitchen, looks old too, but not in a smolderingly romantic sort of way. Unlike today’s more fashionable pizza-cooking appliances, this one’s made of rough, unadorned metal, rests on caster wheels, and runs on Con Ed. It looks like something a not particularly talented 12-year-old might enter into the Soap Box Derby. Out of this bucket of bolts, however, comes some mighty fine pie. The style is Old School New York Neapolitan, with discrete puddles of sweet fresh mozzarella amid a simple swirl of good tomato sauce. The crust is crisp but flexible and somehow achieves a smoky essence. The overall effect is reminiscent of the pizza once served by the great coal-oven giants, most of whose pies Nick’s now surpasses—one more reason nostalgists think the place has been around since early man harnessed fire.

12. Emporio
231 Mott St., nr. Prince St.; 212-966-1234
The best seats in the house, from a pizza-lover’s perspective, are the four stools at the counter facing the wood-burning oven at this bustling Nolita newcomer. Not only are they safely removed from the cacophonous fray, but they offer an unobstructed view of the Sicilian pizzaiolo, Giuseppe Cangialosi, plying his trade. To fit the restaurant’s theme, Cangialosi makes Roman-style pies: thin and crisp rounds designed to whet the appetite, not defeat it. Crunchy where Neapolitan pies are tender and without a discernible rim, Emporio’s pizzas are still fairly pliant and well-conceived—especially the guanciale-and-kale variety that’s painted with béchamel and garnished with slivers of salty Pecorino. “No one orders this, because they don’t understand it,” says Cangialosi, mournfully. “But whenever I take it out of the oven the smell is just amazing.” The flavor, too: smoky, rich, and earthy. The basic tomato-and-cheese pie, of course, requires no explanation, even if its cooked-in visage does: The buffalo mozzarella is drained, so it doesn’t soak the crust, and applied in such a manner that it virtually dissolves into the tangy tomato sauce, making it impossible to determine where one sublime ingredient ends and the other begins.

13. Fresco
34 E. 52nd St., nr. Madison Ave.; 212-935-3434
Just so you know, Fresco isn’t a pizzeria. It’s a (rather pricey) midtown restaurant run by the Scotto clan. It also happens to be the place that introduced grilled pizza to New York, via its founding chef, the late Vincent Scotto (no relation, oddly), and the place that still executes that provincial genre best. Scotto trained at Al Forno in Providence, the birthplace of grilled pizza as we know it—or at least, of the particular recipe that traveled from Rhode Island to Fresco. What does it entail? A distinctive dough blended from white and whole-wheat flours, sweetened with a touch of molasses, then soaked in enough olive oil to make the thing taste almost fried once it’s lifted, striped with char, off the grill. The notably crunchy pie ($20, good to share at the bar) is thin as a communion wafer, its free-form surface decorated with dollops of tangy tomato sauce and the telltale grilled-pizza combination of Pecorino Romano and bel paese. In this case, mozzarella is irrelevant, and so is the oven.

Salvatore of Soho in Staten Island.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

14. Adrienne’s Pizzabar
54 Stone St., nr. William St.; 212-248-3838
In this pizza town, there are good round-pie men and there are good square-pie men. Rare is the switch-hitting pizzaiolo who does well by both. Dom DeMarco of Di Fara Pizza is, of course, a member in good standing of this elite, ambidextrous club. But the Mickey Mantle of the squad is the prolific Nick Angelis (see also Nick’s Pizza), who branched out into the square-pie business late in his career with this four-year-old spot, and ever since, the only complaint anyone’s had about this surprise move is that Nick hadn’t made it sooner. This is thin-crust pan pizza called “old-fashioned” on the menu. Long Islanders will recognize it as Grandma style, a native permutation, and, if they can bring themselves to admit it, declare the delicately crunchy stuff superior to anything they can get in Nassau County. Besides a good crust, what elevates it above the norm is fastidious ingredient sourcing, including top-notch mozzarella that gets deliciously browned on top as Grandma pies often do. A special-request sausage-and-broccoli-rabe pie is rich and juicy, a minor masterpiece. The fact that you can eat it outside the restaurant on a beautiful cobblestone street closed to traffic is another rare treat.

15. Saraghina
435 Halsey St., at Lewis Ave., Bedford-Stuyvesant; 718-574-1988
This weeks-old Bed-Stuy spot gives the lie to the idea that making great pizza requires a lifetime of practice and a Neapolitan ancestry. Not that those things hurt. But judging by the Saraghina model, all that may be required, it seems, is commitment, passion, and a friend with a good dough recipe. Saraghina’s owners, Edoardo Mantelli and Massimiliano Nanni, have all that. “I’ve been obsessed with pizza all my life,” says Mantelli, the pizzaiolo of the pair, who also co-owns the clothing brand Tocca. After years of stubbornly refusing to follow his bliss, he finally apprenticed himself to his pizza hero, Michele Iuliano of Luzzo’s, and, while it’s too soon to say that the student has surpassed the master, he’s already come pretty close. It’s certainly helped that Iuliano was willing to give up his top-secret flour-mixture formula and adapt it to Saraghina’s wood-burning oven. Now, Mantelli’s pies are more classically Neapolitan in style than Luzzo’s, with a puffier cornicione, good hole structure, and a moist crumb. The tomato sauce is sweet and vibrant, the buffalo mozzarella is first-rate, and the joy that the city’s newest pie guys take in their fledgling profession is palpable.

16. Salvatore of Soho
1880 Hylan Blvd., nr. Slater Blvd., Staten Island; 718-979-7499
It’s highly unlikely, but possible, that anyone who lives in Soho has eaten at Salvatore of Soho. That’s because the restaurant is located on Staten Island. Although the Salvatore in question (Sal, for short; last name Ganci) now resides in that hinterland, he grew up in Sheepshead Bay and got his start in the pizza business at Famous Ben’s of Soho (actually in Soho). “Since I’m 15, I spent most of my time in Manhattan,” he says. “When I’d go home to Brooklyn, they’d call me Soho Sal.” Later, Sal manned the oven at Lombardi’s, which did nothing toward relieving him of his nickname, but put him on what he calls the gourmet-pizza fast track. Now, he’s making the best pie in a borough that prides itself on the stuff. It’s Old School New York Neapolitan hybrid pizza served in a snug, nostalgia-heavy shop. Thanks to an infernal coal-and-gas oven with a revolving floor (Sal’s own design), the crust gets so crisp and blackened the menu comes with a disclaimer: “served charred and well done.” S.O.S. makes a decent clam pie, but our favorite is the plain old cheese-and-tomato with house-made mozzarella. Sal’s favorite is the fried calamari and hot cherry peppers—a creation he whipped up one day as an impromptu staff meal (for himself) at Famous Ben’s, and something that might cause flames to shoot from the eyes of the average pizza-eating Neapolitan.

17. Sullivan St Bakery
533 W. 47th St., nr. Eleventh Ave.; 212-265-5580
It’s possible to forget that bread ever existed in New York before Jim Lahey came along, with his pane Pugliese and ciabatta. But pizza has always been part of his repertoire, too—not the magnificent round, Neapolitan-esque pies he’s just begun baking at Co., but his chewy, salty pizza bianca and the thin Roman-inspired squares that manage to retain their taste and texture even when served room temperature, as they are at his Hell’s Kitchen shop and at Grandaisy, the proliferating bakery chainlet born of an amicable settlement with Lahey’s former business partner. Baked in oil-slicked pans until the edges crisp up a little, the pies are topped with inventive, often seasonal ingredients: shaved celery root and nutmeg in the fall; julienned zucchini, Gruyère, and a smattering of bread crumbs; or, on our favorite, the simple but unfathomably satisfying Pomodoro, a sweetly intense slick of tomato, olive oil, and salt.

18. Artichoke Basille’s Pizza & Brewery
328 E. 14th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-228-2004
This is not dainty stuff, or pizza for the faint of tummy. The banter-happy pie guys here do not practice the art of minimal restraint. The word artisanal has never been spoken on these premises. Which is not to say the technique isn’t good. It is. Nor that the ingredients aren’t of a high quality. They are. And while the too-hard crust of both the Sicilian and the round Margherita pies could use some work, this robust style of pizza-making doesn’t exactly lend itself to delicate dough handling. What that style is is the kind of pizza old-timers claim you used to be able to find on practically every corner. Great New York slice-joint pizza. Nothing else like it in the world, and rare enough these days that, unless you’re a cop or an EMS worker with line-cutting privileges, you should be prepared to wait for it—even, as we discovered recently, in the rain at three o’clock in the morning on a Monday night.

19. Coals
1888 Eastchester Rd., nr. Morris Park Ave., Morris Park, the Bronx; 718-823-7002
A bit of an aesthetic oddity in its hospital-hub neck of the woods, Coals is a neighborhood pub with an inscrutable sea-shanty vibe and a happy hour that seems to attract off-duty interns. On top of that, it specializes in grilled pizza, the seldom-seen variant perfected and popularized by Providence’s Al Forno. Coals blends corn flour into its distinctive dough and, like other practitioners of its obscure art, cooks the thin planks over a grill to attain the characteristic char marks and delicately crunchy texture. The loosely oval pies come in two sizes and eight permutations. Of these, we recommend the Pure Bliss, which manages to support the weight not only of carefully distributed splotches of creamy ricotta, tangy tomato sauce, and pungent pesto, but also of grated Pecorino and melted fontinella, a domestic fontina-like product they’re very fond of here.

20. Patsy’s
2287 First Ave., nr. 118th St.; 212-534-9783
This is where you’ll find the city’s only coal-oven pizza sold by the slice ($1.75), and for pizza scholars, that alone is reason enough to leg it up to the original Patsy’s in East Harlem. To make the most of the experience, the thing to do is to consider this genre-defining slab, with its cooked-in aged-mozz-and-tomato topping, as a sort of amuse-bouche. Enjoy it in the dimly lit takeout storefront by the ancient oven before repairing to the red-sauce dining room next door. (Like Ralph Lauren has acquired a sizable chunk of Madison Avenue, Patsy’s has, over the years, gobbled up a series of adjacent storefronts, bringing the Patsy’s lifestyle brand to a wider audience.) Here, under the incongruous gaze of a leaping marlin, you can tuck into an even better whole pie made with fresh mozzarella. It’s a well-cooked, exceptionally thin-crusted pizza, perfumed with the heady scent of 75 years of bituminous-coal-oven cookery. And with the original Totonno’s temporarily sidelined after a fire, it represents the best of the once-dominant pizza dynasties.

Five More Worth Noting:
Pies That Nearly Made the Cut

The Vanguard