Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lombardi's and Real New York Pizza

Tonight, we went out to eat at the first (as in the original) pizzeria in the United States. It's right where you'd expect it to be, in New York City. I'm talking about Lombardi's Pizza on Spring St. in SoHo. Yes, SOHO. Not "Nolita", not "Little Italy." I'm a native New Yorker, and I'm telling you the neighborhood is called SoHo. Don't let anyone else tell you different.

Sorry about the quality of that pic. I was walking with my cell phone and just took a quick snap.

Back in what, 1897 or something like that, an Italian immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi brought a recipe for Neapolitan Pizza from Italy to the United States. Pizza as we know it had only just been invented a few years before, as a way of showing Italian pride to Queen Margherita (the red, white and green of the Italian flag being represented by the sauce, the mozzarella and chopped basil). It's true that flat breads, sometimes slathered in garlic and herbs, had been eaten for hundreds of years prior all over Europe. But modern pizza with the sauce and cheese was not invented until the 1890's, and it was brought over here by Gennaro Lombardi just afterwards. He originally opened a grocery store, started selling pizza out of it, and eventually opened Lombardi's in 1905.

This is the pizza that served as the template for all thin crust pizza in the United States. It's been bastardized all to hell since then, in most places. Not Lombardi's.

While the original family members are now long since gone, Lombardi's still makes their pizza the way they've always made it. Thin sliced (not grated) fresh mozzarella, homemade sauce, thin crust cooked in a coal oven. You see lots of pizzerias these days advertise "brick" ovens. Who the hell cares about brick? Brick doesn't cook anything. It's the coal that matters.

Coal is the only way to get the temperature up to where it needs to be. Pizza needs to be cooked at above 800 degrees. Anything less and you just end up with a soggy mess. This is what a lot of Americans are used to, but it ain't right. A good pizza crust is crispy on the outside, soft but chewy on the inside - like a good fresh-baked bagel. (Maybe not a great example; good bagels aren't any easier to find in a lot of places.) It also has a lot of flavor on its own, because the coal helps season it - just like it does on your barbecue. What, you do use charcoal on your grill, right? Don't tell me you barbecue with GAS?!

You see that? That's coal dust. Yes, you eat it. It's good for you! At least if you're eating pizza.

The problem with coal ovens are that they're dangerous and dirty. For this reason, you don't see them much anymore, even in New York. They were actually outlawed in the 1960's or 70's, but there was a provision in the law that "grandfathered in" any existing coal ovens, provided the owners did certain things to ensure safety. Only a few restaurants that I know of still have them - Lombardi's and John's pizzerias in Manhattan, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Sac's Place in Astoria, Queens. There may be one or two more, but I know I haven't missed many.

One funny thing about Lombardi's is that they have pictures of burning coal on the wall. When you see that, you know you're in a Real Pizzeria.

(Quick digression. Some New Yorkers say that Grimaldi's has better pizza than Lombardi's these days. Both me and my wife couldn't disagree more with this. Grimaldi's pizza is almost tasteless by comparison, with a crust that's so flat and crunchy it may as well be a cracker. I'm convinced that the people who say they like Grimaldi's better are just Brooklyn hipsters with a Manhattan inferiority complex.)

Lombardi's has expanded quite a bit in the past few years. Up until about 2003 or so, they were nothing more than a little hole in the side of a building stuffed with tiny little tables. The door opened straight into the dining room (no double door), so in the winter, you'd be eating with your heavy coat on. The original dining room still exists - we ate in it tonight - but there's also now a larger dining room adjacent to it and a smaller "wine cellar" styled dining room in the basement. Each dining room has a pretty distinct feel, with the original dining room retaining most of its authenticity and the newer ones having a little more of a tourist vibe.

That photo's from a previous night out in one of the other rooms. The original dining room has no such souvenir signs and still has the red and white checkered tablecloths. Of course, the food is the same no matter where in the restaurant you eat. The only difference is the extra space has cut the wait time for a table down from an hour to between 10 and 15 minutes most of the time.

Tonight, we ordered a large pie half plain, half meatball and onion. I'd never had a plain pie there before, which seemed like a travesty - I wanted to make sure I was really judging them properly. A plain pizza is the true original and it's all about balance - not too much of any one ingredient, and everything should have an equal say in the taste and texture of the overall pie. After tonight, I can't say I have any complaints. I've always argued it's the sauce that really makes a great pizza - anyone can get decent mozzarella (cutting it right is the problem), and good crust isn't really all that mysterious (it just takes the right oven), but sauce is an art. Most pizza sauce is either totally tasteless or it's just nothing but salt. The best pizza sauce is filled with fresh tomato flavor and not much else. It should be like biting into a ripe, just-picked vine tomato in your own garden. Not easy to do in a sauce. Lombardi's gets it right.

They also hand-make their own meatballs, and they're amazing. It's hard for me not to get a meatball pie whenever I go there. Anyone from outside the New York area goes "huh?" whenever I talk about meatball pizza - let me tell you, this is probably the most popular pizza topping here.

After Lombardi's, we stopped across the street at this place Rice to Riches, which I still can't believe even exists. They moved in when I worked in the area a few years ago, and they sell nothing but rice pudding. Like almost everywhere in New York, there's a story behind the store. I don't remember all the details, but shortly after opening, local newspapers reported that the owner was using the store as a front for a major illegal gambling operation. We at my office had all wondered how any store could survive just selling rice pudding, and as soon as we read that, we all collectively slapped our foreheads and said "duh!" Even the name suddenly made more sense.

Still, the place remains in business and seems to have made no changes. I'm not sure if it's under the same ownership or not. I will say the rice pudding is quite good, although after getting a little adventurous with the flavors the last couple times I've gone, I'll probably just stick with the vanilla or plain next time. (Hey, I'm not completely boring - I did try a bunch of the other flavors. I just think rice pudding is best left unmolested.)

That probably doesn't look very appetizing. But trust me, it's actually pretty good.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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