New York Pizza is the stuff of legend. Few food items generate as much attention, debate, and mimicry as these slices of the Big Apple. The iconic New York Style Pizza has the perfect crust. It is thin, but not cracker-thin. Chewy, but not doughy. It’s the ideal snack, or meal for people who have little time to spare.
I have been obsessed with pizza for as long as I can remember. In high school and college, I would drive miles out of my way to try pizzerias in the Twin Cities. When I relocated to San Francisco I continued to explore what was considered the best local examples of my favorite food. Throughout the decades I always dreamt of trying the pizza that so many try to recreate. New York Style Pizza.
In my mid-20s I finally visited NYC for a wedding. On my first day there I had some free time so I decided to explore the city and try some pizza. I tried one of the many Ray’s in Midtown and another place near NYU. Neither impressed me. I began to wonder if NYC was truly the home of the best pizza, or if this was just a romanticized farce.
I decided if I was going to find the best, I had to start researching more. So I combed through village voice, google search, the times, the yellow pages. This was a while ago, so I really did look through a phone book. I narrowed down the contenders and started calling around to see who could host a group of 10 on a Friday night. After a couple of attempts, we found a place that would “try” to accommodate our party.
The place was John’s Of Bleecker Street.
After my mother was able to locate the manager and mention our earlier phone call we were able to get inside. The 50 people we bypassed weren’t happy. This made me optimistic if slightly guilty. The moment we got inside I was excited. This was it. For starters, it had the classic pizzeria vibe.
When you walk in from the Greenwich Village streets the scene inside is loud, but warm and inviting. Pictures from decades past line the walls, many of them signed by local heroes. The booths are packed so tight that you lean forward towards the culinary centerpiece on your table. The black and white checkered tile leads your eyes directly to the star of the show, one of the few remaining coal-fired pizza ovens in Manhattan.
Coal ovens provide a very intense heat which I think provides the best crust for pizzas. John’s of Bleecker has my favorite coal-oven pizza in New York City, or frankly in the world. The crust is second to none. It has the absolute perfect dichotomy of chewy and crispy. There is a slight char to it, but if you like more crunch they are happy to accommodate a request for well-done.
In true New York Pizza fashion, the cheese is sprinkled with a light hand over the dough, rather than dominating the flavor and texture of the pie as a 1/2″ glob of grease. The sauce plays more of a complementary role as it is spooned whimsically across the top. The sauce at John’s is kept simple. I’d be very surprised if the tomatoes were joined by more than 1-2 other ingredients. But it’s also close to perfection. The toppings are pretty classic with the most adventurous options being anchovies or roasted garlic. The latter I would recommend ordering, but not eating on an airplane. I can’t say I haven’t done this before.
I have since tried numerous other slices and whole pies in NYC that justify the assertion that New York Pizza is the best in the world. There’s a reason that it has been written about, argued over, and imitated for over a century. Many will tell you the best pizza in New York isn’t even in Manhattan. There are world-class pizzas in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
But having a favorite of anything is personal. John’s of Bleecker Street is mine. The setting is nostalgic without feeling contrived. The staff is confident and efficient, the byproduct of doing one thing really well for a very long time. And the pizza is as good as any I’ve ever had.
John’s of Bleecker isn’t anywhere near where I live, but I’d like to think of myself as a regular. Throughout the last two decades, I’ve shared pizzas with friends, family, my wife and will one day bring my son. It might not be your favorite pizza joint, but it’s mine.
Deric Brown is a career bartender with a BA focused on global studies and communications from the University of Minnesota. He's called San Francisco home since 2006.
His love for cooking started with long summer afternoons at the cabin looking over grandma’s shoulder. Each passing year only reaffirms his interest in food, discovering new recipes and where they originated.