As the founder of The Daily Meal's annual ranking of the 101 Best Pizzas in America and author of some of the most extensive pizzas lists ever published, I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve received from pizza lovers. Unlike many arbitrary lists, we approach rankings methodically, starting with our definition of the perfect pizza; considering 800 spots in every corner of America; eating at as many as we can; consulting in-house experts; and calling upon a blue-chip, geographically diverse list of pizza panelists — chefs, critics, writers, and pizza authorities — to vote only for places where they’ve eaten. Responses are as proportionately passionate as our work is diligent. But we’ve always been curious about what a list would look like as voted by the public. Think you can do better? We’d like to see you try. No, really! So this year, we opened up voting to discover America’s 35 favorite pizza places, according to you. Here are the five pizzerias in Brooklyn that made the list.
With all the development and gentrification along the L line in Brooklyn that has happened since Roberta’s opened in January 2008, the great Brooklyn vs. Manhattan restaurant debate seems quaint, and it’s almost difficult to remember there was a time when this great joint was considered a trek.
OK, so Bushwick may not be on the average New Yorker’s rotation, and the pizzeria’s owners have been in the news as part of a few legal disputes, but if not part of the city’s pizza old guard, Roberta’s is without question a member of New York’s pizza icons, one that has inspired other great pizzerias.
The appellations of Carlo Mirarchi’s pizzas have ranged from echoing schoolyard slang to literary references and clever puns. No matter whether you choose the Cheesus Christ (mozzarella, Taleggio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, black pepper, and cream), the Scrivener (buttery Melville cheese — Herman Melville, after all, wrote "Bartleby, the Scrivener" — along with chevrotin, spinach, double garlic, and Calabrian chiles), the classic Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, and basil), or the Famous Original (tomato, mozzarella, caciocavallo, oregano, and chiles), you’re guaranteed a chewy cornicione and an exemplary neo-Neapolitan pie.
By all accounts, Totonno’s shouldn’t exist. Consider that it was opened in Coney Island in 1924 (by Antonio "Totonno" Pero, a Lombardi’s alum). Factor in the coal storage area fire that ravaged it in 2009. Add to that insult the destruction and subsequent rebuilding costs (the Daily News reported $150,000 in repairs) incurred in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy when four feet of water destroyed everything inside the family-owned institution.
You’ll agree that Brooklyn (and the country) should count its lucky stars Totonno’s is around. Yet Totonno’s doesn’t just keep a storied pizza name or nostalgia for simpler times (and perhaps more authentic and consistent pies) alive.
No. Owners Antoinette Balzano, Frank Balzano, and Louise "Cookie" Ciminieri don’t just bridge our modern era’s festishization of pizza to the days of its inception. The coal-fired blistered edges, the spotty mozzarella laced over that beautiful red sauce… ah, fuggedabout all the teary-eyed try-too-much words, this is Neptune Avenue!
This is Brooklyn! This is Totonno’s. And this is how you make pizza.
#3 L&B Spumoni Gardens
You don’t head out to Gravesend, Brooklyn, and just to go to L&B Spumoni. Well, maybe you do if you’re filming a scene in a movie there — it’s that kind of New York City institution. It’s just that at that point, if you’re a pizza fanatic, you’re so close to both Di Fara and Totonno’s that it just wouldn’t be right not to visit them, too (say nothing of the roast beef pit stops at Brennan & Carr and Roll-N-Roaster that you’ll have to ignore). Started in 1938 by Ludovico Barbati, an immigrant from Torella di Lombardi (about an hour east of Naples), the L&B Spumoni tradition began with Barbati learning how to make pizza in a garage, then peddling it in a horse and wagon until setting up at its current spot on 86th Street in Brooklyn.
L&B Spumoni Gardens is now in its fourth generation, still serving its signature thin-crust Sicilian-style square pies with just a light coating of mozzarella paired with its tomato sauce. Some would argue that L&B should be renamed I&O for "Inside Out" pizza — square thin slices of tomato pies with a dusting of Parmesan cheese on top. What can’t be argued is that you have to take your slices and eat them outside, and that you shouldn’t leave without having some spumoni for dessert. Some would say it’s better than the pizza.
Being able to do the mental gymnastics intrinsic to understanding the history behind one of New York City's — er, Brooklyn’s — most storied pizzerias isn’t required for you to enjoy a slice of its famous pizza, but we have a few minutes while you wait in line.
Gennaro Lombardi opened what’s generally regarded as America’s first pizzeria (Lombardi's). He supposedly trained Pasquale (Patsy) Lancieri, who opened the first Patsy’s in East Harlem. His nephew Patsy Grimaldi opened a place, also called Patsy’s, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO in 1990 (he’s said to have also learned his craft from Jerry Pero, son of Anthony Totonno Pero, who founded Totonno’s — another story), but had to change the name to Grimaldi’s after his uncle died and his aunt sold the Patsy’s name.
Three years later, Patsy sold the Grimaldi’s at 19 Old Fulton Street to Frank Ciolli, whose two children expanded the Grimaldi’s brand to nearly 46 restaurants across the country. But Ciolli lost the lease to the original space and had to move into a larger former bank building next door on 1 Front Street. That’s when Patsy swooped out of retirement into the original Grimaldi’s space to open Juliana’s.
It comes down to this: Patsy Grimaldi, whose pizza lineage goes back to family members trained by Gennaro Lombardi, is making pies at a restaurant called Juliana’s in the original Grimaldi’s, and Grimaldi’s is right next door.
With that all said, you’re just about at the front of the line (remember: no credit cards, no reservations, no slices, and no delivery!). So sit down and order something simple: a Margherita made in a coal-fired oven that heats up to about 1,200 degrees and requires about 100 pounds of coal a day. It’s crispy, it’s smoky, it’s tangy, cheesy, and delicious, and when you’re done, you can go next door to Juliana’s.
#1 Di Fara
Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York- and Sicilian-style pizza Wednesday through Saturday (noon to 8 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice. Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods when the underside of the pizza can tend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza.
If you want to understand why before visiting, watch the great video about Di Fara called “The Best Thing I Ever Done.” You can’t go wrong with the classic round or square cheese pie (topped with oil-marinated hot peppers, which you can ladle on at the counter if you elbow in), but the menu’s signature is the Di Fara Classic Pie: mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, plum tomato sauce, basil, sausage, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and of course, a drizzle of olive oil by Dom. If you want to shake things up, try the recently-launched, 50th anniversary “chaos” pie: sausage, wild onions, semi-dried cherry tomatoes, fresh garlic, and meatballs.
Additional reporting by Arthur Bovino.