Sometimes you have to re-establish the baseline. There are certain things you do that signal you’ve earned your stripes as a New Yorker: crossing one of the major avenues without a walk signal during rush-hour, getting something stuck in the closing subway doors after just slipping in, or getting in a fight with someone over a cab. Similarly, visiting all of the city’s storied pizzerias is a rite of passage. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Grimaldi’s, heading up to Patsy’s Pizzeria in Harlem, battling the hordes at DiFara, sitting in one of the scratched-up booths in John’s, eating a slice at Joe’s, making the pilgrimage to Totonno’s, and having a pie at Lucali or L&B Spumoni Gardens.
With yet another pizzeria opening in New York (Pizza Roma) it seemed appropriate to go back to the beginning — the pizzeria that started it all — Lombardi’s. To recap, the story goes that Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery store in 1897, and started selling pizza there in 1905. According to Lombardi’s site:
“Gennaro started selling tomato pies, which were wrapped in paper and tied with a string, and the many workers of Italian descent would take them to the job site. Most could not afford the entire pie, so it was often sold by the piece. There was no set price or size, so you asked for whatever lets say 2 cents would buy and you were given portion of what was equal to the amount offered.”
The pizzeria was run by the Lombardi family, first by Gennaro’s son, John, and then his grandson, Jerry, until it closed in 1984. It was reopened 10 years later a block away from the original location by Jerry and John Brescio, a childhood friend. These days, Lombardi’s almost always seems to be packed.
Upskirt of a Margherita pizza at Lombardi's.
The Margherita, the baseline, the simplest form of the medium besides a tomato pie. There’s a thin crust, one whose cornicione doesn’t have much bubble or puff. A thorough layering of a sauce that’s tangy and not overly sweet or salty. This isn’t the shredded mozz cheese layering, but the fresh stuff, well-spread out. Even if you’re not a fan of this kind of cheese on your pie, you’ll probably like this. Though having tasted a pie at the recently-refurbished Totonno’s not too long ago, it’s safe to say that the Coney Island coal-oven pizza has definitely surpassed the Little Italy original.
Still, Lombardi's is a touchstone. And when looking out on New York's pizza landscape, the devotion to a style from a time when pizza didn't mean artful charring and contrived, golden-tiled ovens is comforting, even if that just means the pizza of 1994.