Welcome to Your Friendly Neighborhood Guide, a series of travel itineraries from locals who love their hometown haunts, nooks, and crannies so much, they're inviting us over for the inside scoop.
The average slice of pizza in New York City is better than the average slice of pizza anywhere in the world. That’s just a fact. Don’t mention Italy to me, because I’m not talking about wood-fired whole pies from Naples. I’m talking about walking into a humble pizzeria, saying “Hey, lemme get a slice,” and receiving one of life’s true pleasures.
The quintessential New York slice is thin, but pliable enough that you can fold your slice to eat it. The crust is crispy but with a touch of springiness, the cheese is browned in spots from bubbling inside the hot oven, and the slice itself is large and wide. I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and when I conjure a picture of home, I see a folded slice of pizza, resting on a white paper plate that’s dotted with a few drops of orange pizza grease. It’s a beautiful thing.
There are hundreds of pizzerias in N.Y.C., and most of them share certain essential traits: Huge plastic shakers of dried oregano, granulated garlic, and chili flakes, dispersed unevenly among formica tables and booths. A faded poster in the window for Gino’s Italian Ices. A large pile of oily garlic knots under a glass display case. Bright red fruit punch and some kind of purple drink, forever cascading in an endless waterfall inside rectangular drink dispensers. These details are comforting signs that tradition is being adhered to. They represent trustworthiness.
While the average pizzeria in New York is excellent, there are still some duds out there. There should be high turnover in a pizzeria, so if the slices look like they’ve been sitting out for more than a couple hours, just walk away. I’m also skeptical of a pale crust or cheese that looks too white. If the crust and cheese aren’t brown and caramelized, then that slice is probably not worth your time.
Most basic pizzerias in New York will leave you feeling satisfied and joyful. These reliable institutions are sprinkled throughout all five boroughs of the city. If you walk a few blocks in any direction, you’ll likely see a respectable place to grab a slice. There are, however, a plethora of pizzerias that go above and beyond the call of duty, cranking out some of the best pies in the world. Those top-notch pizzerias can be broken down into a few different categories:
The original New York City pizzas were made in coal-fired brick ovens. Although Lombardi’s, which opened in 1905, claims to be the first pizzeria in the history of the United States, it’s now known as more of a tourist destination than a must-visit restaurant. Ironically, one of the absolute best coal-oven pizzerias still operating in New York today was actually founded in 1924 by a former employee of Lombardi’s, a man named Totonno. Located near Coney Island, the pizza at Totonno’s features a deep dark crust, a bright tomato sauce, and high quality fresh mozzarella. They have gruff service and it’s cash only, but the pizza is some of the absolute best in the city. Two other venerable coal-oven pizzerias worth a visit are Patsy’s and John’s of Bleecker Street.
The vast majority of New York City pizza is cooked in gas ovens. There are countless neighborhood gems, serving high-quality pizza cooked in gas ovens. Two of my absolute favorites are Di Fara and Joe’s Pizza.
Di Fara, located in Midwood, Brooklyn, has been owned and operated by Domenic DeMarco since 1964. Domenic has earned the title of “best pizza in New York” numerous times over the years from a variety of publications. The love that he puts into each pizza is evident, from the extra sprinkling of grana padano atop each pie to the drizzle of olive oil that he pours from a small metal can, to the fresh basil that he cuts over using a pair of scissors. There are some Di Fara detractors who claim the pizza has gotten too expensive compared to other slice joints, or the line can get too long because Dominic insists on carefully making literally every pizza himself. He’s also had a few unfortunate run-ins with the New York City Department of Health. Nonetheless, for special occasions, there is no better gas oven pizza in New York City. He is one of the true pizza kings of New York.
Joe’s Pizza, meanwhile, is exactly what a great New York slice should be. Located in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, they are rapidly slinging slices from 10 a.m. until around 4 or 5 a.m. Joe’s is reliable, fast, and delicious. There are plenty of pizzerias in New York that are equal to Joe’s in terms of flavor and reliability. But, if you had to show someone visiting New York what a typical slice should look and taste like, then Joe’s is the perfect place to go.
In New York, the alternative to a plain slice is the square slice, also known as a Sicilian. It’s a long-lost descendant of sfincione, a traditional Sicilian food that’s like a cross between focaccia and pizza. The best square slices in New York are about an inch thick, with a light, airy texture on the inside and a crispy oil-slicked exterior. Prince Street Pizza is widely considered to have the best square slice in the city, iconic with slightly charred pepperoni circles on top.
Mama’s Too is another exemplary square slice. Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, their slices sit atop a wire resting rack, so that the edges remain free of any condensation and remain as crispy as possible. Their slices are reminiscent of Detroit-style pizza; as the mozzarella bubbles to the edge and mixes with the crust, it creates a delightfully crispy, cheesy final bite.
Another landmark pizzeria is L&B Spumoni Gardens. Located in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, they have a large outdoor seating space that’s ideal for warm weather. Their square slice features the sauce on top of the cheese, resulting in a pie that tastes delicate, fresh, and deeply savory. Paired with their tri-flavor spumoni gelato (chocolate, vanilla, pistachio), there's nothing better on a warm summer evening.
High-end pizzerias in New York typically serve Naples-style whole pizzas. They don’t serve slices. Their crust is puffier and charred, and the mozzarella generally has a higher moisture content. Two of the best examples of this style of pizza can be found at Ops in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Una Pizza Napoletana on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The pizza at these two places is as good as any pizza in Italy. The crust is ethereal, and the sauce is so refreshing and tasty, you could eat it by the spoonful. Other notable Naples-style pizzerias in New York include Paulie Gee’s, Milkflower, Zero Otto Nove, and I’ll also include Razza—even though it’s located in Jersey City—because their pizza is truly excellent.
Some wood fire pizzerias serve pizza that is more similar in style to a classic New York slice than a Naples pizza. Roberta’s and Lucali are two spots known for spectacular pizza. Although the wait times can be significant to get a table at either location, the quality and beauty of their pizza speaks for itself.
Two more noteworthy pizzerias are hard to categorize: Joe & Pat’s makes thin slices that are almost too crispy to fold. Their vodka sauce pizza is so good, though, it’s even worth a trek out to Staten Island to visit their original location (although you could also visit their new location in Manhattan). Rizzo’s Fine Pizza is also an anomaly, as their crust is pinched into a thin wall (rather than the typical round crust). They’re famous for their square slice, which is thinner than most, with a delicate yet substantial texture.
Of course, it’s impossible to list every excellent pizzeria in New York City. There are simply too many. I’ve listed what I consider to be the city's "absolute best" (read: my favorites), but I know that this guide isn’t all-encompassing—just a handful of spots that stand out to me.
If you have a favorite local pizzeria in New York, then please tell me about it in the comments section below. I’d love to hear about your go-to neighborhood spots.