A guy named Gennaro Lombardi started it all; he opened the first U.S. pizzeria in New York City in either 1895 or 1905. While the date is inexact, the address is not: 53-1/2 Spring Street in Little Italy. Lombardi's still serves pizza today, down the block at 32 Spring Street. I've been there.
Baked flatbread with various toppings, of course, has been around since the Babylonians. Pizza, however, came into its own in Naples in the 19th century. By then commerce brought the milk of the water buffalo from India to Italy so that true mozzarella could be made; and experience proved that the tomato, that most suspect of vegetables (or is it a fruit?) could be safely eaten. The world's first pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, opened in 1830. Prior to then, strolling street vendors hawked their slices on the fly, carrying small tin ovens on their heads. If a trip to Naples is in your future, head over to Via Port'Alba 18 for some original Old World pizza.
Classic modern pizza was created in 1889 by a baker named Rafaele Esposito in honor of the visiting King Umberto and Queen Margherita. Using the colors of the Italian flag, Esposito made a pizza with red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and green basil leaves. Thus did Pizza Margherita enter the pantheon of food fame.
Somehow in its journey across the Atlantic, Pizza Margherita lost its basil and acquired oregano. This is the pizza I remember from my New York childhood: thin crust elastic enough to fold (so the grease doesn't dribble down your chin), cheese hot enough to blister the roof of your mouth (and stringy enough to stretch like bubble gum), and an after-school bargain at 25 cents a slice.
Well, all kinds of things change; the cost of pizza is only one of them. Neapolitan pizza was challenged by the deep-dish Sicilian version, doughy and rectangular, sodden with sauce. Chicago, a city as overblown as its pizza, became known for its deep-dish pies sometime in the 1940s, and the rivalry was on. Now pizzerias as far away as Colorado claim authentic New York-style or Chicago-style pizza. A team of us recently conducted an analysis of local pizza in a quest for the penultimate New York-style pie.
Actually, there were only three of us though we ate enough pizza for six. We also had assistance from some teenagers as far as consumption goes but since these boys will eat anything, they weren't all that discerning in their assessment.
Our analysis was neither scientific nor all-inclusive. We got pizza with pepperoni, green pepper and onion from six pizzerias and compared for appearance, balance and amount of toppings, thinness and pliability of crust, stretch, taste and texture of cheese, and overall yum. Here are our results:
H.W. Briggs, the newest kid on the block, was the closest to Pizza Hut or frozen pizza. The toppings were good. The green peppers were crisp, each slice had the same amount of pepperoni, the cheese was bland but generous. The crust, however, was as far from New York as you can be in Colorado: doughy and thick. Briggs pizza was the favorite of our teenage team who may have been swayed by the subtle marketing of pizzas with names like Tree Hugger, Aloha Dude and Ultimate Rush. I'm speculating, of course.
Briggs offers three sizes of pies and pizza by the slice (a terrific idea), and 14 toppings including spicy chicken, a choice none of the other pizzerias offered. Neither do New York pizzerias.
Across the street from Briggs stands Poor Richard's, cranking out pizzas with spelt or whole-wheat crusts for the health conscious. Definitely not New York. We chose white crust and deemed it authentic. It was crispy yet chewy, the pointy end was floppy (essential to the New York fold) while the business end stayed firm. The green peppers were overly cooked, but the red onions were perfect. They were a bit stingy with the pepperoni.
Richard's offers dozens of great toppings like pesto, and the pizzas (which come in only one size) can be wonderful, as can the entertainment as you watch the workers spin the spheres of dough into the air.
A few blocks away and strategically located across from Palmer High School is Borriello Brothers. Their crust is very thin with no noticeable thickening at the edge. It was tasty and crunchy; no chance of folding. Borriello's makes a 16-inch square Sicilian deep-dish pie and a hand-thrown Sicilian. This gets confusing as the round, hand-thrown Sicilian was closer to New York style than the thin crust. The cheese was tasty and stretchy, and the crust was chewy not doughy.
Borriello's pizzas come in two sizes, 10 inches and 16 inches, and can be topped with the standard choices plus spinach, anchovy and fried eggplant. They also make a Pizza Blanca with mozzarella, ricotta and Romano cheeses. During the day you can get a slice with cheese or one topping.
Moving eastward from downtown, we stopped at Leon Gessi. The toppings were A-plus and included generous slices (not tiny bits) of perfectly cooked green and red peppers and red onion. The pepperoni was in equal proportion to the veggies. The cheese was stringy (good) but stingy (bad). The crust was, alas, doughy and limp.
Although I have never wanted a reason to drive along Academy Boulevard, I now have one: Verrazano's New York Pizzeria. This is as close as we got to New York pizza and it was close enough for me to have added their phone number to my speed dial. The slice passed the fold test. The crust had the right floury feel. We could taste the oregano. The cheese stretched, the thin strips of green pepper crunched. The pepperoni outnumbered the onions.
Go directly to Verrazano; order a pie (they come in only one size: vast), enjoy. And a nice bonus: they've got a Buy 10, Get One Free Program. I'm almost there.