New York Style Pizza – Characteristics, History, and General Preparation

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What is New York style pizza, what are its defining characteristics and historical background, what can you expect when eating it, and how is it generally prepared? This post will provide you with all the details about New York style pizza

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General Background and Characteristics

The New York pizza holds great significance as more than just another pizza style. While Neapolitan pizza is the original in Italy, the New York pizza is considered the origin and historical starting point of pizza in the United States, and exploring all aspects of New York pizza would require an entire series of dedicated posts. Some even argue that it is the foundation of pizza as we know it today.

The history of New York pizza, though relatively short, is rich, complex, and marked by pivotal moments of evolution. If you think Neapolitans are protective of their pizza’s history and heritage, try engaging in a conversation with pizza-loving New York natives born in the 1950s/1960s about the history and evolution of the New York slice. Guaranteed, it will be a captivating and emotionally charged discussion, much like its Italian counterpart.

A classic New York pizza, also known as a “New York slice,” is a thin and chewy pizza with a diameter of 40-50cm or 16″-20″. It is cut into eight equal slices and baked in deck ovens at around 300C/570F directly on the oven’s stone for about 7 minutes. The dough is made from high-gluten flour, and grated dry mozzarella cheese (whole milk low moisture, or WMLM mozzarella) is used. It is typically sold by the slice and usually reheated when ordered for eating “on the go.”

One distinctive feature of the New York pizza, besides its large slice size, is the white cardboard plate on which it is served, which is always smaller than the slice itself. Additionally, the slice is folded in the middle; otherwise, it will flop and be difficult to pick up. This folding technique is known as “the NY fold” (see picture above).

Even within New York, it is difficult to precisely define what constitutes a New York Pizza. Many pizza enthusiasts divide New York pizza into two sub-styles:

(1) The New York slice (or “street/dollar slice”) – this type of pizza is common throughout most of New York and aligns with the definition provided in the previous paragraph. It can be considered a commercialized version of the “original” New York pizza.
(2) The New York “Elite”/Artisan – this more closely resembles the “original” New York pizza (or an artisanal variation of it), the one that started the entire pizza craze in New York and the rest of the US. It is made with high-quality ingredients and baked in deck/coal ovens at higher temperatures for a shorter duration (around 3-6 minutes). In some cases, the New York “Elite” may not be available in individual slices but only as a whole pizza, which is prepared upon order (contrary to the NY slice, which is usually sold as individual slices).

It can be argued that the NY ‘Elite’ represents the true essence of New York pizza, while the NY Slice is its commercialized and “inferior” counterpart. Of course, this does not imply that excellent NY slices are unavailable (e.g., the famous Joe’s pizza), but the chances of having a good NY slice are notably lower compared to having a good NY Elite. This is why many individuals who arrive in New York with extremely high pizza expectations are often left feeling disappointed after eating an “inferior” NY slice.

Roots and History of New York Style Pizza

Until about three years ago, the widely held belief regarding the origins of pizza in New York (and the entire US) was that it began with Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi. According to this belief, Lombardi opened a grocery store in 1887 at 53 Spring Street in New York and started selling pizzas there. In 1905, he supposedly officially registered the grocery as a “pizzeria,” although no documentation of this registration has been found to date.

Lombardi’s pizzeria at 53 Spring Street aimed to replicate and sell pizza as he knew it in Italy. However, he had to work with local ingredients and equipment – he used local flour, which differed from the flour he had in Italy, mozzarella made from cow’s milk instead of buffalo milk, and most importantly, he used a coal oven, common at the time for baking bread, rather than a wood-fired oven. The result was a Neapolitan-New York pizza that had been “adapted” to the resources available in New York at that time. Over the years, this New York-Neapolitan pizza evolved and eventually became the New York pizza we are familiar with today.

But here’s where the plot thickens.
In 2019, pizza historian Peter Regas made a discovery that sheds new light on the situation (the complete study can be found in his published book). Regas’ research reveals that Lombardi actually immigrated to the United States in November 1904, when he was just 17 years old.

This new finding challenges the previous explanation regarding the grocery store Lombardi supposedly opened and also raises doubts about his ownership of the pizzeria. After all, it seems unlikely that an 18-year-old boy who had recently immigrated to the United States would already be running his own pizzeria. According to Regas, it is more likely that Lombardi initially worked at the same pizzeria on 53 Spring Street, but as an employee rather than the owner.

Another important detail that Regas discovered is that the shop where the pizzeria operated was previously registered as a “bakery” under a man named Filippo Milone. Milone, an Italian immigrant, came to the USA around 1882 and was apparently baking pizzas in Naples before immigrating.

Regas found that Filippo Milone opened at least six pizzerias in different parts of New York. His modus operandi was to establish the pizzeria and later sell it. Three of these pizzerias, Lombardi’s, John’s, and Pop’s, became staples in the American pizza scene, with the first two still operating today.

Filippo Milone died in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Manhattan. He had no children to carry on his legacy, and nobody to tell his story as a pioneer of a $45 billion industry.Lombardi did have a significant influence on the development of pizza culture in New York and the wider United States. However, it has been discovered that he was not the sole pioneer, despite his family’s claims. It is likely that many others also contributed to shaping the pizza scene in the US.

Nearly a century later, we have come full circle with the more recent history of New York pizza, which has experienced many ups and downs.

Over the years, the original Italian immigrants who opened pizzerias throughout New York either sold or passed them on to the next generation. Unfortunately, many of these successors lacked the same experience, passion, and dedication to pizza as their predecessors. Consequently, the quality of the final product declined.

Additionally, the introduction of large pizza chains and the influence of capitalism further contributed to this decline. Inferior ingredients were used to maximize profits, the thickness of the pizza increased, and it was overloaded with toppings in an attempt to imitate the style of the big chains. Baking methods also changed, as did the overall commercialization of the industry. Thus, it is safe to say that most of the pizzas sold in New York today do not resemble the “golden age” of New York pizza from the 70s and 80s – and not for the better. In other words, they have become more “American style” and less authentically New York style.

Eating Characteristics of New York Style Pizza

The crust should be relatively thin with a chewy texture, and its level of crispiness may vary depending on the pizzeria. The crust should be properly browned, showing uneven charring (known as ‘leoparding’) or a uniformly browned bottom, although this can also vary between pizzerias. The crumb structure can range from airy (New York ‘elite’) to flat (New York slice).

The giant slice should be able to hold itself when folded in half, and it MUST be foldable. It should not be too stiff (like a cracker) or too floppy (like a Neapolitan).

The dough should have a distinct flavor resulting from a long fermentation, and it should not be bland in any way.

Preparation of New York Style Pizza

In terms of ingredients, the preparation is very similar to Neapolitan pizza dough: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Oil can be added, which impacts the taste and contributes to a softer texture, as well as sugar, which aids in browning. The suggested amount of sugar and oil is 1-2% in baker’s percentages.

To achieve the characteristic chewiness of New York pizza, it is recommended to use a strong, high-gluten flour. The dough hydration in a classic New York style is typically 58-60%, although going up to 65% is possible (going beyond that point is not really necessary or beneficial).The dough MUST be stretched by hand. NO rolling pin or dough sheeter.

The sauce is a standard pizza sauce made from canned crushed tomatoes, salt, and oregano. It is possible, and even desirable, to sprinkle Parmesan or pecorino (romano) over the sauce and/or the baked pizza.

When it comes to baking, a NY pizza is traditionally baked directly on the stone of a deck oven. For home baking, you can use a pizza stone made of cordierite, but for optimal results, it is recommended to use a baking steel – this helps “mimic” a professional pizza oven.

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