Pizza satisfies in a way that only a few other foods can: the combination of tangy tomato sauce and melted cheese on top of slightly charred dough always delivers comfort.
Especially in New York, the pizza scene is a wondrous world of many possibilities. Just about every variation on its Neapolitan ancestor can be found, as can every combination of toppings, crust texture, and type of cheese. To explore this vast realm, one needs the help of an expert.
Wiener has nursed a passion for pizza since his childhood. He consumed what he calls his “life-changing slice“ at the age of 12, from the pizza institution Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. “That was when I realized pizza is more than a five-letter word. It’s 300 years of history,” he said.
Through his tours, Wiener unravels the story of pizza’s history and evolution. His signature tour is on a yellow school bus that takes pizza lovers to four pizzerias in two boroughs. Each person receives a package containing a small pizza journal to jot down tasting notes, as well as mints for palate cleansing. This is serious business.
Hopping On the Pizza Bus
On a tour in early April, the first stop was Lombardi’s in Little Italy, where Wiener began with a brief history of the pizzeria. Opened in 1905, Lombardi’s is the country’s first known pizzeria—the first establishment devoted mainly to selling pizza.
Wiener took the crowd inside to view the coal-fired brick oven, built in the early 1900s. He explained how the relatively low temperatures and longer baking times help create a crispy, chewy crust. Because temperatures can vary greatly inside the oven, pizzaiolos have to constantly shift the pizzas around the oven.
At the second stop, Il Porto in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, pies are baked on pans inside a gas-fueled deck oven. The pies take longer to bake than Lombardi’s, resulting in a crust that’s soft and pillowy on top, but brittle and crunchy on the bottom. While Wiener explained all this, he demonstrated how to properly stretch pizza dough, using his knuckles to slowly pull apart the dough. He encouraged us to try making pizza at home, pointing out the recipe he’d printed on the back of our pizza journals.
On the way to the third stop, someone asked, what exactly is New York-style pizza? It’s hard to define, Wiener said, since New York gave rise to so many different styles. Most people’s images of New York pizza are of foldable slices oozing with cheese—usually baked in a gas oven (so slices can be easily reheated—perfect for New Yorkers on the go). But the earliest style, like at Lombardi’s, is actually coal-fired pizza with a Neapolitan-style thin crust. Then, pizzaiolos branched off with different mutations of that.
An example is Sam’s Restaurant in Cobble Hill. The place looks straight out of the 1950s, with red banquette booths and red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Pizzaiolo Louis Migliaccio is the great-nephew of the pizzeria’s original owner, and makes pies the way his father taught him: topping them with a cheese-and-tomato blend, then baking them in the gas-fired brick oven. The slices are a little thicker than Lombardi’s, and rich in umami, the cheese and tomato having melded into an orange goop. The crust is smoky and cracker-like on the bottom. The transformation into New York’s iconic style is complete.
For the final stop, Forno Rosso in Brooklyn, we tried traditional Neapolitan pizza the way it’s done in Naples: wood-fired under high temperatures. Wiener said the pizzeria uses a wine bottle to roll out the dough, making it paper thin and pliable, so the bubbles form more readily in the crust. The pies are topped with buffalo mozzarella—funky and delicious.
By the tour’s end, everyone was happily satiated and took away plenty of knowledge to inform any future pizza-eating adventures.
For more information, see scottspizzatours.com. Both walking tours and bus tours across New York City are available. Wiener leads the bus tours. $40–$65 per person.