Pizza may have originated in Italy, but it’s found its spiritual home in the USA! And one of the best known of American innovations is the New York style pizza.
But what is New York style pizza? How is it different from ordinary pizza? How is it made? And most importantly, what’s in – and on – it?
That’s what we’re here to find out! We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about this classic New York dish. And when you’ve finished reading, you’ll be ready to sample it for yourself!
What is pizza?
Let’s start by looking at the components of a traditional pizza.
First, you have the base. This is made of dough formed from flour, eggs, yeast, olive oil, salt and water. The dough is then fired in an oven so that’s it’s crispy.
Traditional pizza ovens are fueled by burning wood, and some restaurants will use this method too. In New York, the pizza ovens originally ran on coal. Both wood and coal-fired ovens produce much higher temperatures than electric or gas models.
The base can be different thicknesses. Traditional Italian pizza has a thin crust. The deep crust pizza came later, and now there are even versions with crusts stuffed with cheese or pepperoni.
On top of the base is a tomato-based sauce. And on top of that, there’s a layer of cheese and the toppings of your choice.
So if that’s a standard pizza, what’s different about the New York version?
The New York base
The defining characteristic of the New York pizza is its thin base. It will be thicker around the outside. But in the middle, the crust is thin enough to be folded in half to eat. If you can’t eat your pizza folded over vertically, it isn’t New York style!
That folding also performs a practical purpose, because New York pizzas are often very large. The base is stretched out so that it’s much bigger than a standard one-person pizza. It’s typically 18 inches in diameter, or even larger.
It’s usually served in single, wide slices. And it’s a whole lot easier to eat when it’s folded in half.
There are also a few differences when it comes to the ingredients in the base. Extra olive oil and sugar are often added. And some people say that the crust is extra crispy because of the minerals in New York’s water supply.
One canny entrepreneur has even capitalized on this theory by inventing the New York WaterMaker! This claims to allow any water to mimic New York water by adding minerals and adjusting its pH level. It’s been successfully exported worldwide to pizzerias looking to recreate the New York experience.
What goes on top?
As with pizzas the world over, the New York variety is covered in a rich tomato sauce. You’ll then get cheese and a range of toppings of your choice.
The tomato sauce is more complex than you’ll find in a classic Neapolitan pizza. The latter is usually nothing more than crushed tomatoes with a seasoning of salt. With a New York sauce you’ll also typically get onions, garlic, olive oil, a little sugar, and herbs like basil and oregano.
The cheese is different too. Although it uses the mozzarella of a Neapolitan, with a New York pizza it generally comes in grated form, rather than slices. It’s lower in moisture and more subtle as a result.
There are, of course, exceptions to that rule. Grimaldi’s, situated just at the end of the Brooklyn bridge, is as classic a New York pizzeria as you could hope to find. And there your mozzarella topping will be discs of the fresh stuff.
When it comes to other toppings, the world is your oyster! You can get pretty much any meat, fish or vegetable your heart desires on top of a New York style pizza.
Oven roasted peppers, onions and garlic are favorites. Tuna, prawns and anchovies are great for fish lovers. And for committed carnivores, the original New York pizzeria, Lombardi’s, serves a delicious sliced meatball option.
But for many people, the best New York pizza of all is pure and simple – tomato and mozzarella. This is known as a New York Neapolitan.
If you’re making your own pizza at home, be wary of loading it with too many toppings. Remember – a key part of the New York pizza experience is eating it folded over!
You might be wondering how New York developed its own distinctive take on pizza. The answer begins with a man called Gennaro Lombardi. He came to the United States from Naples, and in 1897 he opened a grocery store in Little Italy. In 1905, he began selling his own pizza alongside the fruit and veg.
Before then, pizza in New York had been made only in the homes of Italian immigrants. Lombardi took this traditional approach and tweaked it so that it could be made on a grander scale.
The recipe was based on a classic Neapolitan, with tomato and mozzarella. But instead of being made for one person, Lombardi’s versions were much bigger. That allowed him to sell his pizza by the slice. You could pick up one slice for just a nickel.
The great taste was a hit with factory workers in the area, and soon Lombardi dispensed with the grocery trade. As time went on, his employees branched out on their own, taking pizza to other parts of New York.
Amongst those early pizzerias, Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, John’s and Patsy’s are still going strong today. If you’re in the Big Apple and want a slice of authentic New York pizza, they’re well worth a visit.
Until the Second World War, however, pizza was still consumed mainly by Italian Americans. But returning GIs changed all that. Many were keen to continue enjoying the pizza they’d eaten in Italy. As a result, pizzerias soon sprung up in all parts of the city.
Over time, concerns about air pollution led to a ban on coal-fired ovens. Nowadays, pizzas are often made in gas ovens, with much lower start-up costs for new pizzerias. And that’s meant there are even more places to buy your pizza!
The New York Pizza Principle
Pizza is such a fundamental part of New York life that it’s even given its name to an economic principle! In 1980, New Yorker Eric Bram observed that a slice of pizza in the city cost the same as a subway ticket. This same relationship held true back into the 1960s.
This principle has been used on several occasions to correctly predict rises in subway fares. It seems that where the price of pizza goes, ticket prices soon follow!
In recent years, however, pizza prices have become more variable. And in 2019, the Wall Street Journal took a detailed look at the principle and declared it no longer held true. What a shame!
New York style pizza outside New York
The popularity of New York style pizza has seen it offered in pizzerias across the world. Outside New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have plenty of excellent options. And there are authentic New York style outlets across the North-eastern United States.
But watch out for less impressive copies too! The “New York style” pizza offered outside this area often doesn’t hit the mark. And that’s the case even for some large pizza chains.
Making it at home
If you fancy creating a New York style pizza at home, there are plenty of recipes online.
The key to a good result is getting the base right. Some recipes suggest using a food processor to help create a smooth dough. Others swear by kneading it by hand.
But whichever approach you take, you need to know when your dough is ready. And for that, you can use something called the windowpane test. This is a simple way to tell whether your dough is stretchy enough to give you that thin, crispy base.
When you think your dough is ready, break off a small piece. You want something about the same size as a marble. Now hold it between your fingers and gently stretch it out into a rough rectangular shape. Keep stretching slowly and gently.
The idea is to get it as thin as you possibly can. At every stage, hold it to the light. If you can get it thin enough that you can see through it – windowpane thin – without it breaking, it’s ready.
Note that even perfect dough will break eventually. The question is simply whether you can stretch it out enough to see through it before that happens. If you can’t, give it another knead.
Ready to sample some New York style pizza?
We hope you’ve enjoyed our low down of everything there is to know about New York style pizza!
If you’ve never tried it before, you’re in for a treat. And if you’re thinking of making it for yourself, we hope we’ve given you some handy pointers.
One thing’s for sure – New York style pizza is something special. We hope you’re soon enjoying that authentic New York flavor.