Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pizza Wars: Juliana's, Grimaldi's, and the unanswerable question.

  "What is the best pizza in New York?" The question tantalizes the lips of locals and visitors in New York City alike. The siren call of melting cheese, fresh basil, charred dough, and tangy tomato sauce beckons all who walk the streets of here. A slice of pizza is the food most associated with New York City. And it should be. After all, it was an Italian immigrant to New York named Gennaro Lombardi who received the license to operate the country's first pizzeria in 1905 at 53 1/2 Spring Street, in what was then Little Italy and today is called NoLiTa (short for North of Little Italy). The clientele was mostly Napolean immigrants like Lombardi who appreciated the humble, flavorful tastes of home. Pizzas were especially appreciated on Fridays when the Catholic community shunned meat.  His restaurant survived until 1984 when an economic downturn shuttered the business. But it has since reopened though it moved to a new location on Spring Street. Today, Lombardi's is owned by John Brescio, who partnered with childhood friend Jerry Lombardi (grandson of Gennaro) to open the new location down the block from the original in 1994.

The original Lombardi's

   Pizza making spread through New York and other Italian communities in New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and more. Lombardi trained an entire generation of pizza makers in NYC that went on to open pizzerias in all corners of the city. One apprentice was Patsy Lancieri who opened the still operating Patsy's in East Harlem's bustling Italian district in 1933. And at the tender age of 13, his nephew, Patsy Grimaldi began work manning the ovens. It would be a long apprenticeship for Grimaldi who would only open his own place in 1990. He originally called it Patsy's but a conflict with the original Patsy's meant he had to change the name and it was christened Grimaldi's. The location was in a quiet area of the Brooklyn waterfront, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Patsy and his wife Carol would man the old coal-fired oven 6 days a week and word spread of the brand new, old-school pizzeria on Old Fulton Street.
Grimaldi's half pepperoni, half white with sausage.
   But Patsy would only own the restaurant for eight years. In 1998, he sold the business to an investor from Brooklyn named Frank Ciolli. Ciolli intended to bring the successful Grimaldi's brand national and open Grimaldi's locations all over the country. The first opened in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2003 and now the chain has more than 36 locations around the country. The relationship between the two started off charmed, but the rosy relationship faded fast. Dinners at the Grimaldi's house became less frequent. Patsy's visits to the shop became more fraught and tense. His criticisms of the cooking mounted and eventually the two completely fell out. 
   But Grimaldi didn't disappear. He bode his time and before long an opportunity presented itself. Ciolli had been feuding with the landlord on Old Fulton Street for years with the building's owner claiming late and missed payments of rent, taxes, and utilities. Finally, in 2010 Grimaldi's was evicted from their space. The good news for the legion of fans of the restaurant was the shop was able to relocate one door over in an old pre-civil war insurance building where meetings were held to finance the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. But Patsy saw an opportunity. He called his old landlord and asked to take over the rent on his old space. The landlord agreed and Patsy and Carole Grimaldi started their new venture. They had sold the Grimaldi's business and Patsy's is still operating, so the new business is called Juliana's. So today, Grimaldi's operates under its new owner in a new space, while next door, Juliana's is run by the original Grimaldi's owner in the original Grimaldi's space.

   So which one is better? It's a nearly impossible question for me to answer. I am a fan of pizza and eat at famous pizzerias all the time in my work as a guide. But I don't know the ins and outs of proper pizza making technique and taste. It would take a true expert to tell which pie is "better." For a layman like me, these are two world class pizzas. The major difference I have noticed is the Juliana's crust is fluffier and chewier and the Grimaldi's crust is crisper and denser. Mostly, the decision can come down to whichever establishment has the shorter wait (and that will probably be the less famous Juliana's). There is, however, a great trick to avoiding the wait at both places. Call and order a pie for pick-up. Both places do delivery and takeaway business and the wonderful Brooklyn Bridge Park down the street makes for a dramatic skyline view while you eat your pizza.
   The last important question is, "what is the best pizza in New York?" It's a question with almost as many answers as there are pizzerias. For most New Yorkers, the answer is simply their favorite neighborhood pizzeria. For others, it is one of the classics like Di Fara's, Patsy's, Totonno's, or Lombardi's. For others  it's the new chefs making pies at Motorino, Roberta's, or Forcella. Some love the far-flung Outer Borough charms of Denino's on Staten Island or Louie and Ernie's in The Bronx. My favorite is actually the pizza dished out of the mobile wood oven of Pizza Moto that can be found at the Brooklyn Flea, Central Park Summer Stage, Smorgasburg, and (last summer) the South Street Seaport. Whenever you're in the mood for good pizza in NYC, you only need to do one thing. Find a crowd enjoying a slice and join in. Mangia!

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