This day had me absolutely stumped. Cheese pizza? How the hell am I supposed to recommend one of the “best” places in New York City to get a slice of cheese pizza? It’s like going to Paris and asking where’s the best place to get a croissant, or the best sushi joint in Tokyo. Pizza is so ubitquitous and beloved in this town that there’s absolutely no way to objectively judge who makes it best. Everybody’s got their own opinions on the topic, ranging from the ancient institutions of dough and cheese to tourist traps to hole-in-the-wall pizzerias on the fringes of the boroughs. The arguments over who makes the best pizza can get so heated they could fire up a pizza oven on the energy alone. And let’s not even talk about the hipsters and their “gourmet artisan” pizzas! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we have over 8 million people in New York City, and probably over 8 million different answers as to who makes the best cheese pizza in town. You go looking for an out-and-out winner–or even for the “quintessential” New York slice–and you will never find your answer.
Back in February I wrote up a great piece for National Pizza Pie Day, another contentious New York pizza holiday, where I refused to go through the critics’ picks and just described my own personal favorite: DiFara Pizza in Midwood, which so happens to also hit the top of nearly every “Best Pizza” chart in print. But what was I to do for National Cheese Pizza Day? I didn’t want to reiterate all that I said in February. I even thought about putting the selection in the hands of a celebrity chef: Bobby Flay’s favorite pizza joint lies on the Upper East Side, as he described on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” But I couldn’t look past my deep Brooklyn roots, the childhood I spent in a borough absolutely bursting with pizza chops, from Grimaldi’s to L&B Spumoni Gardens to my family’s favorite, DiFara. No matter where I’m living now, Brooklyn will always be my home, and Brooklyn pizza will always be my pizza.
So, take the Q down to Avenue J for a handmade DiFara cheese pie. Or hop on the N to 86th Street for L&B’s famed square slice, where the mozzarella melts into the fluffy dough, making a unique upside-down pizza experience. Any train you take, so long as it’s deep south into Brooklyn, you’ll find a great pizza place fit for your taste buds (and so much better than waiting in line with the tourists at Lombardi’s!)
Or, you could take any one of those trains down to its end-point, in Coney Island, for one of the most celebrated pies you’ll ever taste. Totonno’s is a pizza institution, operating in the same building since 1924, making handmade pizzas out of an old family recipe. A family-operated, tiny pizzeria with irregular hours (“open ’til the dough runs out”) with, surprisingly, a bevy of celebrity chef fans and a James Beard Award. When was the last time you saw a pizzeria with a freakin’ James Beard Award?? Top-rated as one of the best pizzas in the Zagat guide since 1998, the original coal-burning oven is supposedly the secret behind Totonno’s success–as well as their locally-sourced mozzarella. And on National Cheese Pizza Day, shouldn’t the mozz be the star of the show? The restaurant was sadly closed in 2009 because of a fire, but after almost a year of renovations, they reopened to cheers from all over the foodie community. Definitely get here early today, as they’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, making Wednesday their big-rush day of pizza junkies who haven’t gotten their Totonno’s fix.
1524 Neptune Ave (between 15th St & 16th St), Coney Island
“A medieval crust, a sloppy splash of sauce, and the sweetest, freshest mozzarella make the pie at this famous pizza shack the best of its coal-oven kind by a wide margin. The occasional pizzaiolo outburst, the casual policy concerning store hours (open until the dough runs out), and the no-frills, airplane-wine-bottle selection only add to the charm. Forget about the Manhattan branches and their foggy affiliations. Every self-respecting pizza-loving New Yorker should visit the Coney Island original at least once in his lifetime. Go soon before they run out of dough permanently.”–New York Magazine
“Totonno’s dough is made fresh the day it’s baked and is never refrigerated. The result is crust that blisters nicely in the coal-fired oven. It has an airy chew, and it cracks a little when you fold the slice. That’s just the taste Anthony Saltarelli is looking for. He had driven to Totonno’s from Staten Island with his wife, Josephine, and their friends of 36 years, Jean and Al Bloise. “All I want in a pizza is to be reminded of my childhood,” he said.”–The New York Times
“Lawrence Ciminieri, the fourth generation to be in charge, has stayed true to the original recipe. Each pizza is made with imported Italian tomatoes, locally made mozzarella, yeast, flour, salt, and not much else. The last—and arguably most important—component is the oven. Totonno’s original coal-fired oven creates a distinct and flavorful char on the crust that cult pizza lovers crave.”–James Beard Awards
“Totonno’s is proud to be part of the history in N.Y.C. We began in 1905 when Anthony “Totonno” Pero distinguished himself as one of N.Y.’s first Master Pizziolas. In 1924 Totonno opened his own pizzeria in Coney Island. Still standing, Totonno’s is the oldest continuously operating pizzeria in the U.S. run by the same family. Totonno’s still uses the finest tomatoes imported from Italy, handmade mozzarella cheese, and dough which is made daily on its premises.”–Coney Island Fun Guide
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The pizza here is so simple. Good fresh mozz, sauce, olive oil and dough. They have been doing it this way for 80 or so years. Keep it simple and let the ingredients shine through. The char on the bottom of the pizza is still the best I have ever seen. It crunches when you bite into it but still gives you a fantastic chew. The sauce is just right, the dough is thin and the crust had some nice chew to it. The same dude that made my pizza the first time 5 years ago made my pizza again today. Consistent! Gotta love it!”–Tim S.
“Totonno’s is everything I love about Brooklyn. The Brooklyn I was raised in. The fun, sometimes crazy, sometimes mellow streets. The hot sidewalks I scraped my knee on when I fell off of my big wheel. The “skully” playing on the street corners while our parents sat on lawn chairs in front of our apartment doors drinking “Riunite.” The old school Italian Pizzeria’s that served riceballs, calzones and lemon ices. The dance shows my friends and I would put on for the neighborhood…Totonno’s brought back all of those memories for me the second I walked through the door this afternoon. A tiny little pizza place in Coney Island, that is rarely ever open, doesn’t sell pizza “by the slice” and is chock full of young families and old Italian men happily taking down an entire pie on their own. I’ve heard a lot about this place over the years, and have been living in Coney for almost 7 months now and today was the first time I tried it. Besides the sweet childhood memories it brought back of the “Old Brooklyn,” the pizza is nothing short of AMAZING. Thin crust, perfectly baked, sauce to die for, fresh mozzarella that is mouth-watering, mushrooms so juicy they are like a meal on their own.”–Gloria D.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!