The first, and – some would argue – the best: Lombardi's.
Red-and-white tablecloths with Dean Martin music in the background. It sounds like every other pizza joint in the United States – and it's got every possible cliché you can think of when it comes to the inside of a pizzeria – but still, this place is different.
When a place has been a licensed restaurant since 1905 in New York City and has the title of "America's First Pizzeria," it means they helped create the cliché.
My goal in NYC was to eat as much pizza as possible; this meant stuffing my face with the finest thin crust our country has to offer. Stroll throughout Manhattan and you'll wander past hundreds of places that serve up a slice: big places, small places, hidden places, you name it. On this journey of mine, I was determined to find the best of the best.
Of course, it's impossible to gauge the greatest slice in the city. It's like trying to find the best place to get sun in San Diego. Nonetheless, after a bit of pie research, I set my sights (accompanied by ever-ready taste buds) on 32 Spring Street – home of the infamous (or as the Three Amigos would say, the "in-famous") Lombardi's Pizzeria.
I refused to eat in Little Italy, disenchanted on previous trips by the chaos, cheesy souvenir shops and disingenuous feel of this part of Manhattan. What I sought was authenticity – that is, an experience that didn't include being surrounded by a hundred "I Heart NY" shirts and mugs. Most importantly, I wanted the food to be authentic, and in Little Italy I felt this wa lacking (I did have some amazing cannoli from Ferrara Bakery).
So with these thoughts stirring in my head, I set out for NoLita – a short walk from Little Italy.
Entering the restaurant, I was surprised at how small it appeared. There was a dining room with roughly ten small tables and a bar that stretched along the right wall. I was told it would be a short wait, so I took a seat. As I sat there, larger parties made their way into the restaurant and were immediately taken toward the back, where they then disappeared around the corner. It was obvious now that this place was much larger than it first appeared.
Following a short wait, I was led in the same direction as the others. The smell of fresh-baked pizza was heavy in the air as I made my way through the kitchen toward a long narrow corridor of tables, red brick walls, faint music and a busy dining area.
After a quick glance at the menu, my mind was made up. For me, simplicity is usually the way to go with these thin-crust New York–style pizzas. Save the fancy ingredients for the next visit. Since they don't serve by the slice, I ordered their Original small 14" (six slices): fresh mozzarella, a San Marzano tomato sauce, topped with Romano and fresh basil. It doesn't get much better than this – soaking up the feel of the place and watching pizzas make their way from the kitchen to tables.
Within minutes, the server, a very nice lady, adorned my table with a beautiful coal-oven pizza served on a silver platter. Buon Appetito!
This was the make or break moment. Already I'd been extremely pleased with the ambiance and overall vibe of Lombardi's, but I tried not to allow all of this to overshadow the true reason for the visit: the pizza. I grabbed one of the slightly charred pieces and took my first bite.
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”
Welcome to pizza-induced euphoria. Delizioso! I stuffed my pie hole with fresh basil, mozzarella and crispy crust, savoring every bit of the fantastic meal. All around me people were engaged in conversation, and I couldn't help but imagine that if people were dressed in clothes from 75 years ago, I would have immediately been thrown into a time warp. It felt old – but not quite old-fashioned – with the coziness of an old brick loft.
There may (or may not) be better slices in the city, but there’s no doubt that Lombardi's is a serious contender for the best of the best.
Best on the planet? The sign says so.
As I finished my meal and settled up on my tab (cash only), I made my way out the side door and onto the streets of Manhattan, where I was greeted by a nice rain shower. I crossed the street and looked up at the beautiful old building on the corner of Spring St. and Mott St. with a bit of Sinatra ringing in my inner ear:
- "New York, New York. I want to wake up in that city that never sleeps. And find I'm king of the hill. Top of the list. Head of the heap. King of the hill.”
Now if only I could’ve found an “I Heart NY” shirt to mark the occasion.