Sunday, September 20, 2009

NYC - Lombardi's

Neighborhood: Nolita/Little Italy
32 Spring St.
(at Mott St.)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 941-7994
Nearest Transit: Spring St-Lafayette St (6); Bowery (J, M); Prince St. (R, W)

While I was in NYC visiting my sister Rose in July with my friend Alex we also went to Lombardi's. This is a belated installment from my Pizza field trip. Let me tell you, it was a very exciting and memorable pizza experience. Lombardi's is THE FIRST ever pizzeria in the United States and, in my opinion, played a huge part in the popularization of pizza both in the US and in Italy.

Gennero Lombardi immigrated to the US in 1897. He settled in to the Manhattan neighborhood now known as Little Italy where he opened a small grocery store. It was out of this store that he and his employee Antonio Totonno Pero, baked pizza based loosely on the pizza of Naples, Italy but adapted of course to use ingredients that were available in America.
In the book Pizza: A Global History Carol Helstosky writes that pizza started as simple flat breads topped with whatever was on hand among impoverished populations in Naples. Pizza was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Being a fairly simple dish to make with low-cost ingredients, and so reminiscent of their home, Pizza be came very popular among Italian immigrants living and working in the U.S. Gennaro Lombardi received the first licence to sell pizza out of his grocery store in 1905. Other immigrants were also selling pizza at the time but Lombardi's is most often credited as the first pizzeria. In the 1930's Lombardi's converted his grocery store in to a restaurant. Antonio Totonno Pero, left to begin the infamous Totonno's pizza parlor in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and pizza started to blow up among working class populations all over the north east. Lombardi's closed for a while but opened years later just one block away from the original location and they took the oven with them!

The oven at Lombardi's now is the original coal fired oven from the early 1900's. It is a sight to behold! The seven foot tall oven's facade is stacked with beautiful black and white enameled bricks and built with terracotta bricks on the inside. It is about 12 ft x 12 ft and can hold up to 15 pizzas. Watching them work this oven was like watching a highly choreographed dance. The men were moving around the small kitchen with such a rhythm stepping around the long handle of the pizza peel. They slipped the finished pizzas up onto the peel and then slid pizzas on to pans while the oven chef slipped another pizza into the oven the other chefs slid from the pan to a box or up to a window for a waiter to take out to a table. It was pizza kitchen ballet! And I'm so glad I got to see it!

We ordered a beautiful pie with red onions, shiny black Kalamata olives, and yummy wild mushrooms. It was marvelous! The crust was beautiful and nicely charred the cheese was beautiful fresh mozzarella bubbled up and crisped up just around the edges. There was a pretty good cheese to sauce ratio and the tomatoes were really nice.

The Ambiance of the restaurant was kind of weird. The wait staff was friendly but looked like they were really busting ass to flip tables; there was a big line outside after all. We ate in what was surely once a store room-- A basement decorated like a crappy Italian chain place. with pictures of glasses of wine and pasta and maps of Italy and crappy murals. One highlight of the dining room was one of the old Lombardi's dough mixers. A big, shiny, red monster with a dough hook for a hand and "Lombardi's" painted in gold like war paint across its face and a big stainless steel bowl for armor.

As we devoured our pie a native New Yorker named Rebeca sat down next to us and ordered a classic pizza margherita. Her pie was beautiful, so beautiful in fact that like an obnoxious tourist I asked her if I could take a picture of it for my pizza blog. She laughed and agreed then offered us a slice. Lombardi's only sells whole pies. We refused at first but when she offered again we took her up on her offer. It was delectable! Having such a basic pizza really highlighted the taste and quality of the ingredients. We offered her some dough for sharing her pie with us but she refused. She told us that Lombardi's was her favorite pizza in the city and that what made it so unusual is that even native New Yorkers are willing to brave the crowds of tourists and wait in line to get a pie there even though there are pizza parlors everywhere.

I don't think it is the best pizza I have ever eaten (or even the best pizza I've eaten in NYC). But I really enjoyed it and really enjoyed sharing this awesome historical pizzalicious experience with Alex and Rose. We all really wished our friend Dave was there too. Here is a picture of Alex serving up a stretchy cheesy slice.

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