This is it. The culmination of countless afternoons spent devouring the best pizza we could find. This is the 5 Borough Pizza Put Down. In our never-ending quest to find the perfect pizza pie parlor, we’ll award points based on 5 categories: food, service, atmosphere, cost and value. In the short term we will be grouping pizza places together: either by geography, shared history or both, and comparing. In the long term, we will use the points system to decide on an overall city-wide winner. (I’ve decided that, in order to simplify any comparisons, I will only order the plain, or margherita pie at each pizzeria.)
For the first part in this series we’ll tackle what are probably the most obvious choices. Along with Totonno’s in Coney Island and Patsy’s in Murray Hill, both are linked directly, indirectly or mythologically to New York’s first licensed pizza maker, Genaro Lombardi. Straight out of the guide books we have from Manhattan, John’s Pizzeria of Bleecker Street and from Brooklyn, Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria.
The first stop on our journey was John’s. Walking down Bleecker Street I couldn’t help but rattle off some lines from Pope of Greenwich Village (“Cholly! They took my thumb!”). The presence of Murray’s Cheese Shop and the remaining Italian-American businesses on Bleecker, as well as Carmine Street, immediately west of Sixth Avenue remind one of a time, not all that long ago, when the Village was an ethnic enclave.
The first thing I noticed about John’s were the private booths, a departure from Grimaldi’s large communal tables. Especially intimate was the one my girlfriend and I were sharing, which was tucked into a front corner on a raised platform, kind of like a small dais. It was from this vantage point that my girlfriend snapped the above photo.
The pizza itself was, what can I say, perfect. I could tell right away this was going to be a tough competition. I liked the zing of John’s tomato sauce, like a naturally spicy tomato plucked from a backyard garden. The crust had some crunch on the outside with a nice, thin but spongy inside. The basil was a perfect compliment, adding some complexity. The cheese was distributed very uniformly, giving a consistency to each bite.
The service was friendly and intimate, much like the atmosphere. This is the kind of place you’d take a date, especially during the week, when it’s not too crowded. The price was economical for a restaurant with table service: a little over $21 for a “small” (14 inches, six slices) pie, a coke and pint of draft beer (Yuengling).
I gave John’s a 4.9 for Food, 5 for Service, 4.9 for Atmosphere, 4.8 for Affordability and 5 for Value. Based on these five criteria, John’s received a total score of:
4.92- A tough score to beat indeed.
Next was a trip on the A Train from West Fourth to High Street. Grimaldi’s sits on old Fulton Street, which runs parallel to the Brooklyn Bridge. On our way from Cadman Plaza West we had to cross an entrance to the BQE. After reaching the center median, the second walk sign blinked red, stranding us in the middle for a precarious couple of minutes. There should have been more pedestrians out considering the businesses right down the street, which include the tony River Cafe. This was probably once a beautiful, scenic and bustling corner, now ugly and semi-desolate thanks to the sub-urban planning of Robert Moses.
I might have been a little testy as a result of this unnecessary scarring of Mother Brooklyn. I had heard about the lines out front at Grimaldi’s, which was why I chose a Tuesday. We were not in luck. As we approached the long line of people I grumbled. My girlfriend and I felt like we were being corralled like cattle behind the non-velvet rope. We both remarked how John’s management was very smart to herd the gawking tourists to their Times Square location, ceding the original to locals and regulars. Grimaldi’s does have other locations, unfortunately not in tourist-friendly Manhattan or Brooklyn. On a Tuesday night Grimaldi’s seemed like some kind of tourist mecca, particularly for the French and Japanese, whose native tongues mixed into the sound around us, turning a pizza parlor under the Brooklyn Bridge into the Tower of Babble.
The center tables at Grimaldi’s are communal, the seating tight. Upbeat rock plays over the restaurant’s speakers, giving it a party vibe. The service is surprisingly personal, considering the crowds. The tables, covered with checkered table cloth and space-saving pizza pedestals are an eavesdropper’s dream. My girlfriend caught the couple next to us listening intently to our conversation more than once.
The first two things I noticed about Grimaldi’s was their choice of Italian tomatoes and large pieces of mozzarella. Theirs is a pizza that resembles the pies of Naples. Like John’s, they top their pizza with whole leaves of basil. Unfortunately, the first bite I took included a burnt basil piece. I liked Grimaldi’s crust better. Baked at a higher temperature for less time, it’s a little crispier on the outside and more spongy on the inside. The prices at Grimaldi’s were slightly better but still very close to those at John’s. The “Small” 16 inch pie was 12 dollars, the same price as John’s 14 incher. With drinks, the bill came out to a bit less.
In the end, I gave Grimaldi’s a 4.8 for Food, 4.9 for Service, a 4.9 for Atmosphere, 4.9 for Affordability and 5.0 for Value. Based on these 5 criteria, Grimaldi’s received a score of:
In my opinion, both pizzerias are excellent and worth a visit. The consistent quality of John’s pizza, and the absence of lines at its Greenwich Village location, gave it the edge in this round. However, both managed to bring tomato sauce smiles to our faces. There’s nothing like a good slice of pizza, but an entire pie made of the best ingredients, eaten in a classic old school pizza parlor? That’s just heavenly.