Three 'pizza tours' merge history, food geekery and a love of 'New York Style' pizza (whatever that is now)
8:54 am Mar. 22, 2012
A slice of good New York City pizza promises a couple of things. Its crust will be sturdy and foldable, its sauce tasty but unobtrusive, and its cheese will stretch in one gooey continuum across the surface of the slice. Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
With 150 years of pizza history and evolution under the city’s belt, there actually is no single definition of New York–style pizza anymore. Depending on where you eat, you might encounter a chewy, thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pie, which comes minimally splotched with fresh mozzarella; or a Sicilian pie, which is bready, sauce-heavy and square; or a beautifully blistered artisanal pizza baked inside a coal- or wood-fired brick oven.
And so, the rise of the pizza tour: guided walks or rides through New York City’s pizza landscape meant to demystify the city staple. Not surprisingly, there are several of them now, including Scott’s Pizza Tours, A Slice of Brooklyn, and Famous Fat Dave’s Pizza Tour. All three are led by energetic food lovers who have turned pizza Pied Pipering into a full-time profession. And like the pies themselves, each tour offers something different.
You might call Scott Wiener of SCOTT’S PIZZA TOURS the Bill Nye of pizza pie. The New Jersey-native (he currently lives in New York) has made it his business to learn pizza from the inside out—digging into the literature on tomatoes, cheese, and wheat to understand how slight differences in ingredients affect a finished pie; collecting pizza boxes to compare designs (his stash includes nearly 200 boxes); and traveling all over the country and to Italy on pizza-scouting trips. Tell him where you’re from, and chances are he has eaten the pizza there.
Still, his sauce-loving heart belongs to New York City. Since 2008, Scott and his fellow guides (whom he vets and trains carefully in the ways of pizza geekdom) have offered several different pizza tours—one by bus (with four pizzeria stops), two walking tours (with three stops), and one geared toward specialty diets from vegan to gluten free.
Scott’s crosstown pizza walk starts in Soho, where Italy’s Neapolitan immigrants first landed in New York City. The specific pizzeria stops change from day to day, which keeps things interesting—and keeps people coming back. (One couple from Colorado has taken his tour 12 times). The tour I attended stopped at Lombardi’s in historic Little Italy, followed by Pizza Box and John’s of Bleecker Street, both in Greenwich Village. What ties the tours together is how the stops collectively illustrate the evolution of pizza in New York.
“I look at pizza not just as Italian food," Wiener said, "but as a food that is in constant evolution."
Along the way, Wiener stops at many “PPI,” or points of pizza interest, pulling out archived menus, placemats, and laminated photographs from a well-worn binder to help illustrate his mile-a-minute storytelling. He also carries an instant-read thermometer with him, which he used on the tour I took to test the heat of Lombardi’s ancient, coal-fired oven (925 degrees), as well as the beautiful Neapolitan pie that emerged from it (cheese: 171, sauce: 133). For a sampling of Wiener’s style, check out his pizza column on Serious Eats. This is the tour to take if you're a History Channel buff, or want to understand how exactly the pizza on your plate got so otherworldly delicious. As one preteen tour-goer said while munching on a slice, “I never knew pizza could be this interesting.”
A SLICE OF BROOKLYN has been running bus tours (both pizza related and otherwise) of the “better borough” since 2005. The company was founded by lifelong Brooklynite Tony Muia, a former health-care professional who followed his stomach into a new career. Three years ago, he hired fellow Brooklyn native (also his cousin) Paula Berkenstadt to help lead the tours, launching a family business that bursts at the seams with Brooklyn pride.
These days, A Slice of Brooklyn doesn’t have to work too hard to persuade tourists that Brooklyn is worth a visit. Instead, they focus on providing an insider’s experience that the double-decker buses miss. The hard work is paying off. A pilot for a new reality show called (what else?) ”A Slice of Brooklyn” featuring Tony and Paula recently aired on the Travel channel and, with any luck, will bring their special mix of pizza obsession and Brooklyn charm to a wider audience.
Slice of Brooklyn tour groups meet in Union Square then quickly leave Manhattan behind, traveling to DUMBO to eat a Neapolitan slice under the Brooklyn Bridge at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. From there, the bus heads deep into the borough to Gravesend, stopping at L&B Spumoni Gardens for a Sicilian slice and a cup of creamy spumoni. The tour ends with a stroll along the Coney Island boardwalk.
Tony and Paula strive to impart a taste of Brooklyn neighborhood color that goes beyond the brownstones of Park Slope and the hipsters of Williamsburg. As the bus hurtles through Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Bay Ridge toward Coney Island, the guides share tidbits of history and show clips of Brooklyn-centric movies (Saturday Night Fever, GoodFellas, the French Connection). Their tour philosophy is to merge the historical with the social.
“I yap nonstop on the bus," Paula said. "But when we arrive at the pizzerias, I let everyone schmooze and eat undisturbed.”
If you want to cover a large swath of Kings County in an afternoon, sample two distinct styles of pizza, and enjoy hearty doses of shtick, this is your tour.
Some people run from nicknames. But Dave Freedenberg, better known as “Famous Fat Dave,” gave himself the moniker back in 2000 after making a particularly decadent pot of fried salami pasta sauce. Since then, he has lived up to the name, working stints as a bread truck driver, pickle man, cheesemonger, hot-dog vendor and, most recently, a full-time, food-focused tour guide—his pizza tour, FAMOUS FAT DAVE’S PIZZA TOUR, being just one of many tour options.
The 33-year-old licensed taxi driver (who also happens to have a masters’ degree in public administration and international economics from Columbia University) conducts his pizza tours from a white, 1982 Checker Marathon cab he refers to as Sweetness. Many of his favorite stops were actually inspired by former taxi patrons.
“I would always ask customers where they liked to eat in their neighborhood,” he said. Luckily, New Yorkers love to brag about where they live, and what they eat, and before long Freedenberg had developed a solid repertoire.
Freedenberg exclusively leads private tours, and each one is different. When it comes to the pizza tour, he shoots for variety and focuses on farther flung spots like Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem, one of the city’s few remaining coal-burning pizza ovens; Louie & Ernie’s in the Bronx (where he enthusiastically recommended the fried calzones); or New Park Pizza in Queens’ Howard Beach neighborhood.
“I’ve got the wheels," he said. "So why not take people where they couldn’t otherwise go? ”
Freedenberg's philosophy is: bring people somewhere good and let the pizza talk for itself. That said, tourgoers leave with all sorts of historical nuggets to complement their full stomachs. At New Park Pizza, Freedenberg tells the story of the infamous summer of 1986 when racial tensions in Howard Beach led to the senseless death of a 23-year old black man named Michael Griffith.
“The pizza was Griffith’s last meal,” Freedenberg said. “It’s not the most pleasant story, but it provides context for the neighborhood and shows how much the city has changed.”
This tour is great for a personal touch, and offers several different styles of pizza along with a behind-the-scenes look at the outer boroughs, not to mention the fun of tooling around the city in a vintage Checker Cab .