32 Spring St., New York, NY 10012
Web: Lombardi's Pizza NYC
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Hot Dogs NYC Pizza
"Bourdain's picture hangs on the wall inside, and other critics have claimed that the place offers the 'best hot dog in the world.' Unfortunately for New York City, it doesn't."
As frequent readers know, we occasionally venture outside of Buffalo to see what we're missing and what we're not: prior visits to Seattle and Toronto yielded memorably great, locally unavailable Ethiopian and Asian meals, while a trip to Kauai offered great desserts but little else. This week, we traveled to New York City, one of the country's biggest culinary braggarts - a place that boasts an amazing 20,000 restaurants and almost invariably claims to have the best versions of America's favorite foods. Since that list includes pizza and hot dogs, we spent some time researching the town's favorites, restaurants that were claimed by critics to be "the best" versions of the city's best foods. The results are below, in the first and least positive segment of our three-part series on New York City's famous foods.
Lombardi's is to pizza what the Anchor Bar is to chicken wings - the original Lombardi's in 1905 was the first licensed pizzeria in the United States, and the current place is run by the founder Gennaro Lombardi's same-named grandson. Its inner walls show a collection of Zagat awards that any restaurant would be proud to hang, articles in various major newspapers and magazines with testimonials as to its fame and quality, and so on. Even those who don't call it the city's best tend to include it as "one of the best" in the city, and attribute the success of numerous other pizzerias to the work of the founder.
For those who don't know, New York-style pizza is based on a "thin crust," which tends to be even thinner than a typical Buffalo pizza's crust: literally, and not to be disparaging, the New York pizza's dough is baked to the thickness of a cardboard box wall. At some places, like Lombardi's, the wide pieces slide off the tray and onto your plate semi-crisp and semi-soft, you're given a knife and fork to cut through the crust rather than trying to eat with your hands. As an alternative, you can fold the pieces in half and eat them that way. We did both.
Our individual opinions of Lombardi's pizza were mostly the same, with small differences. We ordered a 14" margherita-style pizza, made with mozzarella, pecorino romano cheese, fresh basil, and a San Marzano tomato sauce - more on that in a moment. For the sake of doing so, we also tried a handful of toppings: citterio pancetta (bacon), rosa grande pepperoni, roasted red peppers, and onions, cumulatively bringing the small pizza's price to to $22.50. A very good sangria ($7) accompanied our meal, wonderfully balancing a mix of sweet fruit and red wine, while arriving topped with a plump orange slice and maraschino cherry.
We both thought the pizza rated a 2.5 overall - it was fine, not special - but we differed a bit on the specifics. One of us focused on the nice flavor of the sauce, which may have been a bit light in quantity, but was certainly strong, pulpy, and a little sweet with tomato flavor, like Bocce's though lower in quantity. Similarly, there was nothing wrong with the globs of obviously fresh, slightly gooey mozzarella cheese, except that the pizza could have used more; the typically salty pecorino romano was lost in the toppings that we selected. We were pleased with the soft, tasty bacon, and underwhelmed by the pepperoni, tiny red peppers, and plainly chopped onions, all of which were just okay.
And what of the crust that so differentiates New York's pizza from Buffalo's and so many other places? Though we've tried, we have yet to find one that rivals or exceeds the traditional Western New York version. Lombardi's relies on a coal-burning oven, which due to its noxious emissions isn't allowed in many places these days; because of its intense heat, the crust cooks very quickly and arrives with a somewhat smoked flavor, a char on the bottom, and a generally but not entirely crispy consistency. Cut through it and it is indeed like cardboard; bite through it and it's a little chewy. Neither of us finished all of our crusts - super-thin pizza's just not our thing - but it was as "authentic" as NYC pizza gets. Other opinions will obviously vary.
Rather than going into details on Luzzo's Pizza (211-13 First Ave., 212.473.7447), another place that had been raved about by various foodies, we'll keep our review extremely brief: it was polarizing. One of us was able to enjoy its sweet sauce, the fresh, chewy dollops of Bufalo mozzarella, and the basil, but overall, the $20 pizza - customized with prosciutto ham and mushrooms - came across as unfinished, a deconstruction of the real thing that had been broken up into its constituent parts and tossed together. Every bite felt as if it contained a couple pieces of a puzzle that would have been better if fully assembled, though we split on whether the thin coal-fired crust served as either an acceptable or bland base. One of us felt that this was quite possibly the worst pizza we'd ever eaten, cafeteria food aside; but the other found it and the venue likable, if not lovable. We'd give the place 2 stars overall, as a compromise between our divergent views.
Having walked away from two of the city's supposedly best pizza places less than completely impressed, we were both a little skeptical that we'd find hot dogs that were truly mind-blowing, either. So we tried a place recommended by Anthony Bourdain, who claimed that Papaya King (179 E. 86th St., 212.369.0648) makes the best hot dogs around - he called them his favorite junk food. After visiting the place, it's hard to imagine such a vaunted gourmet feeling so infatuated with something so mediocre, but it demonstrates that even Bourdain isn't immune to the odd benchmarking behavior people develop with certain favorites, whereby something that's objectively only decent becomes a subjective gold standard.
It's not that Papaya King's story isn't interesting. The place was apparently a fruit smoothie stand back in the 1930's and later added hot dogs to its menu, by 1960's changing its name to Papaya King based on increasing word-of-mouth popularity; today, Bourdain's picture hangs on the wall inside, and other critics have claimed that the place offers the "best hot dog in the world." Unfortunately for New York City, it doesn't - Ted's is better even on a bad day - and based on the heavily promoted but watery and passable "Coconut Champagne" we tried to see what the drinks were like, we decided not to bother with the rest of the beverages, either.
To Papaya King's credit, the salty, beefy Sabrett hot dogs it serves are cooked to the point of modest outside crispiness, but neither the meat nor the bun is anything special; they're the same as ones you can get from carts anywhere in the city. We tried two of Papaya King's dogs - the "Original Special" combo - where one was done with "NY Onions," or onions in red tomato paste with a little pepper, while the other was topped with "Tropical Relish," or sweet, slightly mustardy onions; both were plain, lacking in any sort of depth of flavor, and utterly forgettable. Our impression is that Papaya King heavily relies on its variety of toppings - "side on top" as a chili, cheese, and onion ring combo, "the musher" as grilled mushrooms and onions, and various other iterations of sauerkraut, chili, coleslaw, and onions - to dress up its dogs; based on what we had, even backyard Sahlen and Wardynski barbecues in Buffalo have absolutely nothing to worry about.
The next and substantially more positive part of our NYC Chow series, focused on Asian restaurants we've really enjoyed in the city, is up next, followed by a look at some of Manhattan's best desserts.