Pizza is my heart. My dad used to make them at an old school brick oven spot called Zino's in Cincinnati. The smell of that crust was intoxicating. He would bring a pie home from there or a another spot name La Rosa's with a sweet tomato sauce that was like, ambrosia almost every night. I can see him now, walking down the street with that box in his hand. The black pizza man. Kids was tight and mad jelly, and I was like "looks like pizza tonight, can you smell me?"
Flash forward to 1981, New York City, Greenwich Village, 8th St between 5th and 6th ave. This was the center of the pizza universe as far as I was concerned. Whether it was Pizza Box on Bleecker, Ben's on MacDougall, Stromboli on 1st Ave or Ray's on 11th st, where they put so much cheese on that fucking slice, you could easily choke if you weren't careful, you could find me crushing a Sicilian and a Coke and killing it on any number of video games. Positively 8th St was my spot cause they had Qbert, Robotron and Defender and the sausage slices were fire. The smells, sounds and tastes of those pizzerias still resonates with me to this very day. Those sweet, warm crunchy memories embrace me. They guide me on this pizza mission to highlight the best in Manhattan. I bleed sauce.
I start my journey with one of my oldest friends, Sim Owens, former owner of the world renowned Crooked Tree Creperie which had a 20 year run in the East Village. He used to work at a joint called Don Giovannis on 10th ave between 22nd and 23rd in the heart of Chelsea in the early 90's and tells me their pies are banging, so we head there on a rainy night in February. He tells me it’s named after Don Juan’s aka but the owner is Jewish. Dan Cohen, an ex Israeli commando and all around rugged man, by all accounts, built the brick oven that runs this machine, with his hands. These hands of stone, no doubt, have been pumping out pies and feeding the neighborhood since 1991 and despite covid hardships, show no sign of slowing down. His daughter and fellow Laguardia alum Kimi Cohen, is the heart of the operation and carries the mantle for her family's business. The community she serves is of utmost importance to her and the family. The connections they have made and the generations that have grown up on their pizza is really what makes this place special.
We ordered a pomodoro and a white pie with olives. It took about 5 minutes and we watched them make it and slide it into the 1000-degree oven. Both pies were awesome. Crust, perfect. Sauce, fresh. Ingredients immaculate. But the real star, I believe was the oven itself. The love must have been transferred from Mr. Cohen's very capable hands to the bricks and through the mortar, right into these pies. But more important than the ripeness of the tomatoes or the freshness of the mozzarella, is the love and care that Don G's shows to the community which supports them. When Hurricane Sandy hit, they were there, in the dark feeding people. When covid hit, they were there, feeding EMT's and emergency workers. For 30 years they have been here feeding the hearts, minds and souls of the communities they serve. So, can Italian Jews make pizza? Most definitely the answer is yes. So to the Cohen family. L'chaim.
1990 the number. Another summer. Sound of the funky drummer. Me and some homies from The Village was chilling at my man Max's crib who lived on Bleecker st., right above the butcher Ottomaneli's and across the street from John's pizzeria. The Pompeii feast was in full swing, so everybody and their mothers were out in the streets on a Friday night in the hood. We were out the window, smoking blunts of chocolate thai and literally hollering at girls from three floors up. Out of nowhere, a white stretch limo pulls up in front of John's and none other than motherfucking Vanilla Ice pops out. We almost died laughing at the twist of fate that brought this dude with the number one song on the radio, at the time, Ice Ice Baby, to our hood, our block, on this night. The streets were watching as he stepped out, flanked by his bodyguards and people went crazy. Just as we were about to start hurling insults his way, my man Dylan, rest in peace, was like "Hold up yo". Without a word, we all knew what the plan was. Big Dyl was about to grab his BB gun which he always kept close to the window and fully loaded and assassinate this nigga. We held our collective breath and giggled with anticipation as he took aim. As Vanilla and his entourage attempted to skip the always long line at John's, unsuccessfully, Dylan squeezed off. He must have missed on purpose as he sprayed BBs, peppering the limo and a few of the wack rapper's crew. As they dove for cover, we did too, laughing so hard, they must have heard us from the street. The block was hot that night but Vanilla almost got ice iced baby.
30 years later, I'm back to the scene of the crime but this time, it’s for pizza. We didn't really used to go John's because they only sold pies and I fucked with slices. Their reputation precedes them. Opened by Peter Castelloti in 1927, this landmark of Greenwich Village is beloved and respected by all. When you feeding the likes of the Gigante family, you better be good. I hear the OG's order the anchovy pie so, obviously, that's what I got. Let me just say, holy shit. This sauce is the sweet nectar of the gods. So fresh and so clean, like it was uncooked, right off the vine. Unbelievable and possibly the best sauce I have ever tasted. The anchovy was the perfect complement to this sauce and made for an absolutely perfect pie. Our server proudly said “I put that tomato sauce in my baby’s bottle". Mother's milk indeed. It’s no wonder why John's has been around forever. They got that awesome sauce.
Now, let's get to the big boy of pizzerias. The undisputed and still champion, in any borough, city, state, town or country is without a doubt, mother fucking Patsy's. They used to have a spot on University but now reside in Harlem USA on 1st Ave and 117th st. I'm a regular but what I didn't know is at most old school pizzerias, when you order a pie, not a slice, a pie, you can ask to have it wit garlic. I thought I knew all there was to know about the art of pizza making but I was about to be schooled. I ordered the Margarita with garlic and let me tell you, when they put the garlic in that press and squeeze that juice all over that pie, it’s like the first time all over again. Like when my pops brought those pies home. Heavenly is an understatement. Italy may have invented pizza but Patsy Cancieri and Frank Brija perfected it. When you know, you know. Much love to Joe's and Lombardi's and all the great spots in Brooklyn but as far as Manhattan goes, these families are straight up royalty. We salute you.
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