If I had a dollar for every time I've been into a "New York Style" pizzeria and walked out amazed at how awful people are at interpreting the seminal food of my misspent youth, I'd be able to retire and never write another word again.
It's amazing--people will attempt to clone the accent (usually badly--I can spot a fake New York accent in just a few words, mostly because people think all New Yorkers talk the same way) and the attitude, with little success. They'll paint the Italian murals on the wall just like home, they'll stack up decorative cans of San Marzano tomatoes, and they'll have New York sports memorabilia, or more recently 9/11 memorabilia, but the pizza will be atrocious.
Here are five things to look for--besides the pizza itself--when attempting to judge the verisimilitude of a New York-style pizzeria.
These are, incidentally, not universal characteristics in New York pizza places. There are places like Lombardi's and Di Fara's that are head and shoulders above the rest even in New York, but these are things to look for in a place trying to replicate the everyday, run-of-the-mill Manhattan slice joint.
5. Reheated slices in display case
Whether they're sitting on elevated pizza trays or just on their baking pans in a glass (or Plexiglas) display case, the pizzas need to be out for inspection. They'll look awful, shriveled and gummy, but the beauty of a New York slice joint is that these ugly specimens rejuvenate beautifully with just two minutes in a pizza oven. If the counterman doesn't slip it into the oven, you're in a fake.
4. White pizza and/or grandma pizza
Any pizzeria can make pepperoni, sausage or vegetable pizza. When I see a white pizza--that's a pizza brushed with garlic oil and topped with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, which may or may not have tomatoes as a topping--I know chances are better that the pizza might be good. When I see a grandma slice--a square pizza in a Sicilian pan made with chopped tomatoes, a little cheese and garlic, maybe a streak of pesto (or maybe not)--I know they've at least actually been to New York, and specifically Long Island.
3. Shakers of oregano and garlic powder
If you don't have shakers of dried oregano and garlic powder available, you are not a real New York-style pizzeria. Period. It's the sine qua non of condiments for pizza--you can have red chile flakes and grated Parmesan cheese, but it's the dried oregano and garlic powder that are required.
2. Fast line
Poseurs ape the brusque New York attitude without grasping the whole point of the brusque New York attitude--get in, get out, get on with it. New York pizza countermen aren't brusque because they enjoy being jackasses, they're brusque because at lunch they've got a line fifty hungry office drones deep. "Two slices sausage anna diet t'stay" is all they need to know--so if you're at a New York-style pizzeria in a corporate park at lunch and the counterman is chatty, they're from Santa Monica... or maybe Kansas.
1. Sell by the slice--and make custom slices
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Real New York pizzerias--with certain exceptions, mostly surrounding the use of coal ovens--sell their wares by the big, floppy slice. Real New York slice joints will make you a custom slice. You want just sausage? No problem. They'll fling some sliced sausage onto a plain slice and throw it in the oven, even if the line is long. As soon as I hear that the only things on offer are on the menu (or in the case), I know it's not a real New York pizza joint.