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Pizza - a true history of the New York slice!

How and when did pizza came to New York City and what is the secret ingredient of the New York pizza dough? If you want to know, you are on a right place.

Ok, so here’s the thing: When I was growing up I was a big fan of the Ninja Turtles. My older brother knew how to operate our father's VCR and we had all the episodes recorded. I was born in 1989. So I am talking here about the original Ninja Turtles! Cowabunga dude! Tirelessly, we were playing the video cassettes over and over and we used the show as our background noise for our favorite game - demolishing the living room! Our mother wasn’t always very happy with that! Every time a new episode started, we were dancing to the theme song.

There are many fun memories related to the opening theme video. I can hear the music in my ears right now! But one scene was always striking my attention no matter what we were doing: It’s the scene in which Rafaelo slams the pizza into the screen and the pizza slides all the way down leaving toppings stuck to the screen. For some reason, this scene looked so cool and amazing to me that I vividly remember it even today! 

Later on, I discovered that Pizza wasn’t the random choice for the Ninja Turtles’ favorite food. There is a strong relationship between Turtles' hometown and Pizza. And there is a secret ingredient used only in the New York Pizza crust. Pizza became so iconic in New York City that New Yorkers are probably the main culprits that this delicious, traditional Italian dish has such huge popularity all over the world! Without New Yorkers and Americans in general, pizza would never have achieved the worldwide reputation it has today. So, how did Pizza come to the Big Apple and why is it so unique? Let me tell you a story:

Pizza or, for New Yorkers, the Pie or the slice!

New York City officially had over 2000 licensed pizzerias all over the place in pre-COVID times. There are even “Pizza city tours”. There are hundreds of small, on the street joints and you can try all sorts of pizza styles: Neapolitan Pizza, Chicago Pizza, New York-Style Pizza, Sicilian Pizza, Greek Pizza, California Pizza, Detroit Pizza, St. Louis Pizza. Some of these showed up in New York in the last few years, but still, New York is the pizza place. All of them served whole or as a slice! The Pie, as New Yorkers like to call it, is rooted so deeply into the culture of this city that it’s really easy to forget where pizza came from. The reason for such wide popularity of Pizza in New York City is, of course, Italians. Italian immigrants were moving to New York in big numbers and with them, they were bringing their rich culinary heritage. That’s how pizza came to New York City Streets.

Early beginnings:

New York is considered to be the birthplace of Pizza in America. With the immigrants, all of their rich heritage was brought over, and that is how in Soho in 1905. New York City gets it's first licensed Pizza Joint - The Lombardi's ( Now look, there is huge confusion about the first pizza place but all of the records show that The Lombardi's was the first one to receive the license. Soho was the place where all of the factories were located and they were working day and night. That’s why the owner of the Lombardie’s decided to keep his place open 22 hours a day! By being open day and night, Gennaro Lombardi - the owner, developed a habit into the factory workers to stop by before every shift, buy “a pie” wrapped in a brown paper bag and eat it later on a break. There are many stories about workers who would reheat the pizza in the ovens that were used to keep the work areas warm. How cool is that? :)

The first pizza makers were Italian bakers and the first New York City pizzas were baked in bread ovens. The coal that was used for heating them was giving the signature flavor, texture to the crust but most of all, it was giving an amazing smell to the New York City streets of that time. Think about that! The same awesome smell of pizza was spreading all over the place even in 1905.

Developing the competition:

Over the years, Gennaro Lombardi employed many Italians in his enterprise. They were familiar with the tradition of pizza but they also “had dough in their hands” as old Lombardi liked to say. As days were passing many of his students were leaving and starting their own pizza joints. That’s how famous Totonnos, John’s, and Patsy’s were opened. Most of them were opening their restaurant around 1933. All of them stay open even today (some under different names) and keep the traditional, original pizza recipe. The story says that Lombardi kept his coal oven and that this is the reason why the flavor of his pizza is so unique and different from the others. And most of these pizza places kept it’s authentic look up to today. Nothing changed!

New York Pizza secret ingredient:

Science proved that there is a secret ingredient behind the New York City bagels and pizza. Really, people were doing this! They measured all sorts of elements in the dough and discovered that “soft” tap water from New York pipes makes the whole difference in the dough preparation. As the largest unfiltered water supply system in the US, New York City tap water comes from the southeastern part of the state, from what is called the “NYC watershed.” While there are three distinct areas it can come from, 90 percent of the water the city (and surrounding areas) consumes comes from the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds. Mostly collected from precipitation (rain & snowfall), the state of New York calls the water from the NYC watershed the “Champagne” of drinking water. Each day, more than 1 billion gallons of fresh, clean water is delivered to NYC. New York City drinking water is world-renowned for its quality. During all sorts of tests, scientists did confirm that the softness of New York water and unique minerals found in its work as a secret and unique ingredient for the pizza crust!

Now, are you ready for some crazy numbers: The Department of Environmental Protection performs more than 900 tests daily, 27,000 monthly, and 330,000 on an annual basis from up to 1,200 sampling locations throughout New York City. This work is in addition to 230,000 tests performed in the watershed. :) That’s one heck of safe water to drink!

Ok, now you know it! Once you join me in New York City, and you order a pie like a real New Yorker, keep in mind that there is a very unique and special process going on during the making and a very special relationship between New Yorkers and the pie. 

Remember this with each bite because there is no place for pizza like NYC. It seems like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael were totally right! New York pizza is to die for! :)

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