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Quality of water? Ovens? Ingredients? Culinary figures weigh in on the supremacy of NYC pizza.

It’s something in the water…or at least that’s what they’ll have you believe. One of the oldest theories about New York City pizza is that the city’s tap water is responsible for its superior taste. Many Americans might not know that here in the Big Apple, we’re almost as proud of our water as we are of our pizza, and that the city has been adding fluoride to the water for more than 50 years. But do fluoride and the other dissolved solids and minerals really make a difference when pizza dough is being torched at such high temperatures?

Many continue to believe this myth, with some pizzerias going so far as to import dough made in New York for use elsewhere, like Lamonica’s in Los Angeles. It’s a nice, clean theory that doesn’t quite do justice to the skilled pizza chefs of New York. And it’s easily debunked the moment you realize that Domino’s Brooklyn-style pizza is probably a better approximation of New York pizza than Lamonica’s, no matter where they might get their dough from.

It turns out that there is no single definitive answer as to what exactly makes New York pizza so special. It is a lot like the science of sleep or black holes or quantum mechanics — something that many have theorized about but still is not fully understood.

Simplicity at its finest: a slice of pizza at NYC’s Bleecker Street Pizza.

One emerging theory is that the main reason for New York City’s high-quality pies is not the water, nor the ingredients, but rather the ovens. New York pizza uses deck ovens that cook at extremely high temperatures and are often decades old. The idea is that like a good cast-iron skillet, the oven absorbs the decades’ worth of cheese and sauce vapor into its walls and then imparts it onto new pizzas that are cooked. This would explain why Joe’s on Carmine Street in the city makes such a phenomenal slice, but its Santa Monica outpost — presumably stocked with a newer deck oven — doesn’t quite taste the same. This theory also would seem to explain why the slew of $1 pizza joints, with their shiny new ovens, often produce a very neutral, bland slice.

Gavin Sacks, professor at Cornell University’s department of food science, doesn’t buy this theory. “You’re more likely to get residual taste when you’re dealing with contamination,” he says. “If you use a soap and don’t clean it up all the way, the pizza you cook will probably taste a bit like the soap you used.” It is unlikely, but theoretically possible, he says, that an oven could accumulate flavor compounds over decades of use. This reasoning, however, also comes with a proviso: “If you’re cooking pizza after pizza, the flavors are so similar that you wouldn’t be able to detect a difference between a new oven and an old oven.” Sacks also believes that any imparted taste would largely disappear after a good cleaning. And we should all hope that pizza places in the city clean their ovens.

Motorino founder Mathieu Palombino believes that the pizza oven plays a large role in the finished product.

Mathieu Palombino, founder of New York’s Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant Motorino, sees the oven as a tool that by necessity should not change over time. When he opened Motorino, Palombino bought his oven directly from one of the two major pizza-oven manufacturers in Naples, precisely because their ovens are able to deliver consistent, traditional Neapolitan pizza over many years. In fact, these ovens have defined the taste of Neapolitan pizza, and any change might be entirely unwelcome. Palombino’s theories about New York pizza are almost poetic. “Maybe the story of New York pizza is that it needed to be made so quickly that the dough is kneaded for less time, and this became part of the recipe. Maybe they were so busy that they needed to jam the dough with flour and it ended up less mixed.” He also believes that small, often overlooked aspects of a pizza joint may play a larger part in the cooking process than we might suspect. “It might be that the restaurant gets to the right temperature because it is the perfect size, or because the door is placed in a certain location,” he muses.

Patsy’s Pizzeria on 118th Street has been open for over 80 years.

Indeed, theories like this may explain why one of Palombino’s favorite slices in the city, Patsy’s on 118th Street, has been around in the same location for more than 80 years, churning out pie after pie of simple, straightforward perfection. Palombino likens it to the story of a hamburger-bun chef who, by necessity, packed his oven with lots of buns and later realized that doing so added a lot more water vapor to the oven, which significantly contributed to the buns’ signature taste — a result that would never have been possible had he cooked fewer buns at a time. The style of New York pizza just might be where the magic happens.

Other theories are far more elementary. Marc Bauer, master chef at the International Culinary Center, believes that a far simpler, far less speculative force is behind good pizza: correct technique and high-quality ingredients. The contribution of the yeast in the pizzeria’s air, the alcohol produced in the fermentation process of the dough, and the technique of stretching out dough instead of rolling it preserves the structure of the bubbles in the dough and may in fact be the foundation of the New York crust we love so dearly. “If you use good Italian cheese, and you pay attention to what kind of tomatoes you use and how long you cook it, it will all make a big difference in taste,” he adds. “Complexity comes from so much: from the caramelization process, from the way it is put into the oven.” Some places that are rushed, Bauer suggests, might just cook crushed tomatoes with a little garlic for half an hour, whereas others may season their sauces with greater attention and cook them for a longer time, yielding a richer, more sophisticated product.

“A big mistake I see some places make,” he says, “is using a dirty oven. You see burnt specks at the bottom of the pizza, which is very bad.”

Grandma Pie
A perfectly charred, crispy Grandma Pie at GG’s in NYC

The confluence of factors like the yeast in the air and the way the dough is mixed may never make enough of a difference in taste to overshadow quality ingredients, however. Bobby Hellen, executive chef at GG’s in New York, believes that good pizza is largely the product of good ingredients. “What matters the most to me is the quality of flour people use,” Hellen says. He sources his from a mill in upstate New York and dislikes the pervasive use of bleached flour.

Indeed, New York pizza must have crunch and chewiness in all the right places and should never be too doughy. No argument can be made for minerals in New York’s water or the age of the ovens, for example, when faced with such a glaringly apparent disparity between a rich, complex slice from Joe’s or Sal & Carmine’s, and a $1 slice from a place just a few blocks away. “There’s a place near where I work that sells dollar slices with shitty flour, shitty sauce, a lot of provolone and just a little mozzarella,” Hellen says, describing the increasingly popular, grease-filled establishments that line the streets of the city.

Dollar pizza joints are a dime a dozen on NYC street corners.

Being that a dollar-slice place can operate yards from a storied hole-in-the-wall pizza joint — which presumably use water from the same pipes and share the same climate — it is hard to give any credence to many of the myriad mythical factors to which people so often attribute the success of New York pizzas. Hellen calls this effect “saturation.” “You can find a lot of shitty pizza in New York,” he says, and indeed he is right. The fact that we have pizza joints on almost every corner just may be the main reason we have any good ones at all. With over 100 years of pizza tradition, inevitably some chefs will produce a remarkable slice. The sheer number of pizza places, along with combined years of knowledge and practice, leads to a disproportionate volume of quality pizza, skewing the appearance of an entire industry and hiding the network of inferior, nameless pizza joints behind places like Prince Street and Best Pizza.

Quality has the ability to endure. Patsy’s was never the only pizza place in that small corner of Harlem, where today, it stands mostly alone. The bad pizza of old New York has been lost to time. What remains from 80 years ago is the best — that which had the skill to survive and to hack it out in the world’s most unforgiving pizza climate. It stands to reason that the annals of pizza history in 80 years time will bear no trace of places like 2 Bros. The story of pizza in New York, some might say, is like the history of literature: The world little notes the men of Elizabethan England who wrote plays alongside Shakespeare.