Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Battle of the Pizzas

In the Big Apple, there has been a long-standing rivalry between a couple of old school coal oven pizza joints. What's better? Grimaldi's or Lombardi's? This question has been asked countless times, and I doubt there will ever be a definitive answer, as opinions on the subject are as numerous as New Yorkers. Let's start with a short history lesson, and then battle is out on a point by point evaluation.

Lombardi's - Small with Sweet Italian Sausage $19.50

Lombardi's is considered to be the first pizzeria in America. It started out as a grocery store in Little Italy opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1897 and then officially transformed into a pizzeria in 1905. In 1984, Lombardi's closed shop, but later reopened at a new location 1 block down the street in 1994. It has been regarded as one of the best pizzerias in New York for many years.

Grimaldi's history is a little more elusive. After doing extensive research online, I have been unable to find the exact year that the famous restaurant opened under the Brooklyn Bridge, but can safely say it was probably around 1960. Grimaldi's has since opened several other locations, including most recently it's first Manhattan outpost in the Limelight Marketplace in Chelsea. A friend who has dined at both assured me that the pizzas at both locations are of the same quality, so if you aren't too keen on waiting in a crazy line at the Brooklyn location, Limelight Marketplace is a great alternative! Definitely less busy.

Grimaldi's - Small with Pepperoni and Fresh Garlic $16

Let's break it down. First up is the crust.

Both spots feature thin crust pizzas fired in coal ovens. This cooks the pizzas very quickly and results in a charred base with an infused coal flavor. The technique cannot be replicated without this technology. Texture-wise, I found the Grimaldi's pizza to be a bit soft and limp in the very center, but held up really well toward the edges, and had a lovely chewy and somewhat crunchy texture at the extremities. It also had a well-developed coal flavor and a nice even char underneath. Lombardi's had a slightly thinner and softer crust, though still chewy. It was not very limp in the center, but overall just a bit less crunchy at the edges. It was also slightly less charred. I noticed that some diners around me had darker crusts on their pizzas, which suggests that the pizzas at Lombardi's are a bit inconsistent. During my visit to Grimaldi's, the restaurant was less busy so I did not notice if there was inconsistency in the other pizzas. I have read reviews that suggest that sometimes pizzas at Grimaldi's can be undercooked while those at Lombardi's can be overcooked, so I am under the assumption that either restaurant could be a bit inconsistent from time to time. Overall, I preferred the slightly more charred and crunchy crust at Grimaldi's, although another visit to Lombardi's could result in a more cooked pizza which could make me think otherwise.

Grimaldi's Crust

Lombardi's Crust

The sauce can make or break a pizza. It's equally as important as the crust. Everything from flavor, consistency, and quantity can make a huge difference. An immediate difference in the two is that Grimaldi's puts the cheese on the pizza first, and THEN adds sauce, while Lombardi's opts for sauce and then cheese. Does this make a difference? Oh yes it does. I think putting the sauce onto the thin crust first as Lombardi's does resulted in the slightly softer crust. The sauce seeps in and you get the soft doughy surface you often find on pizzas right between the toppings and the crust. The cheese acted as a nice barrier on the Grimaldi's pizza. Overall I think the crust tasted chewier because the sauce didn't act as a softening agent. Also, the sauce at Grimaldi's was slightly chunkier and tasted purely of tomato. I could describe it as bland, but I won't. It's not heavily seasoned, but in a good way. It's a tomato sauce, plain and simple. Both sauces use San Marzano tomatoes, but the one at Lombardi's is more flavorful. It is also a bit smoother than its counterpart. I honestly like both sauces for different reasons, and the methods of saucing the two pies seriously does make a difference in texture. Again, it's pretty close, but I think I will give this to Grimaldi's, by a hair.

Cheese. It completes the trifecta of pizza awesomeness. Truly, a margherita pizza is simply crust, sauce and cheese. Both Grimaldi's and Lombardi's use fresh mozzarella. None of that processed low-moisture, part-skim shredded crap you find at the supermarket. Once again, the placement of the cheese actually makes quite a difference in the final result. Placing the cheese directly on the crust (at Grimaldi's) yields a stringier pizza-eating experience without the cheese sliding off the slice as you take bites. At Lombardi's, I occasionally had the cheese come right off with a single bite because the sauce acted as a lubricant. This happens very traditionally with pizzas just about anywhere, but I experienced less of it at Grimaldi's. Also, Grimaldi's used more cheese than Lombardi's. That's just a personal preference. Some people like more cheese, some like less. It could easily go either way in this department, but from my back-to-back visits, I'm going to give this round to Grimaldi's as well.

Toppings are next on the list. To make a completely unbiased judgment, I should have ordered plain pies at both locations, but instead selected simple toppings and focused on the base ingredients in between bites of pepperoni and sausage. For what its worth, both establishments have a pretty lengthy list of available accoutrements. I tried pepperoni and fresh garlic at Grimaldi's. The pepperoni was significantly superior to what one finds at most other pizza joints. These slices were smaller and thicker and had delicious flavor, especially when married with bits of garlic. Also, this pepperoni did not cause the pie to be overly greasy, as some other pepperonis can do. At Lombardi's, I simply opted for some sweet Italian sausage, sliced thinly and pretty mild in flavor. It too was not very greasy and didn't overwhelm the pizza in anyway. Neither restaurant overcompensated with toppings, really allowing the other components--crust, sauce, and cheese--to shine. Obviously if you order more toppings, this would be different.

Show me the money. In the end, the pizza may be great, but what damage will it do to your wallet? Let's take a look at the sizes available. Small and large. A Grimaldi's small measures 16-inches across, while one at Lombardi's is smaller at 14-inches. Both offer 18-inch large pies. At Grimaldi's a plain pie will cost you $12 and $14 respectively for small and large. Lombardi's charges $16.50 and $20.50 for theirs. A pretty astounding difference especially considering the small at Lombardi's is smaller than that at Grimaldi's. Most of the toppings at Grimaldi's cost about $2, give or take. At Lombardi's the toppings are $3 across the board (although if you order more toppings, they give you a deal). Your wallet likes Grimaldi's better. But be sure to fill it with CASH as neither spot accepts credit cards. Also, both only sell whole pies, no slices, so don't even bother asking. And for the record, Grimaldi's sells desserts, and Lombardi's doesn't (although Rice to Riches and Pink Berry across the street, and Ceci Cela down the block make the trip totally worth it).

Although flavor is obviously paramount in importance, ambiance can seriously impact a dining experience. Both restaurants are awash in red-and-white checkered table clothes. Grimaldi's is far more stark and less renovated. Service is an afterthought, and I wouldn't be surprised if no one asks you if you're enjoying your pie, or refills your water unless prompted. When I was there, the Gipsy Kings was a popular music choice. Lombardi's is definitely sleeker in appearance, boasting exposed brick and dark wood walls, with accents of maroon. Frank Sinatra rules the speakers here. Employees are dressed more formally, and overall seem to care more. If you are going for the old-school (and perhaps gimmicky) experience, Lombardi's is choice. It's also around the corner from Little Italy if that's your cup of tea (TOURISTS).

I think a great coal-fired pizza can be found at Grimaldi's and Lombardi's. Both are experts at their craft. A few slight differences set them apart, and although Lombardi's features more history, better ambiance, and superior service, it is generally outweighed by the better prices at Grimaldi's, and the overall better pizza. In each category, both restaurants were really close, and could easily have swayed in either direction depending on who was doing the judging. But I'M doing the judging, and I have made my official selection for best pie in New York City. After careful consideration and meticulous examination, the victor in this battle is Grimaldi's (the lower prices definitely didn't hurt the decision-making). I would love to hear your thoughts on this epic pizza rivalry. Have you tried both? What's your favorite? Please share!

19 Old Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 858-4300

656 Avenue of the Americas
(between 20th St & 21st St)
Manhattan, NY 10010
(212) 359-5523

32 Spring St
(between Mott St & Mulberry St)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 941-7994


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