When you think of New York City, you think the Statue of Liberty, subways, skyscrapers, Central Park… and pizza! Well at least I do, so the decision to book a Brooklyn pizza tour with Scott’s Pizza Tours on our visit to the Big Apple was not a difficult one. Because really, what better excuse is there to eat multiple giant slices of pizzas within a three-hour period, other than ‘research’?
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that I go on a walking tour in almost every city that I visit. The reason why I love walking tours so much is that I really feel like I get to connect with a place on a different level, it’s just not the same on a tour bus. There’s also the added benefit that a lot of walking tours offer a niche subject. This is often far more valuable than a standard city tour, detailing the history of a place from a unique perspective.
There are, of course, many, many, many walking tours on offer in a place as popular as New York City, which did make it hard to choose. Scott’s Pizza Tours made an easy job of choosing on of their tours once we had decided on a Brooklyn pizza tour. We wanted to explore on foot, and by slice, so we opted to go with his tour company. But there are of course multiple operators to choose from.
This blog is all about the birth of pizza, it’s immigration to New York and the Brooklyn pizza tour we enjoyed. You’ll find some helpful tips at the end and how to book your own pizza tour!
What exactly is a Brooklyn pizza tour?
While it may seem self-explanatory what a pizza tour is, I got so many questions about the tour after posting about it on Instagram that I just had to put this blog together! In short, of course, it’s a tour of Brooklyn that involves pizza.
More than that though, the Brooklyn pizza tour we booked is a deep dive into the history of Italian migrants to the USA, their food and the city itself. Details around how pizza came into being in New York City, what prompted it to become so popular, the famous pizza landmarks that New York City has, and of course the city’s most popular slices, are all divulged over the space of a few hours.
It’s fascinating to learn the history of a city I’ve visited twice before from a completely fresh angle, and yes, you do eat pizza along the way!
So no, it’s not the same as just walking between pizzerias and munching your way through them. I can assure we did that anyway, before and after the tour.
A typical New York-style pizza is 45cm wide, not that small!
The history of pizza in New York City
As you well know, pizza is traditionally from Naples, Italy. Thick, pillowy, focaccia bread has been a part of Italian food culture for centuries. At the time (l8th Century), the old dough was often used to cool down the floor of woodfire ovens, before the ‘real’ cooking began. Tomatoes were brought across to Italy from the Americas in the 18th century and were considered as poisonous. This meant that tomatoes were often left unsold, and either thrown out, or sold off for next to nothing.
The best pizza is the simplest – one of the biggest take-outs from our tour. This pizza was our first of the tour at Sottocasa.
Pizza became a food of the people. It was cheap, it could be eaten in the street and pizza bakeries could pretty much add any old topping, including rotting pig fat and cheese, and there was always somebody poor enough to buy what was essentially food waste. Over time, pizza progressed and ingredients improved, rich Italians started to make their way into the poorer suburbs for their fix, and restaurants opened to cater to their newly-developed love for the tomato-topped flatbread.
When Italian immigrants found their way to the shores of the United States in the lates 1800s, so did pizza of course. Initially, pizza was sold on the streets from giant tubs carried by peddlers. Cafes and grocery stores soon started making pizza to satisfy Italian communities in the city. While stores were producing pizza, the actual first registered pizzeria in New York City was Lombardi’s in 1905. This is the official birthplace of the New York slice if you’re finicky about history!
While the original Lombardi’s is no longer open, the grandson of its founder reopened a new location in Little Italy in 1994 that you can visit, just be ready to queue!
Why is New York pizza so special?
This isn’t the easiest question to answer. There are over 2 400 pizzerias in New York City, ranging from the popular 99c slice options to the better quality slices that cost $2 – $3 each. What they have in common is mostly size. A slice of pizza in New York was a comfortable light meal for me. What else was noticeable was that the quality of the crust is far superior to what I’ve tasted before.
This picture sums up most New York pizzerias: poky, cluttered and ready to serve. I wish I could send smells through my words, they all smelt heavenly.
Coming from South Africa, we really only have two pizza camps – thick, cheap and fast (a la Debonairs), or thin, messy and half-baked (generally what we get in Italian restaurants). New York’s pizza is like neither of these. Its roots are firmly Neopolitan in that sense – the dough is slightly thick, chewy and has an almost-stretch to it.
There are so many theories about why New York’s pizza is just so good, including that there really is magic (read: chemicals) in the tap water used to make the dough. What I can tell you, is that dough is left to rise for 2-3 days before being used, allowing a more developed flavour. There’s also something to be said about the influence of the environment: eating a folded over slice on the streets of Brooklyn makes it all that much better.
You can read more about those theories here: Why is New York City pizza the best?
Visiting Brooklyn pizzerias with Scott’s Pizza Tours
Scott’s Pizza Tours offers different tours throughout New York City, we opted for Brooklyn mostly because it was where we were staying at the time and the day suited us. Each tour is led by a Professional Pizza Enthusiast, ours was lead by Alexis Guerreros. Frankly, ‘enthusiast’ is a rather large understatement when it comes to Alexis, who it seems was born into pizza dough and tested sauce rather than his mother’s milk as his first meal. Besides running pizza tours, Alexis is also a comedian, so we were entertained in addition to being fed.
Meet the comical Alexis, friendly, warm and full of pizza knowledge.
Each person got their very own Pocket Pizza Journal. This is simply to help you rate your slice and keep up with all the different varieties you’ll eat, it’s also fun!
Our Brooklyn pizza tour started at Sottocasa in Downtown Brooklyn, before it had even opened for the day. Alexis relayed the history of pizza in New York, his own relationship with pizza, and his innate his ability to be able to tell whether a pizza was cooked with gas, coal or wood fire. Shortly after, our first slice of the day was served, hot from the oven.
Sottocasa loosely translates to ‘under the home’, which matches this pizzeria’s location under a Brooklyn townhouse.
At all three of the Brooklyn pizzerias we visited, the unique oven of each was detailed, and in Sottocasa’s case, the woodfire oven was flown out from Naples before settling itself in the suburb of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. The oven gets so hot that it only takes 90 seconds to cook a pizza to perfection, so we didn’t need to wait too long.
What is important to note on this tour, is that all of the pizzas we ate were plain slices, just dough, cheese and a little basil. Alexis explained that the magic of a great pizza is firstly in its dough, and then its sauce. In his words: “If you’re hiding the crust under too many toppings, how the hell am I supposed to know if it’s any good?!”
Good point, Alexis.
Outside of Luzzo’s BK.
Stop number 2 was for a slice at Luzzo’s BK, just a short walk away from our starting point. Luzzo’s is the fourth restaurant from a third-generation baker who specialises in the art of pizza, also known as a Pizzaiolo. The recipes for Luzzo’s pizzas have been handed down over generations and for me, this was the pizza highlight of the tour! Here, the pizza is also cooked using a woodfire oven, but the flavour profile was much deeper.
Our last stop on the Brooklyn pizza tour was at Table 87, a little bit of a further walk this time. Table 87 is the first pizzeria in Brooklyn to offer coal oven pizza by the slice. When it comes to ovens, New York pizzerias get complicated. And complicated claims to fame are the business. Despite it all, just know you’re going to get a delicious pizza at Table 87.
This is just inside Table 87. If you walk down the corridor on the right, it opens into a dining room, where we ate our pizza and ended the tour.
Tips for your Brooklyn pizza tour
While you don’t need to worry about much else other than showing up for a morning with Scott’s Pizza Tours, there are a few things that will make it more enjoyable:
- Arrive hungry! I have a pretty small appetite as it is, and by the end of the tour I was struggling to eat another mouthful, so skip the breakfast before you go.
- The pizzerias on the tour change weekly, so you may not visit the same set as I have mentioned above, but I have no doubt they’ll be great regardless.
- Wear comfy shoes and don’t take too much along. Although the distances we walked weren’t far, you want to be as comfortable and light as possible, plus the pizzerias we visited were all quite small so there isn’t much room for large bags.
- Remember your camera! There are quite a few characters and pizzas to meet on these tours and you will want to get some great photos!
- Open your mind! All Scott’s Pizza Tours are done in groups of 8 or 16, the reason being: it’s the perfect number to divvy up pizza slices. Get ready to share.
- Take some cash. While the slices we got were included in the price of the tour, and tap water is free, you may want to buy a beer to wash it all down with. And for tips too!
- There are toilet stops along the way, your guide will point them out.
- Brooklyn is very suburban, and a little slower than Manhattan, but don’t get so involved in taking photos that you forget to look before you cross the road!
While most pizzerias offer chilli flakes, Table 87 had fresh chillies and a super potent jar of roasted garlic to top your pizza.
How to book with Scott’s Pizza Tours
The easy part about booking your own Brooklyn pizza tour, or even a pizza tour somewhere else in New York City, is that it’s easy peasy online! After researching and deciding on a tour company, we simply booked and paid on the Scott’s Pizza Tours website. All of their tours are listed under the Public Tours section.
If you want something a little different, or have a specific set of pizzerias that you want to visit, it’s better to book a private tour.I want to book a pizza tour in New York! Who's in? Click To Tweet
Our tour cost $45 per person (about R550). The cost of the tour includes the dedicated time of your Professional Pizza Enthusiast, a slice of pizza at each pizzeria you visit, and the chance to skip the lines at busier pizzerias (YAY!). You also get your own Pocket Pizza Journal to take home as a memento. If you want to tip your servers at each pizzeria, it’s encouraged.
If you’re still hesitating about making a booking, all I can say is DON’T. We sincerely enjoyed ourselves on our Brooklyn pizza tour and would certainly do it again, just in another part of the city. I felt the fee for the tour was pretty fair considering you get a three-hour tour and food and left with a full tummy and a huge heap of suggestions on other places to eat from Alexis.
If you do book, let me know about your experience in the comments section below!