[Interview] The First Pizzeria in NYC, and the U.S., Lombardi’s

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Whalebone’s Pizza exploration concludes back where it all began…at Lombardi’s, on Spring Street in NYC, the first pizzeria in the United States and the originator of what is known as “New York Pizza.” We sat down, over a pie, with John Brescio, one of the owners of Lombardi’s, and his son Michael [Mike], to discuss all things pizza with two purists.

WB: Let’s start right in with your famous coal-burning oven. It says “1905” on it. Is that the year pizza started?

John: No, it was probably a good eight years before that. Gennaro Lombardi opened up in 1897, and he was making tomato pies that were a lot like pizza from day one. But he didn’t build that oven and apply for the permit for it until 1905. So we go with 1905. Still makes us the 1st Pizzeria in America.

WB: Gennaro started out down the block, right?

John: Right. At 53 and a ½ Spring.

WB: So is that the original oven?

John: The original oven cracked because of the subway running underneath it and the intense heat over all those years. Between the vibrations and everything else, it got destroyed.

WB: Is that what shut things down in ‘84?

John: Yeah. The old man closed the pizzeria down for a while. He kept the restaurant open for family and neighborhood parties and communions and marriages and stuff like that, but he was closed to the public for several years. His grandson and I reopened Lombardi’s as a pure Pizzeria, years later, right here. We really wanted the original oven, but we were told “it can’t be fixed”. Well, I didn’t buy it. I got some guys from Italy, a father and two sons, and they took the original oven apart and rebuilt it right here, piece by piece, where a bread oven used to be.

WB: That’s fantastic. So the tile-work in the front, that’s the original tile work that was down the block?

John: Yes it is. Most of the oven is original.

Mike: Parts of the oven door, the metal door, were actually made by the same German company that made the original one.

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John: In 1900 or so, Germany was making the best bread ovens.

Mike: They pretty much duplicated what Gennaro had down the block. But remember, all these old ovens were originally bread ovens. They were never made for pizza. They didn’t even have pizza until Lombardi’s.

John: And the best ovens are loaded with sand, for the insulation.

WB: Between the layers of brick, there’s sand?

John: Yeah, sand. Pounds and pounds of sand.

Mike: To hold the heat. Thermal mass. This way you’re able to fire the oven, get the oven up to the temperature you need. Usually when you bake bread, you’re not dealing with an open flame, so you fire the oven, it gets to temp, the flame goes out, and then you run one, two, sometimes you got three cycles of bread out and that’s the end of the day. We make pizza next to open fire for 12 hours a day, nonstop.

WB: Oven temperature is a big selling point these days. Or bragging point. Grimaldi’s claims 1200. John’s schools that 850 is ‘just right’, and that’s the temperature of its oven. What are your thoughts?

John: It’s all nonsense. You make good pizza between 700 and 900. Anything over 900, it’s a waste. You’re burning it.

Mike: Yeah, and here’s the other thing too. It depends where you’re taking the temperature. If you shoot into the coals, everybody’s coals are going to be about the same, a couple of thousand degrees.

John: Right. If you go right in the coals, they’re 2200 degrees. Period. Now, everywhere you shoot the laser in the oven has a different temperature. The temperature is not nearly as important as knowing where to place the pie.

WB: How long does it take you to cook a pizza?

John: I cook a pie in three and a half minutes, which is the sweet time because it allows me to cook the pie beautiful inside, light and airy with nooks and crannies, with the outside nice and crusty, and yet the toppings and the sauce and the cheese stay moist. It’s the perfect time.

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WB: What about what I call ‘extras’? Like Patsy Grimaldi. His shtick is, “I throw flour on the oven floor and I know exactly how to throw it to get the best pie.’

John: Right he flourishes the flour so that the floor doesn’t burn the bottom of the pie.

Mike: And also it’s kind of showmanship, because you get a flash out of it. People love it.

John: It is fun. But we don’t do that.

WB: Now what do you think of what they do at DiFara’s, in Brooklyn? I only was there once, but he’s shooting oil, olive oil, out of a bottle onto the stone of the oven, so it’s almost like he’s frying the pizza.

Mike: Yeah, that’s what he’s doing.

John: That’s good too. I don’t do that either. You know, Dom puts his hand in the oven, he’s so used to the temperature.

Mike: Right, he doesn’t even need to use anything to take the pans out.

WB: Wow. That sounds painful to me.

John: You know, he uses a scissor to cut the mozzarella…

Mike: No, the basil.

John: Oh, OK, the basil. It’s a gimmick: he makes a show of it. And he don’t let nobody else touch the pizza, you know, like his daughter, or whoever. Like he’s an artist. And people love it! He could do ten times the amount of business if he wanted.

WB: Well, I’ve tried to go probably ten times and I’ve gotten pizza once. What kind of coal are you using in your oven?

John: We use stove coal. It’s big. It throws off more heat.

WB: I don’t know if anybody else cares about this, but how do you get and keep the fire going?

John: Listen. It takes three hours just to get that fire going! You start out with a little wood and paper. You put just a few coals on top of the grates. The grates are clear now, all cleaned up for the morning, right? So you start with paper and a little kindling wood. Then you add a little bit of coal, and you let that burn. Little by little you keep adding coal until you get a big enough flame that you can shovel coal on.

Photo: Lenny Falcone

Mike: Coal’s not like wood. It burns a lot differently. If you add too much …

John: You’ll smother the fire.

Mike: You’ll smother it out.

John: This is maybe not the technique every pizzeria uses. It might be our own.

Mike: You see, you can’t light coal. Don’t confuse it with charcoal. You can’t light it. If I put coal on the table right now and gave you a lighter, or even a blowtorch, you wouldn’t be able to get that coal to light. It’s very, very difficult to ignite. And it only stays lit if it remains in the right bed. Once it’s out of that bed and it’s spread out, it immediately starts to go out.

John: And it needs to get air from underneath.

WB: Sounds complicated. So who’s the keeper of the flame? Who’s the guy who knows how to teach people to do this? Is that you, John?

John: There’s a few of us left.

WB: Is the oven going 24/7?

John: No. What happens is at the end of the night, we leave the coal burning. Now, if you’re not stoking coal, because it sits on grates, the grates will get clogged up and then, because no air is going through them, eventually the fire dies out. Then, come four, five in the morning, my guy cleans up. He sweeps out what’s left of all that coal into a metal insulated can. By morning, it’s cool, and it goes into the garbage. You know, this guy is here all night! It’s a safety thing.

WB: Gotcha.

Mike: Remember, most of what’s left is actually a fine powder that passed through the grates as it was burning. That and the residual left on the grates that we have to scrape down. That ends up being like little tiny stones.

WB: This guy’s like a hero. He sits in a restaurant overnight, he’s doing this tough job, so that everybody can enjoy good pizza.

John: Yeah, that’s right.

WB: All right, enough oven talk. Tell us about your ingredients. Your mozzarella. You make your own, or …

John: I have the mozzarella made special for us to our exact specifications. As long as I’m getting my mozzarella made the right way, I don’t need my guys to do it. But a lot of time went into coming up with that mozzarella years ago. A lot.

WB: This mozzarella that you have custom crafted to your specifications, is this really a recipe that you came up with after years of testing, or is it Genarro’s?

John: I think it goes all the way back. But we did an awful lot of playing with it, because of the heat. Had to…if you use regular mozzarella in this oven, it’ll burn.

WB: Gotcha.

People look for the hair in the egg here. They wanna tweet our mistake. So every day, everything has to be just right … You never can rest in this place. Everything has to be right, every day.

John: If you notice, you don’t see a lot of water coming out of our cheese. A lot of the pizzerias, you’ll notice the cheese wets the pie, it dilutes the sauce. The sauce ends up being more pink than red. It’s not like ours. It’s less robust than our sauce. This is because of the moisture in mozzarella. [Holding up a slice] Look at that: there’s nothing dripping off! Look at the bottom, look how dry the pie is. That’s not an accident.

WB: Why is it that when you go to a regular street corner pizzeria, and you lift your slice off the plate, you’ve often gotta’ let oil drip off the tip for a minute or two before you can eat it?

Mike: Well, it could be because of oils from the cheese, or oil that they add. A
lot of the cheese that these places use is really not even cheese. It’s called pizza cheese. It’s hydrogenated oil. They have all different qualities. Some of them are just hydrogenated oil, others are blended with some type of cheese, but…

John: But it’ll get you sick.

Mike: Once you cook that, depending on the quality of that product, that pizza cheese, well, some of them break down a lot faster than others. The ones that are really inexpensive, they almost completely break down, turn back to oil. You have oil coming from that, you have the sauce. The guy who made the sauce may have put extra oil in the sauce that’s leeching out. Some guys cheat by putting oil in the dough, and that leeches out too. On top of all that, a lot of these guys just put more oil on top before it goes in and more oil as it comes out. That’s the reason why it’s a mess.

WB: Do you make your own sauce? I’m sure you make your own sauce.

John: Yeah, we make it fresh every day.

WB: San Marzano tomatoes?

John: San Marzano tomatoes, spices and there’s not much more in it. We sure don’t add any sugar! Some people add sugar to their sauce to make it sweeter. Not here.

WB: And your flour?

John: We use all trumps flour. It’s a high-gluten flour. Perfect for pizza. Some guys add oil to their dough to make it easier to ply but we don’t do anything like that. We just put in the effort and use simple ingredients. Flour, yeast, salt, and water. That’s it.

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Mike: Just let the ingredients speak for themselves.

John: Yes.

WB: Okay. I see you put basil on top of your pies.

John: Yeah.

WB: You grow your own, or do you have somebody who sources it for you?

John: I have a produce guy that gets me everything fresh every morning.

WB: Fresh every single day?

John: Listen, I found years ago, you can’t cheat. You got to use everything top notch. Use top ingredients, and it shows in the end product.

John:: Let’s get a pepperoni pie. [After 3 ½ minutes] Look how our pepperoni is crispy and it curls up. No oil coming out of it. Very little. That’s proper pepperoni.

WB: Do you get your pepperoni made by a butcher?

John: Yeah. We’ve got a butcher that makes it just the way we say. We tinkered a lot to get that right.

WB: How about roasted peppers. Are you roasting your own?

John: Fresh roasted peppers, every single day.

WB: Every day?

John: Yeah. In the morning, they’re roasted and peeled.

Mike: We try peeling as best we can, but there are some pieces that hide a little bit of skin. It’s impossible to get it all by hand.

John: We have a farmer grow our mushrooms, too. Fresh mushrooms. There’s a big difference between canned mushrooms and fresh. And there’s a big difference between our mushrooms and a lot of other guys’.

WB: It’s a fresh mushroom…do you put it on a pie raw, or do you guys pan fry it or something?

John: We put it on the pie raw.

WB: What other toppings do you offer here?

Mike: Spinach.

WB: Yeah?

Mike: Raw, fresh spinach.

John: Put right on top of the mozzarella.

WB: Do you do a clam pie?

Mike: We do a clam pie. Meatballs, sausage…

WB: Who really invented the clam pie?

Mike: It’s really Pepe, in New Haven, right?

John: Yeah. He’s a chain now.

Mike: They have a lot of locations.

WB: Do you have any plans on doing anything like that?

Mike: We do. But I gotta’ make sure that we’re always in control of the product, because a guy could make garbage out of the Lombardi name in no time. Gennaro and me, we’ve been offered millions of dollars by certain people: we turned them down. We didn’t feel comfortable.

WB: But you’ve grown over the years, no?

Mike: Yeah. This started out with just the center dining room. That was it. It was about four booths, and it led to the kitchen.

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WB: Right, and you also had tables along the back wall of the kitchen?

Mike: We had some tables in the kitchen. I removed them when we took the next space over. We took this over, then we built out the deck above the oven, and then eventually in 2004 we took over the corner and broke through the wall and expanded. I would say we doubled in size.

John: Right. Now on top of the oven, I actually closed that in to protect the oven from the snow and rain and whatever. ‘Cause water sitting on top of the oven, it could leak through and hurt the sand and the limestone that the oven’s put together with. So I covered the oven with an iron canopy. We had an iron guy come and he made it that no weight even touches the oven. All the weight sits on the iron braces. And I figured, ‘as long as I’m covering it, let me put seating up there. The steel can hold it’. So that’s it. It’s in the old courtyard, behind the tenement houses.

WB: Any celebrities amongst your clientele?

John: Jackie O. Years ago, she used to come and eat all the time.

Mike: She used to bring her cat.

WB: Really?

John: And there was a cat in the restaurant then, so she used to be comfortable bringing hers.

WB: Do you remember what she liked?

Mike: I remember that she used to call ahead, and she used to order a large prawn.

WB: Prawn?

Mike: Yeah … For the cat.

WB: Oh, that’s nuts.

Mike: They used to bring it in specially, just for her.

John: Years ago, I’m talking in the 1920s, Caruso used to come to Lombardi’s after singing opera uptown. My father saw Caruso break glasses with his voice right in the old restaurant.

Mike: Who was the fighter? Rocky Marciano or Graziano?

John: Rocky Graziano.

WB: Graziano? The middleweight.

John: Oh,yeah. He used to come in all the time.

Mike: Well, he lived on 1st avenue and 12th street, so he could walk over.

John: Jack Nicholson used to come a lot. He loved it here. Second time he came, I’ll never forget it, it was late, we’re kinda’ empty, and he opened the door, stuck his head in, and yells ‘I’m back!’ And his eyebrow went up like he does. He came in with a friend of his and they sat in the kitchen ‘cause we had a couple of tables in the kitchen then, and from then on, that’s where he wanted to sit when he would come. This way, nobody bothers him. What a down to earth guy. Nice, nice guy. Anytime he was in New York for a basketball game or the fights, he’d come in for pizza.

Mike: Danny Devito, um … Miley Cyrus. She’s been here a few times in recent years.

John: Francis Ford Coppola, his daughter Sophia. They came in a lot. An African-American guy that was some type of jazz guy. He must have been 100, and he was just in love with the pizza here.

WB: Eubie Blake? The piano player?

John: Who knows? He wouldn’t tell us his name. He always came with a woman and another guy, and I thought they were telling me BS stories about him. But the way the customers reacted to him, I guess the guy was on the level.

WB: That was probably Eubie Blake. He’s an icon.

John: I know this guy was a real big jazz guy. He just wanted to eat pizza, and I left him in peace to do that.

Look at this picture. [pointing] That young kid I’m holding? His family owns the place in Italy where they invented that drink, the Bellini.

WB: The originators of the Bellini? Oh, that’s Harry’s.

John: Right. Harry’s. The kid’s family owns the Cipriani’s restaurants. But he likes to eat our pizza, so they take him here and everybody has a good time.

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Mike: President Obama’s daughter was here, just recently.

John: Yeah, the younger one. When he was still President.

Security people came first, they checked out the whole place, picked out in advance where the girl was gonna’ sit, and then they sat across the room watching, and her and her girlfriends and her grandmother sat at their own table. They were having a ball when Page 6 showed up and took pictures.

WB: You’re out, and you get an urge for pizza? What pizza do you eat?

Mike: I’ll be honest with you. When I go out, I can’t get pizza. There’s so much bad pizza out there.

John: We get spoiled. I’m spoiled. I don’t want pizza unless I can eat it here

Mike: You know what? We know that nobody else does what we do.

John: There’s a place at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in Brooklyn. Sunset Park. Giuseppina’s. I’ll eat there. He makes a great pie. I love the feel of the place and the people he has. I’d keep it in mind, boys.

WB: You’ve received a lot of praise over the years. What compliment means the most to you?

John: My biggest compliment is when the people come that live in Italy, and they taste this pizza, and they say they like this better than pizza in Italy.

WB: Wow. That’s a high compliment. Have you ever thought about getting certified by Vera Pizza Napoletana from Naples?

Mike: We can’t. We don’t conform. Lombardi’s pizza is not Neapolitan. It’s really uniquely American. Or maybe it’s a Neapolitan pizza that was adapted to be an American thing. In any event, a certified pizzeria has to have a wood burning oven, not coal like ours. You gotta’ use Bufala mozzarella, which we do not. There’s all kinda’ guidelines; double zero flour, cooking temperature, size. We do our own thing.

Also, Neapolitan style, it tends to be soggy and doughy in the center. It feels like it’s undercooked even though they say that’s the way it should be. I just don’t dig it.

WB: Is Lombardi’s working on anything new right now?

John: You know, we’re always trying to improve something. Always. Constantly.

Mike: Like the wait. We cut that quite a bit. A little bit of technology was put in, and now things go much quicker. The line moves.

WB: It was always worth the wait.

John: Look, we’re the first pizzeria in America. We need to live up to that. People look for the hair in the egg here. They wanna tweet our mistake. So every day, everything has to be just right … You never can rest in this place. Everything has to be right, every day.

WB: When I got here I saw people from about five different countries taking pictures and Googling you on their phones. It’s the highlight of their trip.

John: Yes. People go outta’ their way to come here and we go outta’ our way not to disappoint ’em.

WB: We’re stuffed. Anything else we should know.

John: Just that we work hard here every day. We work to make the best quality pizza there is. We’re happy people like the product. It’s not an accident. A lot of hours are put into our pie. We love doing it, and we’re 100% dedicated to keeping the history of this place alive.

Check out more from Lombardi’s over on their website, www.firstpizza.com. Thanks John + Mike for making the time.