Evelyne Slomon wrote in Ed Levine's "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" that Gennaro Lombardi — prior to taking over the Spring Street grocery store that would become Lombardi's — baked thin Neapolitan pizzas that he wrapped in paper and cardboard, stacked and tied into a neat bundle, and sold as individual portions. You can go to Lombardi’s to have what his pies eventually became — and they are great: traditional NYC coal oven crust, fresh cow’s milk mozzarella, and simple & sweet undoctored tomato sauce.
But what about those little pies he first sold by the piece to poor Italians in the early 20th century? Perhaps somewhere there's a bakery making little pizzas amongst its broader selection of other breads. So I looked.
I knew about the acclaimed Rose & Joe’s bakery in Astoria. It serves pan pizza — but that's not what young Gennaro made. I also know of plenty of Italian (and gourmet) bakeries that make homemade focaccia — also not the same. I queried for recommendations but received none.
An occasion arose, a couple months later, when I needed to photograph fresh focaccia. I brought my wife and daughter to Royal Crown, an Italian bakery in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. With breads stacked high in the front window and a selection that includes pastry as well as risen loaves, Royal Crown is a plain room with broad offerings.
As I photographed the focaccie — which they offer with four topping types (eggplant, onion & peppers, potato, or sauce only) — a worker appeared from the back carrying a tray with four or five little round tomato and cheese pies. I couldn’t contain my excitement.
“What are those? Are they pizzas?” I asked.
A Royal Crown pizza is a demonstration in simplicity: fresh mozzarella and basic mashed tomatoes on a seven inch flat disc baked in an old coal oven.
“How many do you sell in a day,” I asked co-owner Antonio Generoso. Monday through Thursday, 1-2 dozen; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 4-5 dozen.
“This is great pizza. How come you sell so few of them?” We don’t give it a lot of focus. It gets lost among all of the other speciality items we have.
“What I want to say about them,” I told him, “is that I find them not special, but by this I mean they are quite special in terms of their simplicity.” That’s exactly how I feel about them, he said. (Phew!)
I asked the countergirl her opinion regarding Royal Crown’s low volume of pizza sales. Her answer — that there are many other pizzerias nearby — sheds light on the evolution of pizza in the United States. Royal Crown does not make American-style pizza. Rather, these small pies more resemble those that Lombardi — who was first and foremost a baker — would have eaten as a boy. But, like the first pies he baked in the United States, Royal Crown's are made in a coal oven.
Last week I returned for the first time in a while and picked up a pizza. Somehow I resisted the temptation to eat it on the way home and was able to document my tasting at home (click photo above to watch the video). Bottom line: I love this pizza!
The default offering is cheese only (they use fresh mozzarella made at the Royal Crown restaurant located one block away), I've had it with sauce only also.
Note: Royal Crown makes its pizza mid-morning and can run out within an hour or two. Call ahead to check availability. Pizza can be ordered in advance.