Patsy's in Harlem - The *First* Slice
Many apologies! It’s been months since I’ve posted regularly to Pizzacentric. I’ve tried to prove I still have a pulse by sharing photos on the PC Facebook page, but - due to my involvement in a book project, and to the amount of time I spent out of town last summer, including a two week trip to Buenos Aires (about which there will be several posts) - I have had little time for Pizzacentric. I hope that’s about to change. You’d be right to remind me that I could at least have posted little snippets now and then. But I prefer longer pieces. I strive to get to the heart of a food or food movement and connect the dots between it and other stuff. In order to write those kinds of stories, I need my brain’s full attention.
So, that said, how about this for a snippet of the day....
For years, my dad asked me to take him to the original Patsy’s in Harlem. He’s pretty sure that his parents ate there pre-1943, the year he was born, and he has long wanted to see the place. I, of course, have wanted him to see it too - and for him to try their pizza - but we hadn’t yet found the time to go there together.
I love the pizza at Patsy’s in Harlem (the Patsy’s in Harlem is under separate ownership from the other Patsy’s Pizzeria, a New York mini-chain with the same logo and the same claims of pedigree, but not the same pizza - I know, confusing) and have always thought that my mom and dad would like it because in certain ways it reminds me of the Pines of Rome, the place that serves our favorite pizza in the DC area.
[Patsy’s and the Pines of Rome’s pizza styles are not at all alike, but both restaurants are sit-down Italian spots that do serve pizza, in addition to pastas and entrees - a format that is not as common in New York as one might assume. I received an explanation about this once from the owner of Mario’s in the Bronx, an old restaurant that makes pizza but purposefully leaves it off the (printed) dinner menu. “Many places took pizza off the menu,” the guy told me. The logic is simple, he explained: if you are a restaurant owner, would you rather sell a $14 pizza that feeds two or three people, or a $15 entree that feeds one?]
Anyway, for the book I’ve been working on, I needed to go to the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem to check out their Gospel Brunch. So I invited my parents, who were here for the weekend. When we arrived at Sylvia’s at about 11:30 we were told that the music doesn’t start until 12:30.
So we headed to Patsy’s for a pizza-style breakfast. By this, I do not mean we were gonna have pizza topped with eggs or any other bullshit breakfast stuff - just that we would be eating pizza before noon - and that I hadn't had breakfast yet.
On the way crosstown we encountered a large posse of red light-runnin' wheelie-poppin' muffler-averse motorcyclists who - I’ve since learned - were looking for trouble (see this). We didn’t know what they were about to do (or had just done), of course, so I barely paused in my explanation to my parents of the fascinating story of Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s, and Juliana’s.
This large painting of Frank Sinatra in jeans graces one of the walls at Patsy's.
We got to Patsy’s by 11:40. I brought my parents into the restaurant side of the place first. They admired the old tile floors and the pictures on the wall. My dad looked over the menu.
“Why don’t we eat in here?” he asked.
I love the restaurant and I love sitting in there. The Italian food is good and the pizza is, as I’ve said, great. But, unless I'm there for dinner, I prefer to go next door to Patsy’s ‘pizzeria’ room.
It’s a tiny space that looks out on First Avenue through a large open window. The vibe is always a little Twilight Zone-ish there, maybe because I'm not familiar to the guys working in there. On this particular morning, they were more interested in watching soccer on the TV than in making our pizza.
But I wasn’t about to allow that to deter the mission: to share with my parents one of New York’s very best slices - a slice that, a bit counterintuitively, I prefer to order in a set of eight. At $11 for a whole pie, that’s what you should do, too, when you go there. Which you will. And even though the guy was concentrating only on the soccer game, we had a fresh pizza pie in under three minutes.
Before getting to the sensual reasons why I see Patsy’s pizza as one of New York’s best, I would like to address why - besides that it’s an old place with a storied history that involves Frank Sinatra, an original Italian community, a cooking wife who walked her dogs through the restaurant, and plenty of other amazing stuff - I think the place is important.
You see, of course I’ve wondered about the history of the pizza slice. And I’m pretty sure it’s an American invention. The style of pizza served in Italy has long been the individual-sized round type. You can get one in a restaurant in Italy for an affordable price (somewhere around 5 or 6 Euros, or about US $6.50-$7.80), but here in the US, this style goes for $13 and up.
At $13 per person, I think pizza departs from its original raison d’etre. Not to say I don’t like the fancier stuff. It can be delicious, and at certain places well worth the price. But it’s not what American pizza is all about. (Of course, neither is cheap shit made with preservatives or pharmaceutical cheese, either. Another day...)
Gerry Lombardi told me that as soon as his grandfather Gennaro - who founded what may have been America’s first pizzeria - changed the format of his shop from store to restaurant, he started serving larger sized sharable pizzas right away.
“You were supposed to be able to feed four people with a pizza,” Lombardi told me. “It was a food for poor people.
But no slices. Not at Lombardi’s, and also not at Totonno’s or John’s - New York’s other known old places. But Patsy Lancieri: he had slices!
When Patsy opened up his place, the area - which later became known as “Spanish Harlem” but then was known as “Italian Harlem” - had New York’s largest population of Italians immigrants. And right from the start, according to Patsy’s co-owner John Brecevich, “Whenever there was an event or a nice day and a big crowd in [nearby] Jefferson Park, [Patsy] had a specially-built wagon where he would fill it up with pizzas and send a waiter out there and then sell by the slice.”
The above photo shows that wagon. And while it shows no pizza, the story is pretty believable.
So what does it mean that Patsy’s was likely the first place to offer pizza by the slice? Really, nothing, unless you’re a pizza sentimentalist.
But here’s the thing: when you taste this slice, you can taste the history of the slice - not just of this slice, but of the slice, in general.
This slice is pure slice. The crust is foldable and offers a subtle thin crunch that gives it bottom-side texture but will not exhaust your musculi masticatorii. When folded, the cheese and the sauce remain on the inside and do not ooze out, but do fill the space such that when you take a bite, it’s like having a cheese and tomato ravioli but with pizza dough instead of pasta dough. It’s a sensation so perfect it’s no wonder people folded. I imagine folding began out of necessity (for how else can you eat a slice of pizza without a table), but continued out of enjoyment.
After you order your whole pizza in Patsy’s “pizzeria” room, be sure to watch the process. From the time the guy “opens up” your dough and stretches it onto the peel, administers its ample cover of sauce and overdone quantity of cheese, puts it in the oven, and takes it out of the oven - I’d be surprised if 2 minutes time has passed. You can even ask the guy to open up the oven for a few seconds. If he’s feeling friendly, he’ll do it. And if he does, in just a few seconds time you’ll see your pie’s dough rise and its cheese bubble, like time lapse photography but in real time.
Then, of course, stand at that counter and eat it. One pie is perfect for two regular eaters. (If left to my own devises I can eat 7 out of the 8 slices but that’s not at all necessary.)
This, my friends, is the invention of the slice, still living and ready for your love, at Patsy’s in Harlem.
Perhaps against my better instinct I've posted a video of me eating Patsy's pizza standing outside at my car. It might be pretty boring - unless watching a video of someone eating pizza and talking about it as they eat is your thing.
PATSY'S PIZZERIA ESSENTIALS
Who: Founded in 1933 by Pasquale Lancieri, run for decades by him and his wife Carmella, eventually sold to two guys who are named Frank and John.
What’s there: The prototype for American pizza. Order a pie but eat the slices handheld and folded. Where: 2287 First Avenue, near East 118th Street. Not as far as it sounds.
Why go: Amazing pizza. Old school restaurant serving the pizza. No frills stand-up option for pizza only. Overall classic.
How: A behomoth coal-burning oven burning at 900-1000 degrees F, dough streched thin, superb tomatoes, not too much cheese.
Quote: “Patsy originated the concept of selling pizza by the slice. Because going back to the early 30s money was always an issue. He felt, instead of waiting for somebody to come in and buy a whole pizza, he’d rather sell part of it and make as much as he could that way." - John Brecevich
411: 2287 First Avenue, near East 118th Street, in East Harlem. Tel. 212-534-9783. Subway: 6 to 125th Street. Map Patsy's Pizzeria. Hours: Mon - Thursday: 11 am - 11 pm; Fri - Sat: 11 am - 9 pm; closed Sunday. Patsy's Pizzeria website.