How Peppino’s Perfected Old School New York Pizza

A plain Margherita pie from Peppino's in Bay Ridge
A plain Margherita pie from Peppino’s
In the last decade, New York has seen a major increase in true Neapolitan pizzerias with wood-fired ovens. As more people have realized that this was the original version of pizza, it has gotten a stamp of authenticity—and these days, people will eat dirt if it’s labeled authentic. Don’t get me wrong. I love Neapolitan pizza: no larger than 14 inches in diameter, with a soft, pillowy crust covered in black spots of charring, minimalist sauce and fresh mozzarella. I don’t even mind that it usually has a soupy center, causing serious tip-sag at the end of slices.But what about New York pizza? I’m no pizza snob; I love a regular slice from a gas-deck oven, covered in salty, low-moisture mozzarella and dripping delicious grease. The original version of New York pizza, however—the missing link between Neapolitan pizza and the modern regular slice—is practically an endangered species.

The first pizzerias in New York used coal-fired ovens. Coal ovens usually run slightly cooler than wood-fired ovens, so they require slightly longer to bake a pie, which produces a crust with more resistance to the teeth—not crispy, but chewy. Similar levels of charring occur, but as coal has lower emissions than wood, there is a little less smoky flavor. Totonno’s in Coney Island, established in 1924, is the longest standing example of this in Brooklyn. Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s in DUMBO are more recent examples. This style of pizza is sometimes referred to as Brick Oven pizza (even though wood-fired Neapolitan pizza ovens and many gas-fueled ovens are lined with bricks as well!).

Peppino’s (7708 Third Avenue) opened in Bay Ridge in 2004 with an oven built for burning coal, but the restaurant uses wood as its fuel source. Despite the wood, the style of pizza is old New York, with a vibrant, acidic tomato sauce drizzled on top of the fresh mozzarella slices. Wood gives off more smoke than coal, so it does take on the campfire smokiness of a Neapolitan pie while exhibiting the sturdier crust and chewiness found in a coal-oven slice. It really is the best of both worlds—and you don’t have to go to Coney Island or DUMBO to get it.

I recommend the plain Margherita, though I know some folks consider pizza an edible plate for cold cuts. If that’s your thing, know that Peppino’s serves the good kind of pepperoni that curls up into chalices of pork glory, crisping at the edges. Just don’t come complainin’ to me if you order five toppings and your slice gets floppy.

Another thing! Peppino’s may be more expensive than the average pizza joint, but people don’t seem to blink an eye at dropping big bucks on steak. And, let’s face it, pizza really is the best food in the world. I’ll take a pizza over a steak any day. Can you really complain about dropping 20 bucks or so to feed two to four people on some of the best food in the world? We have it good, people!

Cedric Sparkman is a tour guide for Scott’s Pizza Tours and a bartender at The Owl’s Head wine bar. He has made pizza professionally and at home over the last 10 years.

Follow Hey Ridge on Twitter @heyridgebk

A plain Margherita pie coming out of the wood-burning coal oven at Peppino's
A plain Margherita pie coming out of the oven at Peppino’s