Every New Yorker knows the "real" Little Italy isn't in Manhattan.
It's actually centered on a short stretch of Arthur Avenue dotted with trattorias, pastry shops, sausage markets and pizzerias in the Bronx. (A red, white and green circle painted on the road at the intersection of Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street literally marks the spot.)
For pizza connoisseurs, the area delivers everything from an old-school red-sauce joint hiding a "secret" margherita pie on its dinner menu to a market stall selling rustic grandma slices to a romantic trattoria topping pies with butternut squash puree (?!). But you'll be missing out on some of the borough's best New York-style slices and high-end pies if you don't explore farther afield.
We at amNewYork took that enticing task upon ourselves, and we've collected all the intel you need. Almost every Bronx pizzaiolo and pizzaiola we met told us that ingredients and love make their pies exceptional, but that's only half the story.
One of the beautiful things about the pizza scene in the Bronx is that many owners still churn out the pies themselves. That's definitely the case at Tommy's Pizza, a no-frills Throgs Neck slice joint where Gaetano "Tommy" Labue, 67, is already popping pies into the gas oven at 10 in the morning.
"I started selling pizza when it was 75 cents a pie," says Labue, a slight man with a thick Sicilian accent who opened his shop in 1977. He's served thin-crust, New York-style slices to four generations of customers at his marble countertop, and you can tell -- by the team trophies and photos displayed in the front and back rooms of his modest little enterprise -- he takes pride in "keeping [neighborhood] kids off the street."
A stopover here, and a plain slice (with what we consider an excellent ratio of low-moisture shredded mozzarella to tomato sauce to cornmeal-dusted crust) will transport you to those simpler times when kids kept themselves occupied with tag and baseball -- not their iPhones.
4033 E. Tremont Ave., 718-829-2828
Louie & Ernie's Pizza
You'll be charmed simply by the brick-faced exterior of this old-school slice parlor, in operation on the corner of Crosby and Waterbury avenues since 1959. A red and green neon sign shines in shop's half-moon window, which looks into the sunken first floor of a two-story standalone home. Step inside and brothers Cosmo and John Tiso will serve you one of the best thin-crust sausage slices you've ever eaten. The Tisos, who took over Louie & Ernie's in 1987, source their crumbly, fennel-spiced pork sausage from S&D Caterers, a mom-and-pop operation a few blocks north. They plop heaps of raw meat onto a fresh pie before baking it in the pizzeria's gas-fired oven. The meat emerges browned, swimming in luscious pools of its own rendered fat.
Cosmo, 47, and John, 51, have perfected their pizza over the course of three decades, working side by side in the same cramped kitchen. What's it like, working with your sibling for that long? "It's like a marriage, and we've never had a fight," John says, a twinkle in his eye.
1300 Crosby Ave., 718-829-6230, louieanderniespizza.com
The winning slice at this Morris Park pizzeria is the Sicilian: The fluffy crust sports a crisp bottom, and the liberal application of sauce adds flavor, not sog.
"It's the trays that make a difference," swears owner Tony Nardi. Sorrento bakes its Sicilian pies in 18-by-18-inch cast-iron trays that date back 60 years. The kitchen staff wipes them down, but never soaps them -- which means they're infused with six decades of savory pizza residue. As for the sauce, that's a combination of a thicker marinara variety and a juicier tomato one, says Nardi, 56, whose dad opened up the casual restaurant when he was 12 years old.
2004 Williamsbridge Rd., 718-828-7810
On a stretch of Morris Park Avenue where Italian flags wave from utility poles, Patricia's serves a packed dining room brick-oven, Neapolitan-style pies at lunchtime. White tablecloths, tie-clad waiters, brick walls and a crystal chandelier set the tone. (General manager Salvatore Borgognone, 35, compares the setting to "your mother's house on a Sunday," but we'd describe it as more romantic and formal than that.)
Ask for a table all the way in the back, and you can watch cooks like Luis Piedia prepare your pizza through the glass partition between the restaurant and kitchen. When Piedia makes the crowd-favorite prosciutto pie from scratch, he tops it with fior di latte mozzarella (as opposed to buffalo, this wet, fresh kind is made with cow's milk) before sliding it into the oven. He adds arugula, cherry tomatoes and chilled slices of dry-cured ham imported from Parma after the pizza has cooked for roughly three minutes. That brisk bake in extremely high temperatures leaves its mark as "leopard spots" -- i.e. clusters of char on the crust -- and a floppy center.
Spotting Patricia's regular state senator Jeff Klein on our way out the door, we asked him how he likes his pizza: "I get mine with anchovies and sausage," he says.
1082 Morris Park Ave., 718-409-9069
"Full moon" may be the best way to describe the proportions of the oversized pies at this decades-old Arthur Ave. pizzeria. One $6 slice requires two paper plates, but as sauce-and-cheese vehicles come, it's a highly sturdy model, folding neatly for maximum portability. The cornicione, or edge, of the crust on a Full Moon pie is richer in color and crunchier than average,
Customers rave about the range and mix of toppings on view in the pizzeria's glass display case -- from spinach and artichoke spread to house-made eggplant parm to buffalo chicken. (The most inventive, according to co-owner Grace Petti, are the creations of her husband, Stan.) The tangy buffalo chicken slice we sampled may lack the blue cheese dressing ribbon we craved, but offered ample chicken coverage.
600 E. 187th St., 718-584-3451, fullmoonpizza.com
Cafe Al Mercato
Tucked away in the back of the Arthur Avenue Market, where a mishmash of stalls hawks everything from produce to cigars, this assuming counter sells the Sicilian slice's rustic relative: the grandma. Like the Sicilian, it's baked in an olive oil-coated pan that gives its crust a satisfying crispiness, but the dough for a grandma pie is given less time to rise, so the result is squatter and denser. The grandma also reverses the order of sauce and cheese, with mozzarella binding directly to the crust and crushed tomatoes sitting on top.
Order yourself a square slice, which glimmers enticingly with oil when it's reheated. When it's ready, grab a table in the reserved seating area, bordered on one side by a low brick wall making a half-hearted attempt to evoke a sit-down restaurant. On second thought, add an espresso to your bill, because you'll want to linger for some people-watching.
2344 Arthur Ave., 718-364-7681
Zero Otto Nove
Down the street, you'll want to sit down and stay awhile at this trattoria serving Neapolitan-style pies and Southern Italian fare in a setting that practically teleports you across the Atlantic. In the high-ceilinged dining room with a skylight, frescos on the two-story walls depict the storefront of a restaurant facing an Italian piazza and nearby alleyways. The wood-fired, dome oven sitting in the corner, an import from Salerno according to manager Genti Doci, adds ambiance and bakes your 10-inch personal, thin-crust pizza at 950 degrees within minutes. That lends it a chewier crust and those coveted leopard spots.
Get La Cirilo ($14.95), which comes with housemade mozzerella, mushrooms, a decadent coat of truffle oil and one highly untraditional sauce: a butternut squash puree. The puree rounds out the flavor profile of this umami bomb with a tinge of sweetness.
2357 Arthur Ave., 718-220-1027, zeroottonove.com
At this fifth-generation red sauce joint established in 1919, the pizza is its "best kept secret," according to co-owner Regina Migliucci. It's hidden on the restaurant's dinner menu, among heftier Neapolitan fare like veal marsala and gamberetti fra diavolo, as an antipasto. (You can also order it to go or at lunchtime.)
Mario's plain margherita pie boasts a thicker, crispier crust than the standard Neapolitan kind -- in part because it's cooked at lower temperatures in a gas oven, rather than a wood-fired one. The very bottom has an almost woodsy taste and grainy texture, from particles of high-gluten flour. Migliucci's family keeps the toppings simple: crushed Italian plum tomatoes, salt, basil leaves and square slices of a house-made "loaf" mozzarella that blisters handsomely when cooked. ("It's not that shredded plastic-y stuff," said Migliucci, 55, casting shade on the New York-style slice.)
The clan saves the embellishment for Mario's kitschy but charming dining room décor: Italian landscapes and still lifes painted in oil, Greek columns and pint-sized statuary, and white brick walls.
342 Arthur Ave., 718-584-1188, mariosarthurave.com
You'll make your maiden voyage to Pugsley for a quick, tasty bite on your way in or out of the New York Botanical Garden, but you'll be drawn back by the charisma of founding pizzaiolo Salvatore Natale. The 73-year-old Sicilian native is virtually a one-man show, bantering with students from nearby Fordham University, pulling out his saxophone for anyone who might listen to him play and just generally clowning around while he works in his open kitchen.
The restaurant Natale constructed from the shell of an old horse stable in 1985 matches him whimsy for whimsy. Anything you see painted -- from musical notes above the booths to a cloud inscribed with the words "Love," "God," "Prosperity," "Melody" and "Joy" -- is the pizza man's own handiwork. All of it shares an overt theme: "Pizza is good, but love is it -- that's our slogan," he says.
Natale may call himself primarily an "artist," and he may be modest about his pizza-making skills, but his plain New York-style slice is nothing to sneer at -- especially when you drip a touch of the house-made chili pepper-infused oil on top. It models some fine, browned specimen of cheese bubbles and folds with a satisfying snap.
590 E. 191st St., 718-365-0327
Kingsbridge Social Club
Opened in March, this Bronx newcomer has carved out a unique niche in the local pizzeria landscape (and a special place in Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz's heart, so amNewYork has heard). The 12-inch, thin-crust pies here are "Roman meets NYC-style," co-owner David Linsday, 47, says. They're baked in a rotating wood-fired but gas-assisted oven. That two-pronged heating formula gives the crust -- marked by a Chicago dish dish-esque lip at the edge -- both chewiness and crunch. As for toppings, Kingsbridge Social Club offers the kind of selection you'd see in the bougier parts of Brooklyn, but regulars favor the Cherry Bomb pie that comes with house-made meatballs, hot cherry peppers and bacon.
Setting the establishment even further apart from its borough peers, it offers craft beers -- like Bronx Brewery's pale ale and Gun Hill's Void of Light -- on tap and in bottles. In warmer weather, you can drink your pint in the fenced-in, beer garden-type space outside.
Indoors, colorful murals by local graffiti artist Tracy 168 along one wall and white subway tiles along another set the tone for a younger crowd.
3625 Kingsbridge Ave, 347-346-5180, kingsbridgesocialclub.com
This humble neighborhood slice parlor proves you don't have to be Italian to make good pizza. An Albanian family currently runs the operation, which was founded in 1946 with the same spare menu it offers today. Husband and wife Anesti and Lina Sufja trade off preparing pies with an open crumb and an excellent balance between cheese, a sweeter-than-average sauce and crust. A slice here may be too delicate for folding, but it tastes just as good cold as heated, and cheese pull -- that phenomenon of mozzarella sliding off your slice as you take a bite out of it -- is never a concern with the Sufja's blend of two brands, one drier and one greasier.
232 W. 231st St., 718-548-9070