New York: Slice of pizza life

By Rob McFarland

Ol' Blue Eyes knew where to find the best of Italy in New York. Rob McFarland follows Sinatra's lead.

Packed tables line the famous Grimaldi pizzeria which is said to be Frank Sinatra's favourite pizza joint. Photo / Rob McFarland
Packed tables line the famous Grimaldi pizzeria which is said to be Frank Sinatra's favourite pizza joint. Photo / Rob McFarland

Tourists have been known to line up for hours to get a table at Grimaldi's, a legendary Brooklyn pizza joint considered to be the number one pizzeria in New York.

The restaurant doesn't take reservations and, when we arrive on a sunny Saturday morning an hour after opening, the line is already snaking down the block.

But today we're not just any tourists. We're on A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza tour and, as such, we get to march to the front of the queue and straight to the only reserved table in the house.

Tony Muia, the tour's founder and guide, tells us what to do should anyone object: "Remember, you're in New York now. Put your chin up and your chest out and if anyone says anything, tell 'em to fuhgettaboudit."

Inside, the walls of this New York institution are covered in Frank Sinatra memorabilia (it was Ol' Blue Eyes' favourite pizza joint) and the tables are decked out in 1960s-style red and white checked tablecloths.

The pizza, like the décor, is simple and unfussy: fresh mozzarella and basil sprinkled over a layer of rich tomato sauce on a thin, crisp base. The tomatoes come from the foot of Mt Vesuvius in Italy and the mozzarella is made here in Brooklyn. It's cooked for two minutes in a high-temperature coal-fired brick oven, which the owners say gives the margarita pizza a special smoky flavour and a crisp crust that is not possible with a conventional gas oven. And they're right - it is the best I've ever tasted.

Muia started these tours in 2005 and in the space of five years has become something of a local celebrity. With his slicked-back hair, dark glasses and Noo Yawk accent, he's made for the role. But he's also a born and bred Brooklynite who is passionate about the borough.

He also knows a thing or two about pizza. He explains that the margarita was named after Queen Margherita of Savoy, who was presented with the pizza in the colours of the Italian flag - red, white and green - on a trip to Naples in the late 1800s.

There are 35 of us on the bus today, and after starting near Union Square in Manhattan we make our way across Manhattan Bridge into the heart of Brooklyn. Home to 2.5 million people, the borough has experienced a resurgence in popularity in the past few years. One-bedroom apartments in the trendy suburb of Dumbo (down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass) can fetch Manhattan-like prices of US$800,000 ($1.1 million).

Brooklyn Bridge Park is an unexpected surprise, a little slice of green filled with picnicking families and courting couples. It offers panoramic views across a river teeming with ferries, pleasureboats and water taxis. There's even a small pebble beach where some hardy folk are dipping their toes in the grey waters of the East River.

Just around the corner is Fulton Ferry Landing where, under the gaze of the Brooklyn Bridge, we learn about George Washington's Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 and see the confronting evidence of more recent historic events - the startling gap in Manhattan's skyline where the Twin Towers once stood.

Back on the bus, the tour is punctuated with clips of famous movies in which Brooklyn has featured: we see a blind Al Pacino driving a Ferrari around the streets of Dumbo in Scent of a Woman, John Travolta reeling off a list of facts about Brooklyn Bridge in Saturday Night Fever, and the owner of the world's most recognisable Brooklyn accent - Bugs Bunny.

We pass the terminal from where Elvis set sail for his overseas military assignment in Germany in 1958, then we reach upmarket Bayridge and a string of multi-million dollar homes that line Shore Rd. The celebrity references continue to come thick and fast. On the right is the garage used in a scene from Goodfellas, on the left is the street down which Travolta strolled in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever. Our second pizza stop is L&B Spumoni Gardens, a pizzeria in Bensonhurst that's been specialising in authentic Sicilian style pizza since being established in 1939 by Italian immigrant Ludovico Barbati. Serving a square piece of pizza known as a wet slice, this varietal has a thick crust covered in mozzarella, tomato sauce and pecorino romano cheese. It's a completely different style to Grimaldi's and, as a group, we're split 50-50 as to which we prefer. What should be compulsory is a serving of L&B's delicious home-made spumoni icecream.

Our last port of call before heading back to Manhattan is the tacky extravaganza of fun-fare rides, fast-food outlets and side-show stalls that is Coney Island. After four sizeable slices of pizza, I relish the chance to stroll along the famous wooden boardwalk and gaze out across the Atlantic while Muia explains the area's history and uncertain future. He must have told these stories hundreds of times but he's still got 35 of us hanging off his every word.

Four-and-a-half hours have flashed by and I honestly can't remember a tour I've enjoyed more.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: V Australia flies daily from Auckland to Los Angeles via Sydney.

Phone 0800 8287 82.

Delta Air Lines flies direct from LA to New York.

Tours of four and a half hours leave Union Square on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays at 11am. Adults: US$75 ($100), children under 12: US$65. Price includes four slices of pizza and soft drinks. Visit nycgo.com.

Rob McFarland was a guest of V Australia, Delta Air Lines and NYC Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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