When we talk about pizza in New York City, the big, floppy, triangle-hanging-over-the-plate image has been burned into our collective memory. But purists agree that Sicilian slices are just as important to the city’s pizza DNA. Should you doubt that claim, look at the latest exploits of two relative newcomers to the NYC pizza scene, Roberta’s and Emily, both of which are launching their own versions. If these restaurants are rediscovering the square, it’s probably a good idea to dig a bit deeper into the style itself.
Sicilian pizza is a variation on sfincione, a bready rectangle topped with tomato, onion, anchovy, grated cheese, and breadcrumbs, hailing from the port city of Palermo. The dish was likely imported along with droves of Sicilians looking for industrial work in early 20th-century NYC. A couple less anchovies and a wad of mozzarella later, the Sicilian pizza is now standard at classic joints around the city.
Lots of people are turned off by Sicilian style because they’ve been wronged by dense bricks of bread too many times. The style a more challenging venture than its circular counterpart because Sicilian pizza requires a tricky additional step. Standard Neapolitan-influenced pizzas start with dough that gets stretched, topped, and then baked. Sicilian pizza, however, has an additional rise between the stretch and the bake. Putting it in the oven too soon can result in a heavy slice, which is why purveyors of excellent squares are few and far between.
To help your pizza quest, here is a guide to strongholds of Sicilian-square sanctity.
Address and phone: 7 Carmine St (212-366-1182)
Neighborhood: West Village
A fresh square at Joe’s—the Greenwich institution and celebrity hang-out founded in the early ’70s—is the perfect combination of texture and levity. The semi-fried underside provides just enough of a counterpoint to the soft and relenting interior. A blanket of low-moisture mozzarella coats the top and burns slightly at the edges, where it makes direct contact with the pan. I love how they drop a dollop of sauce on top of the cheese on each slice (except at the 14th Street location, where NYU students apparently aren’t into extra sauce).
Prince Street Pizza
Address and phone: 27 Prince St (212-966-4100)
It’s unusual to see toppings on Sicilian pizza in NYC, but the incredibly popular Spicy Spring (a.k.a., pepperoni square) blows minds with its combination of fresh mozzarella, pepper-infused tomato sauce, and natural-casing pepperoni that cups and chars when baked. More conservative eaters play it safe with a Soho Square, which replaces the spicy sauce with a sweet and robust marinara. Both square variations should be filed in the upside-down folder due to their cheese before sauce approach.
Rizzo’s Fine Pizza
Address and phone: 30-13 Steinway St (718-721-9862)
What Rizzo’s serves is more along the lines of a Grandma pizza, a subset of Sicilian that uses less dough and skips the final proofing stage. The result is a thin and dense crust that is a more forgiving style than its larger cousin. Brothers Sal and Joe Rizzo opened their first pizzeria in 1959 after emigrating from Sicily, so it has its bonafides in order. Fine is a word that connotes excellence, but in the case of Rizzo’s pizzeria it hints at the thinness of the crust. The square features a dense wall around the perimeter which lends to greater stability, and it’s amped up by a sweet-tart sauce that punches right through the palate.
Address and phone: 1424 Ave J (718-258-1367)
Neighborhood: Midwood, Brooklyn
If you’re already making a day of visiting Di Fara, do yourself a favor and order the square pie. The last one I had was burnt in the corners and my friends left me with a slice that hinged in the middle, yet somehow it was still amazing. Ingredients change often here, but the last time I looked legendary pizzaiolo Dom was using mozzarella di bufala and low-moisture mozzarella on the square, lending it a creamier flavor profile compared to the regular pie, which is topped with cows’-milk mozzarella. Whatever he’s using, it’s guaranteed to be unlike any square you’ve ever had. (Photo courtesy Adam Kuban)
Famous Ben’s Pizza
Address and phone: 177 Spring St (212-966-4494)
Unlike the upside-down or hybrid-square versions that appear on this list, Famous Ben’s serves a classic, straightforward New York Sicilian pizza. It’s covered with a serious portion of shredded mozzarella, which cascades over the sides of a freshly cut slice. You get incredible cheese pull, where strings of mozzarella keep the slice connected to the mothership. The crust is crunchy and fried on the bottom because the baking pan gets lightly oiled. The sauce is punchy from the usual list of herbs and spices. Ben’s also serves the best sfincione I’ve had in NYC, which it calls Palermo Pizza.
L&B Spumoni Gardens
Address and phone: 2725 86th St (718-449-1230)
Neighborhood: Gravesend, Brooklyn
This is the square that inspired a generation of upside-down Sicilian pizzas, in which the sauce is served on top of the cheese. Dough is pushed into the pan and topped with squares of low-moisture mozzarella and rich crushed tomato, then finished with a generous dusting of pecorino. The whole thing rises until it’s ready for the bake. Placing the cheese on the dough before the sauce benefits the pie by acting as a barrier against unwanted moisture infiltration. If too much water transfers from the sauce into the dough, it creates potential for gumminess. Thankfully, L&B has engineered that possibility out of the equation, influencing a host of pizzerias in its wake. (Photo courtesy Scott Wiener)
NY Pizza Suprema
Address and phone: 413 8th Ave (212-594-8939)
Neighborhood: Midtown West
It may look familiar to L&B fans, but this upside-down Sicilian is an entirely different animal from the pie that inspired it. This crust is crunchy on the outside and puffy on the inside, whereas L&B is more dense and chewy. That’s probably because L&B bakes the whole thing together (as does Prince Street), while Suprema prebakes the shells without toppings. An even bigger difference is the chunky, sweet sauce. The pizzaiolos combine California tomatoes with sweet onion to match in flavor what the crust delivers in girth. It’s an incredibly satisfying slice that adds to the glorious surprise that is this hidden-in-plain-sight gem right across the street from Penn Station. (Photo: foodspotting.com)
House of Pizza and Calzone
Address and phone: 132 Union St (347-990-2130)
Neighborhood: Red Hook, Brooklyn
If L&B and NY Pizza Suprema had a baby, this square pie would be it. The crust is dense and chewy like L&B’s, but the sauce is sweet and strong like Suprema’s. Come to think of it, the shop uses fresh mozzarella like Prince St Pizza, upside-down style, so it’s more of a love triangle. Who’s the father? Who’s the mother? All that matters is that the kid is awesome. I love how the sauce cooks off a bit, leaving behind streaks of exposed cheese like a relief map of rivers and creeks. (Photo courtesy Scott Wiener)