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Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza

October 29, 2015

When my husband and I took our first trip together to New York City in January of 2010, we took the subway out to Brooklyn specifically to have lunch at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.  In New York, there are 2 pizza joints that claim to be the first pizzeria, it’s either Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn or Lombardi’s in NoLita.  After we dined at Grimaldi’s in 2010, my husband and I fell in love with it, and have since been to a number of Grimaldi’s locations throughout the country.  With this trip to New York, my husband decided he wanted to give Lombardi’s a try so that he could compare the two. I’ve actually been to Lombardi’s a couple of times before, so I knew what it was all about.

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Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza started in 1897 when an Italian immigrant reinvented Napoletana style pizza into one of New York’s most well-known staple foods, New York style pizza.  In 1905, the City of New York granted a license to Lombardi’s, and therefore, they claim to be America’s first pizzeria.  When Lombardi’s started in this neighborhood on Spring Street, they were located just down the street from their present location.  This also makes Lombardi’s one of New York City’s oldest eateries.

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Located just on the outskirts of Little Italy, hence the name of the neighborhood being NoLita, Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza is located in a beautiful, but small, brick building, indicative of the style of New York City over 100 year’s ago.  Having taken the space next door to their restaurant, the restaurant has doubled in size since the first time I dined at Lombardi’s 10 years ago.  That certainly helps the crowds that tend to come dine here every day for their legendary pizza.  I love how on the interior, Lombardi’s has kept the old brick on the walls rather than covering it up.  Inside, you can see the famous coal powered pizza oven and an open kitchen where you can watch your pizzas being made.  Classic pizza joint decorations of red checkerboard table covers and as many tables as possible jammed into a tiny space.  When Lombardi’s gets busy, the place is packed and there’s no room to move around.  Luckily, we arrived in the middle of the afternoon for pizza, so we didn’t have to worry about the crowds.

However, having only had ice cream to eat over the past 24 hours, my husband and I were starving and even though it was only the middle of the afternoon, we were ready to scarf down a delicious coal oven pizza and more.  Start with a pitcher of soda to share, an appetizer and a pizza and we’ll go from there.

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A small order of bread sticks and sauce was our appetizer of choice.  Our waitress told us that she recommended taking the parmesan cheese on the table and sprinkling a bunch of it into the bowl of marinara sauce before we dipped the breadsticks into the sauce.  Instead of just sprinkling cheese into the sauce, we also sprinkled it over the bread itself.  Cheesy breadsticks and cheesy sauce, a good combination.  We dug into the breadsticks right away when they were delivered because 24 hours of only having a cup of ice cream tends to make a person hungry.  While the breadsticks were ok, they weren’t my favorite.  I’m used to soft, hot-out-of-the oven garlic breadsticks and these were almost like over-baked, hard breadsticks.  It was almost like eating straight pizza crust, and I’m going to assume the dough for the breadsticks was exactly the same dough they use for their pizza crust.  While the breadsticks were hot inside when you opened them up, the outside harder crust just made it hard to enjoy, especially was I was expecting softer, easier-to-chew bread.  Maybe this is just the way breadsticks are in New York and this California girl doesn’t prefer her breadsticks the same way?  I must say though, the marinara sauce was amazingly delicious.  It was tart and tangy and definitely acidic from the tomatoes.  But it had nice flavor too from oregano and basil and other seasonings.  Adding a bit of the grated parmesan added some saltiness to cut through the tart acidity of the marinara sauce.  Overall, I’d have to say that these breadsticks were underwhelming for me and probably not something I’d order again.

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How can you come to an establishment like this and not order the pizza they made famous?  We ordered the small original margherita pizza with the addition of pepperonis as a topping.  Even their small is huge for just the two of us.  Consisting of 6 slices, this 14″ pizza, even to someone who was as hungry as I was, was a bit daunting.  Made with fresh mozzarella, fresh crushed tomato sauce and topped with Romano cheese and fresh basil, this pizza was outstanding.  The coal oven pizza has a bit of a blackened, burnt bottom which gives off a little bit of a bitter, smoky taste, which is what Lombardi’s says you should expect and what they are trying to achieve.  The crispy, a little bit burnt on the edge and bubbly crust is exactly what my husband was looking for.  One bite of his first slice of pizza and he had a huge grin on his face.  One slice later and he proclaimed that he actually liked Lombardi’s pizza better than Grimaldi’s.  The tomato sauce was, again, wonderfully acidic which balanced out the slightly bitter taste of the coal oven crust.  My husband thought that this was exactly what pizza should taste like, exactly what he was looking and hoping for.  The little slices of pepperoni that were a bit crispy on the edges gave off a beautiful crunch and flavor to the pizza and the fresh, melted mozzarella hit the right notes.

My husband is careful to say, of course, that both Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s are terrific and you really can’t go wrong with either.  Though, he will admit that after having had Lombardi’s there’s something about it that makes it just that infinitesimally better than Grimaldi’s.  But that comparison is like splitting hairs.  We were famished by the time we arrived at Lombardi’s and their incredible pizza hit the spot.  It’s exactly what we were looking for, exactly what we were hoping for.  By the time we left Lombardi’s we were so stuffed you could have rolled us back to the hotel.  But we were full and satisfied.  Original, delicious, traditional New York pizza cooked in a coal oven the way the Napolitanos do it.  Just the way it should be.

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