Searching for New York’s Hidden Coal Ovens

My journey into one of NYC’s salvaged bakery ovens.

The subject of coal-burning ovens seems to be popping up a lot lately and I have a feeling it’s at least partially because of the recent Grimaldi’s relocation. To sum it up, Grimaldi’s recently moved up the block from its original location after lease problems with their landlord but had to leave the oven behind. Not a huge problem because all they had to do was to build another one in the new location. This sent the press and public into a tizzy because, even though I covered the history of coal-fired ovens just a few months back, people still believe the myth that they are on the endangered species list. The fact is that New York City has more coal-burning ovens than it knows what to do with.

Coal ovens come in several formats, but the oldest are the cavernous mason-built bread ovens from the turn of last century. These beasts are so massive that they were either built out into a building’s back yard or into the foundation itself, extending beyond the building’s footprint. When a bakery went out of business, it was much easier (and cheaper) to slap a wall in front of the oven than doing any kind of demolition. This means that old bakery ovens are very likely still in place, just waiting to be discovered. Here’s a quick rundown of five dormant coal-burning ovens in New York.

Patsy’s Pizzeria
Everybody knows that Patsy’s has been making some of the city’s best pizza in a coal-burning oven since 1933, but not many are aware of the huge bakery oven in the basement of 2287 1st Ave. I only learned about it recently while talking to one of the owners about the history of the building. East Harlem became an Italian enclave in the early 20th century and this block was comparable to Manhattan’s Mulberry Street and the Bronx’s Arthur Ave at the time.

NYC took a photo of every building for tax assessment between 1939 and 1941. Patsy’s is indicated by the white arrow.

As indicated by the building’s tax photo (circa 1940), the restaurant with the apron-clad man outside was flanked by a cheese maker, butcher and bakery. Reverse directories that let you look up a building’s occupant by address don’t go earlier than 1929, but I have a feeling Patsy’s location was a bakery before it became a restaurant.

Beneath Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem.

The adjacent Frank’s Bakery may have baked their breads in the oven beneath 2287 1st Ave for sale in their storefront one building down. This subterranean oven wouldn’t have been ideal for a pizzeria, so they shifted to a more compact unit that better suited their needs. Now the old oven sits waiting, but the building’s owners have no immediate plans to revive it.

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Electric Oven vs Wood-Fired Brick Oven

I just found this photo I took of two identical margherita pizzas baked in different ovens at a pizzeria called 900 Degrees (RIP) in the West Village. The one on the left baked for 5 minutes and 33 seconds in a brick-lined electric deck oven, the one on the right baked for 1 minute and 24 seconds in a wood-fired brick oven.

Judging by these photos, the wood-fired pie looks way better. The lower temperature electric oven caused the fresh mozzarella to break down before the crust completely baked. You can see why pizza makers switched to low-moisture mozzarella when deck ovens became standard (besides the fact that they had a longer shelf life). The crust on the right looks more even and the cheese/sauce separation has remained intact.

But looks are only part of the picture — almost everyone on the tour that day preferred the taste of the pie on the left. BOOM!

First Ave Slice (and garlic knot) Crawl

Was poster a sign of things to come in a night of Upper East Side pizza eating?

This weekend, I grabbed a golden pizza-eating opportunity by the crusts and dove mouth-first into a string of pizzerias I have often passed without blinking. Due to my routing options, I often take pizza tours from Lombardi’s in Soho to Patsy’s in East Harlem. We fly up First Ave, passing a few dozen pizzerias along the way. I’m very familiar with a batch of downtown spots (Motorino, Vinny Vincenz, Luzzo’s, Artichoke, etc), but the northern reaches of this universe are a complete mystery to me. So many times I have looked out the school bus window and wondered what these places had to offer. Some appeared excitingly dark and mysterious, others looked average enough that they might contain some surprises. There was only one way to find out.

The stretch of road in question is the stark bit from the mid-50’s to the upper-60’s. After finding a sweet parking spot, my friends Bryan and Kiera agreed to get down to beeswax in our first pizzeria of the night: John & Tony’s. From the outside, it looks just funky enough to be intriguing. The inside is split into a bright pizzeria section in the front and a darker restaurant in the back. Pretty classic with the red-and-white-checked tablecloths and hanging glass light fixtures!

John & Tony’s, outside and in.

The pizza fit the space. There were three of us and we weren’t all hungry enough to go for full slices, so I just ordered whatever looked best. It ended up being a square and some garlic knots. As you can see in the photo below, the square was mostly sauce with touches of mozzarella and whole leaves of basil. It was pretty tasty, but the crust situation was a bit dire. Those garlic knots have the perfect knotty look and a heavy smattering of garlic, but they weren’t quite cohesive enough to be exciting. Still, the food was good enough and the space has that hint of specialness that made it feel like we were supporting the Good Guys.

John & Tony’s
1097 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10065 
(212) 371-4965

John & Tony’s has some fine lookin’ knots!

Onward to the next spot! After creeping under the 59th Street Bridge, we hit a place I’ve been watching out the school bus window for years: The Best Pizza On 1st. Yup, that’s what it’s legally called. I always laughed at it because we’re on our way to Patsy’s (located on 1st Ave and 118th Street) so there’s very little chance this anything more than just a clever business name.

Is it the best pizza on 1st Ave? You decide.

We grabbed a cheese slice and a grandma. Besides some major grease action on the slice, these little guys were pretty solid. I won’t pull the bus over, but if we break down in the neighborhood I won’t feel terrible stopping by for a quick one. The grandma was the winner of the two, with a nice smooth sauce and minimal cheese.

Best Pizza on 1st
1038 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10022
(212) 644-8400

Sure, Best Pizza on 1st is a pretty good name, but you’d have to be pretty gutsy to open up a pizzeria right across the street. Well, I guess it could work, but you’d have to pick a really amazingly awesome name. Something big. Something red and glowing …

YIKES! Ultimate Pizza is just up the block from BPO1st and it somehow coexists with its hyperbolic neighbor. So is it better to be Best or Ultimate? I’m usually not one to judge pizzerias that aren’t asking to be judged, but this one’s pretty clear. First of all, Best got an A from the Department of Health and Ultimate got a B. I understand that you could earn a demerit for the slightest of violations, but if one slice shop can get an A all slice shops should be able to do the same. Secondly, our slice at Ultimate had a big, fat, yucky gum line. What’s a gum line?

This is a gum line. Yuck.

You see it sitting right there between a tiny layer of cooked dough and a surface layer of cheese. Wait, is a gum line bad? Well, I guess it’s fine if you’re into eating uncooked dough and feeling bloated and crappy. I’m not into that so it’s safe to say I’m anti gum line. It’s a pretty clear indication that the pizza has not been baked properly. Gum lines are usually the result of dough with a cold top, which could come from cold sauce or dough that has not been brought to proper temperature before baking. We attacked the slice crust-first but only got about 4 inches in before we hit solid gummy grossness.

Ultimate Pizza
401 East 57th Street

New York, NY 10022
(212) 319-9027

Don’t worry, Ultimate Pizza wasn’t a total bust. We grabbed some garlic knots and they were actually really good! They even put a bit of fresh basil on top. Not too garlicy, but really tasty little puffs of bread. I would even say the knots were about as good as the slice was bad. Does that make sense?

Garlic knots… now with basil!

The final stop on our First Ave stroll was a place with an actual reputation. I’d heard about it from several people, most of whom live in the direct vicinity, and my own memory from a visit years ago was too hazy to rely on. Pizza Park is a quaint little slice shop that hasn’t yet let the bar drop to the levels we had seen earlier in the night. They may have adapted to contemporary demand for whole wheat crusts and, as their awning explains, “vegetarian” pizza, but the spirit still feels right.

Looks about right. Pizza Park is on First Ave at 66th Street.

Again, we grabbed whatever slices looked the best plus an order of garlic knots. I’m not going to say anything about the knots beyond recommending that you skip them unless it’s late at night and you need something to soak up the booze. Instead, I’m going to strongly suggest that you head right for the Grandma pizza. Even though it was preceded by enough slices to make any normal person want to take a vacation from anything with cheese, sauce or crust it was still quite easily the best slice of the night.

Pizza Park
1233 1st Avenue

New York, NY 10065 

Pizza Park’s Grandma slice - best of the night!

Major points for balance. Major points for flavor. Major points for a crust that tastes like something more than a platform for cheese. Finally, a good slice in the Upper East Side along the route from Lombardi’s to Patsy’s. The fact that all those other places are surviving in the pizza world just goes to show you how much demand there is and how lazy New Yorkers can be. I’m just glad I finally stifled the laziness and got myself into this mysterious pizza zone, otherwise I wouldn’t have known what was available.  As someone once told me, knowing is half the battle.