Searching for New York’s Hidden Coal Ovens

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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.

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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.

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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 Reference to Pizza as a Pie?

Here’s a reallyyyyyyy early reference to pizza in the December 6, 1903 edition of the New York Tribune. It’s part of a larger article about how much Italians love hot foods (there’s a section that defines pepperoni as hot peppers rather than the later Americanized cured meat) and includes some rather controversial remnants from our lost pizza past. The article doesn’t mention a restaurant name, so it’s unclear whether this is a bakery, pizzeria or somebody’s house. What is clear is that the author directly compares Italian pizza to American pie, making it the earliest reference to pizza as a pie that I have ever seen. We use this slang in the Northeast, but people outside the area always ask me why I call pizza a pie. Here’s why!

But there’s a lot more mind-blowing info in this tiny paragraph. The article indicates a method of dough stretching that is more or less outlawed in both Naples and New York City pizzerias today: the rolling pin. In Naples, all pizza dough is extended by hand with special care taken to preserve the gases of fermentation. New York pizza makers tend to use more muscle with their dough stretching because American flour is much stronger than its European counterpart. But nobody currently making New York or Neapolitan style pizza even owns a rolling pin.

The instructions also say to roll out the dough to an inch thick. WOW, that’s not thin crust at all! Could it have been a typo? A misunderstanding? Lost in translation? Just the wrong person to interview for the article? We may never know, but what’s certain is that pizza has never been a food with strict definition — that’s what makes it so wonderful!

Read the Full New York Tribune Article

Vegan Pizza Tour - Saturday, December 10

That’s right kiddies, I’m doing another vegan pizza tour on December 10 starting at 11:45am on the Bowery in NYC. We’ll be hitting three pizzerias around the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, each of which features a different animal-free pizza style. We’ll make our way to each stop on foot and everybody gets a slice per stop PLUS a sweet vegan-friendly goody bag, all included with your $35 ticket.

Tickets must be purchased in advance through our online ticketing agent, so please sign up if you’d like to join us. I’m keeping the group pretty small, so grab your ticket fast!

Fast Details:
Saturday, December 10
11:45am - approximately 2:30pm
$35 ticket fee (includes pizza and Pizza Tour Survival Kit)

NYC Vegan Pizza Tour - Buy Your Ticket Here

New SPT Water (anti)Bottles

I just ordered a bunch of neat SPT-branded water bottles from Vapur! These things are super rad refillable, BPA-free, freezable, fold-able, clip-able, half-liter pouches for all your beverage needs. I try to encourage folks to bring refillable water containers to tours rather than packaged bottled water because of the tremendously negative impact of plastic bottle manufacturing and disposal. This bottle is the perfect solution, especially for those interested in showing off their SPT pride!

To learn more about Vapur anti-bottles, visit their website.
To purchase your SPT Water (anti) Bottle, visit our web store.