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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Winter Reading List

It may not feel like Winter in New York, but there is no avoiding the deep chill that is sure to come. And when that day arrives, you’ll want nothing more than a cozy fire and a good book about pizza. Fear not, dear slice-o-phile, for there are several fantastic reads at your local book shoppery that promise to keep you warm while nature does her thing. Here’s a roundup of some books I’ve been spending time with lately…

1. Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoe Francois (St Martin’s Press)

Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day is exactly what it sounds like. This is the latest in a series about hassle-free bread baking and it’s totally awesome. Baking pizza is an extremely practical way to feed yourself AND heat yourself. The book makes you feel like a jerk for wasting so much of your life not making pizza at home with its ridiculously simple dough recipes. No complicated steps or fancy words, just simple ingredients that combine to make dough that sits in your refrigerator until you’re ready to bake.

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Slice Out Hunger - $1 Slices to Benefit City Harvest

Mark your calendars for the biggest, most awesome pizza party you’ve ever been to in your life. We’re collecting pizza from all the city’s top spots and selling it off for $1 per slice at a bar in Greenwich Village. All the money goes to City Harvest, NYC’s only food collection organization, so you’re helping others while feeding yourself.

DETAILS:
Thursday, June 9
Amity Hall
80 W 3rd Street (at Thompson)
6:30 - 10pm

Enjoy pizza from: Lombardi’s, DiFara, Grimaldi’s, Joe’s, John’s of Bleecker, Pizza Roma, Famous Ben’s, Slice, 900 Degrees, Two Boots, Luzzo’s, Artichoke, NY Pizza Suprema, Tosca, Pizza Box and MORE!!!

Raffle prizes from Serious Eats, Pizza a Casa, Coluccio & Sons, Chicago Pizza Tours, GAP Adventures, Trader Joe’s, NY Pizza Project, Busted Tees, Scott’s Pizza Tours, Real Pizza of NYC App plus your chance to win a pizza party for you and seven friends catered by Slice founder Adam Kuban!

Learn more at www.sliceouthunger.org or read about last year’s event at I Dream of Pizza.