Pizza. Nearly everybody loves it in various shapes, sizes, depths and styles. But the most common pizza this side of Italy is the kind you find at the countless pizza joints all across the US, including in your own neighborhood. It's “New York” style pizza: thin crust beneath the pie and rounded edges to serve as the handle of the wedge-cut slices, spread with red sauce and melty mozzarella, maybe a topping or two. It’s pizza the way you think of it; the way the internet depicts it when you search the word. And perhaps the best rendition, indeed the very definition of this classic pizza, is at Joe’s Pizza in – of course – New York City.
Joe’s Pizza is a New York institution and a stomping ground for everyone who lives in Greenwich Village. Ask any local walking down the street in the Village – they all know where Joe’s is. But it’s more than just a local pizza joint -- this pizza is so quintessentially New York that it’s now a tourist attraction. Stand at the window counter on the crowded sidewalk and you hear accents and languages from, well, everywhere. Because if you like pizza and you like street food and you’re visiting New York, you grab a slice at Joe’s.
The thing about Joe’s is that it may not be the very best pizza you’ve ever eaten – it’ll come close, but you might think you’ve had better. But this is not just about pizza, this is about New York. Because Joe’s represents the streets of New York; the food of the people who pound the pavement of The Monster at all hours of the day and night. You want street food in the Big Apple but fear the dirty water dog or mystery-meat gyro? You go to Joe’s for the real deal. Once there, you stand in an ever-present line, yell out for a slice (always get at least 2) and wait for the thin paper plate to come sliding your way. Amateurs sometimes opt for toppings, but Joe’s pros go neat and so should you. Then push back through the crowd to a narrow counter or a standing spot outside on the street and eat.
And by “eat” I mean lean slightly forward to avoid dripping grease on yourself, and with your forefinger and thumb fold the slice over on itself like a sandwich and stick it -- point first -- into your mouth. It’s a skill that takes a little tasty practice, but the inevitable newbie stain on your shirt will be worth it. What you’ll experience is a thin crust, slightly crispy and randomly burnt in spots on the bottom and along the crust. That thin crust is (almost) sturdy enough to hold it all together – all you need is a finger to support the underside. It's spread with a thin layer of really tomato-y sauce that tastes exactly what you imagine great homemade tomato sauce should taste like (but rarely does). On top of that is just enough cheese to dress up the surface and add an umami glow. Not too much, not too little – just the way owner Pino Pozzuoli (aka "Joe") has intended since he opened the doors in 1975. Seems he knows best, and like any true New Yorker, is not afraid to say it. "People don't always want stuff that's too rich or heavy. I've been making and watching people eat pizza for over 50 years, I know what they want."
The thing that is special about Joe’s is it’s lack of specialness. It’s not fancy – if you didn’t know better you’d walk right past it just like you’ve done with a hundred other, lesser pizza joints in the City. If Joe’s were a sheltered, sit-down restaurant decorated with faux-Italian tchotchke and with a wait staff it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be New York. It’s unadorned. It’s tiny; even a little uncomfortable to stand in as you wolf down your slice among others doing the same thing. But do it quietly. Because no self-respecting New Yorker makes a big deal about their bites, trying instead to contain their delight at the clean classic taste and perfectly imperfect crust – for fear that any outward expression of enjoyment runs a risk of being labeled a – dare I say it – tourist.
So when you go – and you really must if given the chance – be the local that you suddenly wish you were, and order a couple of slices like you couldn’t care less. Control your expression, the smile that wants to form at the corners of your mouth, the uplifting of your eyebrows and wide-eyed look at others. Just eat it like it’s a no-big-deal everyday thing, while your insides soar to new pizza heights and you discover the New York you’ve always dreamed of.
Joe's Pizza 7 Carmine Street, New York NY 10014 (at 6th Ave and Bleeker St.).