20 October 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to John's Pizzeria?"

As the number of artisanal pizza options has risen in New York City over the last decade—as well as the pitch of the debate as to which serves the best and most authentic pie—I've come to rely on, and cherish, old standbys more and more: Totonno's, Arturo's, Patsy's, Sam's, and, of course, John's in Greenwich Village. Here's my latest "Who Goes There?" column from Eater:
Who Goes There? John's Pizzeria
John's Pizzeria doesn't get the respect accorded to other old New York pizza institutions, like Patsy's, Totonno's, or Di Fara. Nor does it get its due as a Greenwich Village icon the way places like the White Horse Tavern, Village Vanguard, or Cafe Reggio do. This, I imagine, is because it's a tourist magnet and perpetually filled to the gills with regular (i.e., uncool) people.
But, for me, John's holds up. The plain pie is not the city's crowing achievement of the pizzaiola's art. But it's good enough to be a standard bearer. The tang of its sauce and the char of the crust are remarkably consistent; the coal-fired brick ovens are still doing their job. I've never had an unsatisfying pie there. And, unlike Lombardi's—another landmark in New York pizza history, but one that is now a theme-park shell of what it once was—John's has retained its character. The main room—with its high, red tin ceilings, twitching ceiling fans, vintage concert posters, and battered wooden booths etched with the names of decades of whittling patrons—is simply one of the greatest, New Yorkiest spaces in the city. One can imagine the Italian denizens of Bleecker Street eating here in the 1930s and '40s; the jazzmen and beatniks of the '50s; the folkies and flower children of the '60s. History lives here.
Despite its reputation as a fave of the weekend bridge-and-tunnel tribe, John's still gets plenty of locals. It also attracts a lot of families, because no one blinks at kids being kids here. I recently dined here with eight tweens, and they couldn't have felt more at home. They inhaled the slices and happily poured themselves glass after glass of Coke from plastic pitchers. They also found the ancient bathrooms an infinite source of fascination.
John's was founded in 1929 by John Sasso, who reportedly learned his trade at Lombardi's (as did the founders of Totonno's and Patsy's). The original pizzeria was on Sullivan Street. When Sasso lost his lease, he dismantled the brick oven and moved it to the present location on Bleecker. There it has stayed. Sasso sold the pizzeria to his brother in 1955. It was eventually taken over, in 1973, by Sasso's great-grandnephews, Peter Castellotti and Robert Vittoria. It's still run by Peter (who was born in a building directly across the street from the restaurant) and his children, Peter Jr. and Lisa. During the Castellotti reign, John's began to expand. There are now three other restaurants, including a massive one in a former church space in Times Square. The latter is always swamped, with 45 minutes waits, because it's one of the only affordable eating options in the Theatre District. The pizza, however, doesn't match what's served up on Bleecker Street. You can't duplicate the effects of an 83-year-old oven. 
—Brooks of Sheffield


Proud NIMBY said...

Who goes there? Not me.


There were not as many nice restaurants as there are now, when I moved to GV in the early 70s.

Four of us long-hairs decided to go try John's one evening, despite the reputation that the Italian owners had of being rude to hippy-types like us, although the Village had been full of long-hairs for years.
We decided to try anyway.

The service was perfunctory at best. Then the pizza arrived and we were dividing it up and discovered not a sliver, but a huge shard of broken glass, like a piece of a broken bottle, in the pizza.

We brought it to the waiters attention. His reaction: a weary "Oh." We handed the shard to him to look at it, he did, and, saying nothing else, he took it and threw it away in the garbage, without offering any apologies, let alone to comp the pizza pie.

We thought, "Fangoola", as we left, never to return.

chilld said...

well deserved post and your description of the pizza is like a beautiful haiku! i must trek in and grab a slab for old times sake, which in my case was a decade not mentioned by you: the 1980s. don't blame ya, but those were the nights i bummed around the Village.
keep up the good job.

Ken Mac said...

Better to get to John's fast. An IHOP is moving in literally around the corner. (Carmine and Varrick). Even more rents on the rise..

Disco Stain said...

On a good night you can't beat Arturo's especially when the local talent step up on open night mic.

Brian Dubé said...

John's is convenient and close to me. The pizza isn't the most amazing I have ever tasted, but it's up there. You can't beat that crispy coal oven-baked crust. When I went back there for the first time after having eaten a lot of non-traditional pizza flavors for a while, going back to the classic red sauce and cheese was almost a relief. You can read about it here: http://newyorkdailyphoto.com/nydppress/?p=1040

Food aside, it certainly has that New York character. Its location probably helps a lot too.