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New York City is huge. The five boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx could easily be tentpole cities of their own if you were to place them in the middle of another state. Here in New York, they form a massive 302.6 square mile behemoth of a city. To navigate this beast, the MTA has buses and subways that go pretty much everywhere if you try hard enough (even Staten Island, with its ferry service). In my 34 years living in New York City, I know for a fact there are places that I have yet to see or experience properly. Up until a little more than a year ago, outside of trips to Yankee Stadium, The Bronx was one of my blind spots. Then I started dating a girl who lives there. To be specific, she resides in the Pelham Bay area, which is really only accessible via one subway line: the 6 train. From where I live, about a half hour’s walk from Coney Island, one of the southernmost areas of Brooklyn, my trip can take at least an hour and 45 minutes via public transportation. To say the least, I’ve gotten through some good books, comics, podcasts, and long Candy Crush sessions over these last few months. But you know what made these long trips so worth it, outside of the promise of seeing my girlfriend, who if she’s reading this, I absolutely appreciate so very much? The pizza.
Growing up, I was taught that Brooklyn had three things going for it: pizza, bagels, and Jewish delis. I was under the assumption that what you found there was going to be better than the rest of the five boroughs by default, outside of a spot here and there. As a registered New York pizza snob, I simply was not expecting the abundance of quality, nor the quantity that I have received in one of the far corners of The Bronx. But lo, here it is. Getting off the train at Buhre Avenue, you’re immediately taken by how different the area looks from “The Big City.” Buildings are smaller, the train is overhead instead of underground. But most importantly, there are at least five different pizza options to choose from within walking distance of each other. Makeshift pizza walking tour, anyone? I’m down if you’re down.
First up, right down the street from the train, is Mangia’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta.
Mangia’s is a relative newcomer, having only been in the neighborhood for about five years. What makes them stand out from the competition is their brick oven, which was put in by the store’s owner when they first opened. Christopher Rosa is the manager at Mangia’s, and has lived in the neighborhood his entire life. He remembers what the place looked like before, and what had to be done to make Mangia’s happen. “They had to bring the oven in before they built the counter, so they built the kitchen and then put the counter in. So if we need to take anything out, we’re screwed.” So far that hasn’t been an issue, as Mangia’s creates pizza after pizza with for delivery and eat-in service seven days a week. Christopher believes it’s the homemade ingredients that keeps people coming, and makes the food superior to some random spots you’d find in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “The places that I don’t like are those dollar pizza spots in the city. It’s cheap. I feel like people come here for quality. I’d say about 90 percent of the things here are made in-house.”
When I sat down to eat there, my eyes wandered to the Grandma slice, which is thicker than the one I’m accustomed to. It’s closer to a Sicilian, but topped with a sweet and garlicky marinara, spots of mozzarella, some parmesan, and Italian herbs and spices. The crust was well-done and crispy, and didn’t get soggy like sauce-heavy slices sometimes do. If you like spicy, give their Buffalo chicken slice a shot. The Buffalo sauce’s tang acted as the perfect counterbalance to the sweet of the Grandma. As for the chicken, it was only lightly fried, and you could tell it hadn’t been sitting around all day, which is a good sign; fresh pizza means they’re constantly replenishing the day’s stock. Outside of the pizza and the atmosphere, it’s the free soda refills that make Mangia’s magical. Accessible fountain soda is such a simple thing that I so very rarely see at a New York pizzeria. “A lot of people have come here and specifically say they come here because we have fountain soda,” Chris laughed. “And I’m just like, ‘That’s great, man!’”
Literally right across the street from Mangia’s is Crosby Pizza Stop, a longtime neighborhood fixture.
Vincent Leo bought Crosby 44 years ago after working there for five years. He’s seen the neighborhood change and evolve as the people, places, and offerings became more diverse around him. “Years ago, I used to be the only food shop on Crosby Avenue. Now you have everything. There’s a food place for every community. We have Mexican, we have Chinese, we have Spanish, we have Italian, we have Japanese. We have everything.” Competition is not a problem for Vincent though, even with the glut of pizzerias in his general vicinity. “Everybody has their own steady customers. But if you happen to be three blocks down you’re not gonna come here for the slice, you’re gonna have the pizza there. That happens. But if you’re in the neighborhood…90 percent of the time they’ll come here.”
Crosby’s specialty is the round Sicilian—rather than a smaller, dense square, you get a comparatively huge version that is cut just like a regular slice would be. “People like it better,” Vincent explained. “There’s no crust, there’s no ends, it’s full of cheese all the time.” He certainly wasn’t kidding, as this slice was literally oozing cheese from front to back. The crust is spongy and light, and the sauce at Crosby is a bit savory, lending itself beautifully to the milky mozzarella. They also have artisan pies with a more cracker-like crust, with unique topping like macaroni and cheese, and one with sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, and feta. Pies available at the counter can change from day to day, meaning there’s something for everyone. But Vincent refuses to play favorites. “I like them all. The one I’m eating, the one I’m making at the moment is my favorite.” My personal favorite is easily the lasagna slice. Built on top of a round Sicilian with the addition of an outer crust, the ricotta is fresh and delicate, the ground beef is well-seasoned and juicy, and it eats like a full meal.
If you still have room, down Crosby Avenue and around the corner is Joe’s Pizza, which dubs itself, “The Best Pizza in Town.” Pizza varieties are key here, as Joe’s boasts some excellent and unexpected choices, like artichoke pesto and chipotle chicken. Both of these are Sicilians, which I personally believe is a pattern; Sicilian looks to be what makes Pelham Bay’s pizza selections stand out the most. Joe’s is definitely an after-school pizza spot, as when I arrived it was full of kids grabbing a quick slice. I look forward to trying some of their other selections over the next few weeks, for sure.
Now it’s walking time, but it is a walk that is completely worth it. On a street that has been renamed Ernie Otusso Square lies his namesake pizzeria, Louie and Ernie’s.
Ernie Otusso worked for 33 years at this very spot before his death in 1991; he opened the place along with his brother Louie in 1959. This is one of The Bronx’s true treasures, as it has been slinging pies since 1959. When you walk into the place it feels like walking into a pizza temple. The dining area smells amazing, with a gas oven that fills the entire room with wafts of whatever it is currently making. Louie and Ernie’s most recently were a featured “All-Star Eatery” in Forbes Restaurant Guide, and is on many a list as one of the best pizza joints in New York City, bar none. At this point in my day I was feeling a bit full, so I ordered a white slice. This is far from my usual order, as I adore my sauce. In the end it was an excellent choice, as this was easily the best white slice I’ve ever ingested. Ricotta, mozzarella, some oil and dough; sometimes that’s all it takes to make a mouth happy. This was one of those moments where your brain wrestles with your stomach and demands further satisfaction, and I barely stopped myself from ordering three more.
Our last stop before heading back on the train is Frank’s Pizza. Frank’s is right by Middletown Road on the 6, one stop closer to Manhattan than where we started. Frank’s has become my go-to delivery option, as they’re not only fast, but also pretty consistent. My girlfriend and I love their fresh spinach and mozzarella Grandma pie, which is elegant, light, and simultaneously filling. The spinach is key, as you feel like you’re at least being a little bit healthy while ingesting all those carbs. For two people it’s a big pie to order, but that’s what next-day leftovers are for.
When visiting Frank’s in person, I opted for a deep-dish style eggplant slice and a regular plain slice, because that’s the way to end a day—with simplicity. The eggplant is layered underneath the cheese, with rounds of sauce reminiscent of pepperoni dolloped on top. I liked how this avoided the eggplant becoming limp or chewy, one of my biggest pet peeves. The regular slice hit the spot just as it should; just the right amount of cheese, and a sauce with some bite and spice to it, but not too much. And yes, I finally burnt the roof of my mouth a little, which was bound to happen eventually.
To anyone thinking to themselves, “Self? Is this too much pizza for one afternoon?” I think that’s up for you to decide. Want to do one of these five and call it a day, or two, or three, or four? Be my guest! But whatever you decide, the trip to the near-end of the Pelham line of the subway is absolutely worth the adventure. These pizza places all exist for a reason, as some poignant final words from Vincent Leo elaborate on. “One of my friends used to say, ‘If everybody likes your pizza, there’d be nobody else in business! You’d be the only guy making pizza.’” Personally, I feel that the diversity, the variety, and the quality you’ll find in Pelham Bay will leave you satisfied, and hopefully wanting more.
I'm a born and raised Brooklyn boy, and have been an adventurous eater my entire life. If it's new and interesting, I'll try it! But my favorites will always be Jewish comfort food like matzoh ball soup, and Japanese food.