Foreground: One of New York's finest slices. Background: pH litmus strip.

Foreground: One of New York's finest slices. Background: pH litmus strip.

History has shown that the pursuit of science can lead a person to the brink of madness. Modern folklore has shown that the pursuit of pizza can take a man to the brink of death.

I’m writing this entry as a half-mad, half-dead—yet enlightened—man.

This month, I celebrated National Pizza Day (a rather unappreciated holiday "held" on February 9th) by taking a deep look at the best pizza in New York. The origins of National Pizza Day are rather dubious. But so, one realizes, are most “best pizza in New York” claims. Bestowed by anyone with a blog, these titles are by nature subjective, based on shifting criteria in an ever-changing pizza landscape within a city of 1,653 pizza joints.[1]

New York, with its deep Italian food influence, claims to have the best pizza in the world.[2] And approximately 100% of pizza joints in New York claim to be the best pizza in New York.[3] Every year, local blogs, foodie websites, culture magazines, and guidebooks like Zagat weigh in on their favorite slices and pies, generating a wide spectrum of “bests.” My own formal poll of office colleagues, (“Hey anyone within earshot, what do you think is the best pizza in New York?”) resulted in a dozen different answers. 

Noting the lack of both consensus and science, I resolved to do what no New York pizza connoisseur had done before: conduct a [4] scientific meta-analysis of the NYC pizza scene.[4a] 

 

So, what is the best pizza in New York?

The first piece of analysis was an assessment of the existing pizza surveys and rankings. Since we’re interested in today's best pizza (not the historical best), I looked at published pizza reviews and rankings from the last three years. There are three main types:

1) Professional critics: Experienced reviewers who rate restaurants for a job. (E.g. SeriousEats, Zagat.)

2) Amateur reviewers: Your neighbor leaving an angry review on Foursquare when pizza burns the roof of his mouth; tourists glowing about the appetizer pizza at Olive Garden in Times Square on Yelp. 

3) Pizza aficionados: Students of pizza (mostly self-taught) who give guided pizza tours or go on quests to eat all the pizzas or Instagram every dollar slice in New York.

Food critics rank pizzas by different criteria. The good ones are methodical. But they tend to disagree with each other a lot. Amateurs are unreliable and generally elevate the pizza in their own back yard (Gayle King picked Mariella Pizza, which happens to be across the street from her office, as the best pizza in America!). But amateur reviews in aggregate can provide some insight into the most popular pizza in a city of 1,653 pizzas. Pizza aficionados can help uncover gems that the critics might not, and tend to understand why a particular pizza is good. But they don’t tend to publish Top-10 lists, and they acknowledge that different pizza attributes will appeal to different palettes. (Which is an important consideration in what follows below.)

I started my meta-analysis by indexing every “Best Pizza In New York” list published by a food or culture publication I could find between January 2012 and January 2015. I then looked at the highest-rated pizza places on Yelp (a proxy for experience), cross-referenced with the most-rated places on Yelp (a proxy for popularity). I then ran a little script to serve up which pizza places most frequently occurred in these lists, which spat out a ranked meta-list of the best pizzas from best pizza lists:[5]

#1. Di Fara

#2-4 (Tied). Roberta’s, Lucali, Paulie Gee's

#5-6 (Tied). Totonno, Motorino

#7-9 (Tied). Franny’s, Joe’s Pizza, John’s of Bleecker St.

#10. Patsy's

#11-15 (Tied). Best Pizza, Keste, Don Antonio, Grimaldi’s, Lombardi’s

Chances are, any adult human with reliable taste buds will enjoy any of the above pizzas. It’s safe to take a date to Paulie Gee's (unless he/she is lactose- or waiting-in-line-intolerant).

The first interesting find from the meta-list is that these top pizzas are quite different from each other. And though it might appear in the plurality of best pizza lists, a Patsy’s will appear at #10 on one list and #1 in another.

These discrepancies are likely due to taste preferences. As a science writer, I realized I had no choice but to observe and measure these differences.

So, on Pizza Day's Eve, I embarked on part two of my meta-study: an all-day Top-10 Most Best Pizza adventure[6] through Manhattan and Brooklyn (where all 10 of the 10 best-of-the-best pies are served). I would observe and run a typical, representative slice of each restaurant’s basic pie through a battery of tests. Not to determine which is the best, but to document the attributes of each “best” pizza.

Pictured: Pizza implements + one pizza

Pictured: Pizza implements + one pizza

I charted a course based on the open and close times of each place, and my projected ability to digest ten slices. (In addition to taking measurements, I planned to eat at each place in preparation to bestow the subjective—but important—award of "Shane’s best pizza in New York."

My route doubled back to account for store open times and gastronomic sanity.

My route doubled back to account for store open times and gastronomic sanity.

Pro tip: many of these places have absurd wait times during dinner hours, but if you call ahead they will all get your pie to you in 15 minutes or less. Motorino, Roberta’s, John’s, and Totonno had the pies done in less than 10.

Now, no good science experiment is without a control. However, there is no consensus on what makes a proper pizza control, as far as I could find. I decided that a crappy, mass-produced pizza would be a sufficient reference point, if not control. So at the end of the experiment, I ordered a cheese pie from Dominos.[7]

Here is what each slice looked like:

 

And here's a breakdown of the dimensions of each:

(Percentages indicate amount exposed when viewed from the top of the slice.)

Aside from the dimensions—and the resulting ratios—I conducted three other tests:

Test #1: Acidity

I measured the pH of the surface of each slice using a standard litmus strip.[7]

 

Test #2: Drip

I held each slice vertex-down at 90 degrees, counting how many drips of grease and/or sauce fell during a 30 second period.


Test #3: Rigidity

I held each slice by the edge of its crust, perpendicular to the ground, and recorded the angle at which the slice drooped.

 

So really. what is the best pizza in New York?

The real answer depends on the taste bud. According to reviewers, Di Fara’s is the most best pizza in New York. My friend Sam agreed when we visited around 2:00 p.m. on Pizza Day’s Eve. I wasn’t as impressed, electing Roberta’s as my top choice instead, and Motorino second.[8] Regardless of what Sam or I say, New York has said that each of the above pizzas are the best.

What the best pizza in New York has in common versus an average slice of Dominos? New York’s best are universally thinner, drippier, have more exposed sauce, are more tangy, and by and large more expensive.

And call me a madman, but they taste better, too.


Shane Snow is the bestselling author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success and co-founder of Contently. If you enjoyed this post, join his free newsletter.


NOTES:

[1] According to the Dept. of Health, which lists 388 “pizzerias” and 1265 restaurants with the word “pizza” in the name.

[2] (I may address this claim one day in the future.)

[3] This is hyperbole, but barely. Have you ever tried Bleecker St. Pizza? The only reason they’re still in business, I’m convinced, is because they were awarded “Best Pizza In New York” one time by someone who’d never eaten pizza.

[4] (Pseudo)

[4a] I know, guys. But somebody has to do this stuff.

[5] Methodology: I listed out the top 10 pies of each of the following popular lists of Best Pizza in New York (according to Google: most linked to, most web authority) and the tallied the most frequent appearers on the following lists: Village Voice, Zagat, Epicurious, NYC.com, Tasting Table, Eater, Time Out New York, Thrillist, and Yelp most reviewed and highest rated. Large, unranked lists didn’t count (so Gothamist and a couple other popular lists of 25-100 pizza places were out). 

[6] The grammar here is deliberate.

[7] Ironically, Dominos was the only pizza I ate on the actual National Pizza Day.

[8] The tough part about pH of a slice is different elements have different acidities. Sauce will be more acidic than cheese. Some sauces are more acidic than others, but I wanted to get a sense of the overall “tanginess” of a slice, so I put the pH strip in a representative spot based on the % of cheese coverage. I.e. I measured the pH of the center of the slice.

[9] Though I admit those two were early on the day when I was more inclined to enjoy what I shoved into my mouth.[9a]

[9a] Speaking of which, after 10 slices in one day, I didn’t gain any weight, surprisingly. I worked out before the day began (my trainer said not to do abs or I’d digest more poorly) and did jumping jacks in between various stops to keep my blood moving. By the time we sat down at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint at 8:15pm, I smelled like pizza and had what felt like pizza grease oozing from my pores. (That part was certainly psychological.)