A Brooklyn pizza tour turned out to be the perfect introduction to the New York City borough…
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Our guide for our Brooklyn pizza tour laid it on the line at the onset: “despite what you may have heard about Brooklyn, it’s a lot more saner than Manhattan,” she said.
She was Paula, Brooklyn born and bred, knowledgeable about everything Brooklyn, opinionated about anything Brooklyn, or anything New York City for that matter, and our guide for A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour.
I joined her and a small group in Manhattan’s Union Square a few months ago for this quirky and humorous tour of Brooklyn, stopping en route at two of the borough’s most famous pizzerias.
Don’t Doll It Up Too Much
Brooklynites take their pizza seriously.
“I’m half Jewish and half Italian-Catholic – we had knish and cannoli at the same table,” Paula told us as our bus carried us off towards Brooklyn. “My Jewish grandmother would yell at me in Yiddish when I cooked ‘not to doll it up too much.’ The pie should taste good on its own without things like pineapple on top. It’s a sacrilege putting food on top of a pie.”
At this point, as we approached the Manhattan Bridge that would lead us across the East River to the Promised Land, Paula began pointing out the minutia of her city.
“Here you can see the beautiful stone entrance to the Manhattan Bridge that was designed by the same team that did the New York Public Library in Manhattan. Have you seen it? It’s the one with the two big fancy lions out front,” she told her audience of out-of-towners, many from the U.S. Midwest. She continued to explain how the entrance design was based partly on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the columns in St. Peter’s Square.
Welcome to Brooklyn and Brooklyn’s Pizzerias
Coming off the bridge we entered Brooklyn passing beneath a snarky sign proclaiming “Welcome to Brooklyn where New York City begins.”
“So welcome to the real New York City you guys!” Paula called out, as she played a little mood music to get us ready to dig deep into all things Brooklyn.
She also played some clips from movies and TV that showed the bridge, something that would continue throughout our tour. She would have the bus stop at the exact spot where a scene from a movie was shot and play a clip that we’d view on-screen and in-person without ever moving from our seats. It was one of the most fascinating parts of the tour.
As we entered Dumbo (an local acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) Paula told us to peek down the streets pointing out such things as a new cooperative arts center on one corner or Betsy Lee Clothing on another, opining about the latter that “you know it has to be good since there are only about 10 dresses in there.”
We got out of the bus at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a waterfront park that stretches from Dumbo southward more than a mile along the waterfront past the Brooklyn Bridge. We took a short walk through the park while Paula was handed numerous cameras to take photos of its owner with the bridge as the backdrop.
She was soon moving us up Water Street to visit Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop where we all went inside for a coffee, tea or chocolate. It was a nice stop that everyone seemed to enjoy before we boarded the bus to head off for lunch.
Grimaldi’s Pizza, a coal-fired pizzeria, is a hive of activity when we arrive. You walk in the door and immediately come to the kitchen and oven on your right, basically out in the middle of the room. The tiny downstairs of the restaurant is crammed with people and a sign prominently displayed announces “No slices, Cash only.” As expected, it is noisy and colorful and filled with hungry people, all busily shoveling down slices of pizza. It seemed like a perfect stop on any Brooklyn pizza tour.
It is quite a tourist attraction, and a delicious one. Everybody in our little group liked their pie, which Paula later explained was lighter, tastier and crispier because of the coal-fired oven, still in use since it was grandfathered in under subsequent regulations.
Back on the bus Paula continued her banter. “Do you know how pizza margarita got its name?” she asked, pausing just a second. “The other day I had a woman who told me it was because they put salt around the rim! She was so proud of herself!“
Deeper Into Brooklyn on Our Pizza Tour
Back on the Brooklyn pizza tour bus, we continued southward with Paula pointing out different neighborhoods and sharing her homegrown knowledge of the borough.
“The best way to remember the three bridges to Brooklyn is in the order they come, the way my mother taught me when I was little,” she said. “The Brooklyn Bridge is first, then the Manhattan and then the Willie, which spells out BMW.”
For the tourists in Manhattan hotels she suggest taking the “Willie,” better known as the Williamsburg Bridge, from Manhattan to Peter Luger’s, one of the most famous steak houses in the world. “It’s cash only, you have to make reservations and they have a little bit of a dress code, but it’s really worth it if you have the chance.”
And the Brooklyn Bridge? “You guys should walk across it because it’s the quintessential New York experience – and it’s also one of our few free experiences.”
Down Into Bay Ridge
For a few hours Paula had been talking of her love of the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn where she grew up and we were now on its cusp. Multimillion-dollar homes line the waterfront of the area, “without even so much as a driveway separating them.”
She took us down several blocks showing the wealth and glitz of the area. As we slowly moved along one street she pointed out a garage with painted trim. “Who knows what famous film that was in?” she asked. Someone shouted “Goodfellas!” as she pulled up the clip.
“Saturday Night Fever” also left its imprint on Brooklyn and we are soon stopping by a little park bench where John Travolta gazed out at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the movie. For the next half-hour we continue to stop at several other spots used as locations in it and another film, viewing the locations and watching the clips from our front-row seats.
More Pizza in Brooklyn
Not long afterwards we’re off to another stop on our Brooklyn pizza tour,, L&B Spumoni Gardens, a pizzeria in Bensonhurst.
“This is the best Sicilian pizza in all of New York City,” pronounces Paula. “But it’s not just me saying that, it’s also the Food Channel, the Travel Channel and Zagat. It also comes highly recommended by my family and you can’t get any better than that.”
The place was crowded when we arrived but we were brought right to our tables and orders taken. Unlike Grimaldi’s, you could order a half-pie here but the size of even half was huge, enough to feed eight of us.
Paula suggested the reason they had the best Sicilian pie was because they let the dough rise twice and also put the cheese on before the sauce, preventing the crust from getting soggy.
After about 45 minutes at Spumoni we were back on the bus and heading to Coney Island to walk off our two lunches as we toured the famous boardwalk. By three o’clock, four hours after the start of our tour we were back in Union Square.
A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour is a tour worth taking if you want to learn more about the new and old Brooklyn, bone up on your movie knowledge and get fed along the way.
In addition to its Brooklyn pizza tour, A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours also has tours of Brooklyn neighborhoods and a Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour, its most popular. Prices range between $55-80 per person.
If you go:
A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours
Tel: (212) 913-9917 or (888) 224-7031