Before New York fell in love with la vera pizza napoletana, the floppy, wood-fired pies that now dominate the city, there was a short list of pizzerias with coal-burning ovens that burned with an unholy flame and produced pizzas of imcomparable quality. It was an honor roll, a hall of fame. And here it is.
While it undoubtedly makes a fine pizza, Lombardi's wouldn't be listed in the honor roll of classic New York pizzerias but for two indisputable facts. One is their coal oven, which puts out a volcanic heat that neither wood nor gas can match. The other fact is that, ahem, they invented pizza, at least here in America. That claim is undeniable and earns it respect forever.
John's is all about its pizza oven, a coal-burning monster that cooks with an infernal flame unmatched by gas-oven rivals. The pizzas cook fast but the bottom is crusty and the whole thing has a taste and texture all its own. The place is seedy and not a little dirty, but that's all part of its downtown charm.
Grimaldi's is now technically Juliana, but more important than the name is the man himself: yes, Patsy Grimaldi has come out of retirement to make the pizzas that caused his name to ring out among New Yorkers for so many years. Just as importantly, the coal oven that powered all those pies is still in action, and just as blisteringly hot. Leave yourself extra time, though: no matter what the name, the lines are always long.
For my money, this was always the best of the coal-oven pantheon pizzas, a thinner, lighter, more restrained pie than the big thick pies produced by John's, et. al. The Coney Island location makes it special too; as with Midwood's Di Fara, the trip makes you appreciate the experience even more.
Often called "the forgotten coal oven pie" by pizza nerds, this obscure Astoria pizzeria does indeed post one of the city's handful of working coal ovens, a hellish furnace that cooks pies faster and better than any other medium. And at Sac's, as at hardly any other coal oven joint, you can get slices.
Luzzo's (formerly Zito's East) is a unique hybrid pizza: it's cooked and composed in the Napoletana style, with thin crust and fresh mozzarella and wood fire, but in a 120 year old coal oven that provides far more heat than any wood oven could. The result is spectacular, and criminally underrated.
One of the oldest and most venerable of all New York pizzerias, Patsy's has a character all its own, mostly deriving from its remote East Harlem location and its ancient coal-burning oven. The pies are good but the slices are better, thin and crusty, and with the greasy orange cheese / sauce mixture that defines New York pizza.