Patsy’s lays buried in the middle of Spanish Harlem, a place we sane folk only venture through to get somewhere else--not because we're particularly scared--but because there is not much there. This is not a hanging-out neighborhood. Its name is not sexy. Well, not yet.
Patsy's was founded by Pasquale Lancieri, student of Mr. Lombardi, in 1933 when this stretch east of Harlem was a still an Italian neighborhood. And you can feel the presence from a block away. From that distance the restaurant storefront has the quiet charm of Lombardi's in Little Italy with it's green columns and old-style sign. But up close it’s easy to see who is the neglected child. Paint chips are missing, the sidewalks are cracked. Though there is a sit down restaurant, most people go to the little carry out entrance where the slices sell for $1.50 and the only drinks available come from the glaring vending machine that sticks right out into the middle of the room. There are a couple of stools by the always open window. They are usually both open. Patsy's customers are a transient crowd.
Locals come and go. SUV's crowd the street along the joint double parked and still running as they go inside. Things move quick. But each pizza is made fresh. This differs greatly from most slice joints where the day’s pies are already 90% cooked, sitting under a heat lamp or at dried-out room temperature under jeweler’s glass. An array of ingredient combinations are available. You decide on your slice, the slightly disgruntled man slides it into the oven to finish cooking, and you end up with a very serviceable slice that, if you’re intoxicated or you can imagine a little bit, tastes like it was just cooked.
But at Patsy's, they sell only plain-cheese at the storefront, where you can get the slices or a whole pie, always made fresh. They cook your slice when you’re ready to eat it, one pizza at a time. There is no planning ahead, no baking ahead--they don’t estimate how many people are going to show up. You walk in, order your slice for $1.50, one guy throws the dough and puts the sauce on, and the other mans the brick oven. It pretty much works perfectly, and you pretty much never wait more than 3 or 4 minutes.
The entire waiting line at Lombardi's could be well fed by the fifteen minute mark had they all crowded here. But there is a reason why Lombardi's is cramming the bus loads into it's low lit halls.
When you get down to it, this is your classic New York slice. It feels distinctly American and less like an authentic, rustic Italian experience you’d get at Lombardi’s. It has a uniform, homogeneous layer of cheese, not chunks of fresh mozzarella; to eat it you fold it in half. And the sauce is some of the best we’ve ever tasted: sweet, tangy, with herbs in the background.
Patsy's slice goes against so many of the absolute truths that you would think go into making the best authentic slice: The cheese is pre-grated, aged, regular mozzarella; there is no basil; the crust is so paper thin that it folds the moment you try to pick it up off the paper plate, and there’s no blackened edges. It doesn't sound that authentic. Certainly, the people behind the counter at this slice joint are not the sons of Italian forefathers who passed down the family secret.
There is charm to all of this, of course. And half the fun is trekking up to 116th street, through the projects, through the empty streets, into a predominately Hispanic part of town just for a couple of slices. But there is a reason we keep going back.
Even after experiencing Lombardi's, Patsy's can be a startlingly find. There is something about Patsy's that transcends Lombardi's, something about the combination of the ingredients that creates a far more enticing slice.
We love Patsy’s so much we made the trek up there almost every time we felt like pizza for the first six months we lived in the city. It was the beacon of New York slices, the way it should be. We became haughty about pizza and whispered condemnations about others, because we knew who was superior. Sure this is fine, but you'll have to have Patsy's. This was our pizza place. And a special corner of our hearts will always admire the the cheese-only storefront Patsy’s. But the city was calling us to the corners of its map, and we knew we had to leave the comfy confines of our trusted borough and move on in search of the perfect slice.
1st Ave between 116th and 117th