Pizzerias all over New York call themselves “Original,” and while John’s of Bleecker Street (and three offshoots on E. 64th, W. 65th, and W. 44th) makes no such claim of primacy, it is a Greenwich Village original: a source of true New York-style pizza in a setting that could be nowhere else. It is such a landmark that one time when we ate there a few years back, on a Sunday afternoon, a tour group of about a dozen Europeans came in off the sidewalk, did a “walk around” the dining room, and walked out. They were sightseeing … and pizza-eaters of lower Manhattan were the attraction.
John’s looks extremely well lived-in and well eaten-in, its walls and the wooden backs of its rickety booths covered with a dense thicket of graffiti that represents the countless enthusiastic visitors who have dined here since 1934, when John’s moved to Bleeker from its original location (opened in the ‘20s) on Sullivan Street. At the back of the front dining room, where two Italianate murals decorate the walls above the scarred wood, photographs of famous fans of John’s are displayed. They include former Mayor Giuliani and former Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra.
There are a few items on the menu other than pizza. You can get a big house salad for two, a meatball or sausage sandwich, or the half-moon dough pocket known as a calzone stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Pizzas come large (eight slices) or small (six slices). There are no surprises on the ingredient list, except that the sausage is especially delicious, the mushrooms are fresh, and the mozzarella has a creamy goodness that makes magic with the brightly herbed red sauce.
What makes John’s pizza taste important is its crust. Cooked in a coal-fired wood oven, it has a dough that turns almost brittle at its outer edges in places where it blisters and blackens from the heat; and yet just fractions of an inch inside that circumference, it has a wondrous chew. The best part of it is underside. Flip over a slice – you can do this, for the toppings cling well and each slice has enough structural integrity to stay together as it’s handled – and gaze upon the bottom. It is charred from its stay on the floor of the old oven. Nearly black and on the verge of ashy, the crunchy bottom surface of this pizza is an addictive eating sensation unlike any other. For serious bread-and-pizza lovers, this crust verges on a spiritual experience.