"A Slice of Brooklyn"
By Dan Schlossberg
The signs of spring are everywhere: blooming flowers, talkative birds,
and short showers accompanied by the unmistakable smell of fresh
rain on budding lawns. Kids play ball in the park, lovers stroll in silent
harmony, and enticing aromas from pizzerias with open doors
permeates the air.
Pizza is near-perfect in many parts of New Jersey but especially tasty
when combined with a healthy slice of local color.
Executives of The Travel Channel reached that decision earlier this
year when they agreed to create a TV show called “A Slice of
Brooklyn,” named after an ongoing tour with the same name.
Like the tour, the show will be hosted by Tony Muia, a former health-
care professional who parlayed his love for both pizza and his
hometown into a thriving enterprise that presents slices of Brooklyn
history along with slices of Brooklyn pizza.
Brooklyn means many things to many people: a stroll down the Coney
Island boardwalk, a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, a visit to a
revitalized section of town called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan
One of The City’s five boroughs, Brooklyn would be America’s fourth-
largest city if it hadn’t been incorporated by New York in 1898. It has
71 square miles, 2.5 million people, and more miles of elevated train
track than Manhattan. A crossroads of culture and cuisine, Brooklyn is
also capable of consuming a surprising percentage of the three billion
pizzas eaten by Americans annually.
Nobody knows that better than Tony Muia: his “Slice of Brooklyn” tour
takes five hours, covers 50 miles, and gives participants a chance to
jump the 90-minute lines at Grimaldi’s, a historic pizzeria featuring coal-
fired pies perfected in brick-lined ovens.
At Grimaldi’s, the first stop, ovens heated to 1200 degrees burn 18
tons of coal per year and push out pizzas every two-and-a-half
minutes. Ownership is serious about its product: a combination of
anthracite, a clean-burning coal imported from Pennsylvania, and
mineral-laden New York water, certified by a chemist, are essential
ingredients. So are home-made mozzarella, hand-tossed dough, and
tomato sauce produced from a closely-guarded secret recipe.
The same formula is used at all Grimaldi’s locations: including one in
Hoboken. Even the famed New York City water is included.
The original Brooklyn location is a local landmark, just steps from the
East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Because it
was the first Grimaldi’s, the Brooklyn location is a legend to both
residents and visitors. The only way to get around the lines is to join
Muia’s tour, which has time-reserved tables. It’s tight quarters – for
sitting, eating, or even venturing to the unisex restroom – but the taste
of the pizza is well worth the squeeze.
But don’t try to take pictures of the coal-fired oven – Grimaldi’s staff is
quick to quash would-be shutterbugs before they can snap a photo of
the open kitchen in action.
Could the century-old Grimaldi’s be worried about industrial spies? It
has certainly hit upon a successful formula, serving a variety of Italian
fare on wooden tables topped with traditional red-and-white checkered
Muia group’s gets Margherita pizza, known for matching the red, white,
and green colors of the Italian flag. It gained fame after Queen
Margherita of Savoy applauded the dish when it was served to her
during a visit to Naples in 1899 – 10 years after cheese was added to
a round tomato-based dish called the Neopolitan pie. That was the
first true version of today’s pizza.
Spurred by sparkling taste-buds, word spread quickly. Lombardi’s, the
first American pizzeria, opened on Manhattan’s Spring Street in 1905
and others – including Grimaldi’s – soon followed.
L & B Spumoni Gardens, the second food stop on Muia’s tour, was a
relative latecomer. It started in 1938 after Italian immigrant Ludovico
Barbati made a small fortune selling hand-made spumoni and ices from
a horse-drawn wagon in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. He
purchased a building on 86th Street, later set up outdoor tables, and
eventually added two more buildings. One of those, a pizzeria that
opened in the ‘50s, began churning out thick Sicilian pies.
Muia’s customers get two slices each, as they do at Grimaldi’s, and
often get samples of the restaurant’s award-winning fried calamari
appetizer too. If time permits, many purchase the spumoni that gave
the restaurant its start.
Western culture is king on the “Slice of Brooklyn” tour. Muia not only
shows his bus passengers movies filmed on-location in Brooklyn but
times them to coincide with the exact moments the bus is on the actual
site. They see the cobblestone streets of DUMBO (Down Under the
Manhattan Bridge Overpass), where the blind Al Pacino drove a
convertible in Scent of a Woman. They can imagine the harried Gene
Hackman chasing a crook under the elevated tracks in The French
Connection. And they can almost feel John Travolta’s strut down 86th
Street during the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever.
In Coney Island alone, the bus passes Keyspan Park, a minor-league
ballpark with a statue honoring Brooklyn Dodgers stars Jackie
Robinson and Pee Wee Reese; the towering Cyclone, a 1927 vintage
roller-coaster that thrills kids but scares adults; and the original Nathan’
s, opened in 1916 but still going strong. It is the home of a televised
hot-dog eating contest every July 4.
Often overshadowed by Manhattan, Brooklyn has much to brag about.
Its roster of famous natives ranges from Larry King to Sandy Koufax
but also includes disc jockey “Cousin” Bruce Morrow, singer Barbra
Streisand, and actor Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back, Kotter.
Bugsy Siegel roamed the streets while earning $200 a week as a
Lucky Luciano hit man, Tiger Woods learned to play golf while his dad
was stationed at Fort Hamilton, and Kenny Vance composed
Searching for an Echo after singing street-corner harmony outside
Erasmus High School.
Donald Trump’s dad Fred was the largest real estate developer in
Brooklyn before Donald seized the same title on the Manhattan side of
the East River.
Even Elvis had a Brooklyn connection: his troop ship sailed to
Germany from a local pier in 1958.
Tony Muia hails from Bensonhurst, the section of town where Vincent
Gardenia of Moonstruck once enjoyed the honorary “Mayor of
Not far from the 1920 train station at Coney Island once deposited a
million visitors per weekend is a pigeon supply store. Yes, some
Brooklyn residents still rely on trained carrier pigeons.
Pigeons might have helped during the Battle of Brooklyn, which raged
between Fort Hamilton and the tower of the Brooklyn Bridge during the
Revolutionary War. Vintage cannons and cannonballs still remain in
the park at the intersection of 191st Street and 4th Avenue.
More than 40 million cars per year enter Brooklyn over the Verrazano
Narrows Bridge, a 1964 engineering marvel that contains as much
steel as the Empire State Building. Once the longest suspension
bridge in the Western Hemisphere, the bridge stands as the gateway
to the Atlantic Ocean and is a great vantage point above a bay
crowded with tankers and other ocean-going vessels.
Rusting streetcars remain behind the Fairway Market at Red Hook,
directly across from the Statue of Liberty and not far from Brooklyn’s
busy cruise ship terminal. Working trains – subway cars that surface
on 152 miles of elevated tracks – give the borough even more
Nowhere is that personality more obvious than on the pizza tour.
In addition to the pizza stops, the walk on the Coney Island boardwalk,
and the chance to talk close-up photos of the Manhattan skyline
between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the tour peruses Bay
Ridge, the largest ethnic Irish enclave in New York, and meanders
along Shore Road, where home values stretch far into seven figures.
Just as the homes of Brooklyn vary widely, so does the pizza. There
are pies of every size, shape, and color and plenty of places to pursue
the perfect slice.
As “A Slice of Brooklyn” shows, pizza has come a long way since the
first pizzeria opened in Naples in 1830.
On Tony Muia’s tour, there’s never a dull moment and only a few quiet
ones – when people are eating.
**Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg is travel editor of Sirius XM
Radio’s Maggie Linton Show, host of the new Travel Itch Radio
podcast, and author of 35 baseball books, including this year’s
Designated Hebrew: the Ron Blomberg Story.