“Manhattan? Fuhgettaboudit!” Paula has a real life Brooklyn accent and she is visibly itching to get out of Manhattan. She is the niece of Tony Muia, who owns and manages A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours, and both of them are Brooklyn born and bred. The tour picks up its passengers from Union Square Manhattan and if you are a minute late Paula may leave you behind, such is her haste to depart this side of the city.
She talks ten to the dozen. As we drive through Chinatown and head towards the East River her Brooklyn preamble is littered with personal anecdotes and witty catchphrases. My ears prick up as I hear certain words and phrases; “pizza” and “mafia wives” have me hooked, her catchphrase “feel free to complain” makes me giggle.
We cross the Manhattan Bridge and get a good look over at the next bridge down, the 129 year-old Brooklyn Bridge. We’d been staying in Brooklyn and the previous morning had taken a stroll across the bridge into the Financial District, as I wrote in my previous post this was the best thing I did in New York – for free! Paula takes us to look at the bridge from another viewpoint though. The coach pulls up amongst the multi-million pound warehouse conversions in DUMBO (the area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, apparently given a stupid name to ward off development, it didn’t work – Jim Carey has just moved in) and we get out to take a look. On the waterfront is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, it’s actually a relatively small patch of green, but it’s what it looks over that truly impresses. From this vantage point you can see the full expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge, get a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline and a close look at the concrete blocks and steel wires that make up one of the world’s oldest and most famous suspension bridges.
But we are on the Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour and I was chomping at the bit to get my first taste of Brooklyn pie. Luckily just around the corner was our first pizza stop – and it was a good one. Grimaldis world famous coal-oven pizza pie can be traced back to the first pizzeria in New York (Lombardis in Little Italy). Zagat has awarded them Best Pizza awards year after year and after I had one bite of the house margherita it wasn’t hard to see why. A doughy base topped with tangy tomato and chewy mozzarella, with a hint of basil, drizzle of olive oil and the faint gritty taste of coal on the crust (said to be good for digestion!) Grimaldis have a policy of no reservations, no slices and no delivery – there is often a queue weaving all around the block and it’s not unusual for customers to wait 2 hours for a taste. Our group, however, walked straight in to our waiting tables and were even shown the way to some loos without a queue, curiously surrounded by the pictures of famous patrons from J-LO to Gordon Ramsey.
The restaurant didn’t look like we expected though. The premises were fairly roomy and looked pretty fresh considering the pizza’s 100-year history, in short, nothing like we had seen in pictures on the internet. On the way to our next stop Paula shed some light on why this is so. Grimaldis has moved. The owner of the Grimaldi Restaurant and name for the past 15 years is a man named Frank Ciollo. After some issues with his landlord at the original Brooklyn premises Frank was forced to move the restaurant, but luckily he owned some property in the area, next door in fact. So Grimaldis has moved one door down but controversially the restaurant that opened in its place, Juliana’s, is owned by Patsy Grimaldi, the original Mr Grimaldi himself back in his old premises and working the original oven. This article on Nona Brooklyn explains the ‘pizza wars’ a little more clearly but I had one question about the delicious pizza we were eating – how had it been possible to make it in a coal oven? As the article reports “The city rarely approves the construction of new coal ovens because of pollution concerns.” Could it be we ate illegal pizza? All I know was it tasted real gooood.
Our next pizza stop was further south and as we left the DUMBO area Paula did something pretty impressive. Using the video monitors on the coach she would press play on movies that were shot in Brooklyn at the exact moment we passed the same scene outside the coach windows. She matched up alleyways and car chases seen in films such as Once Upon a Time in America and Scent of a Woman to the exact locations we were passing through, and we also had a lesson on the meaning of ‘fuhgettaboudit’ from Johnny Depp/Donnie Brasco himself.
The real life to movie location match that got me really excited though was the one in Bensonhurst. For Bensonhurst is the town where John Travolta strutted his stuff in the opening scenes of Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees weren’t playing in the background as we passed through but the premises Travolta strolls by are still there. Bet they love that claim to fame.
But it was time for more pizza and this time we were going Sicilian style at L&B Spumoni Gardens. As we pulled up there were cars triple parked outside, amongst them several fire trucks and a cop car. This place was popular, perhaps the only place in New York you could get away with illegal parking outside! Spumoni’s make a fluffier pizza pie than Grimaldi’s as they let the dough rise twice. Also they put the cheese on first, then the sauce, which means the cheese doesn’t all come off at once and burn your chin (an experience I had at Lombardis a few days later). But it does make the pizza taste even more tomatoey, it reminded me of a rich pasta sauce but on a pizza base, and I have to admit it wasn’t for me. But the rest of our table disagreed and voted Spumoni’s their favourite, guess we were just lucky to be able to try both.
Then the tour got a little surreal as we drove to a place I think is the strangest in Brooklyn, nay even New York, a place called Coney Island. The New Yorkers I had told I would be popping down to Coney on this tour had given me a prior warning via the questionable looks they each pulled, but again, it was something I had to see for myself.
It was another wonderfully clear afternoon so the views of the ocean from the boardwalk were somewhat serene, but the theme park behind it was anything but. A sign outside the attractions read ‘They don’t build them like this anymore’ and I think that’s because health and safety regulations won’t allow it! The Cyclone rollercoaster is 86 years old, you could hear it clunking before you saw the carriages drop. I suspect this may be the scariest ride in action simply because you fear the mechanisms not surviving more than any twists and turns at Universal Studios, but that wasn’t stopping the fearless kids queuing to get on it.
Somewhat unusual for me here was the sight of so many Orthodox Jews in one theme park. The dark robed women and hatted/plaited men largely outnumbered the plain-clothes tourists, I was more than a little fascinated to be honest.
Despite most of the kids on the tour (and many of their parents) wanting to be left at Coney Island, the coach was waiting to take us back to Manhattan. As we drove back through Brooklyn Paula spoke more about her love of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, it connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and was the longest suspension bridge in the world at its time of completion in 1964. She revealed her uncle Tony has its image tattooed on his arm and I got the feeling this bridge is a matter of personal pride to Brooklynites, more so than the Brooklyn Bridge which they have to share with Manhattan. We passed luxurious homes the likes of which you would never imagine to find in Brooklyn. I also learnt that with current rent rates there is no way ‘2 Broke Girls’ could afford to live in Williamsburg, and certainly not in a place with a yard to keep the horse in!
The last part of the video involved a slideshow of all the famous people who were born and bred in Brooklyn. I was too busy being surprised by each new recognisable face that popped up to write them down but the few I remember included: Anne Hathaway, Arthur Miller, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Barry Manilow (?! I know! Who knew?!), Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand, amongst many, many others.
So I guess I learnt a lot of new things about Brooklyn’s history and culture with the Slice of Brooklyn Tour and literally saw a whole new side of New York. Plus I tried and tested some of Brooklyn’s most acclaimed pizza pies and, even if just for that alone, you have got to make the trip over the bridge.
Huge thanks to Tony and Paula for hosting me on this tasty tour. A place on the pizza tour cost $80 and includes 2 (very big) slices of pizza & a soft drink at each of the two pizzerias. For more information and to book visit their website www.asliceofbrooklyn.com.
To find out what I thought of Brooklyn Flea market check out the latest post on Travelling Shopaholic.