Is It Something in the Water?

Countless New Yorkers insist the secret to perfect pizza and beautiful bagels lies in our H20. Others say it’s simply technique. One ex-Brooklynite seeks a definitive answer.

Is It Something in the Water?

It was well after midnight one weekend a couple of springs ago when I reintroduced myself to the Jumbo Slice. There’s a two-or-so-hour window before the bars close in Washington D.C., when decision-making levels dim and food choices are limited. I’d seen the chain’s chessboard-sized pizza boxes littered around my new neighborhood early on weekend mornings, and I’d sampled the gigantic slices during trips into the District in college. It was a good choice then; it seemed like a great choice now. In times like these, it’s hard to go wrong with bread, sauce and melted cheese.

It wasn’t until months later that I made a disastrous misstep: I ordered a Jumbo Slice during daylight hours. You see, this specific delicacy has a very limited shelf life. The D.C. Jumbo pizza slice is the culinary equivalent of a drunken vampire. It can only be enjoyed during very specific evening hours, say from about midnight to four a.m. depending on the circumstances. Its full “flavors” only come out if you first prepare your palate with an appetizer of various cocktails. I made it about three bites into the crust — which tasted like one of those ropes that’s already been climbed by scores of sweaty gym class kids — before tossing the slice. I vowed to never make such an amateur lunch decision again and went off in search of real nourishment.

The worst part about living elsewhere after living in New York is that some things just don’t taste the same. It’s not just that you can’t find a basement Japanese restaurant grilling beef tongue at three a.m. on a Friday morning, or a Mexican bodega cranking out fresh goat tacos in a back room just before the bars let out. It’s that even standard New York City fare like pizza and bagels just doesn’t seem to ever taste as good beyond the boroughs.

A painting of Dominick DeMarco, owner and cofounder of DiFara Pizzeria, hangs on the Midwood pizzeria's wall as DeMarco himself makes a pie.
A painting of Dominick DeMarco, owner and cofounder of DiFara Pizzeria, hangs on the Midwood pizzeria’s wall as DeMarco himself makes a pie.

Take D.C., for example, where I relocated from Brooklyn more than two years ago. Last summer the District was aflutter in the run-up to the release of This Town, Mark Leibovich’s inside look at the Capitol Hill politico set and all of the backstabbing, salaciousness and douchebaggery that largely defines it. In a New York Times review of the book, David M. Shribman opened not with sanctimonious hand-wringing over the influence peddling, power grabbing and Congressional circle jerking described in the book, but instead with a one-two punch that includes a stiff jab at D.C.’s low-end culinary chops:

Of all the irritating things about Washington — the phoniness, the showy cars, the utter inability of a metropolitan area of 6.9 million people to produce a single decent slice of pizza or a passable submarine sandwich with oil and not mayonnaise…

District residents may have a legit quibble with Shribman’s hierarchy of irritations (what, no boat shoes?) although it also appears that Shribman may not have gone looking for a sandwich outside of the small bubble downtown that encapsulates the Capitol and the White House. But few can reasonably gripe with his take on This Town’s pizza situation. Indeed, there are a handful of accomplished artisan piemakers who create the kind you eat with a knife and fork and, yes, those rope-crusted Jumbo slices have their own brand of magnificence in the post-barhop predawn. Finding a good old-fashioned New York-style slice that you can fold in half and take down without a six-beer primer, however, would be along the lines of spotting a unicorn prancing down Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s not to mention bagels. If you want one that worth its salt, you should try getting the fug outta here.

Even for dedicated sandwich makers, recreating Big Apple originals is no easy task. Just ask James Lambert, who spent months trying to get the bread right before opening a D.C. edition of Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine, the Manhattan lunch stop’s first location outside of the city. That meant getting members of the family-run business to drive down bread samples, which Lambert then took to various bakers in the city before landing on the right one.

“People were bringing bread down overnight so we could give it to different bakers in this area to try to find the closest match they could come up with in taste and consistency,” Lambert says. “You can’t really just stick them in a tube and mail them down.”

In addition to tasting and looking like the original — crispy on the outside; dense, warm and soft on the inside — the bread needed to be resilient enough to stand up to the sandwich-making process, which includes refrigerated marinating and hot pressing. “The bread needs to be able to stand up to that marinating and to hold up well when you press it, meaning that it crisps the right way,” according to Lambert.

Balls of dough await their transformation at Kossar's Bialys.
Balls of dough await their transformation at Kossar’s Bialys.

After several shots, he finally landed on Metropolitan Baking Company, a Northeast D.C. outfit whose fresh-baked bread Lambert says is pretty darn close to the original. The only thing that hardcore Cuban foodies might notice is lacking, Lambert says, is the rendered pork fat that’s often baked into traditional Cuban bread. “That just doesn’t exist in D.C.,” Lambert says, explaining that the demand for that specific type of bread probably isn’t strong enough to make it worthwhile for bakers to devote an entire line to it.

Lambert isn’t the only one who’s gone HAM trying to do what is done so well in New York. Ask anyone what makes the city’s pizza and bagels so damn good and one of the first answers you’re likely to hear is “the water.” It’s always something about the water. It has a lot of minerals in it. Or is it no minerals? The water is also exceptionally hard — or soft — depending on who you talk to.

“We hear sometimes that water is the key to certain products, like Colorado water being the secret ingredient for beer from that area,” says Peter Reinhart, an instructor at Johnson & Wales University’s culinary arts program and the author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. “With New York City water, it’s said to be part of the reason why pizza dough and bagels are so good there.”

Ricky Eisen, a baker and the founder of New York-based catering company Between the Bread, says she believes the hype when it comes to making fresh bagels. “The quality of the water in New York is just conducive to making bagels,” Eisen says. “It’s soft, it’s natural and it doesn’t have any aftertaste.”

The idea that there’s some magical essence in New York water that gives city bread products a unique (and better) taste has fueled a slew of ex-New Yorkers to dream up innovative approaches to recreating Big Apple water. Or at least to try convincing customers that their products are the same as the real thing.

Brooklyn Water Bagels is a Florida chain that claims to be able to make “real New York” bread rings with a proprietary system that replicates the water composition used to make bagels back home. According to the company’s website, this “Brooklynization” process “is accomplished by filtering local water down to its purest, most natural state, and then adding unique elements found only in our water.”

Whatever it is that makes them so great, New York bagels, and bialys, shown here at Kossar's on the Lower East Side, are a beloved and much coveted culinary commodity.
Whatever it is that makes them so great, New York bagels, and bialys, shown here at Kossar’s on the Lower East Side, are a beloved and much coveted culinary commodity.

Eisen hasn’t tasted the Brooklyn Water Bagels’ offerings but says she’s skeptical. “Whenever I’ve seen these things called “New York bagels” elsewhere, they never taste like real New York bagels,” she says.

Florida snowbirds aren’t the only ones trying their hand at the New York City water game. The folks behind Grimaldi’s — a pizza behemoth that opened in Brooklyn more than a century ago and has since expanded as far as Las Vegas, Houston and Idaho — also claim they can make their signature coal-fired pies just like they do under the Manhattan Bridge by replicating the water at various locations across the country. “It has been said that the secret to true New York-style pizza is the water,” the company wrote in a January press release announcing the opening of a new location outside of Los Angeles. “Grimaldi’s believes that too, going to great lengths to keep the integrity of the water used in the Brooklyn pizzeria by hiring a chemist to analyze and recreate the mineral content and exact composition of the water to ensure the dough tastes the same in California.”

This conventional thinking that water is the secret ingredient in New York bread has yet to be scientifically proved. Good, fresh H2O may very well play a role in New York City’s rise to the top of the pizza and bagel heap, but at least one expert says that what comes out of the tap is just the start.

What we do know is that New York City’s water is top notch. The largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the world, New York’s system is one of only five nationwide that sends water directly from the source to users’ taps without requiring it to first be run through physical barriers to remove impurities.

These days, all of the city’s water comes from the 2,000-square mile Catskill/Delaware watershed, located about 125 miles northwest of the Bronx. The system includes six reservoirs fed by creeks, streams and the Delaware and Mohawk Rivers. The water travels through tunnels and aqueducts — and is disinfected with chlorine and ultraviolet light along the way — before reaching faucets, shower heads and fire hydrants throughout the boroughs as well as in another seventy communities north of the city.

The watershed’s location also helps. It’s surrounded by dense forestland that helps block contaminants from getting into rivers, creeks and streams. “This forestland is like mother nature’s filter for the water,” Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Adam Bosch says. “Not only do the forests protect against erosion and other things that can make the water dirty, they also suck up a lot of the nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that can affect water quality and can affect the taste and smell by allowing algal blooms.”

Those two nutrients in particular harm water quality by causing algae to grow at a rate so excessive that it cuts off oxygen flow and spawns bacteria and other toxins. Heavy concentrations of algae in Lake Erie recently reached crisis levels in Toledo, Ohio, leaving thousands of residents without drinkable tap water for two days. Gigantic algal blooms are also responsible for an ominous-sounding “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that marine scientists say is the size of Connecticut and home to little or no sea life.

The lush forestland helps guard against similar contamination in New York, according to Bosch. “You will not see a speck of algae out on the reservoirs in the Catskills,” he says.

Some of the city’s most famous chefs say there’s a potential mouse in the kitchen. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) — a method of natural gas drilling accomplished by injecting sand, water and chemicals like methanol, benzene and formaldehyde deep below the ground to unlock the gas — could be lifted at any time, unless state lawmakers place an actual fracking ban on the books. Although some argue that it can be done safely, celebrity cooks like Mario Batali and Bill Telepan say fracking threatens the city’s restaurant industry by potentially exposing well and open water supplies to toxic chemicals. It’s an argument often punctuated with footage of the residents of rural towns lighting water from their kitchen sinks on fire.

“Whether we are cooking at home for our families or dining at restaurants, we all have a deep interest in the quality of what is on the table and in the health of the people producing and enjoying it,” the chefs wrote in a May 2013 Daily News op-ed urging Cuomo to ban fracking throughout the state. “We must protect the food sources within our state, and thus protect our own health.”

The Catskill/Delaware watershed is likely safe, the DEP’s Bosch says, given that the city already owns much of the land surrounding the water sources and state officials have pledged to ban fracking in other nearby areas. In addition, New York’s highest court recently upheld local fracking bans in place in more than 150 towns across the state.

But just because New York water is unfiltered and naturally protected from contaminants doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the defining factor between a slice in Astoria, Queens, and one in Astoria, Oregon.

“I agree that water is a factor, but I’m not a subscriber to the idea that the New York City water is the reason why New York bagels and New York pizza is better, partly because I don’t subscribe to the assumption that New York bagel or pizza are necessarily better,” Reinhart, the culinary instructor, says. “There’s such a high concentration of people in New York doing it really well that the city starts to create its own mythos.”

Perhaps, but you can’t lather up mythos with cream cheese and lox. Water is a particularly important part of the bagel making process, according to Eisen, because the dough is completely submerged in H2O when boiled. “Water encapsulates the dough, giving it a little bit of a crust on the outside but keeping the inside nice and soft,” she says.

Chris Conyers, one of the bakers at Kossar's Bialys, puts dough into the "baller" before making it into bialys.
Chris Conyers, one of the bakers at Kossar’s Bialys, puts dough into the “baller” before making it into bialys.

But Reinhart maintains that water alone can’t account for New York’s dominance in the realm of bread products. “Water is always a big part of it,” he allows, adding that water accounts for roughly sixty-five percent of pizza dough’s weight. “Its biggest attribute is that it doesn’t screw anything up. Water makes thing taste the way they should taste, but it doesn’t make them taste any better than they possibly could taste.”

Instead, he argues that it is the art of dough and breadmaking — using techniques that have been honed throughout the city over centuries — that may distinguish certain products from other versions elsewhere in the world. Good ingredients are important, but proper fermentation — the chemical leavening process in which the yeast forces a slab of dough to rise by absorbing sugars and converting them into carbon dioxide — is the key.

“The act of breadmaking is all about evoking the full potential of flavor trapped in the grain, Reinhart says. “The longer and slower the fermentation process, the more biochemical activity that takes place, and — usually — the better the flavor.” Fast fermentation generally only brings out part of the bread’s flavor, according to Reinhart, but over-fermentation can also cause problems.

“I think that what makes these things so good in New York is a long tradition of making them there,” Reinhart continues. “That comes with a lot of skill and dedication to the craft itself.”

Folks have been churning out pizzas in New York City since the turn of the twentieth century, right around the time that bureaucrats in Albany agreed to let the city start tapping the Catskills for fresh water, and many of today’s heavyweight piemakers can trace their lineage back to those early days. Patsy Grimaldi learned the trade slinging pies in his uncle’s Harlem pizzeria before opening (and later selling) his iconic wood-fired oven joint. The eighty-three-year-old now oversees operations at Juliana’s, a new spot at the old Grimaldi’s location.

Out in Midwood, Dom DeMarco has been firing up his lauded tomato and basil pizzas at Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J for forty-five years. Old man DeMarco reportedly uses techniques that he picked up from a family of bakers and pizzamakers as a boy in Italy. And then there’s Joe & Pat’s, the Staten Island mainstay where the Pappadardo brothers started serving Naples-style slices back in 1960.

Dominick DeMarco serving up one of his tasty pies at his famed Midwood pizzeria, Di Fara.
Dominick DeMarco serving up one of his tasty pies at his famed Midwood pizzeria, Di Fara.

Similarly, many of the city’s best-known bagelmakers have been boiling and baking rolls with holes in NYC for decades. Many use techniques that have been in place since the bread rings first came on the scene in the early 1900s. At Kossar’s Bialys, for example, they’ve been hand-crafting both bagels and their hole-less little cousins from the same Lower East Side shop since 1934. In Park Slope, the owners of the esteemed Bagel Hole have been rolling bagels since 1985, using a method taught to them by a German immigrant who learned the craft forty years earlier.

Of course, for every old school, several-generations-in-the-running operation, there are a number of relative newcomers — Artichoke Basille’s, Roberta’s, Black Seed, etc. — doing their thing and doing it well. And if it were simply a matter of technique, you’d be able to find legitimate replications of NYC pizza and bagel in strip malls from D.C. to San Diego.

“What I’ve observed around the country is that people that understand proper fermentation and access to high-quality flour can typically make pizza and bagels every bit as good in places outside New York,” Reinhart says.

Well then.

Still, history and tradition can go a long way. Having an old wood-fired oven, which pizzamakers say lets them cook pies at higher temperatures and evenly distributes the warmth, also doesn’t hurt. Ovens develop a personality over time, according to Eisen, as they’re coated from remnants of pies gone by. That helps give the food cooked in them a distinctly unique taste.

Meanwhile, Reinhart says that if there’s an X-factor in all of this — something that elevates a bagel or pizza slice just one notch ahead of others — it comes from a sort of mystical bond between the artisan, the ingredients and the end result.

“We also can’t underestimate the connection between the maker of the product and the product itself, Reinhart says. “It’s almost like a secret ingredient. The passion, the dedication, the intent of the baker or chef is partly training, skills and science and partly a more psychological aspect of how connected the person is to the product.”

If chefs want to get closer to the water, maybe they should make like famous/fictitious New Yorker Cosmo Kramer: start mixing dough in the shower.