Well, maybe four slices.
That’s how many pieces of pizza are served to patrons of “A Slice of Brooklyn,” a bus tour that blends the borough’s favorite flavor with its heralded history.
Brooklyn native Tony Muia, a one-time respiratory therapist who decided laughter was the best medicine, launched the bus tour in 2006 and watched it expand like a pepperoni pie in a coal-fired oven.
Though he gives “Christmas Lights” and “Cannoli Tours,” too, nothing beats the original.
Both visitors and locals love the four-hour tours, which cover 50 square miles of the historic borough while showing passengers snippets of movies filmed on location in Brooklyn. Timing is everything, since the video from The French Connection airs just as the bus is passing under the El where Gene Hackman had his famous car chase.
When the bus clambers over the cobblestones of DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), passengers can almost feel the excitement of Al Pacino, the blind colonel out for a joyride in Scent of a Woman.
Later in the tour, they can sense the confident strut of John Travolta during the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever, the confinement of crowded apartment life in Brighton Beach Memories, and the joie de vivre of Vincent Gardenia in Moonstruck.
“A Slice of Brooklyn” showcases everything the borough has 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.
Even Elvis had a Brooklyn connection: his troop ship sailed to Germany from a local pier in 1958.
The 50-year-old Muia hails from Bensonhurst, the same section of town where Gardenia once enjoyed the honorary “Mayor of Bensonhurst” sobriquet.
His only other tour guide is cousin Paula Berkenstadt, a 30-year-old creative arts therapist. He says she’s the sassy one, which may be true, but Muia is more of a walking encyclopedia on borough history.
He knows the “F” word was used more than 400 times in Goodfellas, that Coney Island’s boardwalk stretches for two-and-a-half miles, and that Robert Moses was responsible for many of the borough’s bridges and highways — even though he never drove a car.
Both Muia and cousin Paula know things about Brooklyn that can’t be found in a tour book: five mob families had to agree on a “hit” before Murder, Inc. authorized it; a Bay Ridge mansion cost $16 million to build; and the best Grimaldi’s pizza has traces of coal in it.
The chow-down portion of the package begins in Northern Brooklyn, virtually a cobblestone’s throw from the tower base of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Grimaldi’s 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.
A local landmark just steps from the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, Grimaldi’s has moved from its original location to a roomier bank building up the street but remains a legend to both residents and visitors.
It has certainly hit upon a successful formula, serving a variety of Italian fare on wooden tables topped with traditional red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
Muia’s group gets Margherita pizza, with red, white, and green colors that match 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 — ten years after cheese was added to a round tomato-based dish called the Neapolitan 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 in southern Brooklyn takes pride in its product, too. As Cousin Paula says, “Nobody likes a limp Sicilian.”
The second food stop on Muia’s tour, Spumoni Gardens 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.
Pizza is only part of “A Slice of Brooklyn,” where the fast-and-furious history lesson is entertaining as well as educational.
At Coney Island, where sweltering New Yorkers sought refuge before the advent of air conditioning, the tour 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 and still going strong. It is the home of a televised hot-dog eating contest every July 4.
Cyclone rides cost $9, more than three rides on the omnipresent subway, misnamed because most of its tracks in the borough are elevated (152 miles of them).
Not far from the 1920 Coney Island station that 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 via 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.
Nowhere is that personality more obvious than on the pizza tour.
In addition to the two food stops, pizza tour patrons walk on the Coney Island boardwalk, take close-up photos of the Manhattan skyline between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, and peruse Bay Ridge, the largest ethnic Irish enclave in New York, and 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.