Rest In Peace: The greatest Ray's there ever was
Ray's Pizza on Prince Street opened it doors in 1959. Although the word "original" does not appear in its name, there is a fairly broad consensus (if not a unanimous one) that it is in fact the first of the numerous Ray-named pizzerias in New York City.
"A Ray's on every corner" is the oft-repeated phrase that reflected the deluge of pizzerias using some permeation of the name Ray—Original Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, World Famous Ray's, Ray Bari, etc.—that sprang up in wake of the success of the Prince street location (henceforth referred to as Ray's for the purpose of this review). The whole business devolved into self-parody as the differing Ray's pizzas (some were chains, others single-store entities) tried to top each other with lawsuits and publicity stunts and by adding more cheese and thicker crusts to their recipes. In my view the last point is the most compelling argument in favor of the Prince Street location's claim. The pizza it sells is primal in its architecture. Whereas the others offer dense crusts with overly sweet sauces and mountains of cheese, the pizza Ray's serves is subtle and sleek by comparison.
Ray's was a barber shop before it was a pizzeria. The tile floor (bottom right) was there when the oven doors swung open in 1959.
Ray's remains a family-owned business. The recipes and the essential way of doing things has been handed down from pie man to pie man and generation to generation. It is an enduring institution in a neighborhood that has changed significantly, especially in the last decade.
The dough, like the sauce, is made in-house. You probably won't see the pie man throwing the dough in the air, a spectacle better suited to creating a theatrical mood than actually making better pizza. The dough releases a fresh, yeasty fragrance as it is worked from a ball into a large flat disk.
The sauce is mildly sweet but not at the expense of acidity—it adds a pleasing tang to the pie. The cheese is the classic low-moisture mozzarella that defines the typical New York slice. The cheese is added in sparing amounts.
Ray's gas oven runs at around 550°F; it is not the blast furnace of a coal- or wood-fired oven, and it won't blister and mottle the crust, but it is well suited for the density of the pie. The crust is crisp, but it has some softness as well. It is a textural contrast that escapes many pizzas in New York, although it can get lost at Ray's on occasion if the slices have been sitting around too long. But fresh from the oven it is a perfectly balanced slice.
The cheese is well suited to the pie, not only by virtue of the creaminess that it imparts but also because it melts so perfectly. Quite unlike the "fresh" mozzarella found at many pizzerias that shrivels into desiccated slivers, the mozzarella here can get blistered while still remaining moist.
Putting aside the pies sold at the few remaining coal-oven spots like Patsy's in East Harlem and the elevated, fancy cheese combinations made by the likes of Di Fara, I don't think there is an everyday slice more quintessentially New York than the one sold at Ray's Pizza on Prince Street.
Ray's Pizza was located at 27 Prince Street, New York NY 10012.