Brooklyn wins over Zalina Mohd Som with its famous pizzas and movie locations
“HOW you doin’?” Paula’s enthusiastic voice comes out crisp and clear from an overhead speaker above my seat as soon as she’s done with head-counting.
Still warming up the seats in the comfortable tour bus, everyone shyly whispers an answer. It’s a mix of okay, good, fine, well and others that I can’t actually catch.
Not satisfied with the lukewarm answers, again, she puts the microphone close to her lips and asks louder than before, “How you doin’?”
Startled, we look up at her and give simultaneous answers. Still a mixed one.
“No, no, no!” she exclaims, “you should reply how you doin’. That’s how we do it here.” So, she asks the question again. This time, more relaxed and with a bit of swag.
I suddenly see Joey Tribbiani played by Mat LeBlanc, one of the friends in Friends comedy series, in my head.
And we all answer simultaneously, “How you doin’!” Much to everyone’s pleasure.
In the bus, there are about 20 passengers. All of them are in groups, mostly families. A group of four comes from Australia, a couple from Germany and the rest are local tourists from Long Island (yes, the densely populated island in New York State), California, San Francisco and Dallas. And there’s me.
From the company, A Slice Of Brooklyn Bus Tours, there are Paula, a Brooklynite of an Italian and Jewish descendant, and the coach driver.
Paula’s relaxed and casual approach breaks the ice in no time. By the time our luxurious coach cruises up Manhattan Bridge to cross the Hudson River, I feel like I am on a family holiday.
It’s funny how things turn out. We were strangers when we waited for the coach to arrive at the meeting point in Union Square, Manhattan. But now, we already have our inside jokes just like other families!
In fact, A Slice Of Brooklyn is a family-owned and run company that has been in the business for over 10 years. Like Paula and her cousin Tony, other guides are also from Brooklyn.
IT’S A PIE, NOT PIZZA
Here in Brooklyn, pizza takes on a different name. “A piece is called a slice and an entire pizza is a pie,” says Paula.
“New York City can be anything for anybody. But one thing that everyone – regardless which borough you’re from– can agree upon is its pizza. And it’s been said if one set foot in Brooklyn but fails to eat the Brooklyn pizza, then it’s just incomplete,” says Paula in one breath.
There are hundreds of pizza joints in Brooklyn.. .“there’s always at least one in a neighbourhood”. But for the tour, the company has selected two iconic pizza joints – Grimaldi’s at Font Street in DUMBO (an acronym for a neighbourhood located “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) and L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst.
While both stand on their own as local favourite, each has its specialty. Grimaldi’s is known for its Neapolitan-style pizza and L&B Sicilian-style pizza.
The laid-back Grimaldi’s welcomes patrons with an open-concept kitchen that has a long counter where all the pizza dough is prepared and topped before it is pushed into a coal-brick oven at the back of the counter.
While waiting for our thin crust margherita pizza, I walk over to the counter and watch how our pizza is prepared. Looks easy – flatten the dough to the right width and thickness, spread the tomato sauce, top it with mozzarella squares and fresh basil and finally sprinkle with olive oil.
I share a pizza with a Korean-American family from San Francisco. A slice is placed on my plate and a bottle of root beer is next to it.
I lift the slice up, fold it half lengthwise and take a full bite - the way I usually have pizza back home.
“Malaysia, you’re eating your slice the Brooklyn way. Yes, that’s right. That’s how we do it here. No fork and spoon,” announces Paula. Now, everyone is looking at me!
I don’t know whether it’s Grimaldi’s or the ambience but that is the best margherita pizza I’ve ever had, even better that the one I had at the entrance of Pompeii Archaeological Sites in Naples, Italy. It’s crispy and moist, cheesy and sweet and sour from the tomato sauce and fresh basil. And the mozzarella… hmmm, it’s heaven!
If only the slice is smaller, I would go for a second helping. I am not a pizza fan and usually stop after my first slice but this time, I’m tempted to go for a second.
But Paula’s brief reminds me to save some space for L&B’s pizza. Thankfully, L&B is not our immediate destination. The bus takes a longer route through neighbourhoods and commercial areas before reaching the family restaurant. The restaurant is buzzing with business, almost all its tables are taken. Ours is right at the end of the restaurant. On our tables are jugs of Coke and trays of square-shaped pizza.
These arethe famous Sicilian squares. It’s so rich that the melted cheese spills over the edge of the square pie. Still a margherita pizza – cheese, tomato sauce, fresh basil and olive oil - L&B pie is thick crust. It is so thick that when I give it a bite, my teeth just sink into the soft, warm pie.
But what I like the most about L&B is its spumoni – the three-flavoured ice-cream. However, since I don’t really fancy pistachio other than in its natural form, I opt for two flavours – chocolate and vanilla.
Besides pizza, the five-hour tour has another star in its lists – movie location!
It goes around neighbourhoods and streets that have been featured in Hollywood movies or those that have sizzling Hollywood stories and gossip.
While some need pointing out, there are sites that I can easily recognise from TV series and movies like the famous Coney Island Broadwalk, Verrazano-Narrows Bridges and the busy 86th Street.
Among the notable movies are Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas, The French Connection and Coming To America.
Best of it all is the timing. Right when our bus hits certain spots, the TV monitors in the bus show movie scenes shot at the very location. It feels like we’re in the movie scenes with the actors.
The route also passes by Brooklyn Army Terminal where the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, shipped off to Germany in 1958 and Dyker Beach Golf Course where Woods Senior first learntto golf when he was stationed at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton.
We then cruise along Shore Road in Bay Ridge to view million-dollar homes including the famous Gingerbread House, a house which looks straight out of a fairy tale with a price tag of US$12 million (RM52 million)!
Along the way, Paula shares stories of Brooklyn’s urban legends and gossip on Brooklyn-born celebrities. And you bet, there’s no way, we can just doze off!
Then, when it’s almost over as the bus crosses the Brooklyn Bridge to get back to Manhattan, Paula checks on our preference – Manhattan or Brooklyn.
Of course, our answer is Brooklyn. But Paula has a different answer. She says, “Manhattan? Fuhgettaboudit!”
A SLICE OF BROOKLYN BUS TOURS
145 4th Ave New York, NY
Tel: +917-515-5409 / (Booking) +212-913-9917
TOURS 5 days a week at 11am. The tour is 4.5 hours long.
PAY Adult: US$80 (RM343) Child under 12: US$70. Price includes two slices of pizza and a soft drink at each of the two pizzerias.