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Is It Really The Water That Makes NY Pizza and Bagels So Great?

New York City has the best bagels and pizza. In 2008, a writer for Wired joked: “It costs $482.79 to get a decent pizza in San Francisco — $17 for the pie, $85 for cab fare, and $378.80 for the flight to New York. Throw in $1.99 for tinfoil.” You may disagree — it’s a matter of opinion, after all — but let’s just agree that you’re wrong and the Wired reporter and I are right. NYC pizza is the best. Bagels too.
What makes the city’s flagship foods so fantastic?
Maybe it’s the water.
No one knows for sure — it’s hard to account for taste, let alone the nuances that go into one of the ingredients that create tastes — but for decades, legend has it that you can’t make a NYC bagel or pizza outside of New York because you can’t get New York tap water outside of New York. And there’s something special about NYC water, that when mixed with dough or boiling in a cauldron, simply can’t be replicated.
That’s how the argument goes, at least — and perhaps science, too. A recent article in Quartz notes that “there are essentially two elements — calcium and magnesium — in very specific proportions that make the water in the New York metro area unique” and “the ratio of those two ingredients to other minerals also happen to be ideal for baking crispy-on-outside-chewy-on-the-inside New York-style bagels.” That’s not to say New York City’s water is higher quality than the tap water elsewhere (hardly: in fact, the infrastructure is old and relies on outmoded technology such as wood pipes). So you may want to add a filter, like PUR, which will remove lead and other contaminants that sneak in through old pipes but won’t affect the minerals — because those minerals are magic when it comes to boiling NYC bagels.
But not everyone is convinced. In 1997, the founder of Boston-based Finagle a Bagel, Larry Smith, decided to run a taste test. He took some water from his store near Faneuil Hall (that’s in Boston) and drove down to a commercial bagel manufacturer in New York. There, he made two batches of bagels, which were close to identical except for one notable ingredient change: one batch was made with the Boston water, and another with New York’s own. Smith’s informal taste test resulted in a lot of customers who couldn’t tell the difference.
Smith’s findings seem to be the minority opinion among the New York bagel and pizza elite, however. Some culinary luminaries — in this case, experts consulted in the above-linked Wired article, probably don’t trust Smith’s unscientific trial, and instead attribute the taste to the legendary municipal water system:
“’Water,’ [esteemed chef Mario] Batali says. ‘Water is huge. It's probably one of California's biggest problems with pizza.’ Water binds the dough's few ingredients. Nearly every chemical reaction that produces flavor occurs in water, says Chris Loss, a food scientist with the Culinary Institute of America. ‘So, naturally, the minerals and chemicals in it will affect every aspect of the way something tastes.’”
Others agree. In 2002, a guy named David Spatafore opened a pizza place named Village Pizzeria in Coronado, California, just outside San Diego. Shortly thereafter, he imported some water from New York City and ran a taste test of his own. Nine out of ten customers picked the pizza with water from New York. And ever since then, Spatafore has been shipping water from NYC to the West Coast — 3,000 gallons a year — for his now two pizza places. New York water is serious business.
It’s so serious that in recent years, it’s led to litigation — amazingly, between a bagel place and a pizza joint. In October of 2010, a Florida-based bagelry called Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. announced that it had “Brooklynized” the tap water in its Delray Beach, Florida store, implementing a huge filtration system — water goes in Florida and comes out New York. The entire point of the contraption, as the Wall Street Journal reported, was to get that real New York taste.
Did it work? If the actions of a nearby pizza place, Mamma Mia’s Trattoria & Brick Oven Pizzeria in Lake Worth, Florida, are any indication, then yes. The bagel place asserted that Mamma Mia’s stole the water filtering technology, apparently in an effort to bring New York-level pizza to the area. The bagel place sued, and the pizza place countersued. Because when it comes to New York-style comfort foods, water is serious business.
You’ve found the best spices and freshest herbs, so it makes sense to also think about water as an ingredient. Is your tap water helping or hurting your cooking and baking? Filter out funky contaminants and get fresher, better tasting water for drinking and cooking with PUR MAXION filtration.
This post was created as part of my collaboration with PUR. As always, all of the opinions, thoughts, and ideas in this post are my own. I am solely responsible for the content.