Pizza with an old-school flourish

Lombardi’s, the nation’s oldest pizzeria, recently opened in one Chelsea’s most picturesque venues — the former Biltmore Room on Eighth Avenue and 24th Street. Photo: Deborah Fenker
Lombardi’s opens in the Biltmore Room’s former space

The nation’s oldest pizzeria, Lombardi’s, has swooped in to rejuvenate one of Chelsea’s most picturesque venues — the former Biltmore Room on Eighth Avenue and 24th Street. The address has endured several unsuccessful reincarnations, but this one has by far the most potential yet, solidly founded with the claim of first pizzeria in the United States, dating to 1905.

Lombardi’s original location was just a stone’s throw from its current SoHo operation at 32 Spring St., so the Chelsea branch brings its New York City presence to a grand total of two. Like so many others, the impressive gates from the original Biltmore Hotel are what initially grabbed the attention of Michael Giammarino, Lombardi’s owner. Driving north on Eighth Avenue, he noticed “the closed hulk of a space,” and immediately started researching the property. When he discovered its rich history, including the gorgeous relics of the old hotel remaining within, he knew he had to jump on it. Upon his first visit, he was awed, he said, by the “interior space with marble, brass, bronze. The space perfectly fits Lombardi’s, what we are, and what we do. The place is frozen in time, the days of ‘The Great Gatsby.’ It’s a throwback in time. I instantly knew it was perfect.”

True to that impression, he’s kept the glamorous bones of the space: the glittering chandeliers, the original palatial tile work, and those impressive iron gates, and warmed things up with glowy lighting and deep cardinal red booths, giving it a retro, convivial feel. To keep things from getting too stuffy, freestanding tables are swathed in nostalgic red-and-white checked tablecloths.

For now, the newly opened restaurant will offer the same menu as its predecessor, but as New York restricts coal-burning ovens to those which have been grandfathered in, Chelsea’s pizzas will be baked in a custom designed, brick-lined oven that’s as close to the coal-burning original as you can get. “Patrons are so amazed that they can’t tell the difference,” extols Giammarino. In addition to pizzas (full pies only, as per the original, although they are working on potentially branching out with high-end slice joints in the future), of which pepperoni is a perennial favorite, there are several salads, antipasti, customizable calzones, plus a full bar, beer and wine by the glass and bottle.

Grandma Grace’s meatballs are true to the original — beef and pork colossus, each weighing in at an imposing quarter-pound and drenched in a rich, tangy Sunday gravy with a flounce of shaved Romano cheese.

Desserts focus on Italy as well, like a rich chocolate covered tartufo and their signature housemade cannoli, but they import another New York classic, the quintessential New York City-famed Junior’s cheesecake. Giammarino says he wants to roll out more diverse options in a month or so, including adding pasta dishes and a tapas-style bar menu. With that, Giammarino plans on opening for brunch, which will feature Italian frittatas and sandwiches elevated by crusty housemade bread, and accentuated by a full line of premium coffee beverages.

But the restaurant won’t stray too far from what has made Lombardi’s one of the most successful and enduring eating establishment in what is ostensibly the most competitive dining city in the world. Gennaro Lombardi, the eponymous grandson of the founder, is still involved with the company, although more for his knowledge and guidance than in actual day-to-day operations. Those are left to a talented staff that ownership prefers to promote from within, to maintain expectations and quality, as well as nurture the sense of family — the strength upon which Lombardi’s was founded.

Well, that, and some really excellent pies.