Newsday's Scott Vogel joins the Slice of Brooklyn bus group for a whirlwind tour tasting New York pizza. Credit: Ed Quinn; Photo credits: Getty Images

That Brooklyn produces the best pizza in the world is a claim disputed both locally and beyond, except by Tony Muia, who has built his reputation on it.

“What they’re selling in most pizzerias now is commercial cheese,” said the 60-year-old to a table on the third floor of Grimaldi’s in the DUMBO section of his home boro. “Commercial cheeses have more oil content than they do dairy. That’s why as soon as the heat hits the pie it seeps out oil and you get a mess. Here, even with a drizzle of olive oil it’s one of the cleanest tasting pies.”

Muia turned and repeated his commercial cheese spiel for the benefit of a second table, and then a third, each mostly filled with tourists who’d paid $105 for his 4½-hour Slice of Brooklyn bus tour, visitors from places like Nashville and Albuquerque, the Houston suburbs and the Tampa suburbs, Dublin and Vancouver, 18 in all.

“How do they get all those pizzas up to the third floor?” wondered Raymond Rodriguez of Spring, Texas. “Do they have a dumbwaiter?”

Slice of Brooklyn pizza tours

WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday-Sunday, departing from Manhattan (typically Union Square neighborhood)

COST $105 ($95 ages 11 and younger)

MORE INFO 212-913-9917, asliceofbrooklyn.com

“They do, but I’m not going to tell you his name,” Muia said. Laughter all around.

“That’s why I love these tours,” Rodriguez remarked later about Slice of Brooklyn. “He’s got so much personality; he’s so hospitable.” This was Rodriguez’s third trip on the pizza bus — he’s also taken Muia’s seasonal Christmas lights tour — “You’ve got to bundle up, I froze my you-know-what off a couple of years ago” — and hopes to one day take Muia’s Brooklyn chocolate tour, too.

Grimaldi's Pizza

Grimaldi’s, which specializes in Neapolitan-style pies, had just opened — promptly, at 11:30 a.m. — when the Slice of Brooklyn crowd showed up, and by the time he’d gotten everyone seated and raced back down the stairs, two of Muia’s three pizzas were already out of the big brick oven, blistered and bubbling. “It’s fired by Pennsylvania coal and a thousand degrees,” he said. “Only takes three minutes to bake a margherita pie.”

Scott Vogel enjoys the margherita pizza at Grimaldi's in DUMBO,...

Scott Vogel enjoys the margherita pizza at Grimaldi's in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  Credit: Ed Quinn

Guessing that some on the tour knew pizza only from the chains and the frozen food section, Muia had already read them in on Queen Margherita of Savoy and her pie’s connection to the Italian flag, its “green from the basil, white from fresh, whole-milk mozzarella from the Aiello family in Brooklyn, and red from puréed San Marzano tomatoes.” He watched with awe for the umpteenth time as a Grimaldi’s pizzaiolo readied a pie for the oven, not ladling it with sauce but dripping and splattering it “like a Jackson Pollock.” And he pointed out Ralph Harajda, who was the server when Michelle Obama visited in 2010 and allegedly declared Grimaldi’s pies to be better than Chicago’s. “It was like the shot heard round the world.”

To a person, the group raved about the margheritas, which seemed to please Muia quite a bit. And yet, you got the sense that as good as it was, pizza wasn’t really the point. What Muia really hoped the group would fall in love with was Brooklyn itself — all of it, the chic and gauche, sublime and seamy, sacred and profane. He showed them the street where mobsters like Frank Santora were shot, and the street where “Goodfellas” was shot, the building that formerly served as a home for IBM and later a temporary one for Ghislaine Maxwell and El Chapo, a Bay Ridge where homes straight out of “Real Housewives” and “Hansel and Gretel” sit nearly side by side. He talked about Brooklyn then, when nobody wanted to live there, and Brooklyn now, when everybody does.

Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour owner Tony Muia shows tour-goers...

Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour owner Tony Muia shows tour-goers the sights and sounds at the Coney Island boardwalk.  Credit: Ed Quinn

Muia grew up in Bensonhurst in the ’60s and ’70s “along with two younger brothers, Vinnie and Joey — you can’t make this stuff up,” and spent much of his adult life as a respiratory therapist. And then, a couple of decades ago, he was on vacation in England and stopped for a haircut in the town of Bath. “People were like, what’s a guy from Brooklyn doing here, and what’s with the accent?” Muia discovered that the Brits were fascinated by his hometown, peppering him with questions about Coney Island, the old Dodgers and, yes, pizza. Not long after that, Muia started giving tours of Brooklyn to visitors as a hobby even as he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the health care industry and its hospitals that “don’t do right by patients.” One day in 2005 he had an epiphany, a uniquely Brooklyn epiphany.

“It was like that scene in ‘The Godfather’ when he shakes Johnny Fontaine and goes, ‘YOU GOTTA ACT LIKE A MAN!’ ” he recalled. “Why don’t you do these tours? You know Brooklyn, you know all this minutia, you love showing off your hometown.”

That August, Slice of Brooklyn’s first buses began trundling down Brooklyn’s streets and Muia began telling the borough's story, showing clips from “Saturday Night Fever” and “The French Connection” on monitors overhead at apropos moments, advising his driver on ways to avoid traffic and regularly employing phrases like "Manhattan? Fuhgettaboudit!" — which he has trademarked. Somewhere along the way, Muia became the borough's unofficial ambassador, using pizza as the hook.

L&B Spumoni Gardens

“You may or may not see guys in Paulie Walnuts running suits, but we are deep in the heart of Brooklyn now,” Muia noted as the bus double-parked in front of L & B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend, going on to explain that the L & B stands for Ludovico Barbati and spumoni for the ice cream recipe Barbati brought with him from Italy when he came to Brooklyn seeking his fortune in the ’30s. Ultimately, that fortune would come from Barbati’s Sicilian pies and an upside-down style in which mozzarella is planted first, then submerged by sauce. “People always come up to me and say it’s not cooked in the middle,” said Muia as L & B servers began lowering giant square pies onto pizza stands, demonstrating the kind of teamwork usually reserved for concrete slabs at construction sites. “I go, ‘No, that’s the mozzarella!’ ”

The square slices at Spumoni Garden in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  Credit: Ed Quinn

Biting into the slices’ inch-high focaccia-like dough brought smiles to the faces of several on the tour, and a sigh from Stacey Carna, whose long love affair with New York pizza came to an abrupt end last July when her husband came home from work and announced the family was moving to Austin. Over time, Carna has adapted to the weather and made her peace with all the bugs (“there’s apparently a season for tarantulas”), but one aspect of Texas life still sticks in her craw. “We can’t find good pizza. I can’t complain because they have really good brisket, and the Mexican food is great, but I miss it, more than you know.”

Muia nodded with satisfaction, no doubt hoping Carna would also come to miss a Brooklyn she never knew.

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