If I had to choose between dinner at a ‘reliable’ chain restaurant or a well-loved authentic New York pizza shop, I’d choose the pizza parlour every time – John’s of Bleecker to be precise. A trip to my favourite New York pizza shop means going out for a taste of real New York pizza. It means ordering the biggest pie I can eat, slathered in mozzarella and spread with pepperoni, made with love, served piping hot. But it’s also about the anticipation; walking up and seeing that familiar neon sign, getting to sit in a well-worn booth etched with past pizza pilgrims’ names, watching the pie makers at work, betting the no-nonsense waiter might crack a smile… You see, for me as a visitor to New York, a trip to John’s – or any other NY pizza parlour for that matter – is not just about the pizza itself. It’s about the people and places that capture the true spirit behind the city’s favourite food and finding a slice of authentic New York.
So, as big a fan of the authentic, independent New York pizza parlour scene, you can imagine my excitement when news of The New York Pizza Project hit my inbox…
What is it, I hear you ask? Well, The New York Pizza Project was started five years ago by five native New Yorkers – Gabe, Nick, Ian, Corey and Tim – passionate about documenting New York City’s last authentic pizzerias through photography and interviews. As the word spread, they raised almost $30,000 through crowd-funding on Kickstarter, and have since snapped and recorded over 100 pizza parlours across the city’s five boroughs, their makers and eaters.
“We grew up in a New York City that was always moving, always changing. Yet today, the change feels different. As the rise of chain stores, condos, and banks threaten to dominate the urban landscape of New York City, pizza shops serve as guardians of authenticity in the face of homogenization. This project is an homage to them and to the other small businesses that keep New York real.”
Today, The New York Pizza Project is a beautifully designed and printed coffee table book – “for New Yorkers, pizza lovers everywhere, for neighbourhood businesses and for anyone who has ever spent time in New York City”. It’s a touching collection of stunning photos that keeps the story of ‘real’ New York alive, but also an invaluable guide for lovers of New York’s authentic pizza parlours, leading the way to all those well-worn neighbourhood joints you might not know were there or hunt down otherwise.
The story unfolds in four parts: The Block, The Shop, The Makers and The Eaters. So, let’s enjoy a slice of The New York Pizza Project…
“I have an ego. I want to be the best pizza man. But there is a challenge right now. The people rate the best pizza, and the sexiest pizza man. For many, many years I was the number-two best pizza, but the number-one sexiest pizza man. But now, two years in a row, I am very upset, because they say I am the best pizza, but now I am only the second-sexiest pizza man in New York.”
Listen to Sal, maker at Pugsley Pizza in Belmont.
Rose, John’s Pizzeria, Elmhurst.
“How did I get involved in this mess? In 1982, someone didn’t show up. I got the call and I’ve been here ever since. True story. We met down here. I was from the area. I used to work across the street and I met Tony here.”
Listen to Rose and Tony, makers and Phil’s Pizza in the West Village.
“My father was never at any family functions because he was always working. My mother was by his side. You know what? You’re only as good as the woman behind you, and you need a strong woman. My mother is stronger than my father because she supported my father in everything they did. It’s amazing. I give them all the credit in the world. Today, people tell me to open up other pizzerias. Think about it…how do you just do it? You’re taking the money you earned, you saved—that was hard to save—and just opening up a business? Not easy. Gimme the wedding book…my parents wedding book. You wanna see something? I’m gonna show you my parents limousine when they got married.”
Listen to Gio, maker at Luigi’s Pizza in South Slope.
Tony, maker at Ivana Pizzeria in Belmont.
“This is part of New York. You can’t take away the slice of pizza from the city of New York and the culinary history of this town. It’s part and parcel of who we are. And it’s nondiscriminatory. We have all types of guys who come in here. “Gimme a slice of this! Gimme a slice of that! I want a slice now!” It’s just who we are, and this is the world that we’ve created. So there are the guys that say, “I’ll have 10 pizzas to go,” and the guys that say, “Gimme a slice!” like a little poor urchin like in David Copperfield. But, instead of porridge, it’s “Gimme a slice, please.” We’ve satisfied the need, and Patsy was the master at this, of what the people needed.”
Listen to John, maker at Patsy’s Pizza in East Harlem.
“We have a very, very simplistic business. It’s just pizza. There are no dinners. We don’t have a late-night crowd. Very simple. No salads. No dinners. No pastas. No garlic knots. We’re a pizzeria. We’re one of probably the “Last of the Mohicans.” No fried mozzarella sticks. No delivery. Just what you see. You won’t find many more places like this left.”
Listen to Cosmo, maker at Louie and Ernie’s pizza in Schuylerville.
“It strikes me that pizzerias are sort of like the old malt shops – what I see about malt shops in the movies. People go and hangout and – because I’ll see teenagers all come in and they each get a slice – and I think the slices probably weigh more than the girls do. And they sit in the back and they decompress from the day, and uh, it’s just a – oh, I don’t know… it’s sort of a community thing. There aren’t that many of those around anymore. You have to set them up for old people, the senior centers, and you set up the day cares and the play dates for children, but for everybody between the ages of five and under the age of 60, you gotta fend for yourselves, or find a pizza place.”
Listen to Betty, an eater at My Little Pizzeria in Brooklyn Heights.
“I happen to work two blocks away and I’m on my way home back to Prospect Heights and I’m just too hungry to get on the train without eating something, so pizza’s an easy thing to get. I had to eat something, otherwise I’ll be nuts.”
Listen to Chris, an eater at Rosa’s Pizza in Chelsea.
“I was born and raised in the neighborhood. I’ve been living all over the Bronx. I was out in California for five years. Just moved back. I’ve been looking forward to getting some New York pizza, man. I was just in India and Qatar, and kept telling myself, ‘first thing I do when I get back is getting some pizza.’ You just got to do it. It’s comfort food and it’s culture. It’s home. There’s no real bad pizza. But even when it’s not great, it’s still home…especially in the Bronx.”
Joe, an eater at Dino’s Pizza in Riverdale.
“To me, pizza is filling. I’d rather have a slice than Chinese food because Chinese food is not filling—to me, it ain’t. If you get a slice, you can get full off that one slice. With Chinese food, you’ve got to practically eat that whole order before you gonna feel that, and then once you walk home, you want more.”
Listen to Marsha, an eater at Not Rays in Forte Greene.
Doris, an eater at Luigi Pizzeria in Clinton Hill.
Eaters at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Williamsburg.
Obviously, a copy of The New York Pizza Project book has gone straight to the top of my Christmas list – as well as the New York By-The-Slice Pizza Map that perfectly compliments it – but if you can’t wait until then, you can have a peek at The New York Pizza Project online or watch this tantalising video: