For some people, pizza might be just another vehicle for empty, delicious calories. But in New York, pizza churns through our veins.
Pizza isn't just food—it's culture, it's community, and it's history.
The five intrepid authors behind The New York Pizza Project—Gabe Zimmer, Nick Johnson, Ian Manhelmer, Corey Mintz, and Tim Reltzes—know this well, so they set out to document New York City's last remaining authentic pizzerias.
Together, they visited more than 100 pizzerias across the city's five boroughs, not only to eat slice after delicious slice, but to meet the people who are making those pies, and the devoted customers who have kept them in business.
What started as a Kickstarter-funded passion project has now become a gorgeous, 192-page book, but that doesn't mean the quintet's work is over. We caught up with the NYPP team to chat about perfect crusts, salty pizza men, and what makes New York the greatest pizza city in the world.
MUNCHIES: Over the past five years, you all have visited more than 100 pizzerias across the five boroughs. What did you discover about pizza on this journey that made you look at it in an entirely new way? Ian Manheimer: In a city built on "hustle," I think pizza may be one of the last honest exchanges you can find. As these shops deal with the immense pressure of running a small business in a city very hostile to small businesses, the temptation to cut corners must be strong. But they don't. After talking to hundreds of these guys, I learned that they'd rather go out of business than cheat their customers.
Corey Mintz: During our research, we felt a closer connection not just to the pizza culture but the importance of how these culinary institutions play a role in the community. There is such an incredible sense of hard work and maintaining tradition that goes along with having a pizza shop. The biggest unsettling truth during our journey was seeing the changing tide of the urban landscape that puts many of these pizzerias in danger. Pizza shops are so important because they are the culinary soul of this city and the foundation of what New York City is made of.
Is New York pizza the greatest in the world? If so, why? Gabe Zimmer: Of course. I think with so many pizzerias in the city, the competition is high and that forces the standards to be high. If you don't come correct, New Yorkers have a way of letting you know. You simply won't survive long in this town serving subpar pizza.
Do you think there's something in the water? Corey Mintz: Any pizza maker will tell you that the water is the secret ingredient to the dough. To some, it is an urban legend, and to others, there is a science behind it. I've read that the high mineral content in our water filtration system makes for a better dough. The truth is, no scientific explanation can describe the taste of pizza crust in this city.
It must have been pretty interesting to meet some of the pizza makers who've been feeding you for years, and getting to know them in a different way. Corey Mintz: We may not be the ones getting our hands dirty, but we value and respect the craft involved. Behind each storefront and every pizza master is a story worth telling. Many of these stories involve the passing of the torch down from generation to generation. The goal of this book was being able to share those stories.
Gabe Zimmer: We've had the opportunity to build relationships with a lot of pizzerias over the years, and it's been awesome getting to know the people behind the counter. I'm constantly surprised by the spirit and optimism of the makers. Before starting the project, I think I had the assumption that these guys were just hard workers making a living, which is true, but a lot of them also really love what they do and they take an enormous amount of pride in their work.
The book juxtaposes interviews between the "eaters" and the "makers." Is there a specific shop featured in the book that illuminates why these relationships are so important? Ian Manheimer: In New York, pizza is soul food. You eat it when you're down. You eat it when you're celebrating. So what does that make the pizza man? This sort of reliable dispenser of good feelings.
I remember when we went to Stanton Street Pizza in the Lower East Side and met Jose. Jose had followed Luigi, the shop's pizza man, to every place he cooked at. He lived all the way in Spanish Harlem and loyally drove all the way down to the LES to eat Luigi's pie. The way Jose put it:
"His [Luigi's] prices are fair for the working man and for the poor students. A kid can come in with two dollars, and even if he's 50 cents short, or a dollar, Luigi will provide. That's one thing, the man will never turn away a hungry person. I come for the pizza, but I have a connection with him because I've been with him for a long time. And I trust him with anything."
There are hundreds of pizzerias in New York. Do you think that is going to change in the near future? Ian Manheimer: The number of independent pizzerias is contracting in New York…and the rest of the country. It's not only the impossible real estate situation. It's the slowness of these multi-generational, old school shops to modernize. Domino's does half its business over their app now. Most independent shops don't even have a website.
Having eaten through all of these places, what do you consider the best pizza shop in New York? Ian Manheimer: My favorite pizzeria in New York is Johnny's in Sunset Park. About ten years ago, John Jr. learned that a Papa John's was moving in next door to his family's shop that had been there since 1968. It's the perfect image of New York today. On the left, the traditional mom-and-pop faithfully serving the community. On the right, the multinational chain store sucking profits out of the community and exploiting their workers. Last year, the rate of chain store growth in New York rose five times over the previous year. As New Yorkers, we need to ask ourselves what kind of city we want to live in, and then we need to understand our responsibilities as consumers.
Corey Mintz: My favorite place is Luigi's Pizza in South Slope for a multitude of reasons. Not only do you get a quality slice, but you get the unique pizza experience of being in the shop. The minute you walk in, you get a sense of community and that priceless interaction behind the pizza counter. There are no outsiders, just family.
Gabe Zimmer: For me, it's Sal and Carmine's on the UWS. Their slice has all of the elements: a thin crust that holds up on its own, not too much sauce, not too much cheese, nice and salty and with a little bit of flour/cornmeal on the bottom. Carmine still works there. He's getting up there in age and he's not the friendliest guy, [but] you're in his domain when you walk in and it's a beautiful thing.
One of the most interesting threads to this book is that the pizza shop is one of the only things that remain of our past in a city that's constantly changing. After creating this book, what does pizza mean to you now? Gabe Zimmer: Pizza still means home to me. Old-school slice pizzerias may be vestiges of the city's past, but they also play an important role in the city's future. Slice shops provide more than food to the city—they are cultural hubs, places where people get a cheap bite to eat and check-in with one another. My hope is that New Yorkers open their eyes and begin to place more value on the people and places that provide character and authenticity to this city. Otherwise, in 50 years NYC will just be one long strip of luxury condos, banks, and pharmacies.
Thanks for speaking with me.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.