When people ask me what I miss most as a vegan, my first answer is always "not being asked that question all the time."
My second answer isn't a specific food so much as it is the concept of convenience, the ability to grab something quickly while on the go in between bars in New York City when you just need a quick sustenance boost or just something to sponge up the alcohol. And pizza is, of course, the king of convenience food, especially in New York, where a hot slice is the perfect option: fast, cheap, portable, and, unequivocally, the best in the world.
Vegan pizza has long been relegated to dine-in options at the first wave of hippie-ish, more health-focused vegan restaurants—where it's hardly resembled pizza at all—or more recently has appeared in the frozen food aisle topped with a plasticky simulacrum of mock cheeses that best emulate low-end supermarket mozzarella. Until recently, it has never come close to replicating the greasy simplicity of the corner slice joint, but that has changed drastically in the past year.
The golden age of vegan pizza has arrived in New York City, and it both reflects a sea change in vegan cuisine's self-image and brings meat- and dairy-free eating further into the mainstream.
"Fifteen years ago, we all would think a vegan pizzeria would close because it wouldn't have enough business," said Mark Mebus, co-owner of Screamer's, the city's first all-vegan slice joint, which opened in Greenpoint in June. "You can't just do that without there being a rise in public demand."
The new wave of veganism in the NYC food scene seems to come with a resolute insistence that anything can be made from plants, from the creations of the the Cinnamon Snail at the Pennsy food hall, which offers "Nutella" stuffed poptarts, to the New York-style bagels with carrot "lox" and cashew cream cheese at Orchard Street Grocers. And these vegan versions of classics come with the sort of high-end flair, attention to ingredients, and ingenuity found in the more traditional echelons of New York dining, which has historically looked down on the city's vegan restaurants as niche—for punky bike messengers and health nuts only.
RECIPE: Vegan Cauliflower Crust Pizza
This attitude is also one that's stirred some controversy in New York's protective pizza parthenon: If a pizza isn't covered in mozzarella, is it even really a pizza?
In addition to Screamer's, in the past year alone, Double Zero, a plant-based sit-down restaurant from vegan celebrity chef Matthew Kenney, opened in the East Village; Sizzle Pie, a heavy metal-themed Portland chain that offers a vast selection of vegan slices and a homemade vegan ranch dipping sauce, opened two locations in Brooklyn; and Paulie Gee's, the popular Greenpoint pizza shop with perhaps the most creative vegan side menu in town, started plans to open a slice joint with vegan options, too.
The unifying factor in these offerings is culinary creativity; it's less health food, and more tasty junk food that happens to be suitable for herbivores (and guilt-free for environmentalists). Unlike the spread of gluten-free options, vegan pizza requires less substitution—it's the same dough, after all—and comes with an ethical pat-on-the-back, not just a food allergy scorecard.
"The motivation is: Pizza is the most loved food in america, pretty much bar none," said Mebus, who's been vegan for 18 years for ethical reasons. "I thought that making that vegan would be the best advertisement for veganism."
"It is a quintessential part of the New York slice experience, the greasiness."
Screamer's opened in June with the ambitious goal of making the platonic ideal of pizza—the classic New York slice—without any animal products. It's a collaboration between Champs, the all-vegan diner in East Williamsburg, and Blackbird, a Philadelphia spot offering vegan pizza, cheesesteaks, and wings.
To up his game for New York, Mebus made the pizzas bigger than in Philly—20 inches, versus 18—and tweaked the dough recipe, fermenting it for 48 hours and adding semolina flour to give it an extra crispiness. Perhaps the biggest achievement, which I have yet to find elsewhere in my (extensive) research: The slices drip with greasiness, which takes me right back to the Jersey boardwalk pizzerias of my youth, a wad of napkins in hand to dab the glistening cheese. Mebus said that was on purpose: He added extra oil to the sauce.
"It is a quintessential part of the New York slice experience, the greasiness," he said. The menu contains some modified pizzeria classics like (seitan) pepperoni, as well as more creative options like Buffalo cauliflower, and uses NUMU cheese, a Brooklyn-made non-dairy alternative specifically created for pizzas, along with almond ricotta and "Parmesan."
But many pizza traditionalists and dairy addicts still scoff at the idea that plant-based foods could ever replace the standards. "If this is 'plant-based,' I'm switching to boil-in-bag," the New York Post's notoriously tetchy food critic Steve Cuozzo wrote last March when reviewing Double Zero.
Where does pizza philosophically begin and end? Is a white pie still pizza, since it has no red sauce? Is a ricotta-topped pizza an oxymoron, since it doesn't have mozzarella? Why can Chicago call deep-dish "pizza" such a thing, when it's (in my opinion) basically a tomato sauce-filled dumpster?
"I was definitely conscious of the challenge we were facing with going into the East Village, which is ground zero for good pizza," Kenney said of Double Zero, which offers $17 pies with toppings like shiitake bacon and macadamia ricotta. "I think there's a psychological hurdle we have to get through. It took years of overcoming skeptics and naysayers. But it's finally coming to fruition."
In fact, cheese only relatively recently became a mainstay of pizza recipes, said Scott Weiner, pizza historian and owner of Scott's Pizza Tours, which runs occasional vegan pizza tours. He notes that the earliest versions of the dish made in 16th-century Naples, Italy were generally for peasants and were topped with leftovers or whatever was seasonal, like pig fat or basil leaves, which is also discussed in the book Pizza: A Global History by Carol Helstosky. Cheese was treated as a topping rather than a given, and the thick layer of mozzarella that we've come to know didn't become a staple until the 19th century. That's when, as legend has it, Queen Margherita of Italy, tired of her usual cuisine, asked for pizzas to be prepared for her and declared the one that resembled the colors of the Italian flag, with mozzarella cheese, basil, and tomato, as the best. Marinara pizzas, which have no cheese, have been a staple of many respectable pizza menus for ages, Weiner added.
"Cheese was an afterthought," he put it. "Cheese wasn't the main event."
Paulie Gee is surprised more pizzerias haven't gotten on the bandwagon. His vegan menu debuted in 2010 and has been a hit, with options like cashew ricotta, green jackfruit meatballs, and the aforementioned NUMU cheese.
"The most important thing about my pizza is my crust," he said. "It's not that much different. The only thing that's different is the cheese."
At some old-school New York pizza places, however, you still won't see vegan cheese popping up on the menu soon.
"We don't make it," a manager at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend, Brooklyn, told me rather brusquely over the phone, although he said the owner has been asked to make vegan pies before. "He don't want to do it. He's happy with what he's doing."
Frank De Stefano, a manager at Sam's, an 87-year-old pizza shop in the Italian enclave of Cobble HIll, Brooklyn, said he wouldn't even know where to start with making a vegan pie.
"I don't eat vegan, I eat normal," he said. "I don't make it, the store don't make it."
Mebus, Kenney and others predict that plant-based cheese will continue to improve, and that vegan options will only spread from here, which means they're on track to be considered more "normal." But there has definitely never been a better time in New York City to grab a slice of which no animals were harmed in the making.
"I've had many customers say, 'This place allowed me to be vegan,'" Mebus said. "It's really the best thing people can say to me. Pizza is, like, the best thing in the world."