This first appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.
Pizza is accessible, so people think it will make them seem accessible. But who wants to be truly, totally accessible? For all of the social charms it may embody, a pizza—by definition—has no edge. It's the world's most boring thing to rally behind, like having a Foo Fighters back patch.
—Sara Rocco, Why I Hate Pizza
Over the course of Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza, Colin Atrophy Hagendorf gets sober, hangs out with Phoebe Cates, enjoys a lot of music that doesn't sound anything like Foo Fighters, dissects his love for and relationship with New York City through the lens of present-day gentrification, name-drops Frank O'Hara and Tuli Kupferberg, watches pigeons eat his vomit, explains the nuanced difference between Jewishness and Judaism, and falls in love—all while on the hunt for the perfect slice. And while a pizza may be round, that single slice—the plain cheese slice that Hagendorf ate at every single pizzeria in Manhattan—has three edges.
Take that, Rocco.
"A good slice, I want the perfect ratios," he tells me. "The dough can't be too thick. There can't be too much sauce; then it's too wet. There can't be so much cheese. Ideally, I don't want to notice anything. I want everything at once."
At first, discerning whether or not a slice of pizza is good seems instinctive enough, but as Hagendorf continues, it becomes apparent that Harvesting is a subtle, nuanced activity. "I want it to be cooked so that it crunches, but can still curl. I don't want to burn the roof of my mouth, obviously. I think it's about salt, largely—salt in the dough, how salty the cheese is and how salty the sauce is. It's about the sauce not being too sweet, only a little sweet. And it's about the dough being airy, not dense, not thick—maybe like a centimeter, I think. A slice is a thing I need to be able to hold, to pick it up and walk around with it."
Hagendorf, the titular Slice Harvester, has rated every pizzeria in Manhattan on a scale from 1 to 8 based on the quality of their plain cheese pie. Using the aforementioned criteria, he reviewed a remarkable 435 slices between August of 2009 and November of 2011. But his pizza odyssey started decades before, on his first teenage trip from his "pretty cool, ethnically and economically diverse city that seemed paltry in the shadow of New York" to the formerly seedy, still-vibrant St. Mark's Place. There, at 13, he found his Pie in the Sky, the slice that helped establish his standard: St. Mark's Pizza. Of it, he writes, "It is the slice of nostalgia that every piece of pizza I've eaten since has fallen short of."
Except one, that is: New York Pizza Suprema, which serves a slice he boldly claims to be "everything I ever wanted."
Feelings that are similar to eating magic pizza: when music perfectly matches the weather or your mood … the sense of relief and/or exaltation felt when you've been having an ambiguous 'not a date but not not a date' hang out with someone you've been crushing on and tension has been mounting all day, and then you finally hold hands or have some other affirmation that The Feeling Is Mutual … What these disparate moments share is the feeling of everything falling into place, the feeling that regardless of all the external bummers of day-to-day living, things are at least momentarily going your way.
—from Slice Harvester: A Memoir In Pizza
His enthusiastic review of New York Pizza Suprema got back to the shop's owner, Joe Riggio, who placed a blown-up and framed copy in the restaurant's front window. Since then, their relationship has developed so much that Hagendorf dedicates an entire chapter of the book to the intimate and beautiful story of the Riggio family's three generations in the pizza business.
As it turns out—spoiler alert—Joe's uncle Tony, the man who taught Joe's father Sal how to make perfect pizza dough, owned St. Mark's Pizzeria, holy site of Hagendorf's first slice crush. The pizza he fell for at 13 was made from the same recipe as the only slice to receive a perfect 8 out of 8 rating in his Slice Harvester zine ten years later.
That quiet magic is a sort of spiritual umami to Hagendorf. A slice could have the perfect ratio of cheese and sauce to dough, but still be missing something terrifically hard to explain.
"I still haven't found a way to describe that final thing, the fourth thing about a slice of pizza. The closest I've come is circling around it. You know, the Ramones are perfect because they write these simple songs and the subject matter is kind of dumb and universal, and they're really catchy. But other people write simple songs where the subject matter is dumb and universal, and they're catchy, but it's just not as good as the Ramones. And like, I'm in love with my girlfriend Becca because she is beautiful, and because she is so smart. And I just love the way that she is in the world, and seeing her interact with people. There are probably other people who have those qualities, but there's something about her specifically that I'm in love with. You can't define it, but it's all the same.
"There's this final component that's intangible to things that are transcendent and beautiful in the world. I think food that touches and moves you is one of those things, like falling in love or interacting with art, that's just different. It's impossible to put into words."
Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza is available now from Simon & Schuster. You can buy it online from several large corporations. Also, let it be known that one time Hagendorf left himself a review: