Spending an Entire Night in a NYC Pizza Spot Will Show You Every Side of Humanity
"Every night crazy people," Sal warned me. "We get the most."
Perhaps the most potent embodiment of New York's we're-all-in-this-together energy is a visit to your late-night pizza slice spot, where the city's diverse populations converge and mingle in relative civility in search of a mutual late-night indulgence at the end of a long evening. Even in the most dire states of intoxication, ones that could merit arrest or hospitalization, New Yorkers maintain an incredible ability to pull it together enough to walk upright into a pizza spot, successfully communicate what they would like to order, and stuff their faces with carby, cheesy relief.
Most of us only factor into these bizarro temples of mozzarella when we're the pizza-seekers ourselves—i.e., drunk, hungry, and largely self-absorbed. We are far less likely to immerse our fully lucid psyches into this socially democratic universe of inexpensive middle-of-the-night grub.
But this past Saturday, that's just what I did: I dedicated a full evening of my life to people-watching in the belly of the beast: Rosario's, a classic New York pizzeria has been serving slices to the Lower East Side since 1963 and stays open until 5 AM. In other words: They've seen some shit.
And so I buried myself in the sands of time on this corner on Orchard Street and let the waves of party-people's pizza quests wash over me.
9 PM: I arrive at Rosario's. My photographer and pizza companion, Azikiwe, is still around the corner hanging at Max Fish. Despite the fact that St. Patrick's Day isn't until this coming Thursday, there's an abundance of young gentlemen and ladies out there who apparently could not wait to start wearing shamrock paraphernalia and getting trashed in the name of what I'm sure is a genuine interest in Irish politics and history. The first thing I hear after posting up in a corner is a drunk guy in leprechaun-wear asking the girl he's with if she'll ever let him see her naked. She chews her pepperoni slice for a long time to avoid having to answer.
9:27 PM Two bored-looking goth chicks, both wearing dog collars, are mid-conversation next to me, drinking Pellegrino out of cans with straws. I wonder if they're affiliated with the burlesque club across the street, The Slipper Room. Maybe they're skipping pizza because they have to get naked later.
10 PM Azikiwe arrives. He points out the owner, Salvatore "Sal" Bartolomeo, who is a known character in the neighborhood and the city at large. Meanwhile, a guy with a Band-Aid in the middle of his forehead and his friend are arguing with the slice-masters about their order.
10:10 PM An old man in a fishing cap and extremely high-waisted jeans walks in, grabs a bunch of straws from a cup on the counter, and leaves. Outside, a drunken bro is trying to direct traffic in a busy intersection for no apparent reason.
10:21 PM Without warning, the entire restaurant—currently occupied by about 20 people—starts singing "Work" by Rihanna. It subsides as quickly as it began.
10:34 PM I eat my first slice of the evening: mushroom and cheese. A dude with a stand-up bass can't fit it through the door and, forced to choose between his desire for a face full of pizza and his prized musical instrument, leaves in a huff.
10:51 PM An older Chinese woman in head-to-toe pink enters and starts clearing the dozens of paper plates, greasy napkins, and near-empty soda cans that are strewn all over the tables, since most customers seem to find carrying them the roughly six feet to the garbage bin simply too taxing. Meanwhile, Band-Aid Forehead Guy is asking Azikiwe if he thinks he would make a good hand model.
11:01 PM I strike up a conversation with Sal and ask how he feels about the late-night pizza scene in the Lower East Side these days.
"My pizza life sucks, I quit, bye," he says in his thick Italian accent. He gives me a roughly 25-minute oral history of the Lower East Side and how it has transformed from being a haven for Jews to a drug-addled neighborhood of unimaginable sketchiness to a beacon for creativity to its contemporary incarnation as a bridge-and-tunnel party zone.
"These young girls, they don't know how to drink," he says, gesturing at a tiara-wearing bachelorette party somberly blotting their pizza with napkins in the corner and droning at each other in extreme vocal fry. "They have an attitude that's stupid."
"Every night crazy people," he tells me. "We get the most."
11:32 PM Sal tells me with pride that he has been described as a "five-foot Mac Daddy who looks straight into your tits." He then makes sure to specify to me that he's actually five-foot-three, and did not purposely look at my tits.
11:45 PM Sal is telling me a story about how his sister knew Nancy Spungen at the time of her infamous murder by Sid Vicious. It is interrupted when a car points its lights straight into Rosario's and blares its horn for 30 seconds. I am convinced that it is about to hit the gas and plow through the front windows and kill everyone, but instead, it revs its engines and speeds off, sparing us.
12:15 AM Azikiwe and I go around the corner to a dive called The Magician for a quick nip of whiskey. Hanging out in a slice spot is more exhausting than I had anticipated. It's like other people's inebriated states start to absorb into your body through osmosis. The only way to survive is to get a little tipsy yourself.
12:44 AM We're back at Rosario's. Everyone seems to have transitioned from "pretty drunk" to "visibly brain-damaged by alcohol" in the 20 or so minutes that we were gone. "Fuck Facebook, man," says a dude in a "Fear the Beard" Seton Hall basketball shirt. "It's all about the ca-praaay-saaay!" he yowls, pointing at the caprese slice.
12:53 AM I eat a white slice. It's delicious, topped with gobs of ricotta, and with the perfect crust for optimal folding in true New York fashion. All other pizza patrons are rapidly accelerating into turbo blackout (except maybe Azikiwe). "I'm so greasy, bro," slurs a dude in a periwinkle gingham shirt to his friend.
12:58 AM A relatively innocuous-looking girl walks in, looks around, and starts yelling—quite literally at the top of her lungs—"YAAA, I WANT SOME PIZZA! I'M GONNA PUT SO MUCH FUCKING SHIT ON MY PIZZA!" Her two friends look resigned, like maybe this is to be expected of her. Some nerd behind me, strings of gooey mozzarella trailing from his mouth to his hands, is bragging to his friends that he has the theme to Jurassic Park on vinyl.
1:04 AM Disappointed with the degree of measurable attention that she's receiving, or perhaps not receiving, the drunk girl starts howling again. "Where the fuck are my friends??? Where's my broccoli?"
1:20 AM More than one couple is sucking face in the line, which is now snaking out the door. I see tongue.
1:38 AM One of the girls at the table adjacent to us is upset because Sal told her not to sit in her boyfriend's lap. "That's why we have enough chairs," he said. "It's against the rules." This ordinance displeases her. Her very intoxicated boyfriend, who is wearing a puffy vest that gives him a kind of Old Navy-in-hell vibe, keeps taking Azikiwe's camera and trying to take selfies. The girl asks for a picture of the two of them. "He only wants to take photos when he's drunk," she grumbles.
1:41 AM Without warning, the drunk boyfriend is now massaging my shoulders and whispering in my ear. "Be confident in your art," he murmurs. I tell him that I appreciate his belief in my creative process, and wriggle away.
1:50 AM The two most sober people in here are a dude wearing overalls with a full gold grill and his friend who kind of looks like a twink version of Drake. I ask Fake Drake why he isn't getting any pizza. "I'm vegan," he shrugs.
1:53 AM A man whose manner of dress channels a Harry Potter professor is pulling the cheese off his slice with his fingers and stuffing it into his mouth with a look of pure hedonistic delight. His academic appearance does not mask his descent into drunken darkness. "What's this for?" he asks. "MUNCHIES," I reply. "Your website is called 'Pizza?'," he asks in confusion and disbelief. "No, it's called MUNCHIES," I repeat. He waves his hand at me, like I'm purposely trying to confound him.
3:02 AM Did I lose consciousness for an hour? Oh, right—it's Daylight Savings Time. An hour has been removed from the space-time continuum. I've time-traveled, I think to myself. Like in that episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete when Big Pete finally kisses Ellen after Endless Mike tries to sabotage his date at the drive-in. Speaking of which, romance is clearly in the air, if the prevalence of PDAs in Rosario's is indicative of anything.
3:15 AM Perhaps due to Daylight Savings Time, the line of pizza-seekers has doubled and is spilling out onto the sidewalk. There have been at least six different young women in here tonight wearing tiaras, including two simultaneously at this moment, on opposite sides of the room but clearly eyeing each other with distrust.
3:17 AM We're trapped. The line will soon seal us in forever, to survive off discarded crusts until we rot into nothingness. Sal is cleaning up Everest-sized mountains of rumpled, greased napkins; towering stacks of plates; chewed-up drinking straws; spills and smears of ranch dressing. The Chinese lady in all pink is back. Azikiwe says he saw Sal slip her 40 bucks. She's a hustler. Respect. A woman has just walked in with a huge, inexplicable bouquet of balloons with drawings of Drake on them.
3:24 AM "I still think Ross is gay," sighs a dude who has been shaking garlic salt onto the surface of his table for two minutes straight. "I'm not even fucking joking."
3:41 AM Everyone's talk has turned to Uber. "The Uber's here! Hurry!" shrieks a dude in glasses and a floral shirt. As his friends shuffle out, he says, "Let's do karaoke, but I only want to do 'Fake Plastic Trees.'"
3:52 AM Another girl outside is complaining to her friend about having to leave the pizza line because of the impatience of her Uber driver. A cackling twentysomething is trying, and failing, to ride an electric longboard, and crashes directly into a street sign.
4:17 AM As the hordes pour into the streets in futile attempts to hail cabs, I shuffle off. My work here is done, but I wish I could have had one more slice.
Maybe the caprese. It is, after all, all about the ca-praaay-saaay.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on March 14, 2016.
- late night
- NEW YORK CITY
- lower east side
- Salvatore Bartolomeo