The cheap and greasy NYC pizza adventure

13 Sep

Everyone knows that a cheap pizza slice done right can be one of life’s great pleasures. Unfortunately, establishments that do cheap pizza right are few and far between in Toronto, aside from the obvious gems located in and around Little Italy (think Bitondo’s). New York City is possibly the only leading city in the world that is known just as much for its cheap, greasy fast food as for its haute cuisine. Of course, to treat its fabled pizzerias as producers of the former would do a number of them a great disservice. Some are just cheap and some are just greasy. There are also the unfortunate ones that are neither cheap nor greasy. So, during my recent NYC weekend, I made it my goal in life to find cheap, greasy pizza that was also intensely satisfying in flavour and quality.

My search for pizza nirvana was extremely scientific, in that I set a very scientifically-calculated price limit of $3 per slice and opted to avoid all major chains (that I knew of, being a lowly Canadian). And then I went to the first place I saw. It happened to be a pizzeria that was hilariously named Not Ray’s Pizza, located in the hipster-infiltrated Fort Greene neighbourhood of Brooklyn. On its face, it looked perfect – the promotional A-frame sign with a few slide-in letters missing, the facade untouched since about 1962 and the bright fluorescent lighting – so I boldly walked in and ordered a plain cheese slice. The man behind the counter took my order in a curt fashion and carelessly tossed my slice into the oven; an approach to service that was exactly what I was looking for. I had high hopes for the pizza when I saw it emerge from the oven, its generous helping of cheese glistening with glorious grease. I eagerly took my first bite, and was immediately in two minds.  The cheese was suitably stringy and melted. The sauce had a hint of sweetness that highlighted the quality of the tomatoes. However, the crust was reminiscent of the worst French baguettes in the bargain bin at a suburban Carrefour. It had all the texture appeal of a miserably undercooked piece of tofu and the flavour of tepid cardboard. It was also far too thick for a slice of New York pizza, which is meant to be folded over and enjoyed as an impromptu sandwich of glory. A pizzeria where the attention to detail stops where the crust starts does not deserve praise and, accordingly, Not Ray’s Pizza gets 2.89 out of 5 brown thumbs down.

notrayspizza

Not Ray’s Pizza

My disappointing experience with Not Ray’s Pizza prompted me to look for its positive doppelgänger in the hopes that Ray was doing a better job. In classic MC fashion, I stumbled upon it after walking the Highline Park on Manhattan’s West Side. Original Ray’s Pizza had the right look and feel, and I was optimistic when I walked through the door. The decor was nice and kitschy, with garish tile murals of the Rialto bridge and other Italian tourist traps.

originalrayswall

The dining room was surprisingly large given its prime location – it must be packed on evenings and weekends.  When ordering Alice and I ordered our slices, the service was subpar, in that we weren’t treated with the brusque efficiency of your average pizzeria employee.  Since I love nothing more than being able to fire an order across the counter and get an equally rapid-fire response without so much as a millisecond of eye contact, I was slightly disappointed.  The pizza, however, was a different story.  The slice was a saucy mess in my mouth, which was fantastic since there was enough cheese to match.  The sauce itself was tangy, which, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a different sauce development strategy than the one espoused by Not Ray’s Pizza.  Crucially, the crust had the right balance of crunchiness and chewiness, which sets great pizza apart from the merely mediocre.  All in all, Original Ray’s Pizza scored well on the food, but fell short on blatant indifference toward its clientele.  3.53/5 brown thumbs up and half a fuck you.

Original Ray's

Original Ray’s

I ended up finding pizza nirvana in a place that managed to nail down a slightly grimy décor several generations old, a quality slice with solid sauce and a thin, crispy-chewy crust, and gruff apathy towards its customers – my troika of tremendousness, if you will.  Joe’s Pizza in Greenwich Village was this place, and it unabashedly yet accurately described itself as a neighbourhood “institution”.  It’s a hole-in-the-wall spot near a subway entrance, with just a handful of seats inside and what can only be described as a more or less horizontal piece of timber attached to the wall outside, so that the overflow customers don’t have to sit on the ground.  I was momentarily discouraged by the raft of glowing reviews taped to the front window (I have a non-hipster-ironic distrust of reviews), but once I passed through the door I was heartened to see the old diner-style wall menu, the crusty staff and the thin film of grease and sweat that generally covered the place.  My order was met with the cavalier it’s-nice-that-you-want-pizza-but-don’t-expect-a-smile attitude that I was hoping for.  This primed me for the awesomeness that landed on my paper plate.  The slice that the portly pizzaiolo proffered was thin, cheesy and had little gobs of sauce protruding from every orifice.  The crust was perfectly chewy and crispy and, when I folded it over, it made for a truly tremendous pizza sandwich.  The sauce was a bit sweet and screamed freshness, like the one at Not Ray’s.  The whole slice worked so well that, even though we had just had a delicious brunch at Puerto Viejo, when Alice took a bite to try it, she was so impressed that she made me give her half the slice.  I guess restaurant reviewers can get it right, because Joe’s Pizza is officially the winner of my NYC pizza-fest with 3.77 brown thumbs up.

Joe's Pizza

Joe’s Pizza

Pizza is firmly established as a New York grab-and-go snack/drunk food of choice, and it has evolved to the point where even a dirt-cheap slice of pie can be good enough to make a foodie moan with glee.  Unfortunately, Toronto isn’t quite mature enough yet to claim anything more than mediocre street meat as an institutionalized snack.  We need to do better on this front, and hopefully our answer to NYC pizza will be quality food-truck fare that takes advantage of all the great food cultures that have come to be assembled in this city.  Of course, the oafish, Ottawa-inspired technocrats at City Hall would have to join the rest of us in the 21st century in order for this to happen.

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