I suppose it’s time to talk about pizza. But where to begin? I should probably start where my earliest memory of pizza takes place, at Vinnie’s Pizza, on Amsterdam Avenue, between 73rd and 74th street, just one long avenue block from my dad’s old apartment. Though heartbreakingly closed now, during its prime, this was probably one of the best pizza places in the city (which is a hilarious thing to say, right? We all think we know where the best pizza places are. The thing is, we’re all right.). It wasn’t a sit-down place; it was the sort of place where you bought a slice and started eating it as you were walking out the door (for a guide to how New Yorkers eat pizza, see the opening credits of Louie). They did such incredible business at Vinnie’s that there were always pies coming out of the oven and you never got a reheated slice. I know this sounds like some kind of apocryphal legend, but I swear it was true, at least during the time that I was going there.
As I recall, we never got toppings on pizza. This came to me later in life. As a child, I simply got a plain slice (I know I cannot stop talking about this, but every time someone outside of the city smirks and says “a cheese slice?” when I ask for a plain slice, I am always tempted to say, Oh, are there slices that come without cheese?? or something worse, but I just sigh and nod.) (actually if you’re looking for a rant about pizza there is nothing better than Jon Stewart’s moving and hilarious testimonial to New York pizza, in which, five years ago, during a perfectly justified tantrum directed at Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, he explains that you eat a slice of pizza with one hand and use the other “to take an irresponsible amount of napkins.” I seriously can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that made me prouder to be a New Yorker.).
Because let’s be honest. There is some bad pizza out there. I didn’t really know that the kind of pizza I like is thin crust pizza because I wasn’t aware there were other kinds. One terrible night my freshman year of college someone suggested getting “pizza” and ordered a pie from Domino’s. I remember the horror I experienced after my first and only bite. I looked around at my roommates and others mindlessly chomping away and I felt unbearably lonely and homesick. These days, I am much more forgiving than I used to be because I realize that many people just simply do not know. They use the word “pizza” and I use the word “pizza” and we are not talking about the same thing.
Now I’m not saying that the best pizza is only found in New York. If you happen to find yourself in Providence, Rhode Island, be sure to get to Bob and Timmy’s, where their exquisite grilled pizza will bring tears to your eyes, and where my boyfriend Tony and I spent nearly every meal in Providence (that we weren’t spending at Apsara, of course).
But the fact is, New York really does seem to get it right much of the time, the way they also get falafels just right. And let’s not forget that pizza turns out to be exactly the food you want to eat after a night of running around and probably drinking, and most pizza places in New York are open way way into the night (I’m remembering a particular pizza place on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, near all those Irish bars, whose perfect slice rendered me speechless one stupid night many years ago).
And, if you’re lucky, or just, you know, at some random pizza place, you might even have a celebrity encounter! Once, at the Ray’s on 86th Street, I witnessed a haughty Christopher Reeve demand that his slice be hot, not warm, hot, and another time, I walked out of the pizza place near the Fourth Avenue subway stop in Park Slope to see Steve Buscemi leaning against the outside of the building. These are only two examples!
Meanwhile, here in upstate New York, you’d think that the pizza options would be a lot more limited (and you’d be right), but weirdly I happen to live very close to a truly excellent pizza place. I keep wondering if I’ve just been out of the city too long, but once, when my dad ordered a pie for us when we were visiting him in the city, I had to admit that Pizza Den’s pizza was actually better (I know!).
But even if I don’t get to have New York City pizza all that much any more, I am thrilled that it’s out there, that it is part of where I come from, and that it formed the person I am today. What I’m talking about, people, is a plain slice. It’s that simple.