If there are two constants we face as New Yorkers, one is change and the other, our hunger for pizza. It was only a matter of time then before someone combined the two — in this case, five friends who over the past four years documented a changing New York through the time-weathered eyes of 120 of the “most authentic slice joints.” The result of there efforts: The New York Pizza Project book, which launched last week. In the excitement of the long-awaited release, we caught up with project member Ian Manheimer to find out more about the project, his thoughts on the precarious concept that is authenticity, and what makes the perfect pizzeria.
How long did it take you to visit all those pizzerias and how does it feel to finally have the book out?
It took four and a half years in total because we wanted to really represent everything this city had to offer, which meant having to go to every corner of the city and spend every weekend and after-work hours scouting these places. We also had to spend time building relationships to do it well and in a true way. So, it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and the response has been really good, so, it feels great.
In light of the recent closing down of a place such as Carmine’s in Greenpoint, for me the true value of this project is as a form of historical documentation — what do you see it as?
If this project were to have any effect for me, it would be to slow down the turnover of intergenerational shops like Carmine’s. If this book can go out there and create any kind of discussion, or evoke a feeling, it’s that there’s a really quality offering in the marketplace for these types of pizzerias and that if you don’t actively support them, then they won’t be there forever and we see this happening all over the city. There’s this feeling we get from the new generation being brought up with a different concept of what quality is. There’s so much choice in the marketplace now, that as New Yorkers we have to ask ourselves what do we want this city to look like and what’s our role in that as consumers and how do we make decisions?
Yeah, this is why we wanted to channel the most authentic voices and you can’t question the authenticity of these pizza makers, they’ve been in the neighborhoods for generations in the same spot doing the same thing. They’re all ingratiated and beloved within their communities and to me, they are the owners of the New York vanguard and we just wanted to give them a platform for their voices to come out. If we could do that correctly then they lend their credibility and authenticity to our book, and our book becomes authentic.
From the pizza maker’s perspectives, they’ve been in these places for decades – the same recipes, the same process, almost the same price of the product. Everything about these pizza places is about keeping it traditional, while everything around them is changing rapidly. So while they’re an institution keeping something true, New York is rapidly changing and they have this amazing perspective of sitting there trying to do the same thing while the neighborhoods around them change. One of the first questions we asked all the makers is how their neighborhood/New York changed and that was one of the most interesting parts of our book.
There are several different myths that surround that. One of the leading ones was that the first slice was actually in Connecticut but the first pizzeria in the city was Lombardi’s on Spring Street. Gennaro Lombardi was a maker and he started it around 1910 but pizza in New York didn’t become popular until the ’40 or ’50s when the GI’s who were stationed in Italy and ate pizza over there returned from the war and had a love and taste for pizza. There was already a large Italian American community so the GI’s started demanding it.
The place that really has my heart is Johnny’s Pizzeria in Sunset Park. The story with Johnny’s is that they’ve been there, now second generation, since the 60s and about ten years ago a Papa John’s decided to open up a shop directly next door. They’re still next to each other and have been locked in combat for about a decade. We saw in the last year the number of chain stores in the city increase five-fold from the year before and for me, Johnny’s is a metaphor for the two possible New Yorks: the traditional New York that a lot of people have a special place for and the convenient New York. So, Johnny’s is a fighter and really sees itself as part of a bigger mission than just selling pizza.
Yeah, because it’s one of the only classic slice places owned by a young guy. The thing is, it’s honestly just not a great business to have, there’s a lot of pressure and you’re selling a cheap product so you don’t see many new traditional places because of the market pressure.
What’s so poignant from talking with the pizza makers is that they’ll talk about how costly it is to run their small businesses in New York today, with more pressure than they’ve ever had before and you’d think the first thing to go out the window then would be the quality of ingredients. But for these guys, they’d sooner go out of business than skimp on quality. If you’re trying to come in and start a place and you’re not buying that Grande cheese and tomatoes from Italy – the best ingredients – then you’re not doing it at all. The New York pizza eater is pretty snobby and they’re going to know. Every time we go into a pizzeria, the foundation of it is the quality of the ingredients. Otherwise, keeping it simple, fast service, paper plates all that stuff and, of course, the characters who serve you.
The New York Pizza Project is available for purchase at the Brooklyn Museum, Project 8 @Ace Hotel, Spoonbill & Sugartown, and Concrete & Water. Or, just by clicking here.