“One of our taglines is: it’s not about the pizza, it’s about everything else,” says New York-native Corey Mintz, a graphic designer who, along with four other buddies, scoured the boroughs over the past five years, collecting interviews and taking photographs of 100 of “NYC’s last authentic pizzerias” for his book, The New York Pizza Project.
Rather than stylize it with food porn, Mintz and his team took an an anthropological approach to pizza lore, zeroing in on the the makers, eaters, and neighborhoods that form the bedrock of local pizza culture. “At first we thought of organizing it by neighborhood, but then we figured people would skip immediately to Brooklyn or the Bronx. The current structure is the way we saw it.”
At the core of this book lies an unsettling truth: While these places are celebrated as “time voids” that resist change, the project also stands as a testament for the need to document them before they fade away.
We caught up with Mintz to talk about the next wave of challenges for these institutions, and why they’re worth memorializing.
This isn’t a focus on the actual pizza. How come?
When it comes to pizza, everyone has personal pride for specific places. We didn’t want to come off as culinary snobs. We were interested in what goes on behind the pizza. Each pizza-maker has his own recipe, and that’s fine. Their stories form the foundation of what this city really is. For us, we really like the experience of being there and what it means.
What was your plan of attack? How did you know which places to hit?
We started with the legendary places like Di Fara and L&B Spumoni. We researched on Yelp or would just walk around neighborhoods, since there are spots on practically every block. We’d cold call places, which helped us capture them in their natural setting. They weren’t prepared, so they were focused on their daily activity.
What were some of the most surprising things you learned?
There’s a lot of great stories that involve passing the torch down from generation to generation. People who’ve started working at these shops when they’re seven-years-old, and watching their fathers make pies. But not everyone shares that. Pugsley Pizza on Arthur Ave, for instance. The owner didn’t come from that background. He had a 30-piece gong band in Woodstock. The guy at Carmine’s was a baker who learned how to work with dough. Also every person thinks he’s the best. ‘My sauce is the best, my dough. I’ll tell you why.’ And they should, because they invest so much time into their craft.
You focus on slice joints and not pizza parlors. What’s the reason for this?
Slice joints are grab-and-go, and it’s who we are as New Yorkers. At parlors, customers don’t really get to connect with the work that’s being done. The interaction is different.
Are these places in danger of becoming extinct? What are the biggest challenges?
Obviously gentrified neighborhoods. Rents rise, and these spots don’t want to cheapen their ingredients. Carmine’s in Greenpoint just closed, as did Pizza Box in the West Village. A lot of these places are competing against the dollar slice, which is now becoming a part of the culture. But in general we like the more mom-and-pop places that have history; you can relive that. I’m personally not a fan, which is why we didn’t feature any of them in our book.
How do the places differ from borough to borough?
The West Village has a thin-crust style. A lot of it has to do with demographics. In certain parts of Brooklyn they have a thicker crust with a ton of cheese. Other neighborhoods will sell beef patties or gyros. The menu caters to the surrounding people.