The Man Who Ate a Million Slices
In search of perfection, I eat all of NYC's pizza
My one fear in life is that I’ll be tossed in a straitjacket and taken to food rehab. In the customary "Dear substance" letter, mine is addressed to pizza. There’s no doubt at some point I’ll sneak some in and freebase it in my padded cell.
The source of my obsession is unknown, but began six years ago when I started ranking every pizza I consumed (the rating system had fast-food pizza like Domino's as a 0, while pizza perfection would be a 10). I consider myself a pizzaphile/connoisseur — I’ve sampled it in over 200 shops slinging pie on three continents. I’ve even been called a "pizza douche" by jealous friends. On a recent visit to New York City, I focused on expanding my pizza horizon. My professional itinerary included a cannoli-eating contest and an appearance on Regis and Kelly to break the banana-eating record, but more importantly adhering to a strict and comprehensive pizza-eating schedule.
If you desire a pizza Mecca, then look no further than NYC (it pains me to say being a Chicagoan, but it’s true). In my prayers to the pizza gods I bow and kneel while turning my palate due east. I’ve hit all the coal-burning staples, shitty single-slice spots, plus all the hidden neighborhood favorites so passionately debated.
What follows is my roughly outlined summation of my recent experiences trying to eat as much pizza in NYC as I could get my hands on.
After my appearance on Regis, with a bellyful of bananas and a feeling of disgrace for only tying the record (7 in a minute; they actually made me peel them), I set out for some of NYC's most noteworthy pizza joints, and the most widely praised of them all, Di Fara. I like to think this excerpt from a review I wrote a few years back captures its true essence and that of owner/pizza maker Domenico DeMarco, and holds true to this day:
"First arrival into this pizza Mecca makes one wonder if this is what pizza was like when it first arrived on the scene over a century ago. What appears to be my Italian grandfather is making a few pizzas before he goes on his daily walk. As with grocery shopping, I wouldn't recommend going to Di Fara hungry because it takes a little time. But the wait allows you to see all the accolades and watch the master at work.
"He painstakingly assembles each pie to order using 'no shortcuts,' as he muttered his secret to my friend and me. He grates all cheese to order and snips fresh basil over the finished masterpiece. A healthy drizzle of virgin oil pre- and post-oven is the perfect flavor vehicle of all that is good and perfect in this pizza."
I suggest you trek out to Brooklyn and watch the old master at work. Think Mr. Miyagi in a pizza dojo, but the only wax-on-wax-offing is the removal of the oily goodness that covers your lips and chin, ideally with your tongue.
Di Fara is a rare 9+ pizza. In my opinion, the quality of their ingredients rivals that of the world’s best 3-star Italian joints. The fact that DeMarco’s been making pizza this good for 40 years is nothing short of remarkable, and anything with a 9 ranking or better in my book is no joke. To loosely paraphrase The French Laundry Cookbook, perfection is unachievable, but the notion that it exists is my inspiration to leave no pizza stone unturned.
Waking up early the next day with a scorching case of heartburn is not the ideal way to attend a cannoli-eating contest...yet I ultimately prevailed by downing a record-breaking 32 six-inch cannolis (that's 16 feet for you math whizzes) in six minutes. Mouth shredded to a pulp, post-contest shots of digestif taught me the effects of sambuca on open mouth sores.
My other noteworthy stop proved to be Artichoke Pizza, where the specialty is akin to thick, creamy artichoke dip on a crispy dough base. To call it pizza is kind of a stretch. The reviews are mixed, so with a solid beer buzz and cannoli cream-covered clothes I dug in and enjoyed.
The amount of flavor delivered in each bite was off the charts. Given my stomach capacity and appetite, even I would struggle to put down more than a few slices. Artichoke has a lot of things going for it: open late, good slice and beer in a large styrofoam vessel that makes drinking in public a proverbial walk in the park.
Pizza by the slice
NYC seems to have a love-hate relationship with pizza by the slice. Most hardcore places refuse to serve them, displaying signs trumpeting their "no slices" policy. On the lower end, a great number of shitty dollar-slice saloons are popping up to peddle cardboard 24/7.
My take is that the correlation of a slice to whole pie is similar to the correlation between cleavage and full nudity. Sure, cleavage is nice, but you don’t get a true sense of what you’re dealing with. Just go to a topless joint in Tijuana and you'll know what I mean. When ordering a whole pizza, there is no amount of vertical stripes, push-up bras, glitter, opaque makeup or parmesan that can hide its true traits and faults.
My ritual is to order a whole margarita or cheese pie so a true sense of the chef’s skill, quality of ingredients and finesse can be assessed.
Heaven and hell
I’m not sure I believe in heaven and hell, but there is a proverb that describes heaven as a lavish feast with everyone feeding each other using giant forks. Hell is set with the same lavish spread, but no one can eat as they selfishly try feeding themselves with the same forks.
My heaven is as an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring my favorite pizzas from childhood. My hell is filled with ass-douches filling up on the overhyped boutique pizzas du jour using a fork and knife, but only after dabbing the grease off of the surface with a couple of napkins.
I leave you with a quote from the great Jack Handy: "If when you die you get a choice between pie heaven and regular heaven, choose pie heaven. It might be a trick, but if not...mmmboy."
Patrick Bertoletti is a chef, proud sporter of the patented "molestache" and the #2-ranked competitive eater in the world. He lives in Chicago. Follow his eating adventures on twitter at @DeepDishEats.
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