Building the Country’s Best Pizza Pie
One man’s quest to collect and freeze a slice from his favorite pizzerias across the country.
There are 36 slices of pizza in my freezer. No, these aren’t leftovers from a Super Bowl party. In fact, they’re not even from one pizza place.
For lack of a better term, it’s my pizza library that I have carefully built from visiting pizzerias across America (as the TSA says, “pie does fly”), and around New York’s five boroughs. Each piece is carefully enveloped in plastic wrap, and labeled with the name of the pizzeria and date that I acquired it.
These are little magic carpets that transport me to the past, saucy flux capacitors that make it possible to revisit people and places—estranged, distant, far-flung. Late at night, I’ve counted them instead of sheep and they’ve been central to several marital, ahem, disagreements (not that I can really argue it’s sane).
In my defense, for nearly a decade, I’ve curated an online list of the 101 best pizzas in America as voted on by critics, experts, and fanatics. Weddings, funerals, holidays, whatever impetus for travel is an excuse for me to eat pizza. Tomato pies, tavern-cut, bar, potato pizza, grilled, pan, upside-down, apizza, St. Louis, Detroit, Old Forge—name the style I’ve had it. Pizza even drew me to Buffalo, whose food scene I wrote two books about, including some 70 pages about, you guessed it, their local pizza scene.
But there are a few people on earth who actually eat more pizza than me. Pizzaiolos. Colin Hagendorf wrote Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza, about eating in every pizzeria in Manhattan. Mike Roman, a New Jersey teacher made news for eating pizza daily for nearly 40 years. More impressive? Vice’s story about Maryland woodworker Dan Janssen, who has survived on nothing but pizza for 25 years. But I am that guy. The one with the pizza briefs, socks, buttons, patches, and T-shirts. I walk into my local Starbucks and Dallas the barista hails me with, “Pizza saves!” Framed pizza articles I’ve written line my apartment walls. One Christmas, I was gifted three copies of a pizza book I already had and am quoted in. I estimate I eat pizza some 120 times a year. So, if I’m eating three meals a day, that means about 10-percent of it is pizza. And if I’m not eating pizza, I’m thinking about the next slice.
I may have a one-track mind but I’m not a hoarder. My “only” other collectibles are books, letters, food t-shirts, kitchen tools, and old poetry. I have, to keep the peace, winnowed my slice collection on occasion. But there’s so much pizza coming in. I’m haunted...by something that doesn’t even have a name.
A “pie” (of course) is a collection of slices, usually eight from one source. However, my motley mix of styles and slices are stored in the rear right corner of my freezer—stacks of triangles (isosceles, equilateral, acute and obtuse scalene), squares, and rectangles are balanced by virtue of being frozen and strategically wedged between shelf and ceiling.
Proponents of cold or room-temp pizza (“leftover pizza” is an oxymoron) and followers of the reheat cult may disagree, but collecting slices is like trying to collect Buddhist sand mandalas, artforms that exist in near perfection in their anticipation, the penultimate moment of completion, the breath of existence, that then give way to entropy, or in this case, coagulation.
Make no mistake, pizza is an artform and is universally recognized. Draw a triangle with small circles inside. Almost anyone in the world knows what you’re referring to without a word. Taken further, the circle is an ancient and universal symbol of oneness, wholeness, holiness, infinity, and the sun. To earth-centered religions in history, it represents the feminine spirit, the cosmos or a spiritualized Mother Earth. Just watch pizza’s high priests, pizzaiolos, work. Inside the circle, there is the spiral—a ladle of life-affirming red sauce that starts in the center and circles ever further outward. Said to be the oldest symbol used in spiritual practices, the spiral reflects the pattern of evolution and growth. It represents the goddess, the womb, fertility, and life. In nature, it’s found in physiology, animals, plants, minerals, energy patterns, weather, growth, and yes…death. These sacred symbols remind us of our ever-winding journey as it stretches through life. They represent innocence, rebirth, eternity, and, yes, pizza.
No. None of my behavior makes “sense.” I live in New York, America’s Pizza Capital, home to some of its most vaunted spots. More infuriating, I’m snobby about eating pizza. I don’t believe “all pizza is good pizza” or that “pizza is like sex, even when it’s bad it’s pretty good.” I absolutely don’t believe you can responsibly judge pizza from one bite (you must be skipping the cornicione). I won’t eat frozen food-aisle pizza. I won’t finish a slice if it’s mediocre.
I’m even particular about delivery pizza. As a self-appointed judge on America’s high court of pizza, I take pizza too seriously to render an opinion when its delivered. Gruppo, two blocks from home in the East Village, is close enough for its thin pies to arrive unsteamed. Neapolitan is trickier. These pies must be eaten even nearer creation and suffer worse calamities from travel. I won’t have this style of pizza delivered at all. Worse, I judge my neighbors who discard Domino’s boxes in our recycling room when mom-and-pop joints are down the street—though, to be honest, they’re too mediocre for me to patronize.
These self-imposed rules may be ridiculous. But they are my rules. I bend around them to live in a real world where I have friends and a family. (To be clear, if I’m at your house and you order pizza, and I’m hungry, I won’t say no—I’m not that much of a monster.)
Our no-frills Electrolux fridge (ice-maker not included) has hosted other memorable extended guests. There was the first (and only) deer I’ve killed, gamey-tasting, like regret. (“You killed Bambi?,” my wife exclaimed when I came home with it. “You were supposed to just get drunk with my father, not kill anything!”) There was the hurka (Hungarian blood sausage) I brought back from a food research trip. Misguided efforts with açai and spirulina. The fridge, otherwise spotless by most standards, has hosted cans of Cerveza Cristal from Cuba since before you could fly direct from the U.S. and nearly decade-old Dr Pepper soda made with cane sugar and bottled in Dublin, Texas. It also held my wife’s breast milk after our son’s birth. These guests have power. Emotional resonance. But not like pizza. I didn’t start collecting with a goal. And 36 slices isn’t a magic number. It’s just my max capacity.
I grew up visiting my grandparents’ farm in Western Massachusetts, where the basement of the house my grandfather built held a storage freezer filled with wintered vegetables. Din-Din and Elmer, steers I helped feed, disappeared downstairs, too. (Dinner and glue references hid in plain sight until burger hit griddle.) I have no doubt that if we had room for such a freezer in Manhattan it’d be full of pizza.
We don’t. So I’m forced to think critically about the pizza I’d eat on death row on a desert island. After all, what have I been doing but trying to assemble the perfect pie? I’m not saying these are the best pizzerias in America, but currently the eight places I want one more slice of before I die are:
- A cup-and-char pepperoni pie at Bocce Club Pizza in Buffalo
- A plain slice from the original Joe’s in the West Village
- A margherita at Razza in Jersey City with a side of its handmade butter
- Louie and Ernie’s crumbled sausage pizza after a Yankees game
- A tomato pie with shrimp from Frank Pepe’s the Spot in New Haven
- Margot’s Supreme at pizza writer Adam Kuban’s pop-up at Pizza Loves Emily in Brooklyn
- The Doughdici, an 86-hour fermented, 12-hour risen pie from Sofia Pizza Shoppe in Manhattan
- The sesame-studded Freddy Prince from Paulie’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
I wouldn’t be mad if someone airdropped pies from Great Lake (Chicago, closed), Pizzeria Bianca (Phoenix), Micucci’s (Portland, Maine), Di Fara (in its prime), La Piazza (Merrick, Long Island), Star Tavern (Orange, New Jersey), Margherita (Jamaica, Queens), Scarr’s (Manhattan), Jay’s Artisan Pies (Buffalo), and Beddia (Philadelphia, closed).
But the more I consider my collection, the more I realize maybe the pie I really want to build is one that I can’t have, one that allows me to relive some of my favorite pizza-related moments.
The first slice is a very thin, well-sauced, and over-cheesed one from the long-gone Violeta’s in my childhood hometown of Merrick on Long Island, and through it, I’m able to rewind to a kid tasting pizza for the first time
If I’m being honest, the next piece would come from an…unexpected place. On Sundays in Hong Kong in the 1980s, while my family lived there, my mother, father, sister, and I would sometimes go to Pizza Hut. It was the only pizza game in town, where you’d wait for your pan pie while watching locals game the one-visit salad bar by strategically piling bowls a half-foot high, and return, one foot haltingly in front of the other, second after second, to their tables, trying to feed an entire family without spilling.
Then there’s a pie from Sal’s of Glen Cove, Long Island, which a group of us would eat behind my high school gym. At the time, I’d never kissed a girl, still pulled for the Knicks, and was founder of the school’s chess club. For a reason I can’t remember, Alvin Haruthunian always threw the cheese from his slice over his shoulder.
I have to include the grandma pie at Umberto’s of New Hyde Park on Long Island because it was a favorite of my rapscallion grandfather, John Tortorello, a smoking, joking, Fedora-topped Brooklyn detective who, the family story goes, helped stop the Nixon assassination.
There should also be a slice from Domino’s. I ate my share of the chain pizza while in college at Georgetown, since there were no good pizzerias in D.C. in the ‘90s. While the food was edible, what I really crave is the camaraderie of being a delinquent 20-year-old—drinking, smoking, up to no good with like-minded friends.
On the other hand, there is the pizza from Da Michele. I was in Naples during a four-month walkabout and encountered this spot. I was so taken by it I went back for a second pie, which made me miss the ferry to Sicily and resulted in my eating arancini with a harpoon-wielding bunkmate at 6 AM.
And my list wouldn’t be complete without New York’s legendary Patsy’s. The bike ride up First Avenue to Spanish Harlem is part of the wonderful experience. There are few things more pleasurable than looking out of the establishment’s picture window and eating a great slice on a perfect summer day as the city breezes by.
Una Pizza Napoletana on the Lower East Side also makes the list, which is where my son Gus grabbed his first crust off my plate as my wife and I cheered him on.
Domino’s? Pizza Hut? Yeah, I’m your huckleberry.
But I digress. We haven’t even begun discussing the best way to reheat slices, how long before they’re too freezer-burned, and the merits of foil vs. plastic wrap. I haven’t even listed all the slices that are in my freezer right now.
More importantly, our pizza is getting cold, right? And, perhaps, divulging all the details of my collection will mean that my pie is complete. But I’m not quite ready for that. I think there are still a few pieces out there I need to get…