Food is not place, and pizza is not New York City. But for me, the connection between eating in a place and being in a place is heavy with meaning.
It’s against this backdrop that the most recent installment of CUNY Pie was conceived. In a few weeks, I’ll be moving to Chicago. So last Friday, a group of CUNY folks, led by my old chums Matt Gold and Luke Waltzer, organized a send-off for me. The theme: a daylong pizza rampage through Brooklyn and Manhattan. These friends know that I have a history not only of eating good food, but of eating large quantities of it, at a large number of places, within short periods of time. In this sense, they couldn’t have chosen a better operating principle for the event.
The send-off tapped into more than just my gluttonous sensibilities. It served, in a sense, as a fitting bookend to my life in New York.
I came to the city almost thirteen years ago. I’d just graduated college, and had never lived anywhere but in small and medium towns of the Midwest. New York City was a sensory flood. Like so many who come here, I was staggered by the depth and breadth of cultures, the intertwingled histories of the peoples of the metropolis. I struggled to get a foothold. How do you live in New York? How do you find your place, become part of the place?
Instinctively, I turned to food. So many of the subcultures that make New York an amazing and ymysterious place are, by that very token, difficult to penetrate. Food, however, is a great equalizer: everybody eats; everybody can formulate their own culinary preferences; anybody can walk into a restaurant and engage in a meaningful way with the culture through the act of eating. It’s only natural, then, that my second or third meal in New York was at Lombardi’s, famously (and allegedly) the first pizzeria in America. The foodways of my youth, which I’d hardly given a thought up to that point – the cheese and the sausage and the sauerkraut and the scalloped potatoes – had prepared me for this kind of engagement. Heck, I used to put away an entire frozen pizza at a sitting. It was perhaps the only foray into the history of the city that I felt qualified to make.
In the years that followed, my feelings about New York as Home developed alongside of my knowledge of the city’s food culture. My mental representation of urban geography reflected, in part, my attempts to track down the best pizza. I learned my way around Coney Island and East Harlem and Midwood on trips to Totonno’s, Patsy’s, and Di Fara. I never quite felt at home in a new neighborhood until I’d found the best local slices: the cheap, the late night, the Sicilian, the specialty, the Grandma, the upscale, the plain. Tracing New York’s family tree of pizza places added a dimension to my understanding of city history, of immigration, of race, of gentrification. And adhering to the lingo and customs of slice joints made me feel less like a transplant, or at least, less like an unwelcome one.
All this went through my mind last Friday, as we walked past the auto body places on Neptune Avenue to meet Michael Smith, who was waiting for us in front of Totonno’s. I’ve said before that Totonno’s is my favorite restaurant in the city. It’s not just the pizza (though, oh, the pizza!) but also the sense that, despite being one of the most storied pizzerias in the world, it clearly remains a neighborhood joint. Now, on many previous visits, I’ve tucked away an entire pie, or close to it. But the ringleaders warned me that this was just our first stop, so we should pace ourselves. We ordered two pies – a plain and a pepperoni – for the six-and-a-half of us (my wife Rebecca and my baby daughter had made the trip with us, and Maura Smale had just walked in).
What can I say about the pizza at Totonno’s? For me, it’s the benchmark New York slice. The ingredients are excellent without being ostentatious. The ancient coal oven blisters the crust with the perfect chew. The basic tomato sauce balances just enough sweetness to dull the bitter char, with just enough acidity to cut through the mellow fresh mozzarella. Other classic New York pies are made in a similar style – Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s, in particular, bear a strong family resemblance – but none are executed as consistently, as modestly, in such perfect proportion, as they are at Totonno’s. Three slices (OK, four, plus some crusts) barely whet my appetite.
One of the great pleasures of Totonno’s is the post-pizza ride on the Cyclone. This CUNY Pie tradition is a test of the will and of the stomach. So we bade farewell to my wife and daughter and made our way down Surf Avenue. The four middle-aged CUNY men bought their tickets and boarded the rollercoaster. (Maura allowed her better judgment to prevail. She held our bags on terra firma.) I’ve ridden the Cyclone many times, and even in the litheness of my twenties, those ninety seconds jostled my rickety skeleton and my full stomach in a not altogether pleasant manner. But what were the chances I’d get back to Coney Island before the damn thing got condemned? So we went, and I’m glad we did – best Cyclone ride ever. Maybe the knowledge that it’d be my last ride – at least for a while – steeled me against those hairpin turns.
After a stroll on the boardwalk and a bask on the pier, we headed for Avenue J and the next stop on our tour: Di Fara. Descriptions of Di Fara often invoke religious imagery. Partly, this is because the pizza is so good. The extravagance of Di Fara pies is an instructive contrast to the understated nature of Totonno’s. A Di Fara slice is doused with salt and good olive oil and freshly cut basil, in proportions that border on the too-generous. The round pie is excellent, but recognizably in the same league as some of the fancier places in New York. For me, the square pie is where the action is: it’s a Sicilian in form, but so unlike the greasebomb at your corner joint that it forces you to rethink what a square pie can be. The crust is parbaked, and the second trip through the oven lends the corner pieces a texture and color that’s hard to describe. Unlike Totonno’s, I wouldn’t want this to be my neighborhood place – it’s too much to eat, say, once per week – but, in moderation, it can be really trascendant.
Beyond the pizza, there’s a lot of mystique around the Di Fara establishment. For decades, the only person who made pizzas there was proprietor Dom DeMarco. Orders were taken somewhat haphazardly, and pies were made with great deliberation. Lines and wait-times had a tendency to swell. The trip to Midwood felt like a pilgrimage; hoping each pizza from the oven would be yours felt like subjugating yourself before God; making eye contact with the pizza maker was like kneeling at the feet of the Maker. I like the pizza at Di Fara, but I have found trips there to be unpleasant for these reasons.
But the gods were smiling on this particular CUNY Pie. We showed up a few minutes before the late-afternoon siesta, when Di Fara locks its doors for an hour. The place was hot but not crowded; right off the bat, we had a place to sit. Dom Sr. was not at the helm, which took something of the romance out of it, but the youngster who made our pies (apparently also named Dom – maybe Dom III?) did a fine job. We had a round and a square between the four of us, which was entirely too much, but it meant leftovers for Michael and Maura, who headed home after this stop. With the exception of the time that I went to Di Fara during a tornado, it was the most pleasant experience I’ve had there.
Full but still functional, I hopped the Q with Matt and Luke back to the city. We grabbed a few beers at Wisconsin-themed watering hole Kettle of Fish – as if I needed a reminder that I’m almost Midwestern again – to kill some time before our third stop of the day. At John’s on Bleecker we were joined by Chris Stein and, in his CUNY Pie debut, the Godfather himself, Dr. George Otte. I didn’t feel confident heading into John’s. I like the place: I’ve been there dozens of times; the pies are, at their best, very good; and it’s definitely a go-to in a neighborhood where the alternative options are not great. But how would it stand up on a stomach full of Totonno’s and Di Fara – two of the very best pizzerias in New York City? I shouldn’t have worried. Our luck held out, and the pizza was quite good, even after the day we’d had.
After John’s, the goal was to hold out for one more late-night slice. So George took his leave, and the four of us remaining soldiered on to a local establishment to bide our time. Chris and Luke, the Jersey contingent, bailed before we had the chance to add a nightcap to our hat trick. It was up to me and Matt to finish what we’d set out to accomplish.
That the night should end like this was fitting. Matt and I started CUNY Pie about six years ago, and have since been the stalwarts. It was me and Matt who wrangled various pizza outings for visiting friends, and me and Matt who traipsed through the outer boroughs for those destinations that others found too inconvenient. It’s like the movie says: Die hard with a vengeance. True to form, we wrapped up the night with a slice at Joe’s on Carmine, one of the finest slice joints in NYC. I can’t say I was really in the mood for pizza at this point. But every New Yorker knows the importance, and indeed the wisdom of the late-night slice, and it was a perfect way to wrap things up.
I can’t thank my friends enough for organizing a send-off like this for me. The pizza was delicious and the cameraderie delightful. More than that, it was a opportunity to reflect on an understanding of my time in New York. Revisiting favorite and familiar pizza joints, alongside good friends, underscores just how much NYC – and CUNY in particular – really has been my home. If pizza offers a primer for thinking about New York City, then a career in CUNY is a master class. Looking back, one of the beauties of CUNY Pie has always been that the approach to the quintessential New York food through the lens of the quintessential New York institution. What better evidence could there be of a true New Yorker than the ability to navigate the CUNY bureaucracy and the ability to name the best slice in any neighborhood, in one person? It’s been a privilege to be a part of it.