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Sunday
Jan082012

« pizza it is a-changin' »

At some point during my unhappy junior high years ― I think it was 1980 or ‘81 ― my family visited New York for a weekend.  Aside from hitting certain predictable Midtown attractions (hansom ride in Central Park, Fifth Avenue, watching ice skaters) ― we went down to the Village for Ray’s Pizza ― ie. THE Ray’s Pizza ― the one at the corner of 6th Avenue & 11th Street, which served a stretchy, artery-clogging, oozy and indulgent slice of pie.  The cheese per slice must have weighed at least a quarter-pound ― it was disgusting.  And it was my favorite part of the weekend.

The Ray’s phenomenon ― dozens of New York pizzerias called Ray’s (or some mutation of the name, like Famous Rays or Famous Original Rays) ― has perplexed many a soul who’ve set foot in Manhattan.  In 2006 a reader posed a question to the New York Times’s “F.Y.I.” column: “The city is filled with Ray’s Pizzas.  Where was the first Ray’s Pizza and what’s the story behind it?”  The answer given was that Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street opened in 1959, but it otherwise did not offer much detail on the saga.  (Many articles and posts have since elaborated.  I like pizza historian Scott Wiener’s 2011 rendition.)

I would guess that the Ray’s at 6th Avenue & 11th Street must have garnered more fame and bigger crowds during the 1970s-‘80s than any other Ray’s ever.  (Its ascent may have begun when in 1973 a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker called their pizza “reliably and famously delicious,” and pointed out that while living in London, its owner had been second chef at the American embassy and head chef at the Italian and Greek embassies.)

In the pizza business, endurance and consistency are not guaranteed.  The last time I ate at the Greenwich Village Ray’s, I found the weight of the cheese unbearable and its texture like rubber.  Maybe it was an off day.  But, however it happened, that particular Ray’s ― famous in its past ― closed for good in October 2011.  According to the Village Voice, the owners faced a rent increase and lost their lease.  (Soon to open in its place: Famous Original Ray’s ― not kidding.)

The truly-true original Ray’s (at 27 Prince Street) also closed in 2011.  Its owner, who shares a stake in the building with family, told me that they voted  to raise the rent.  Her pizzeria couldn’t afford to stay.  (The space has since been divided in half and replaced with a new pizzeria called Prince Street Pizza and a soon-to-be spa.)

Of course it boils down to economics.  

The owner of a well-revered-but-small pizzeria on the Upper West Side told me that he must sell 300 slices a day to break even on the rent alone ($9,000/month).  That’s before all of the other costs ― like ingredients, gas & electric, salaries, and taxes.  Sure, in New York a good pizzeria can sell many pies, but at what point does high rent make a small (but worthwhile) business no longer viable?  If, as the owner fears, the rent increases $12,000/month when it expires in five years, the city will lose yet another valuable pizza asset.

We can’t fight this.  But we can elect to support good places.  Manhattan residents may have the most to worry about since that’s where rents are highest.  (Of course, the success of a business depends on more than the cost of rent.)

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It’s not just closings.  The upscaling of pizza has long been underway.  In the last five years, we’ve seen many new places opting to sell $14 individual pies rather than $3 slices.

A $14 margherita is made with imported (or fresh/local) mozzarella, naturally sweet tomatoes, and a dough made from premium flour.  It serves one.  Di Fara Pizza, deep in Brooklyn, charges $5 per slice for pizza made with generous portions of fresh mozzarella, Italian parmesan, and extra virgin olive oil.  $14, $5: these prices may seem high, but compared to non-pizza restaurants a cheese and tomato pie remains a budget-worthy fresh food option.

Occupying the middle price tier of New York pizza are artisanal shops that have ― sometimes for generations ― served homemade pies with a level of pride and class well beyond that of the cheap eats spots.  To me, these “old school” places define New York pizza ― an institution that has dominated the city’s affordable food landscape for over 50 years.  They include slice spots like Joe’s on Carmine Street and whole-pie-only restaurants like Totonno’s in Coney Island and John’s on Bleecker Street.  

At the bottom end of the spectrum, 99¢ slice spots move hundreds (or is it thousands?!) of pies a day, employing minimal craftsmanship and using low-cost, low-quality ingredients.  We should be concerned that as rents and costs continue to climb, these types of pizzerias could continue their campaign against quality.

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In an earlier post, I published data on New York’s mid-century pizza boom.  According to my count from old phone books, the number of pizzerias in Manhattan grew from ten in 1958, to 165 in 1970.  As the pace of city life increased over time and the array of quick food options broadened, fast food gained an increasing foothold in the city.  But unlike much of the competition in this category (for instance, hot dogs from a cart), pizza has long stood out as more homemade than most other quick food options ― a good pizzeria prepares its dough and sauce from scratch, uses a minimally-processed low moisture mozzarella (or fresh mozzarella), and cooks pies to order.

In a 1985 New York Times article entitled “Pizza Chains Toughest Turf,” the growth of national pizza chains was cited as a threat to established NYC pizza shops.  Godfather’s had opened a few branches in Manhattan and had promised to open more; and though neither Domino’s nor Pizza Hut had yet opened, plans were in the works.

Dennis Riese (of the Riese Organization, the conglomerate that operated Godfather’s restaurants in Manhattan at the time), said about the coming storm of chain pizzerias: ‘We will probably change the pizza industry in New York City.’”

As a response, the article quoted Vito Bologna, manager of The One and Only Ray’s Pizza in Greenwich Village: “‘They could have over 200 stores and it won’t matter to us,” he said.

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I haven’t yet gone to the pizzeria that replaced the 1959 Ray’s on Prince Street, but I’d venture to guess prices will be higher.  The city’s first slice was probably served at Patsy’s in Harlem, where owner Patsy Lancieri sought to bring pizza (and many other varieties of affordable food) to the Italians who lived nearby during the the Depression years.  Even Gennaro Lombardi, who may have been the first to make a round pizza big enough to cut into eight slices did so with economy in mind.  Pizza ought to be affordable.  When the price of pizza gets too high, it’ll be clear that it’s time to get out of Dodge.  That is, unless you can afford to stay in Dodge.

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