New Yorkers know to plan ahead when they get a craving for Lombardi’s pizza. The average wait on a Friday night is about 45 minutes, and this is after a significant expansion recently. But on Wednesday, the line extended a lot further than usual, down the entire length of Mott Street, and by 8:30 the wait was estimated at two to three hours. A bewildered-looking older man asked the manager, who flitted outside every few minutes, when would be a better time to come. “Any other time” was the answer. “Like, come in tomorrow and pay $15.”
Lombardi’s, which is widely known as the oldest pizzeria in the country (and also for being a favorite among connoisseurs), was celebrating its one-hundredth birthday by giving pies away for five cents (we don’t know the original price per pie—it was chosen to symbolize the official birth year, 1905). The line had begun forming at 9:30 that morning—two hours before opening. By nightfall, it had grown bigger and more robust—this wasn’t for the weak, and it certainly wasn’t for old people. In keeping with tradition, the elderly had had their dinners in the late afternoon. A flirtatious white-haired gentleman named Rick told me the wait was just half an hour when he came at four o’clock. He had dined alone, and when asked whether he’d been able to finish an entire large pie (eight slices), a grin came over his face. “Yes, but I left some of the edges. So, that’s not that much bread” he paused and furrowed his brow. “You know, I should have taken those with me.”
Meanwhile, the un-retired were getting caught up in the moment. Just like camping out to buy tickets to see your favorite band, the best way to pass the time in this sort of situation is to travel in a pack—preferably a merry one. The mood of those who’d made it to the front was verging on rowdy. Being able to see inside, where double-cut pepperoni slices, curled from the heat of a wood-burning oven, rested on perfectly thin New York-style crusts, had a transforming effect on the hungry. Some were barely able to restrain yelps and hoots of desperation whenever the hostess ushered in another table. The booze they clutched, concealed in brown paper bags, was partly to thank for keeping up moral and numbing their limbs from the 45-degree breezes. A party of four fraternity types broke into an unforgettable chorus of “Shake dat Laffy Taffy”.
On hand to keep things under control were some of the restaurant’s managers. As closing time (eleven o’clock) approached, I asked one young man, who had been watching from the police barricade, whether he would be glad when things went back to normal. He shrugged. “This only happens every hundred years, you know.”