Dollar Pizza Reconsidered


Hey, the pizza here is really good!

A thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Sophia Hollander (“Economics, Sliced”) bemoaned the decline of the neighborhood pizza slice, especially in Manhattan, and blamed it pretty squarely on the dollar slice joints, also fingering gourmet pizzerias with elevated prices in passing. We learn, for example, that there are 12 2 Bros. pizzerias in the borough, plus nine owned by 99-cent-Fresh-Pizza, with more to follow. I disagree with four of the article’s salient points and implications: 1) that the dollar slice places are the biggest culprit in the decline; 2) that it is principally Manhattan pizzerias that are affected; 3) that the dollar slices are necessarily a bad thing; and 4) that the neighborhood pizzeria is in mortal danger.

Many of the dollar-pizza offerings are quite spare and unadorned, as with these two pies at 99-cent-Fresh-Pizza on Sixth Avenue.

The neighborhood pizza parlor as a phenomenon dates to the post-WWII era, as the article makes clear, when gas ovens made it possible to reheat slices. (And when a lot of operators, many returning veterans, could suddenly afford to buy the ovens and get started in the pizza business.) At the time, Italian food meant Italian-American food, a red-sauced entity that had originated in New York and other cities near the end of the 19th century. Pizza as we know it was invented at Lombardi’s on Spring Street a little before 1900, and these new 1950s neighborhood pizza parlors carried the earlier coal-oven traditions forth with gas ovens. Many of these ovens bore the name Bari–the capital of Apulia in southern Italy, and the name of the company that pioneered the gas pizza oven.

During the latter half of the 20th century, neighborhood pizzerias flourished, and “two slices and a Coke” became a standard working-person’s lunch in nearly every corner of the city. Its main competition was provided by deli sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs from carts, or something brown-bagged from home. But as immigrants from other cultures streamed in, different forms of plebeian food emerged. In many parts of town, you could soon get falafels, street-cart curries, tacos, and, from Korean vegetables stands, hot dishes, salads, and sushi. The working-class palate was expanding, and pizza was joined by dozens of other opportunities for a cheap lunch.

National pizza chains like Little Caesar’s and Domino’s have had a profound impact on the marketplace, mainly with discounted pies that can retail, with toppings, for as little as $5. Other national franchises like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell also invaded post-1980, accelerating their efforts during the Bloomberg era and being joined by many other franchises. Over the long run, these national franchises have reduced the number of customers for local pizza parlors much more than dollar slice places have done.

I started noticing a decline in the number of pizzerias in other boroughs about 10 years ago. The same factors–nationally franchised restaurants, other types of cheap lunches–were already decimating their numbers, especially in traditional Italian strongholds from Bensonhurst to Corona. It was in poorer neighborhoods with few economic opportunities for restaurateurs that pizzerias remained strong.

At one point last year, the price of a single slice had sunk as low as 75 cents.

2 Bros. St. Marks, in the East Village

Another point only hinted at in Hollander’s piece: Neighborhood slice culture has also been under attack from above. As foodies have fetishized pizza and looked to Naples rather than New York for their models, dozens of Naples-style pizza places have opened, selling a more expensive product, siphoning off pizza parlor profits from the top end. Meanwhile, other forms of Italian have become more popular than Italian-American food. Driven by wood ovens, these upscale “Tuscan” places often sell little pizzas as well. Beleaguered neighborhood pizza guys can only look on helplessly, shaking their heads, as hipster and gourmet pizza parlors have opened, especially in Brooklyn, depriving the neighborhood pizza guy of his most upscale and freest-spending patrons.

I’ve got to agree that the dollar slice places represent a diminishing of slice quality, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good ones. Remember, the cheese is often the weakest part of the neighborhood slice; it’s often just plain bad. This is partly the result of the historical requirement of buying mob cheese. But even if organized crime doesn’t still control pizza cheese, the propensity for using the cheapest and rubberiest mozzarella has a certain momentum encouraged by economic pressures. Some traditional neighborhood pizzerias have countered by serving “nonna” slices using good cheese.

Really, 2 Bros. is not that bad. Some of our most venerable slices (Patsy’s in Harlem springs to mind) are every bit as plain tasting, with little or no application of herbs, garlic, salt, or sugar. There are distinguished dollar slices, too, of which my favorite is Percy’s Pizza (190 Bleecker Street, no phone). The crust is the real attraction here, thin and impossibly crisp, yet with a soft crumb on the inside. The tomatoes are plain crushed tomatoes, the cheese about average for a neighborhood pizza operation. You can tell the pizzaiola is talented just by watching him work. In a thick Italian accent, he is likely to deplore the low prices he has to sell slices for, but it’s all part of the schtick–splendid street theater. For an extra 50 cents you can get other ingredients–including meatballs, in a stroke of genius–added.

Let’s look on the bright side. Since all dollar pizza is not the same, could competition among the purveyors lead to an overall improvement in quality? Dream on. In the meantime, if you want to preserve the traditional gas-oven slice, visit your local pizzeria instead of some twee wood-oven place. The onus is on us.

And maybe these dollar slice joints can be better seen as pizza’s maneuver to outflank its competitors, bringing the two-slices-and-a-Coke lunch into a new era.

Percy’s exemplary dollar slice