New York City’s (Mostly) Unfortunate $1 Pizza Slice Phenomenon

There was a crash and a boom from the kitchen. I was just a teenager but from my bedroom, my friend Jay and I immediately knew what had happened. “Your dad dropped the pizza,” he said to me, seconds after the noise reverberated through the suburban Los Angeles house. Yep. That’s exactly what happened. My dad, likely liquored up after an afternoon of football watching (and inspired to imbibe more by the prospect another work week was looming around the temporal corner), was cooking his “special” pizzas. And while removing it from the oven, he dropped it. We’d have to get pizza delivered instead.

Which was a good thing. Because my dad’s pizza was the worst I’ve ever eaten in my life. About one Sunday every month, I’d stroll out into the kitchen and see stacked-up containers of flour and jars of tomato paste and I knew it was one of those dreaded Sunday pizza nights. The thin crust of dad’s pizza, set nonna style in a rectangular pan, would cook wildly uneven: the edges were brick hard and the center doughy; the sauce was so thin it was hard to see on the finished product that there were even tomatoes involved in this near-inedible orgy; and the toppings always consisted of ground beef and bell peppers.

In a way, it seems hard to screw up something so simple. Pizza is just flour and egg for the dough, tomatoes for the sauce and whatever else you want to top it with. Put it in a scalding oven for 10 or so minute and ecco la! Your pizza is done and delicious.

I’ve recently found my dad’s match for the worst pizza I’ve ever tasted. And it’s right where I live in New York City. In the last few years a recent phenomenon has emerged on the city’s dining landscape: $1 pizza slices.

The phrase, you pay for what you get, very much applies here. I talked to Adam Kuban, founding editor of the website Serious Eats and editor and founder of Slice, a blog dedicated to all things pizza. “I think the recession is the big force driving the rise of the dollar slice,” he said. “I don’t know about other folks, but for me, once a plain slice started creeping up near the $3 mark, it ceased to be an automatic transaction. Two bucks? Fine. Two-fifty? Um, OK, sure. Because even at $2.50, if you’re getting two slices, like a lot of people do, it’s still an even fiver. Once you break the $2.50 barrier, though (the average price in Manhattan seems to be holding around $2.75), you start to think about the price in terms of MORE THAN $5.”

A good point. South Brooklyn Pizza in the East Village, one of the best slices in the city, in my opinion, is a whopping $4 per slice. It’s worth it, though. But, as Kuban pointed out, with that kind of pricing it’s not automatic anymore.

The pizza slice didn’t enter the American food landscape until the middle of the 20th century. Before this pizza was largely an ethnic phenomenon with newly arrived Italian laborers eating it in places like New York, New Haven, Chicago and Boston. But when American soldiers returned from Italy after World War II, pizza was on its way to becoming “American.” After the gas pizza oven was created here, allowing pizza makers to create this once-Italian delicacy cheaply and quickly, pizza spread through the rest of the country.

And so now we come to the $1 slice. There’s an extensive write up on Kuban’s blog with an excellent analysis of the $1 pizza phenomenon, claiming it’s a different genre of pizza, as most of the places – especially the increasingly ubiquitous 2 Bros Pizza and 99¢ Fresh Pizza – use a slightly different technique.

“Most of the dollar slice places … stretch the dough on an oiled surface,” said Kuban. “This means they have to use a baking screen so the oiled dough doesn’t burn on the hearth of the oven. The cooking method gives you a less crisp crust – more spongy.”

Which brings us to Percy’s. Located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, this pizzeria started out as an outlet of South Brooklyn Pizza. When the NYU students were balking at $4 for a slice, the owner took a different approach.

When I stopped in for a slice, longtime pizzaiolo Jack Bruli was shoveling cheese pizzas in and out of the gas-burning oven.

“Because we put love into our work here,” Bruli said when I asked why the $1 slice is so much better here. “And we’re trained. We know what we’re doing. At the other places, there are college students working there who don’t care about their product. We do. This is my job. I’ve been doing it since the ’70s.”

True or not, what also makes Percy’s so special is they still largely use the same technique as South Brooklyn and some of the better by-the-slice places in the Big Apple. Which is to say, they don’t adhere to the same pizza-making ways of the other $1-per-slice joints.

I sat down and bit into the slice. The crust was crispy all the way through, which already gives it a huge advantage to its competitors.

This was a pizza not worth dropping on the kitchen floor.