Less than a dozen blocks from the very tip-top of the island of Manhattan sits Grandpa's Brick Oven Pizza, its oddly tropical facade a bright orange contrast to the drab surrounding buildings. There's a fake wooden awning, the whole place is painted the color of an underripe clementine, and in the summertime the Italian ice cart stationed out front sports one of those grass umbrellas. Imagine if Tom Hanks built a pizzeria on the island he was stuck on in that movie I've never seen where he talks to a volleyball. That's kind of what Grandpa's looks like.
The fact that the very first stop on my pizza-eating odyssey looked more like a tiki hut than a pizzeria was either auspicious or ominous, I couldn't tell which—or maybe I was too hungover to care. But either way, I felt a vague sense of anxiety standing outside, knowing that if I stepped through the door and ordered a slice of pizza, I was committing to something big—and taking my plans out of the realm of Drinking and Talking and into the realm of Going and Doing.
Not that Drinking and Talking is a bad place to be—tons of the best unshot films, unpainted murals, unillustrated graphic novels, and unrecorded music live together in the land of Drinking and Talking. They lead happy-go-lucky lives inside their consequence-free bubble. If you take a look inside, it's like peering through the window of the Barbie Dreamhouse at Barbie and Ken cooking some vegan chili while Skipper and Midge collate zines in the living room: the residents of Drinking and Talking are all perfect, fully realized, flawless. But as soon as you try to coax one of them into the world of Going and Doing, you realize that their legs don't bend the right way and their heads pop off if you're not careful. What I'm trying to say is, Drinking and Talking is much safer than Going and Doing.
That's what I was thinking about while looking in the window of Grandpa's Pizza. A few weeks ago it seemed so easy. I was drinking wine with a buddy of mine and said I was gonna eat a plain slice from every pizzeria in New York City. I was gonna eat all the pizza. How had no one done that yet? 'Cause I was gonna do it! I'd call myself the Slice Harvester, like some kind of mozzarella-fueled superhero. Best idea I'd ever had.
A few weeks passed. I continued riding my bike around delivering food, drinking with my friends, going to punk shows. I told everybody about my great idea (I didn't have to take it out of Drinking and Talking to do that, since we were all always drunk). One night while doing speed with my friend Sweet Tooth and listening to the contents of this suitcase full of cassette tapes he'd found in the trash, I said, "Listen, I've got it. I'll start at the top of Manhattan and go down, west to east, until I get to the bottom. That's how I'm gonna do it. Start at the top, work my way down."
Tooth was intently respooling one of the cassette tapes; he didn't even look up, just monotoned, "When do we start?"
"I don't know," I said. "I work all weekend. What are you doing Tuesday?"
And that's how on Tuesday evening, August 11, 2009, I wound up standing outside Grandpa's Brick Oven Pizza with a composition notebook and a pen I'd bought at the dollar store, wondering whether I had the chutzpah to follow through.
At least that's what I thought I was feeling, based on the nausea, but it may have just been that I was hungover and hadn't consumed anything all day except bodega coffee and the shittiest cigarettes—the best I could afford on my delivery-boy wages (not that I'm complaining). I'd spent that afternoon guzzling weak coffee at the copy shop, printing up zines for Support New York, the survivor support collective my best friend Milo and I had been part of for almost a decade. The collective was getting ready to host a table at some conference or anarchist book fair, and because I'm an eternal procrastinator, I ended up schlepping this granny cart full of zines along on my inaugural pizza mission.
Maybe I was nervous and hungover; it doesn't matter. What matters is that eventually I tilted back my cart and pushed it through the door.
Grandpa's is just as ultraorange and oddly tropical on the inside as its exterior implies. There were quite a few customers on line ahead of me. I couldn't really make out what any of them were saying over the Trio Reynoso record blaring from behind the counter, but there were two definitely stoned construction workers in front of me who seemed hella stoked for the pizza, and their excitement was infectious. I took it as a good sign, too, because in my experience, carpenters and electricians work all over the city and tend to know where the good food is.
When it was my turn I intoned, "Gimme a regular slice" (because that's how you say it in New York—none of this fakakta "Pardon me, sir, I'd like one piece of cheese pizza, please," okay?), and headed to my table, which was also orange and was decorated with what looked like crayon drawings of lighthouses and other Beach Shit that in no way made Grandpa's resemble a tropical paradise.
I'd like to say I savored that first slice, but the truth is I slammed it in, like, one minute flat. See, the slice at Grandpa's is too thin to support its own weight, and not good enough to be worth how little food you get for your money ($2.50 in 2009, $2.75 in 2014). I crammed probably half the slice in my mouth on my first bite. Admittedly, I'm really good at cramming things into my mouth, but even an amateur could've wrecked this flimsy pizza.
Still, even in my hungover haze, I knew there was more to Grandpa's slice than its lack of structural integrity. Despite being too small, the flavors were all totally right on—the cheese tasted like cheese, not like chemicals; the sauce was slightly sweet and slightly tangy; the dough was salty enough—but the ratios were off. There was a decent amount of sauce and cheese, but there wasn't enough dough to support it. Pizza is a food that you're supposed to be able to eat while you walk, and this slice would've been far too sloppy for that. What's a guy in a rush supposed to do? If I had tried to eat this on the go, I would've splattered tomato sauce all over my Crass tank top. Good ingredients, good flavor, bad ratios, too much money. This was basically right in the middle of good and bad. Completely neutral.
I jotted all these thoughts down in my new notebook, along with the name and address of the pizza place. Maybe it's hindsight, but I feel like a slice with some ideal qualities and some obvious flaws was the perfect way to start my career as a pizza reviewer. It would now be up to me to travel across the island of Manhattan to sift through all the complexities of the various combinations of cheese and sauce and the nuances of crust, flavor, bite, ratios, and aftertaste in search of the perfect slice, and to warn my fellow citizens against inferior pizza. I grabbed my cart and headed out the door.
The Slice Harvester was born.