Judah Friedlander Thinks Manhattan Pizza Has ‘Gone Downhill’

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Comedian Judah Friedlander digs the cevapci at Sarajevo in Astoria. Photo: Melissa Hom

Comedian Judah Friedlander says he’s as messy an eater as his character Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock — “Every T-shirt I have has stains on it” — and he’s obsessed with food. Friedlander lives in Queens, where he insists that everything from Mexican food to — gasp — bagels is made better than in Manhattan; he spends time between stand-up gigs brooding over the decline of the New York pizza slice since he came here in the eighties. The self-proclaimed “World Champion of the World” is performing at the Funny for Fido benefit at Caroline’s on June 3. Read his New York Diet to see what’s so great about where he eats.

Saturday, May 16
Saturday I went to a Dominican place in Woodhaven, Queens: La Flor Paraiso #4. I got a whole rotisserie chicken to go, with red beans, and I usually get the yellow rice, but they offered up the white rice, so I was thinking maybe that’s the fresher rice, and decided to go with that. The chicken, it’s fall-off-the-bone tender. You can eat it all with your hands or a fork; you don’t need a knife. I think that spanned a couple of mealtimes. I eat at weird hours. All I know is that I was really hungry and I pretty much destroyed the chicken in one sitting. I didn’t finish all of the beans.

I don’t remember what else happened that day. I can tell you what I had the weekend before that I’m still obsessed with. I had a gig in St. Louis. Nice people, St. Louis, but I’ve never seen an entire city fuck up a pizza so bad. I get a ride from the airport to the hotel. We pass by an Imo’s pizza, which is a large chain there, and the guy starts getting a boner for this pizza place. So I go “Hey, how’s this place,” and he goes “awwww, dude, that place is the best in the city, you gotta go there. It’s an institution.” They make it St. Louis style. When I looked at it, I thought I was on some kind of hidden-camera prank show. The cheese they use, Provel, is part provolone cheese product, part Swiss cheese product, and part white Cheddar product. When it melts, it’s just kind of a gluey consistency, and when it dries it’s just kind of plastic. It stinks — like, literally, it smells bad. The dough, they probably fucked it up as bad, or worse, than the cheese. They make their pizza with no yeast, so I would like to say it’s like a cracker or a round matzoh, but it’s like a really shitty stale cracker. And then they have barely any sauce on it and it seemed like it came out of a can 50 years ago. I’ve never seen a place miss all three elements of the pizza.

Sunday, May 17
Sunday I met up with a friend and went to a place I normally wouldn’t go to and hadn’t been to before: Relish, a diner in Williamsburg. I usually go to more dive-y places. I got the huevos rancheros with egg whites. I was being healthy. It was actually excellent. It had black beans in it, pico de gallo, avocado, and it was a large portion. I also had some grits with Cheddar cheese. Not great grits, but decent grits.

I play competitive Ping-Pong at a Korean club in Flushing. It’s nytabletennis.com. There’s no bar or anything; It’s just for Ping-Pong training. The lady that owns it recommended a Korean restaurant to me that’s excellent: San Soo Kap San. So that night I went there again. I got the beef bulgogi, which is excellent, and they give you tons of other stuff. They gave me miso soup. I also got a fried pancake with just scallions in it — normally it’s got seafood in it, too — and that was really good.

Monday, May 18
I was running around the city the whole day. I had a little bit of Trader Joe’s mixed-berry granola at home. I ate it with bananas and put some cherries in there.

I had some stand-up shows in the city at night and I decided to go to Paquitos — which I hadn’t been to in a year — at like 11:30 or 11. I was so hungry that before I walked in there, I got a slice at the pizza place on the corner at First Avenue and 9th Street. It was your basic New York slice, pretty good. At Paquitos, I got their asado burrito. It’s grilled chicken. And — I’m huge on this, by the way — I get my rice on the side. I hate burritos that serve you a pound of rice and then there’s a little bit of bean in it. I get it with tomatillo sauce and I add hot sauce as I go, too. It’s like Benny’s Burritos, but blows it out of the water. That’s for people who don’t like flavor and think they’re cool because they’re eating at Benny’s Burritos. Paquitos isn’t that crowded, but it’s good.

Tuesday, May 19
I had to go into the city for something during the day, so when I came back I stopped off in Ridgewood, Queens, and I went to Muncan butcher shop because there was a parking spot open and I was like “I can’t not go in there.” The owner is Romanian, I believe, but grew up in Serbia. As soon as I step out of my car, a good twenty yards away, I can smell this place and I start itching and going crazy — it’s that good.

They make their own bacon; they make double-smoked bacon. I just got a quarter pound of homemade ham, a quarter pound of Swiss cheese, and some ajvar sauce (like a Croatian eggplant dip). My mom’s side is Croatian via Pittsburgh. My dad is Russian Jewish via Brooklyn. And I’m big on both foods. I like pretty much all food, but eat that Croatian food, man, and you just feel the power in your veins. I also bought some cevapci seasoning mix so I so I can make my own. Cevapci is a ground beef and lamb combination, like kebabs. After the snack, I walked across to the street to Corato II and got a slice that was fucking great, because I’m still jonesing from the shitty pizza I had in St. Louis. I also got tomatoes with fresh mozzarella to go for later.

I had a crazy night. Best Week Ever was having some kind of Twitter party, so I got a banana at a deli and swung by there real quick. Then I had a show at the Times Square Comedy Club.

Then, I’m on the show 30 Rock, okay. Once a year the networks have what they call their Upfronts, where they basically sell their big TV shows to the advertising agencies and announce their new fall lineups. My agency has a fancy showbiz-y party once a year in New York because of these weeks, and I have to go. It was at this private club called Norwood, which is on 14th between Seventh and Eighth. They had some grilled cheese sandwiches cut into little one-inch squares. So I had some of those. But the big deal is that I met Bobby Flay. His wife is repped by the same agency, so that’s why he was there. I shit my pants. I’m a massive Bobby Flay fan. If I had to pick a favorite restaurant in New York, I would say Mesa Grill. I just went there for my 40th birthday. Whenever my folks visit, we go to Mesa Grill. He hits you with flavors that one, you haven’t had before, or two, you haven’t had in that combination before. Their filet mignon is not expensive at all for a high-end steak and it’s outstanding. So I had a lot of fun meeting and hanging out with my favorite chef besides my mom, who is also a big fan of his. That was a landmark.

Then I went to the Comedy Cellar to do my show. It’s right downstairs from the Olive Tree Café, where all the comics hang out. I eat there a lot because I perform there a lot. I’m usually there weeknights after midnight. They’re Israeli-owned, so it’s a mix of Middle Eastern and American food. I had a chicken kebab platter with two chicken skewers. I got it with horseradish mashed potatoes that have fried onions on top, and it comes with Israeli salad. I also got a little side of hummus. And their homemade hot sauce just kicks ass. The dude across from me stole the pita bread and I was stuffing my face so fast I wasn’t even paying attention. I actually didn’t care that he stole it, because I had to go on. I went on at 12:20 or something like that, and afterwards I got a strawberry shake at the same place. I usually don’t do that, but sometimes you gotta go for it.

Wednesday, May 20
I had a voice-over gig and was running late, so I just got a banana from a fruit stand outside the building, went up and did the thing, and then I just had a slice from Ray’s pizza on Sixth and 11th Street, which is one of the original Ray’s.

Me and my friend Ben Bailey, who hosts the TV show Cash Cab, actually made a movie called Meet Me at Ray's about five years ago. We still haven’t finished editing the thing. We play these two idiots who try to meet up for food at Ray’s Pizza but keep going the wrong way. It was short. Our goal is to have it finished this summer. This Ray’s is very special to me because it’s the first one I ever went to, in 1982 or something. It was the shit in the early eighties, but now it’s just not what it used to be. Manhattan pizza has fucking gone downhill. You used to be able to go to any place and they were all good, and a lot of them are fair to mediocre at this point. When I bit into it, the dough, halfway through the pizza, split in half. That’s a bad sign right there. The dough should be a little crunchy and skinny and have strength to it. They put on a ton of cheese, but it’s not even the tastiest cheese. So you’re getting a shitload of okay cheese. The dough wasn’t horrendous; it’s the kind of dough you would be happy with in L.A.; in New York, you should be offended by it. But it still makes me happy when I drive by — the memories of it from when I was a kid.

Thursday, May 21
I went to a Bosnian-owned place, Sarajevo, in Astoria. You go to the counter, tell them what you want, and they bring it to you. There’s two main things I get there. One is the cevapci. You can either get five skewers — they give you a lot of food, this place — or ten skewers. Then they give you a circular piece of fresh bread. It’s very doughy, chewy, and you can either cut it open and put your meat inside it, you can eat it with it, or not eat it, whatever you want. There’s two things you gotta get with the cevapci. One is the ajvar, which I already mentioned. And the other is kajmak. It’s got the consistency of butter, but it’s really tangy like sour cream, with a little onion and garlic. You eat it with raw onion also. It makes you feel like a man.

The other thing I get is burek. It’s phyllo dough and all different fillings inside. I get the potato, so it’s sort of like hash browns in the middle. They had a new dessert they gave me: a full apple that’s skinned and baked with some baklava stuff inside, and whipped cream on top. The meal was unbelievable. Two Slovenian girls who used to work at the Boston Comedy Club, Kandi and Anna Kitich, first introduced the restaurant to me several years ago, and I’ve been going ever since.