There are times when you need some greasy pizza. Maybe you’re short on cash, or drunk (or hungover), or it’s 3 p.m. on a Tuesday and you missed lunch — and dinner is still a few hours away. Whatever your reason, you know the move: Drop into the first slice shop you see.
These are the sorts of stores where the décor hasn’t changed in decades, the photos are faded, and the celebrities pictured in them haven’t actually been famous since 1997. The slices are fine, made to the highest standards of 1974, and when you’re done, your paper plate is stained with grease. Maybe your shirt is too. These are not the $1-slice mini-chains, but even so, no one will know what you’re talking about if you mention “dough-hydration,” and the ’roni certainly isn’t “cupped.” (It is “pepperoni,” it is flat, and it is constantly in danger of sliding off of the slice.) The most adventurous topping you’ll find is mushrooms — or maybe ziti.
In the last few weeks, two of these slice shops in Brooklyn closed for good. On February 18, Bensonhurst standard Lenny’s Pizza, made famous by its appearance in Saturday Night Fever, shut down after 70 years. The owner was 77, and it was time to retire. His daughter, Josephine Giordano, told Brownstoner, “Unfortunately, New York City is not exactly what it used to be.” Then on Saturday, Sal’s Pizza Store called it quits after 50 years of serving slices in Carroll Gardens. Both pizzerias were in former Italian-American enclaves that have experienced substantial demographic changes in recent decades.
Lenny’s and Sal’s have followed another pizzeria to the Great Slice Shop in the Sky: In August, Staten Island favorite Nunzio’s Pizzeria shut down after 80 years, during which it was one of Staten Island’s — and therefore the city’s, and therefore the world’s — best pizzerias. There was Staten Island food history there as well: One of the namesake brothers who started Joe & Pat’s, the borough’s most famous pizzeria, once worked at the shop. Now it’s a cabinet store.
Nunzio’s belonged to this genre of everyday, no-frills slice shops — places that you can go to any day, any time. Some have become famous: There’s the original Joe’s Pizza, which seems busier than ever, and Patsy’s, which you hope and pray never disappears from East Harlem. Most, though, are everyday spots you have probably never heard of: Joe & John’s in Ridgewood, Woodside Pizza, Emilio’s of Morris Park, Rocco Pizza III in Bed-Stuy — the list goes on.
These pizzerias are not winning any awards, and they’re not breaking new ground in the pizzasphere — much less introducing new culinary technology. That’s a good thing. Among locals, they are dependable and well-loved — as they should be. They’re affordable, filling, reliable. But if and when they close, it’s not as if they can simply be replaced by something new.
It’s no secret that the city is in something of a slice-shop renaissance. Here at Grub Street, we’ve celebrated the chefs responsible for it and gone so far as to say that the best New York neighborhood for pizza is Williamsburg, thanks in part to its heavy concentration of nouveau-slice purveyors. We love shops like Fini, Scarr’s, F&F, Norm’s, Lucia of Avenue X, Mama’s Too!, and Austin Street Pizza — spots where the staff might mill their own flour, wax poetic on the quality of their small-batch tomatoes, or pamper a sourdough starter, and which have all managed to raise the standards of New York’s slices. But we don’t want to live in a city where a pepperoni slice has to cost $6, because the mozzarella is hand-pulled and the flour comes from a farm upstate. Some things don’t have to be precious, which is exactly what makes most of the floppy, glossy slices in this city so necessary.