Slice of Life: New York’s Famous $ 1 Street Pizza Threatened by Rising Costs | New York

“Well, you can never go wrong with bread, cheese and tomato,” New York street poet Lou Reed sometimes remarked as he passed one of the city’s multitudes of pizzerias.

The late musician was a fan of the legendary Totonno’s from Coney Island, near the site of one of the first recorded pizzerias started by Italian immigrants in the 1880s.

One hundred and forty years later, New York’s obsessive relationship with cheap street pizza – there are around 1,700 pizzerias across the city – is more tangled than ever. But now there are cracks in this union. Rents are rising and supply chain problems leading to inflation are pushing up the price of oil, cheese, wheat and meat. Deliveries are irregular, tomato sauce faces higher shipping costs, and pizza boxes are scarce.

Now, the existence of the legendary $ 99 or dollar pizzerias that depend on fast, high-volume commerce is under threat after nearly two years of foot traffic reduced by the pandemic. It’s a blow not only to the city’s image, but also to many low-income New Yorkers in times of turmoil.

Abdul Muhammad, owner of Fresh Pizza at 99 Cents, a chain of eight branches in Manhattan, said it could increase the price of its wafer for the first time since opening in 2001 if costs continue to rise. “I have to think about it because my clients, many of whom are unemployed and struggling to pay their rent, cannot afford to pay more.

99 Cent Fresh has remained open during the pandemic except for a month in March 2020, in part, Muhammed said, because he knows that for some of his customers, a slice is all the food they can get.

“I feel bad because everyone has had a lot of problems with the coronavirus, no work, everything was closed and the grocery stores that were open doubled their prices. So I try to stay open to help people, ”added Muhammad.

Outside the 99 Cent Fresh store on 6th Avenue and 8th Street, several customers said they counted on the point of sale. “I come here when I’m hungry, but I can’t come here all the time because I have diabetes,” said Sam Pegano, who said he was homeless. “It’s important to me, especially in winter, because it’s hot food.

Others said the dollar slice was important to their lives because it was quick and cheap.

“New Yorkers love dollar slice pizzas because they’re all over town and open late,” said Bishank Gaglani, NYU data science graduate. “Anytime you need a bite to eat and you don’t know what to eat, you can grab a slice and you’re good to go. “

A shuttered pizzeria near the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Photograph: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Gaglani said he noticed the prices had gone up. “I can’t imagine New York without the slice of the dollar. But even if it goes down to $ 1.50, people will still come. “

In New York’s complex pizza ecology, the $ 99 or dollar slice has a controversial reputation. Pizzerias like the famous John’s on Bleecker Street will not touch the slice trade, opting only for whole pies. Others spruce up their slices and jack prices up to $ 4 or more.

The search for the perfect pizza, a pipe dream, occupies some minds, including that of Scott Weiner, owner of Visits Pizza Scott, which transports enthusiasts across town by bus in this research.

According to Weiner, the dollar slice business model emerged as a business that operated alongside homeless shelters. “It almost looked like a public service,” he said. After the 2008 recession, the business expanded to areas with heavy foot traffic and transportation hubs.

“It has become late night food for drunk people with the same economy as a $ 3 slice store but with more volume,” he said. “At the same time, it lowered the perception of the quality of pizza in New York City and became a beacon in a city so dear to live. It was like, look how cool this town is – you can get a slice of pizza for a dollar.

While New Yorkers are forced to choose their battles – with high rents being common – the cheap pizza slice is a way, in a sense, to win one back. “Citizens are empowered by the variety of pizzas in New York City because you can choose between getting a 12 inch single serve Neapolitan pizza, high quality, great ingredients, for $ 18 or the dollar per slice instead. end of the spectrum, ”Weiner said.

Both, Weiner said, can quench thirst – “it just depends on the nature of the thirst.”

At the same time, Weiner is concerned that the owners of dollar-slice chains have committed to fixing their prices on their behalf and cannot withstand the price fluctuations. When leases are renewed with higher rents, that alone can destroy New York’s renowned restaurant business model – which has been hit hard by the pandemic. By some estimates, more than 1,000 New York restaurants have closed during Covid-19.

But – despite the current difficulties – the New York pizza love story is set to continue. After all, he has such a long past.

Pizza historian Peter Regas traces the first published accounts of a pizzeria in Naples around 1845, when it was described as the “gastronomic thermometer of the market”. By the turn of the century, Italian immigrants had bought the tradition in New York City and established pizza ovens, often in taverns, harbor or seaside neighborhoods like Red Hook and Coney Island.

“It’s pretty definitive that New York is the hotbed of pizza in America,” Regas said.

The industry grew after the ban was lifted in the 1930s, the Great Depression and further after World War II, expanding to Chicago. Regional differences began to develop. Chicago, home of the deep crust pizza, has little tradition of slice culture.

The custom of the single slice, which began in the late 1940s, is an integral part of New York City, despite the reluctance of owners of more traditional pizzerias, Regas said. The loss of it, he believes, would be a loss for all.

Regas recalled a legendary pizzeria Di Fara on J Avenue in Brooklyn.

The elderly owner, Dom, who had been operating there since 1964, has become known as the guy for a slice. “I went there in 2006 and there were about 50 people in his store just looking at it,” he said.

“There is magic in pizza. There’s an individual personality to a pizza that you don’t necessarily get with a burger or hot dog, and that plays into the mystery and drama of the whole.

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