There is something inescapably New York about a New York pizza parlor.
It’s about the fluorescent lights, the orange plastic booths, the slices served on white scalloped plates with a piece of wax paper to catch the grease. It’s about the fountain soda in the red Coke cups, the tiled walls dotted with memories of a bygone era—newspaper clippings heralding the joint’s golden years, photos of celebrities with their arms draped around the aproned owner.
The slice is important (it should be thin, crispy, yet soft enough to fold, topped with real mozzarella, and roughly the price of a subway ride). But really, it’s about the restaurants themselves and the people in them, says Ian Manheimer, one of the creators of the book, The New York Pizza Project.
Manheimer is a native New Yorker, as are his co-authors Corey Mintz, Tim Reitzes, Gabe Zimmer, and Nick Johnson. They’re all buddies. “When we hang out, we talk about New York things,” he says. “The Knicks, hip hop. And we talk about pizza.”
For the five of them, pizza is more than a food; it’s a New York institution. But by-the-slice pizza shops, like many local gems, are struggling to maintain a hold in an increasingly homogenizing market.
The New York Pizza Project started out humbly, as a Tumblr and an Instagram account dedicated to documenting these tiny, brightly lit shops that serve up slices with a speed that rivals the pace of New York itself. With Kickstarter funding, Manheimer says, the five of them—two photographers, a graphic artist, and two product developers—turned their work into a book.
Since they began in 2010, the creators visited around 130 independent pizza joints in all five boroughs of New York. The book is a compilation of photographs, snippets of overheard conversations, and interviews with the owners and customers.
The result is an almost reverent look at a network that holds the city together and feeds it—yet whose very existence depends on a balance that’s more and more difficult to maintain.
“You barely see any new slice places opening,” Manheimer says. “Young people who want to open a pizzeria are much more inclined to open a restaurant.”
It’s because, he says, the economics of the slice places documented in The New York Pizza Project are very difficult. The product is cheap, there’s very little margin, and as a result, “it becomes a volume game,” Manheimer says. To turn a profit, the stores clock long hours, often staying open from 11 a.m. straight until 2 in the morning. And employees are on their feet all day. “It’s not easy work,” Manheimer says, but underpinning each of the shops is an unbeatable braggadocio stemming from the owner’s pride in what they produce.
Each of the five friends has a favorite spot; Manheimer’s is Johnny’s Pizza on 5th Avenue in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. But, he says, it’s not just because of the food.
John Miniaci Sr. opened the restaurant in 1968; his son now runs the business. Right before his father’s death in 2007, John Jr. received a letter that a Papa John’s Pizza would be opening right next door to their shop. He never told his father—it would’ve broken his heart, Manheimer says. By the time the Papa John’s opened, John Sr. had passed away, and the two pizza shops “have been locked in mortal combat ever since,” Manheimer says.
The two restaurants side-by-side, he adds, represent the tension between the way the city was, and the way the city could be if local institutions are left to falter in the face of chain-store expansion. The Center for an Urban Future reported that between 2013 and 2014, the number of national retail locations increased by 2.5 percent in New York, up from .5 percent increase between 2012 and 2013. The places in The New York Pizza Project, Manheimer says, are bastions of authenticity in a changing landscape.
“They’re not just selling pizza, they’re fighting for all mom and pop shops,” he says.
Manheimer envisions two futures for The New York Pizza Project. It could continue on, with the friends cataloguing more and more pizza joints, more and more scrappy spots of independent industry throughout the city. “Or,” he says, “it could turn into a history book that reflects on these places that used to exist, and a city as it used to be.”
He’s hoping for the former. “Places like this are so crucial to a certain New York that we all love and want; without the support of consumers, we could lose them. And if we do, we’ll be left with a city we find we don’t want to live in.”
The New York Pizza Project, $29.95 at nypizzaproject.com.