The Search for New York's Most Adequate Dollar Slice
I wrote this article for Lucky Peach, but they closed up shop and took their website with them. This is the copy of the article I had on my hard drive. On their website it had pictures and stuff.
Your food friends may all have their street meat guy or a favorite falafel or a cheap dumpling spot to recommend but you know what no New York food know-it-all is talking about? Dollar pizza.
Since the late 00's, as the NY slice has stubbornly maintained parity with the increasing cost of a MetroCard swipe, dollar pizza places have been appearing on the city's heavy-traffic blocks, lit bright and advertising aggressively the premise by which they live and die: We have pizza. It costs a dollar. And like many secret shames, everyone has been to these places but no one is talking about it. Why did they go? Because they were hungry. What happened inside? They got a slice of pizza, it cost a dollar. And how was the pizza? It was fine. Certainly could have been worse.
Well I'm here to speak about the unspeakable and to break the dollar slice silence . I spent a few weeks hitting dollar spots hard and seeing if I could find something lovable about the most utilitarian and unremarkable of Manhattan's budget eating offerings. I ate uniform slices of passable pizza all over town to see if there was something to say about these places and the pizza they were selling. My results: Nearly worth talking about.
2 Bros. Pizza 125th Street between Park and Lexington, 41st Street at 9th Avenue and additional locations
Thanks to their cartoon logo, 2 Bros. Pizza is the most recognizable dollar slice spot in the city, with more than 8 locations of the chain throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The 2 Bros. slice is consistently similar between locations, featuring a dough that’s heavy and bready, with a relatively zesty sauce and passable cheese. All in all, a pretty acceptable piece of dollar pizza. Also consistently similar are 2 Bros. shops themselves, featuring loose tiles, jars of seasonings chained to counters, and seating areas with a strong Port Authority satellite location vibe, with low benches and stools around short tables with men and women passing through either asking for change to get their own dollar slices or, say, selling teeth whitening strip loosies.
99¢ Fresh Pizza 34th Street and 3rd Avenue, 42nd Street and 9th Avenue and additional locations
You might not realize that New York’s other big dollar slice chain is a chain thanks to the relatively generic look to their stores and the fact that two out of the three words in the chain’s name appear in the names of almost every dollar slice place. Also contributing to the non-chain feel of 99¢ Fresh Pizza is the differing quality of pizza sold by their different branches. A store on 34th street, just east of third avenue, served slices that were hot and golden with a flavorful greasiness to them—one of the handful of slices I encountered in this work that I’d come back for. On the other hand, the chain’s flagship 42nd street location served a bready and bad slice where the cheese and sauce slid right off the pizza a few bites in. So strong recommendation for trying out your closest 99¢ Fresh Pizza, it might be a winner....or it could be garbage.
Joey Pepperoni’s 2nd Ave between 28th and 27th, Broadway and Walker and additional locations
Another chain, they’re the only shop besides 2 Bros. to feature a logo, theirs being a portly cartoon pizza chef illustrated in the style of a South Park character. Joey Pepperoni’s also boasts the only consistant interior decorating scheme I encountered in my research, with the walls of nearly all their shops fortified with shiny panels of diamond plate steel. But enough about looks! The Joey Pepperoni slice is consistently good between stores, coming on a crisp and powdery crust reminiscent of the Domino’s pizzas of my youth. Joey Pepperoni pizzas were some of the only pies I encountered that were cooked directly inside the pizza oven and not sitting on screen racks. The result is a pizza that tastes like pizza with a relatively (it seems all positive adjectives in this report require that wishy-washy qualifier) rich sauce and flavorful cheese. Of the chain dollar slice spots, Joey Pepperoni’s is the best.
Roll and Go Canal Street and West Broadway, 38th Street and 8th Avenue, and additional locations
One last dollar slice chain! Roll and Go is the smallest of the multi-location bunch, but their pizza is strong, the slices served at their west Canal street location nearly as good as Joey Pepperoni’s and the pizza at their location on 38th street not anywhere near as bad as the nearby 42nd street 99¢ Fresh Pizza’s (research strongly suggested that any dollar slice served with a few blocks of Port Authority wasn’t particularly great, including the 2 Bros. located down the street, Pat and Geno’s style, from the afore-repeatedly mentioned 99¢ Fresh Pizza flagship). Also unique to Roll and Go: theirs were the only stores that charged me tax, which raises the question: Is it really dollar pizza if it costs $1.09? I’ll leave that question for philosophers and economists. But it’s also worth stating that not a single 99¢ pizza place gave me change for my dollar. I think “99¢” is just an expression for “one dollar” in pizza-talk.
Hot Fresh Pizza 99¢ Lafayette between Canal and Howard
This is my personal go-to dollar slice spot, and by “go-to dollar slice spot”, I mean it’s the spot that I go to because it’s between my subway stop and my house. The pizza itself exemplifies the bready sort of slice you most often get from a dollar slice shop, so maybe now I should clarify what I mean by “bready”, since I’m going to keep saying it for the rest of this article. This is pizza with soft, foldy dough that does not taste so much like pizza as it does bread. You can spot a bready slice immediately because there’s nearly no rise or color to the outer crust ridge—the pizza is just like a big circle where the cheese and sauce stop an inch or so before the crust does. So, yes, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t great pizza. It’s speckled with sauce and cheese like the frozen Totino’s Pizzas of my junior high years, but the guys behind the counter are friendly and there’s a big squeeze bottle of a Frank’s Red Hot style hot sauce to douse the pizza with, so really, this isn’t so bad. You’ll get fed and you live another day. Pretty good deal.
Hakki Akdeniz Pizza Hester and Allen
Almost all dollar slice places are positioned on busy streets where they might attract the indiscriminate hunger of random passers by, but this shop on Hester at Allen is far from any Little Italy/Chinatown tourist traffic and most of the patrons give off the feel of locals and regulars, greeted by the man at the counter with a “hey big guy” before ordering a few slices of a rather unremarkable pizza—very much a member of the bready-style, with the least amount of sauce I found on any pizza and bare, bubbly patches on the face of the pizza. Not worth a trip out of your way for, this is a slice for locals and people who have gotten lost trying to find their Chinatown bus (keep going, though, the NYC-->Philadelpia is actually just a few more blocks down the street).
Vinny Vincenz 1st Avenue between 13th and 14th
An actual pizzeria, the arrival of dollar pizza to the East Village (there’s a Joey Pepperoni’s across the street and another dollar spot around the corner) appears to have forced them to enter the quick and dirty world of the dollar slice. The good news for the customer is you can grab a cheesey, saucey slice on very thin, crackly crust for a buck here. Just look at this non-uniform shape to the slice I was served: this is a slice cut fresh to order, not just a piece of a pizza immediately cut into eighths to be passed out quickly to the hungry masses.
It’s worth noting that the dollar slice doesn’t seem to be an uncommon refuge for eateries fighting changes to their neighborhoods. During the last few years of its life, when their famous Recession Special was forced up to a price more in line with a McDonalds Value Meal, the Greenwich Village Grey’s Papaya switched its signage to advertise not frankfurters but the arrival of dollar pizza. It was a sad way to watch it go.
The Best Pizza 23rd Street and 7th Avenue
Sometimes it can be a little hard to figure out what a dollar pizza place’s name is, as being clear about their product to make that passing sale is more important than establishing distinct branding. But from what I can tell, The Best Pizza is what this place is called, and their pizza is $1. It was a nice, hot slice and the cheese tasted like cheese. The Best Pizza wasn’t the best pizza, but it was decent pizza, and most of the time that’s best enough.
Percy’s Bleecker and Macdougal
A dollar place at Bleecker and Macdougal? Only the tiniest bit of New York real estate knowledge knows this place is going to need to sell a lot of pizza to stay in business. Percy’s originally operated more like a traditional pizzeria, serving a higher quality slice with tables for two along one wall—now the tables have been cleared out for the sake of packing in the crowds and the pizza has drifted towards the bready school. It’s a pretty decent example of the doughy sort of dollar slice, cheesey but with a weak crust game. Definitely more fit for grabbing late at night between bars/jazz clubs/comedy shows than lunching on if you’re passing by one afternoon.
99 Cents Express Pizza 43rd and 8th Avenue
A busy little operation that attracts a steady combination of folks headed home to their Hell’s Kitchen apartments and disoriented looking tourists who have wandered just one street too far from Times Square, perhaps lured over by the smell of garlic emanating from within, the 99 Cents Express Pizza slice is a little sweet and pleasantly greasy (am I doing this wrong by using that as a selling point?) and a definite contradiction to my earlier assertion that all dollar pizza within a few blocks of the Port Authority is better off avoided.
Pick & Pay Lexington between 23rd and 24th Street
The thing that’s hard about this report is most dollar pizza places are run by really friendly people and, really, how much can you ask for from a dollar slice? But the slice here at Pick n Pay made the smallest impression on me of any pizza I ate in this project. It just simply did not register. No flavor to speak of at all. HOWEVER Pick & Pay was unique in that it offered a socially conscious Pay It Forward option to buy a stranger a slice of pizza...just give the guys at the counter a buck and you can put a post it on the wall to be used by someone else to redeem that slice of pizza. So, if you’re looking to do a little pizza good in the world, Pick n Pay is your best choice (although you don’t have to stand around long at many dollar pizza places before someone makes it clear to you that you could buy them a slice if you’d like).
Famous 99¢ Pizza 14th Street between 1st and A
I wandered in here late one Saturday night and the lone employee took my order, heated my slice, made change from my twenty (sorry! it’s all I had!), and served me my pizza without a single pause to the conversation he was holding over his bluetooth headset. The pizza had a proper crust and was dotted with a few dark spots of well-done cheese and left me with the strong impression that a pie from this place would taste pretty good coming out of the fridge the next day.
FDR 99¢ Slice Pizza 2nd Street between A and B
So roughly 12 hours after eating at Famous 99¢ Pizza on 14th I visit this place down on East Second street and am “greeted” (but not really) by another guy deeply involved in a bluetooth headset conversation and, as I enjoy a slice that isn’t necessarily as well-crusted as the one I had on 14th street but the cheese is well cooked and a little dark like the slice I had just had the night before, I recognize that signage inside the store (which, by the way, had about as much space for customers to stand around in as most of the kitchens in that neighborhood) is nearly identical to the signage at Famous 99¢ Pizza and I piece together that FDR and Famous must be sibling-sliceries and so I wonder...is my guy here on the phone with the guy from Famous 99¢? Do they just talk to each other all night and all day as they run their separate pizza establishments?
Dollar Pizza Slice 125th Street and Lexington
I have a question for the owners of Dollar Pizza Slice: Do you have an accountant? Because the pizza you serve here is not dollar pizza. This is full price pizza, pizza cut in big generous slices where the tip dangles off the edge of the paper plate, pizza heavy-laden with gooey cheese that stretches and pulls with your bites. This is pizza to make a turtle say “Cowabunga” and the establishment is always full of kids and grown ups relishing the bargain. I embarked on this dollar slice research adventure having made promises to find New York City’s Most Adequate Dollar Slice, but imagine my surprise when I found a slice that I’d rank right up there with the best Ray’s of yesterday. So if you live nearby and didn’t know about Dollar Pizza Slice, I urge you to take advantage of this neighborhood resource, and if you ever travel up to 125th for the M60 to Laguardia, spend a tiny bit of that money you saved by not getting a cab on a slice of pizza that will rearrange how you think about the buying power of one little dollar.