Years ago, when I was a younger man, I spent a good number of my Monday and Wednesday nights at The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in the Bowerie. I was volunteering then or working at or simply attending the reading series that were held there on those nights. Being a man of modest means (some things may never change) and living too far from the church to return home to cook dinner (ha!) I relied on a number of the local purveyors of something that I'd like to think of as other than "fast food." Oh, of course—take out. I'd forgotten that loophole. There were and still are more than a few options in the area. Burritoville has been there on 2nd Ave for a while, there was a Sushi Boy on 9th St., there's been good Polish food at Veselka for as long as I can remember, and of course there was pizza.
Unfortunately the nearest pizza place wasn't the best. Right across 2nd Ave. from the church there was a pizza joint the name of which has long since evaporated from my memory. It wasn't a fancy place by any standard, and it didn't have that bright fluorescent lighting throughout that would make any junky refuse to even consider the place considering the glare and the gambit they'd have to run just to get to the bathroom. But the tables were wobbly and the chairs didn't match. None of that really bothered me much. It's just that the pizza was inconsistent and when it was alright that was about as good as it was going to get: alright.
It could be argued that I should have been making the trip one avenue over and two and a half blocks over to the Stromboli that has long sat on the corner of St. Mark's & 1st, but I was often only deciding that I was going to want to eat something that night during a ten minute break between two readers and didn't really want to make that trip. (Incidentally, anyone who suggests that I could still have gone over to Five Roses Pizza on 1st Ave. btwn 10th & 11th has probably been drinking a little too much Wild Irish Rose, which as I recollect, was the only way that I was ever able to get one of their slices down).
I suppose that I was somewhat apprehensive already about the dining experience that I was about to have as I was walking into the pizzeria across from the church one evening when I heard the music the counter-guys were listening to as they made the pizzas and thought "When you walk into a pizzeria and they're playing Country and Western, it's usually not a good sign."
But after I'd had a moment to sit down and think this revelation through I began to realize that there weren't many people in the world with whom I could satisfactorily pass this valuable information onto. I didn't have any children (still don't) to share this with as they were heading off on their first day of school, and it's not the sort of thing that would really be appreciated on the walls of most men's bathrooms. But as I sat there I realized that there were other pieces of practical information that I'd gathered over the years when it came to sussing up a pizzeria prior to deciding to lay down your money and ordering a slice. How many people visiting from out of State could I save from an un-satisfactory experience at the Ray's on the southeast corner of St. Mark's and Bowery? If I could spread the word far and wide enough, I might even be able to prevent multitudes of people from undergoing some of the more scarring pizzeria experiences that I've witnessed over the years. So I began to really try to think things through and gather together whatever rules I'd laid out for myself, even if they were now operating at basic, instinctual levels. What are the standards that I would go by? What were the warning signs of a bad pizzeria that could be seen from afar?
Actually it's not that complicated. These rules is them:
Look, while it's entirely possible that they're making fine pizza in there, my experience tells me that they're not. Making pizza requires a lot of attention and care, and it also requires a loving touch. Most of these places are trying to sell a wider variety of food because they want to be able to bring in customers that aren't just going to eat pizza. In my experience, this means that they're going to be paying less attention to any of the various types of food they're serving and the quality of each of these things will suffer as a result. The Jamaican beef patties? Well, I don't know that I can really explain this one and I'm sure that there are those people out there who gasped when they read that and turned off their computers forever having seen the sort of filth that will turn them off on the internet forever. But this is something I've seen offered in pizzerias since I was a boy. Not all of them. But heating up a beef patty requires wrapping it in foil (if) and tossing it in the oven, so I don't think that too much attention is taken away from the making of the pizza itself. And I've never noticed a general difference in quality between those places that serve the patties and those that don't.
If you're at a pizzeria and the slice that you're about to get served has clearly been sitting there for a little while, tell them you want a fresher one. If they refuse you, walk out. If they were going to try to serve you up that old slice they're either a lousy pizzeria in the first place or you've got "RUBE" stamped on your forehead. The only exceptions to this should be a) when it's late at night and the pizzeria's about to close and the only pizza that's left are the slices you're looking at in front of you, and b) when you're re-heating or eating cold pizza that's been left over. As for the matter of eating cold pizza, I leave that up to your discretion. There are those people who think that the best pizza a body can consume comes in the form of a cold slice for breakfast. Of course in Japan they eat rice for breakfast, and the Spanish hardly have any breakfast at all. I'm not a big fan of cold pizza for breakfast, if at all. I think that I've got to put that one down to taste though, and not to some kind of health consciousness, because lord knows that eating several danishes and coffee (which has been my breakfast on occasion) really probably isn't much better for you (not even several danishes with organic coffee w/soy milk).