The making of a grandma pizza at Rosco’s
The making of a grandma pizza at Rosco’s

Essay

Pizza Party

By METROGRAPH

In honor of Untitled Pizza Movie, we asked local filmmakers and other friends of Metrograph to share their pizza-related memories and favorite spots to grab a slice, past or present.

Pizza bag

Bedford Park Pizza Joint, Bronx, circa 1986
Pizza was never a meal to be had at a place, it was always a meal in transit. It was an in-between space from school to the subway. For us at Grace Lutheran School, it was the spot right off the Concourse and Bedford Park. The Pizzeria was on the beginning of the slope of the hill. It was bright white, small, marble tables, and tan chairs. We would gather for a moment, place our orders, and have the oven’s hot breath cover over us. But we would never eat there. We would take our slices in brown paper bags, sagging with grease, and part our last giggling goodbyes—some of us to Tracey Towers, some of us Uptown. All of us hoping to get home without harassment of Decepticons, Clinton Kids, or Westies.—Kazembe Balagun, writer/curator/
cultural historian/activist

This is New York City. There is plenty of great pizza, even a standard slice of pie is a cut above in this town. I grew up here, so I have a lot of pizza memories. When I was in college here and spent all my money in bars, I would walk into St Mark’s Pizza and just eat all the scraps people left behind. I was kinda making a statement about food waste, but also it left more money for drinks (I know, gross, but this was before COVID). Years later I have fond memories of buying a slice with my kid after school at Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street. But the pizza I want to highlight here is Two Boots thin-crust pizza. I may be biased because I know the owners of Two Boots, the whole damn family. But not only is their pizza great, they are art lovers and community builders, and they invested in some of my early movies, and for years had a video store in one corner of their pizzeria on Avenue A, and that’s not all! They named one of their pizzas after my movie Depraved. Depraved slice anyone? (available at Halloween time). And my wife designed their logo. But anyway, even without all the nepotism, they make damn good pizza: they have a distinct crisp corn-meal crust that supports an array of topping recipes with names like “The Larry Tate” and “The Mr. Pink.” Pizza and Cinema. A winning combination.—Larry Fessenden, filmmaker/actor

Sal & Carmine’s was THE SPOT on the Upper West Side when I was growing up in the early ’70s, when it was right next to the Symphony Theater. I think the slices used to be like 25 cents back then. As many times as I went there over the decades, though, I never saw the owners Sal and Carmine crack a smile. Those dudes were straight business! About 10 years ago, I was ordering a slice and this dude walked in saying he’d moved to North Carolina and it was his first time back in New York in 30 years. He went on to share that the first thing he wanted to do was get pizza from Sal and Carmine’s, and that he was overjoyed to see them still open (they’d moved to 101st & Broadway by then). And the whole time, Sal and Carmine were behind the counter, equipped with their cha-ching analog cash register still, and yo—their faces did not move. They were like, “You wanna a slice with a can of soda?”
They iced this dude so hard! I was rolling, hahahahhahahah, I’ll never
forget that, yo, was bananas…—Bobbito Garcia aka Kool Bob Love, DJ/author/filmmaker

A Sal & Carmine pie
A Sal & Carmine pie

Who made the best pizza? Ben’s on the corner of West 3rd and MacDougal? Will, my co-worker at New Video, came back from Ben’s one night with a box full of slices that the co-owner declared to be “seasoned beyond reason.” How about Ray’s Famous Pizza on Greenwich Avenue? (No—to me it was like pizza-in-a-cup, so thick you needed a spoon and a bib.) Koronet Pizza on the Upper West Side, where every slice was the size of an entire pie from anywhere else? (No again—fuel for Columbia students). John’s and other such higher end spots? Only if you enjoyed waiting in line for 45 minutes. I won’t lie: the best pizza I’ve ever had was made in New England. Recently, in Cambridge at Area Four, and long ago, at the Highland Restaurant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where there are still pictures of ball players from the ’40s on the walls. It was a crushing day when they decided to quit making pizza. One day I ran into the owner, Rudy.

“You guys made great pizza.”
“You liked that pizza?”
“Yeah.”
“You liked that pizza?”
“Yeah, I liked that pizza. How about giving me the recipe?”
“Why should I give you the recipe so you can make money off of it?”
“Why should you hold onto it if you’re not using it?”

I couldn’t pry it away from him. A few years later, Rudy passed away, and his recipe for pizza went with him. Now it lives in my memory. Where I can taste it…—Kent Jones, writer/filmmaker

I was an orthodox Jew until I was 21. That meant I ate only kosher food.
One Saturday night in 1950 I was in Midtown New York with a bunch of
(non-religious) friends. At one point we passed a pizzeria. Since we were all hungry by that time, my friends decided to buy a pizza. I told them that whatever it was I couldn’t eat it because of the kosher rules. I had
never even heard of pizza. They assured me that all it had was some
cheese and tomato sauce and a crispy bread-like base. With my heart in my mouth, I joined them in a slice. It was delicious. When I got home, I went to the local library and looked up the ingredients (there was no Internet yet). Indeed, there were no non-kosher ingredients. I’ve been a fan ever since!
Manny Kirchheimer, filmmaker

John’s of Bleeker St.
Wait, hear me out! John’s has a rep as a tourist spot whose golden age came decades ago. BUT: a) It’s good b) It was my neighborhood spot after fourth-grade basketball games at Carmine Street Gym. That’s history right there! c) Why you hate tourists so much? You’re not better than tourists. And your golden age came decades ago too. Stop throwing stones.

Also, it’s pizza. Don’t overthink it. Do the dough, cheese, and sauce they put in their oven come out tasting good? Yes = good pizza. Is the vibe lively? Yes = good pizza place. See, a pizza place doesn’t need to be cool or have a bunch of insider rules. Beware of anyone trying too hard with a, “There’s a hole-in-the-wall where if you know Vinny Pizzaface or Freddie Pepperoni they’ll hook it up. Don’t piss ’em off though, oh!”

Sure, those places can be great. But I’ll take John’s. It isn’t the hot shit or a secret spot, but it is New York—Village old-timers, students, parents cleaning up bloody noses of their kids after basketball games, the grown-up version of those kids getting nosebleeds from the cocaine they’re doing in the bathroom, and, yes, tourists. That’s John’s of Bleeker St.—my favorite good, funky, famous, “no slices” pizza place in the city.—Adam Leon, filmmaker

John’s of Bleecker St.
John’s of Bleecker St.

My truly favorite pizza joint was Brooklyn Pizza located at 717 Fulton St. in Fort Greene, BK. It was owned and operated by an Italian couple. Everyone raves about Not Ray’s, but not me. I loved Brooklyn Pizza, my mouth is watering at the thought of a slice now. The sauce and dough were so sweet and you couldn’t find a slice like it anywhere else in the city. I mean, I was obsessed with this spot and always made sure my mom gave me enough cash to go after my music lessons. It was here where I began to appreciate my solitude and found my voice as a New Yorker (Brooklynite) not to fuck with. I was just a kid really, couldn’t have been much older than 10, and was pretty used to adults being served before me. But one day, I’d had enough. When someone else was about to be served before me, I finally spoke up and said that I was in line first. Since then, I never had a problem with them, nor did I allow myself to be overlooked as a customer in any business again. Damn, I miss old Brooklyn.—Melissa Lyde, curator/writer

I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, one of the legendary pizza towns on the East Coast. In Trenton, we called a pizza a tomato pie. There were several great pizza joints. My favorite was De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pie, which has now moved to the suburbs, but when I grew up was across from my high school, Trenton Central High. The pizza was perfect: thin charred crust, in summer maybe fresh Jersey tomatoes and great cheese. I was not a gourmand at the time, but I knew it was delicious. You got a whole pie. There was no such thing as a slice. One ate it there with your friends in one of their booths or took it home when there was a sleepover party with the girls.—Amy Robinson, actress/producer

Back when I first moved to New York and was working as an assistant for the artist Jack Youngerman, I was introduced to John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street. It was a pretty famous spot at the time and a slice of John’s was about the perfect lunch. One day I bumped into Harvey Keitel there, when he was shooting a scene from James Toback’s Fingers. Pizza was pretty much the fuel for a lot of young artists at the time. “Let’s grab a slice” was synonymous with saying, “You got a few minutes?” Steve Buscemi and I used to lean on the counter at John’s Pizza on the corner of St. Marks and 1st Ave. after catching his show in the basement of the St. Mark’s Church. Another night over at John’s, I met Basquiat, who probably had just rolled out of a night spot like myself and needed a slice before hitting the sack at 5 a.m. He told me how much he wanted to make films, and together we shared the kind of camaraderie of youthful dreamers who saw nothing but horizons on the downtown streets. Pizza stands were like saloons in old Westerns: you’d enter, people would quickly size you up but then go right on with their chatter.

Nowadays, I’m pretty much a pizza snob. Gone are the days of wolfing down a greasy slice anywhere I could grab it—eating it like most New Yorkers do, by folding it in half. Now I seek out the gourmet stuff. I know it’s a little weird to be a pizza snob, but that’s what age will do to you. Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint is pretty much the best stuff I’ve found. It’s delicious, and since I don’t eat pizza that much anymore, it’s worth the wait. Pizza is the quintessential New York food; it feeds everyone and is probably the engine that keeps the city running.—Alexandre Rockwell, filmmaker

It took 30 steps to get to Rosco’s from my apartment on Franklin Ave. A few blocks away was the more upscale Barboncino, more of a traditional Italian pizza restaurant to Rosco’s more relaxed Italian-American joint. Every time I’d walk over to Rosco’s during the summer of 2014, the pizzeria felt like an exotic, faraway destination. It felt surreal to walk in there and get the kind of male attention unknown to me just a few months prior. It was the summer I was far enough along in my transition to start presenting as a woman, my—as they put it these days—“hot girl summer.” On a crisp Saturday morning, I’d go with my roommate to Coney Island for a kvass at one of the Russian restaurants on the boardwalk. It’d be dusk and muggy when we get home so we’d pop by Rosco’s for a pepperoni or grandma slice. (They also do heroes, rice balls, pasta dishes, and garlic knots.) It wasn’t just the pizza that stayed with me—crust, textures, cheese, and all—it was that moment in time: me inching ever closer to womanhood, the Crown Heights air thick with possibility, turning someone on as I devoured a grandma pizza AND
relishing both. (Meanwhile, I’ve moved out of Crown Heights, Rosco’s
closed in 2018, and a vegan pizzeria, Screamer’s, opened in its place.)
Isabel Sandoval, filmmaker

Historically, there have been three kinds of pizzeria—or maybe I mean three kinds of pizza—in New York City: deluxe, pretty good, and basic. Deluxe was, say, John’s, on Bleecker Street, where you might wait for an hour and maybe eat with a knife and fork. Pretty good was, for example, the innumerable—at one time—claimants to the title of Famous Ray’s. Basic was what you mostly ate when lunchtime arrived. It might not be very good—too much sugar in the sauce, crusts like cardboard—but it was still pizza. Price might affect your decision. I remember the summer of 1975, when two pizzerias across the street from one another on 103rd Street just east of Broadway started a price war. They began at the traditional cost-of-a-token, which may have been 50 cents then, and worked their way down to a dime. They posted their plunging prices, week by week, on large posters in the window. No, neither was very good—but a slice for a dime! That was news even then. We ate much more of that pizza than it deserved, simply because it was cheap. And then it was over, the kind of ephemeral event that used to be a keynote of New York City.—Luc Sante, writer

Chicken Parmigiana Pizza from Lo Duca
Chicken Parmigiana Pizza from Lo Duca

I really like the vibe of the pizza guys at my neighborhood spot in Ditmas Park—a little hole in the wall called Lo Duca Pizza in Newkirk Plaza with a really devastating, afternoon-nap-inducing chicken parm slice. They don’t deliver and only just started taking credit cards after many, many years. One time I asked the pizza guy why, and he said his father (who used to run the spot before him) always told him, “More money, more problems.” I liked that, and I think he was right.—Jane Schoenbrun, filmmaker

Growing up as a juvenile delinquent teenager in the late 1970s and early ’80s in the Spuyten Duyvil section of the Bronx, part of our great adventure was traveling into Manhattan for a night of music and trouble. Right off the #1 subway station on 231st there was an old-school hole-in-the-wall pizza joint called Sam’s. They literally just threw the pizza into the oven and when it was as hot as molten lava it would be thrown right at you. It was glorious, the pizza was great and as teenagers we lived on it. I have fond, vivid memories of getting off the train in the wee hours of the morning, staggering the couple of blocks to Sam’s and propping ourselves up at the counter to get gloriously greasy slices from the man himself. He was a kind man of Greek descent who had an incredible amount of patience given the day-to-day circumstances of running that business. Incredibly, in this city that has changed so much through the years, Sam’s Pizza is still in the same location and open for business to this day. When I go back, stand at that counter and close my eyes I can still hear the echoes of my friends’ voices: “Yo, Sam, let me get another slice,” “Sam, let me get a grape juice drink,” “Let me get that corner Sicilian slice.” All that fancy modern pizza that dominates the landscape these days is really cute, but it’s good to know sometimes in this life you can go back.—Drew Stone, filmmaker/musician

Apologies to my Abruzzese in-laws on “the other side,” but my fondest pizza associations are mostly NYC-related. My parents, both deep-root city natives only too happy to compare their vanished formative years with my actual ongoing ones, never mentioned pizza in relation to their childhoods on the Upper East Side and Brooklyn, respectively. The family white-flighted out of NYC the year after I was born and the pizza of my childhood was largely confined to a sit-down family joint in Johnson-era Greenwich, Connecticut. Returning to NYC full-time in ’81 forever reconfigured my pizza consciousness toward the slice. Downtown Manhattan was a pizza orchard in those days. Pizza slices were the default soul food for a decade or more of (mostly drunk or hungover) encounters, observations, accidents, puzzlements, opportunities, and all of those countless unassigned moments people now avoid by looking at their phones. The consumption of pizza was a semi-uniform constant underscoring the insane density of parallel and piled-up social strata, neighborhoods, default tribalism and enchanting weirdness that made NYC the full-contact paradise it was. Pizza was the cud I chewed over a decade-long dawning realization that I may not have really belonged to any of it but I was here, I wasn’t going to leave, and it was all okay anyway.

There was an early ’80s consolation trip to Ben’s on MacDougal St. (closest decent slice to Bleecker Bob’s final storefront) after a group of heavily medicated NYU dorm buddies and I were courteously but firmly turned away from a Sun Ra show at Danceteria by a doorman who instructed us to “come back with dates, fellas.” In spring of ’82, a then-recently (and, as I recall, explosively) out college chum used the pretense of an allegedly “better than Stromboli’s” slice (not that much of an achievement) almost all the way west on Christopher Street to walk me and another uptight straight suburban classmate through a pre-HIV army of Village People variations cruising each other everywhere you looked. The pizza conversation in those first few years frequently fell back to the relative merits of the Ray’s on 6th Avenue—a decent slice turned into an added cheese freakshow that was probably more calories per piece than I now consume in a day. When the (long-gone) movie-theater appendage of the Public Theater ran all six episodes of the original BBC Singing Detective back-to-back, the manager announced that the theater was suspending its “no food” rule for the occasion. During an intermission, my buddy Perkins ran out for a whole pie to split between him, his date, me, and mine, only to discover that the guy who boxed it out of the oven forgot to slice it. We tore pieces off it in the dark during the last three episodes, eventually emerging onto Lafayette St. with our clothes streaked with dried sauce like vintage Kensington Gore.

Rosemarie’s on First Ave. was sort of the heirloom punk-rock pie spot. Handsome Dick Manitoba from The Dictators lived upstairs, and Voidoids Richard Hell and Bob Quine were frequent customers along with my old radio buddy The Hound. Through the ’90s and the aughts, anything rock ’n’ roll related intersected with Antonio’s on Flatbush Avenue, the closest slice to my primary bandmates Prospect Heights home and label headquarters.

I can’t even remember the last time I had a slice, now. Maybe from a place on 30th Ave in Queens near the Astoria/Woodside border? Whenever it was, not long after their gates stayed down and, supposedly, the guy that ran the place vanished back to Italy a few steps ahead of his creditors. These days I’m more on the spinach roll wavelength. The last pie I had was a schmantzy Neapolitan thin-crust job purchased from a sit-down place in Hudson, NY, doing take-out business under pandemic rules. We sprinkled it with arugula, something you couldn’t have waterboarded me into doing 30 years ago. It was delicious.
Bruce Bennett, writer/musician

The 7-part series Untitled Pizza Movie is available exclusively on Metrograph.com through March 14.

Ben’s Pizzeria