Westport Pizzeria offers the best slice Ian Manheimer has eaten anywhere — outside of New York and New Haven.
He should know. He wrote the book on pizza.
The New York Pizza Project is a fabulously photographed, intriguingly produced journey into the world of New York City slices. The subtitle is “Exploring a city through its quintessential food.”
But this is no Zagat’s for ‘za.
Manheimer — a 2001 Staples grad, who majored in communications and English at Tulane, but (most importantly for this project) lived in New York until age 12 — and 4 friends have produced an homage to pizza. As well as to the men who make it.
During intense discussions over another important question — which pizzeria produced the best slice — Manheimer and his 20-something buddies decided to conduct hands-on (and mouths-full) research.
With their commitment to social justice — Manheimer, for example, founded RFK Young Leaders, a program of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights that concentrates on groups like farm workers — the quintet quickly realized that the New York pizza story involves many kinds of dough.
Dough, as in dollars too.
“This book honors the guys struggling to perpetuate a tradition we all love,” Manheimer says.
“It’s mostly 2nd-generation Italians and 1st-generation Mexicans. After that, it’s Greeks and Albanians. They face threats of gentrifying neighborhoods, immigration, and how to make money on a $2.50 product. No one had documented their stories.”
Now, Manheimer has.
He and his friends set up an Instagram account. New Yorkers responded with photos and comments about their favorite neighborhood pizzerias.
Eventually the authors narrowed their focus to 120 shops, in all 5 boroughs. Over 5 years they took tens of thousands of shots, and conducted hundreds of interviews. They focused on local shops — no chains. And no “gourmet pizzerias” (an oxymoron, am I right?)
Manheimer learned plenty. For one thing, during the entire project he did not encounter one black pizza maker. Fewer than 5 were females.
The authors were also surprised at how hard it is to make a living. “Slice joints are everywhere — but none of them are new,” Manheimer says.
“The economics are so difficult. You have to be on your feet, and open, all the time.”
Kids today, Manheimer notes, grow up amid (and being marketed by) the likes of Domino’s, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut. Their pizzas are “inferior, and worse for you” than the ones produced by the sole proprietor around the corner, Manheimer says. But, he warns, neighborhood places risk losing the younger generation that sees the chains everywhere.
His favorite picture in The New York Pizza Project shows Johnny’s — a New York pizzeria since 1973 — standing next to an 8-year-old Papa John’s. “That symbolizes the new New York,” Manheimer says. “And it asks the question: What will be the New York of the future?”
The book — which was favorably mentioned in the New York Times — has struck a chord with New York natives who no longer live there. “We transport the New York pizza experience to wherever they are,” he says.
The other day, Manheimer met a soldier just back from Iraq. Before he saw his family, he stopped off at his favorite slice shop. “That memory kept him going through months at war,” Manheimer says.
The book is being sold at many of the pizzerias featured in it. It’s also in 30 retailers, including all the city’s major museums.
So is The Westport Pizza Project next?
(For more information, or to buy The New York Pizza Project, click here. It’s $29.95. For $5 more you get a map too.)