by David Benjamin
“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
— Yogi Berra
MADISON, Wis.— So, there I was — about a month ago — standing on the sidewalk on a clammy night in Taipei, hip-deep amongst the hip, the young and the trendy, watching for our number to appear on the display in the window at Din Tai Fung, reputedly the best damn dim sum joint in either of the two Chinas. Hotlips, my brilliant spouse, along with our hosts, Judith, Grace and Brandon, were eager for the experience and patient with the obligatory delay.
I was a little less starry-eyed because I tend to regard dim sum as glorified hors d’oeuvres. However, I’ll eat just about anything Chinese (except duck tongues), so I did my best to blend with the hundreds huddling ‘round the restaurant’s plastic mascot, a giant hydrocephalic dumpling-boy. Inevitably, my mind wandered to similar scenes in New York, where the local pizza cult strikes an eerie parallel to this dim sum dementia. New York City’s pizza exceptionalism requires communicants to not only queue up outdoors in the rain, snow, heat and dark of night, but to stay outside, on their feet. They eat — lest they be ostracized and mocked by friends and family — with their hands (Din Tai Fung supplies chopsticks) and follow an exacting ritual prescribed and enforced by a legion of self-appointed pizza nazis who prowl the streets in search of heretics.
The first precept of New York pizza orthodoxy is that New York not only has the best pizza on earth, but that there would be no pizza at all without New York. The accepted gospel is that pizza was born at a tiny storefront bistro in the East Village in the year 1561, almost 60 years before the Mayflower docked at Battery Park, just east of Whitehall Street. The Italians later claimed to have thought of it first, but only because Amerigo Vespucci got the original pizza chef drunk on dago red and stole the recipe.
Second, because New York is the center of the pizza universe, the city’s most-discussed topic (hashed out passionately on the food pages of the Times, the Daily News, the Post, the Voice, Newsday, New York, The New Yorker and the Bergen Record, is which pizzeria makes the BPNY (Best Pie in New York). This means, of course, that there isn’t just one BPNY. The number can slip two to three. It can balloon, in any given news cycle, to as many as fifteen, with locales ranging from Arthur Avenue to Mulberry Street to Hell’s Kitchen and Park Slope, with names that tend to sound more authentic if they carry an apostrophe — Al’s, Luigi’s, Tony’s, Porfirio’s, Dona Lucia’s Pizza and Sushi. Like that.
BPNYs pop up randomly and ascend precipitously to citywide fame, only to fall out of popular favor in a New York minute. The title migrates from borough to borough on the breakneck bandwagon of fickle fancy. If there’s any consolation in all this churn, it’s that your average New Yorker can wake up to discover that he or she is suddenly only two or three stops away — on the best subway system since the official opening of the Handbasket to Hell — from the best pizza (at least according to Yelp) in the history of Western civilization (at least for a month or so).
Okay, next we have the rules. Listen up.
Anywhere else in a world of less-famous pizza, you go inside, grab a table, order your pie in a size that matches your appetite (small, medium, large) and blithely consume it any way you want, with or without implements.
Not in New York, where a block-long queue (which New Yorkers call “standing on line” and everyone else calls “standing in line”), largely composed of review-reading 20-something hipsters, is the telltale hallmark of culinary conquest.
When you finally get to the counter, your choice of sizes comes down to one: Huge. You don’t order by diameter, you order by the “slice.” To the outside world, this seems a queer, nebulous measure. In New York, “slice” and “pizza” are synonyms so freighted with meaning that the hardcore New Yorker seeking his pie anywhere west of Delaware Gap has difficulty being understood.
“Whaddya mean, how many slices? Who the hell counts?”
The immense wedge that eventually shows up, ideally lapping over the perimeter of of a paper plate that has the tensile strength of a handwritten sonnet by Mrs. Browning, is gooily overflowing its crust and feloniously hot. A prudent diner would set it aside briefly, ’til the sauce ceases to bubble and the cheese de-liquifies.
Not in New York. That would be chicken.
Your redblooded New Yorker addresses this seething slab by folding it upon itself, then elevating it ’til the pointy end aims down, toward his or her mouth. The slice thus becomes a slippery slope. As the slice enters the consumer, a molten river of tomato-flavored lava and boiling mozzarella separates itself and plummets toward the tender tissues of the inner cheeks, the vulnerable tongue and the delicate surface of the ill-named hard palate. The subsequent second-degree burns and loss of all sensation — except pain — are every New York pizza-lover’s red badge of blistered inflammation.
Ideally, the altar where this ceremony climaxes is a Formica counter or a tiny round stand-up table — ideally on the sidewalk — shared elbow-to-elbow with a host of strangers whose urban solidarity is implicit in their rudeness. Just as only an apostate or blasphemer would touch a pizza with knife or fork, only a sissy would eat it sitting down.
There is, fortunately, an antidote to this hidebound adherence to form, conformity and fleshly mortification. It’s called takeout. Once you grab the box, overtip the kid and shut the door, you’re free — even in Soho, Chelsea or TriBeCa, even in the darkest ethnic dens of Corona and Rockaway. In sinful privacy, without fear of public censure or big-city ridicule, you can pull up a chair, open a napkin, pick up a fork. You can even say Grace.
If only the pizza were better.