the pizza sherpa

Various Locations
JUNE 4, 2013



New York Pizza is a gauntlet of by-the-slice arrangements where the price of entry is low but the rewards are slim. At some point we agreed that there would be fueling stations throughout the city for human beings who demanded little in terms of nutrition or hospitality.

There are the Ray’s, there are Tony’s, there are the Sal’s, and then there are the places with more than two syllables in the name. I'm partial to a minimum of at least three syllables (Totono’s), and I give up after four (Lucia di Lammermoor’s Operatic Pizzeretta, I am not going anywhere near you, even though your name does have a certain crazy charm).

Fortunately for us, a hero has stepped forward from the pizza shadows. He has been to the Tony’s and the Ray’s and the others, and he knows the bounties and the snares that await. He is the Great Slice Hunter, Lawrence of Mozzarella, the Pizza’z Haderach.

When you first meet with Jay Stubbs, a tall fellow with sandy blonde hair, he doesn’t strike you as one of the many stentorian food guides pacing throughout the city loudly intoning about thoroughly unremarkable food. He doesn’t bombard you with useless information, he just shakes your hand quietly. And when asked about the kind of pizza he likes, he shakes his head.

“It's not about me, about the pizza I like — I like a lot of pizza. It’s about you. I mean, what kind of journey do you want to take?”

The problem with me is that I don't really want to take a journey at all, which is how I ended up as a restaurant critic in a city where I rarely have to leave a ten mile radius, so asking me this question is akin to asking what kind of tiger would I like to wrestle today. I tend to agree with the Sussmans, who say in This is A Cookbook that most slices of pizza that people eat should be ripped from their hands and stomped upon — because we can all make better pizza than what is offered for two dollars a slice.

But back to that question. I hesitated, I couldn't really answer it.

“Hang on,” said the pizza sherpa, “I'm getting a vision. Do you have a bike? We can get there by subway, but it’s going to taste better if we ride on a bicycle.”

I do have a bicycle. It’s a Raskolnikov, a former russian bicycle manufacturer that went out of business in the early seventies. Up until I had met with the Pizza Sherpa, the ‘rask had been in the cellar of my building and had become a home for wayward spiders.

I opted for one of the new Citibikes instead, and after swearing to pay $1000 in the event that I added fuzzy dice to it, I was ready to go pizza-seeking.

We pedaled uptown in one of the new bike lanes that Bloomberg has painted green in homage of the Emerald City, and then ended up at one of the Sal’s. I have to admit, I was happy pedaling along until we reached our destination.

“This is the place?” I asked. “No no,” said the Pizza Sherpa. “This is just the start. This is a sample of what's ahead.”

“But I know what's ahead. Tomato sauce, baked dough, mozzarella, easily an hour on the treadmill while I write about it—”

Sal's pizza attendees waved hello to the pizza sherpa, “This guy,” one of them told me, “This is the guy.”

This means nothing but I nodded because I am good at nodding. I began to select a slice, when the Sherpa spoke. “Not that one," he said, pointing to another one that was closer in proximity to the oven, "That one. That slice is yours.”

That slice? Really? The one with the mushrooms and pepperoni? Who the hell orders mushrooms and pepperoni?

I wasn’t expecting to write this, because pizza that has been reheated is usually fine but never great . . . but this was better than average. A certain saltiness to the tomato sauce rather than the sugary stuff you find all over the city. Maybe it was the bike ride? Maybe just blood pumping through the veins made a dish of cheesey carbohydrates that more palatable?

Even though I’m positive I didn’t say anything, the Sherpa seemed to know what I was thinking.

“No. It's because the pizza is glad that you made the effort. It had to be in an oven, by itself, bearing unbearable heat, heat that it had never known before. It doesn't ask much, but it does ask that you make an effort. Maybe not a bike ride, maybe you're on a long car ride, or maybe you've been studying all night. Effort.”

This idea of food as some kind of sympathetic force is strange to me, but it doesn't seem to bother the Pizza Sherpa, who accepts it as implicit. “Let us go to the next slice of our journey.”

We pedaled to the New York Public Library, circling the building for awhile. This was the only time he seemed vexed. “Sorry,” he told me, “I think the energy's wrong here. We have to get back downtown.” We headed back down Broadway, past Fourteenth, over to Avenue A, to the oddly named Tic Tock Pizzeria.

Tick Tock seems like it might have been the kind of place that was decorated with mostly bullet-proof glass in the seventies and where plainclothes cops would get a life-affirming slice before facing evil and desperation.

“Exactly," says Stubbs, although, again, I’m positive I didn't say anything. “It was called Tick Tock because it was a twenty-four hour pizzeria. But now they want a family-friendly image, so they have two tables,”—really, they look like desks from an elementary school, “and those see-through red drinking glasses that all pizzerias have.” It also has a strange mascot, a cuckoo clock shaped like a slice of pizza, and a pizza-bird that makes an appearance on the hour.

“This seems dubious,” I thought to myself. Apparently he heard me. “I know it seems weird,” he said, “But if you can avoid seeing the bird, it’s one of the best pies in the East Village.”

Avoiding the bird would be simple enough, because we had twenty minutes before the hour, and so it seemed as if we would be gone before the hour struck.

“Oh no,” said the owner, “I'm sorry, I burned your slices.”

This marks the first time that anyone has ever confessed to burning a pizza slice. In fact I think it’s the first time that a pizza slice has been burned in New York City. I mean, it seems like I would have noticed if it had happened before.

The sherpa held up his hand, to try to prevent these new slices from going into the oven, and I realized that the hour was fast approaching. Suddenly, the phone on the wall rang, and the owner answered it with the traditional guttural yell, and a long and loud conversation began.

“This is bad. We should go,” said the Sherpa, but as we turned I could hear a clicking sound from the clock behind us. “Seriously, don't look” the Sherpa called, but without really realizing I was already turning to look at the clock. How bad could it be? It’s just a little bird.

But it is not little. At least not in my mind’s eye. Its head is a pizza slice, or rather, two pizza slices that open as a beak, two pepperoni slices for eyes, and its horrid visage mocks all that is sacred about food in this world. It is as if all the grime and murk that surrounded the pizzeria in the seventies has suddenly taken the form of this ghastly harbinger of time.

“I guess that place is off the tour?” I said as we pedaled back to Brooklyn.

"I don't think so. There is no eating without danger. Think about our ancestors, foraging for food while wild animals lurked around. Think about the Roman soldiers, who first combined cheese, tomato, and bread so that they could eat a full meal in one sitting, and fight off the barbarians at the gate.”

“Is that really a thing?” I wondered to myself.

“Sure it is,” he said.

Just then I had a memory of when I first discovered I really loved pizza, when everyone discovers they love pizza: elementary school, where it is the feast after a soccer game, a spelling bee, or best of all, when our parents cannot bear the idea of cooking dinner.

“You know what I like when I'm eating a slice?” he asks, not really talking to me, pedaling in thought, “A table top video game.”

“Galaga,” I say reflexively.


“Ms. Pac-Man,” we say simultaneously. And just like that, we were biking to Queens.

The 59th Street bridge has the roar of traffic, the smell of the gas, and it seems like at any point you might need to outrun a Honda Civic that might miraculously hop over the barrier and chase after you. But Tony’s Astoria Pizzeria is a calming force.

It’s exactly like the pizzeria that my soccer team would go to after our weekly crushing defeat. There's a flatscreen TV showing something murky about Bigfoot while Italian opera blares from the kitchen. They have those clear plastic glasses that are always wet on the outside for some reason, and there is a table top Ms. Pac-Man, which goes well with waiting for pizza.

“When did you know you were the Pizza Sherpa?” I asked, after all three of my Ms. Pac-Men were eaten by Inky on the very first stage. God, I hate Inky, and Clyde too for that matter.

Stubbs takes a sip of his Peroni and thinks for a moment. “I was a PA for this movie studio. It was a hot day in August, my first real job in New York. I was there at five in the morning, we broke for lunch around two. I brought the pizza for the crew, and it was really good. Everyone wanted to know where I got it. And then I thought, this could be my job: finding good pizza.”

I am often incredulous of people who manage to strip down the idea of a career or even just a job to three words, but I don't really mind it as much after a good bike ride, and when I hear it over a really good slice of spinach and sausage pizza. Another weird topping. “What is with your choice in toppings? I was always taught that in reviewing a pizza place, nothing but the plain slice matters.”

“Toppings are clues to a pizzeria's personality.”

Stubbs still keeps a foot in the film industry, but he already has a book deal and was also approached for a Food Network show. The show is "basically biking all over America going to different pizzerias. I found this one in Vermont that has slices with maple syrup, goat chese, and proscuitto, and they sell carved antler art that you should check out. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it's also what I was meant to do. ”

But will this show highlight Stubbs’ conversational psychic abilities? That is what I would like to know.

We had spent about eight hours together, and I was glad that my publication was paying for the Sherpa’s services, which are about thirty an hour, pizza and bicycle not included. I decided to bring up the Sussmans' theory about pizza by the slice, about how so much of it should not be eaten. He thinks about this very solemnly.

“The thing is, I think everyone has it within themselves to make great pizza. But we don't all have to make it at once,” he says, “Besides, New York is changing, it's going to change a lot in the next ten years. Who knows if all these pizza places are going to be around? I think it's important to enjoy them now. The ones that are good, anyway.”


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