The Best Dollar Pizza in NYC?
This piece was inspired by Jeremiah Moss’ poignant review of the surviving Grey’s Papaya branches, as well as by an email list put out by an Upper East Side music fan which suggests pairing swanky classical concerts with even swankier nearby restaurants. One suspects that even in gentrified 2020, the New Yorkers who can’t afford such swank still outnumber those who can.
How drunk, stoned, broke, desperate, or a combination of the above does a person have to be to ingest more than fifty slices of dollar pizza? There are probably tens of thousands of New Yorkers who do that every month without being the least bit intoxicated. In the roughly eighteen months it took to bite the bullet and wrap up a mission to discover if there was such a thing as an even remotely acceptable dollar slice in this city, four of the places surveyed – including one of the handful of shockingly good ones – went out of business. There’s also something of a Heisenberg Principle in play here. Considering the constant turnover at low-wage jobs, what’s the likelihood that a guy who actually knows how to make a decent pie would still be stuck slinging dollar slices a year later?
As with any kind of budget cuisine, you take your life in your hands to a certain extent with this stuff. Caveats aside, this long, strange trip revealed that there is such a thing as a perfectly respectable dollar slice…and that there’s even a dollar pizza place that serves a slice superior to what’s available at hundreds, maybe thousands, of pricier competitors.
You just can’t buy that slice in Manhattan or Brooklyn.
Pizza purists will tell you that dollar pizza is a travesty, the culinary equivalent of a Taylor Swift song. It’s a pathetic imitation of genuine art that’s threatening to displace the real thing in the public imagination. Populist interpretations of the phenomenon vary. Some see nefarious chains displacing neighborhood institutions. Others take a more contrarian view. that it’s about time somebody threw a wrench in the ineluctable upward creep in the price of a slice: once a buck, now around three and sometimes even more across the city.
And isn’t it also a good thing, a market correction, that the dollar places are calling bullshit on so many of their more expensive competitors? At least the dollar places are being honest about using the exact same business model, i.e. skimping on cheese, sauce, crust, even time in the oven, wherever possible.
Before we get to the nitty gritty, let’s establish a baseline. A classic New York slice has cheese and sauce all the way up to the lip of the crust. The sauce is appropriately spiced, not just a thin coating of plain pureed tomatoes. The cheese is melted thoroughly and evenly; likewise, the crust is pliable and thick enough to comfortably support the layers on top without buckling. There’s crunch on the bottom, but not so deep that the lower half of the crust becomes a cracker. If you’re paying full price for a slice and you’re not gettting all this, you’re being shortchanged. That’s where the dollar pizza places are cashing in. Given the choice between a single, substandard full-price slice and multiple dollar slices, neither are really satisfying – but which fills you up the most?
Since Napoli Pizza, just past the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand, closed in 2010, it’s been a challenge to find a New York slice that succeeds on such a high level with every element (Napoli’s was also one of the relatively few places in town where it was never necessary to specify “well cooked” when ordering a pie). A recent favorite of this blog is Vidali Pizza (no website, 718-606-2068), a bare-bones Long Island City spot on 21st St. off 31st Ave. that does a booming takeout business with the adjacent projects. They’re liberal with the cheese, the crust is perfectly proportional and the sauce is among the city’s best: it’s got a peppery bite that almost makes the idea of pizza garlic and pepper flakes obsolete (for the record, both were used, sometimes to ridiculous extreme, on practically all the dollar slices surveyed here). If you’re spending part of a weekend afternoon at Socrates Sculpture Park several blocks to the north, a pie from Vidali’s is the perfect picnic.
As far as pale facsimiles and unexpected discoveries go, let’s start at the soggy bottom and work up. The absolutely worst slice on this list was from the place at the southwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal. It was borderline inedible. It had everything wrong with it: undercooked, undercheesed, undersauced and lacking any hint of spices. Of all the depressing moments throughout this long journey, that was the one where it was most tempting to demand a refund.
The second-floor place about half a block to the north, also on the west side of the street sells the thinnest dollar slice in town. It’s basically a pizza-flavored Dorito, potato-chip crispy and just as filling. It will break and fall on the floor if you’re not careful: others have failed where you might, and the evidence is underfoot.
The Mexican takeout place at the corner of Hester and Allen is also taking a stab at making dollar pizza. Somehow they’ve found a way to burn the crust without sufficiently melting what little cheese is haphazardly sprinkled across the top. It took a lot of generic hot sauce from a plastic squeeze bottle (there was no pizza garlic at the counter) to give that one a little flavor. The slices at the tiny counter on Houston just west of Allen, on the south side of the street, aren’t any more flavorful, although they also aren’t as burnt.
One trend that became consistently clear over the past year and a half is that proximity to both the subway and music venues is inversely proportional to the quality of a dollar slice. Among the local dollar slice chains, the worst is Two Brothers. In terms of sheer awfulness, their location at 125th and Lexington Ave., right at the 6 train, is second only to the Bleecker Street place. It’s a junkie hangout, and the slices there are like prison food, spiceless and barely cooked.
There are several dollar pizza places on the Lower East Side. Below Houston, if you’re absolutely desperate, the best of a sorry bunch is on Stanton just east of Arlene’s: at least the crust is sufficiently cooked. The little counters on both Orchard and Ludlow north of Delancey suffer from lack of one or more basic components; the place on Essex off Rivington that used to sell slices for a dollar during the day now no longer offers that deal. If you want a real slice, the best in the neighborhood by a wide margin is Rosario’s, at Stanton and Orchard, 212-77-9813. Not only are their standard slices consistently excellent, but their nonna slices are also piquantly above average. Their Sicilian sausage slices get high marks, and their spinach rollinis are a sublime contrast in crispy exterior gluten and chewy, subtly tart, garlic-suffused core.
Let’s move on to marginal acceptability. Realistically, a dollar slice that isn’t a pure abomination can only be expected to rise to the level of a real slice by about 75%. A prime example is the place on Second St. just east of Ave. A. There isn’t much spice to the sauce, and that tends to be skimpy, along with the cheese. But it’s well cooked, and there’s as much crust as you’d get with any full-price slice. Of the many places in downtown Brooklyn, the only one that even potentially rates is on the north side of Livingston St. off Jay: avoid the junkie hangout right on the corner of Jay, along with the cheeseless crust-inis at the places on Jay just north of Fulton and around the corner on Lawrence.
In Williamsburg, the corner counter at Broadway and Marcy, past the stairs to the J/M train, offers a tolerable, bare-bones slice for those who might have spent the evening down the block at Duffs.
There’s really nothing to choose from on the west side of Manhattan south of midtown. The places on Broadway at White, and 23rd and 7th Ave. had the nerve to raise their prices for what was never better than borderline-acceptable dollar quality. The West Village is a wash – 99 Cent Fresh Pizza, just outside the subway entrance on 6th Ave.. is a stale joke. The place north of the Waverly, and the spot at 14th and 7th Ave. are just as forgettable. Ditto 18th and 6th Ave.
There are two in midtown which are surprisingly good. The best in all of Manhattan is Times Square Pizza, on 40th west of 7th Ave. on the south side of the street. The crust is on the thin side, but the sauce has genuine spice and there’s an actual layer of cheese beyond the sad patches found on a typical dollar slice. If you’re hungry and planning on catching one of the many free summer concerts at Bryant Park, it’s a quick, cheap fix. One thing to be aware of is that their oregano – yeah, real oregano – can be stalky and a pain to get caught in your teeth. The pizza place has another branch a block and a half to the east, on the north side of the street, which does a much brisker business cranking out one undercooked slice after another.
The other respectable Manhattan dollar slice can be found at the little counter on 6th Ave. just south of 28th. As at the (seemingly unrelated) 40th St. place, the flecks of oregano can also be stalky and an unexpected jab to the gums, although that seems the be the price you pay for flavor here. Otherwise, what’s available north of 34th St. ranges from cut-rate mediocrity (55th and Broadway, and 46th east of Lex, the very first of the places surveyed here) to absurdly lacking in all things (5th Ave. south of 39th). The best of all the midtown spots originally on this list, on 9th Ave. south of 53rd., has unfortunately moved east across the street and left both quality and flavor behind at the old location.
There are also a couple of places in the Bronx that sell dollar pizza. The spot just south of the triangle at 149th and 3rd Ave is undistinguished. The best slice of all turned out to be from the pizzeria on the Grand Concourse going up the hill from 140th St. The crust was thin and crispy, just perfect for the proportion of cheese and sauce, fully layered from tip to lip. The sauce was distinctively spicy and on the sweet side – not as sweet as the sauce at longtime Williamsburg standby Bella Pizza on Bedford just past North 8th, but close. There are cashless places in Bushwick that would call this exact same slice a Tranchee Mignonne and sell it for $28.95…but you can grab one for a dollar the next time you’re in the South Bronx.
Having spent so much time and money – hey, dollar pizza adds up – on this project, the original game plan was to share notes on each of these locations. To spare you an interminable list of every kind of mediocrity imaginable, consider that if there’s a dollar pizza place in New York in 2020 that’s not in this review, it’s probably no good. Support your local, high-quality independently owned pizzeria instead – and please don’t pay using Seamless or other electronic middlemen. Seamless and Grubhub fees force restaurants to raise their prices, and that hurts everybody.