Pie Guys: Why You Need to Take a Pizza Tour
Tours & Attractions
by Jonathan Zeller, 09/14/2009
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New York City is the center of the pizzaverse. That's why Scott Wiener and Tony Muia each offer pizza tours, taking hungry guests by bus and foot to sample NYC's finest pies. This should be an easy sell. Who wouldn't want to enjoy exquisite specimens of a beloved dish in the city that makes it best?
But some might ask: "Millions of people successfully locate and consume pizza without instructions. Why hire someone to lead me through the process?"
As it turns out, there are as many good reasons as there are good New York City pizzerias.
Any way you slice it, pizza is everywhere. It's at the food court in the mall. It's in the supermarket freezer. During Friday school lunches, greasy rectangular portions populate cardboard trays in cafeterias across the country.
You can thank New York City for pizza's proliferation—although if you ask some New Yorkers, any pizza outside the City lacks the magic that makes the local slice worth eating. NYC is home to America's first pizzeria (Lombardi's in SoHo) and is the place where the pie was perfected. "All the history of pizza in America points back to New York," says Scott Wiener, whose jaunts—appropriately dubbed Scott's Pizza Tours—lead guests to a rotating cast of eminent NYC pizzerias.
Tony Muia of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours remembers Ken McCarren, president and CEO of the International Pizza Hut Franchise Holders Association, telling him to show McCarren's group of visiting franchise holders that "if it weren't for New York, they wouldn't even be in business."
New York City has museums and tours examining everything from the stock market to skyscrapers to fine arts, so why not let pizza scholars usher you through the ins and outs of this ubiquitous dish?
"Piece" of Mind
Tony and Scott are those very experts.
"I have a list on my website of all the places we visit, so anyone who can use the Internet can go themselves," says Scott. But, he says, his tour is better: "I take people into the kitchen and we learn how the pizza's made, how the ovens are different and why the pizza comes out differently." And the selection is more varied than you think. "It's not just 'New York-style,'" he says, dismissing the oversimplified Chicago-New York dichotomy. "We have this landscape of all kinds of pizza." He then discusses the differences among coal ovens, wood-burning ovens and gas-fueled deck ovens.
Toss Scott any pizza-related inquiry, and he'll dish out more details than you knew existed. For instance, we asked why so many NYC pizzerias are called Ray's (a long-standing local mystery). Scott says there are at least 40, most of which assert their individuality by using various permutations of the words "famous," "original," and "Ray's."
"I'm constantly researching," Scott says. First, Ray was just a popular Italian nickname that had the advantage of being "not expensive to write in neon." Then, "there were so many around and they were so successful, it led to piggybacking." He's convinced that the Ray's on his tour is the original. "I've looked it up in City records."
Tony is also passionate about pizza details, like what distinguishes his favorite Neapolitan (round pie) slice at Grimaldi's from his favorite Sicilian (square pie) slice at L&B Spumoni Gardens. "Spumoni Gardens," he says, "we call a 'wet slice,' with all that sauce and cheese underneath and bread that's like focaccia."
You can't glean such knowledge and experience from a solo pizza trek. It's the difference between taking a few books out of the library and earning a literature degree.
Slice of Life
Pizza has become inexorably woven into the fabric of NYC life.
Tony takes guests on a "personal journey" that transcends pizza, using it as a gateway to an authentic Brooklyn experience. On top of his two favorite pizzerias, the tour incorporates local landmarks and movie locations—it's a love letter to Kings County. For example, he takes the bus past Lenny's Pizza on 86th Street, where John Travolta buys a couple of slices during the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever (Tony plays the clip, to boot), as well as the architectural marvel Gingerbread House—officially called the Howard E. and Jessie Jones House—in Bay Ridge.
As for the pizza itself, Tony makes time to sit and eat like a New Yorker. "We really experience the pizzerias with the locals," he says. But given visitors' time constraints, some things are different (and better): his guests bypass the mammoth line at Grimaldi's, a legend on par with its charred coal-oven pie. They take in the neighborhoods, too, exploring attractions including Coney Island—all guided by an NYC native who loves the area and all it has to offer.
Get a "Pizza" the Action
These tours are, as Scott puts it, a chance to "look at something you think you know and go below the surface." Even the thinnest crust is deeper than it appears. Now that you're convinced, make a reservation.