How Old Are You Now: Slice celebrated its one-year anniversary on Wednesday evening at Patsy's in East Harlem. Patsy's is one of our favorite pizzerias and is notable for being one of the few coal-fired-oven shops that sells pizza by the slicefor a buck fifty, no less (top right).
Location: 2287 First Ave. (b/n 117th/118th)
Getting There: 6 train to 116th; walk east to First; turn right; walk 1.5 blocks up
Payment: Cash only
The Skinny: One of our favorite pizzerias, but has suffered from inconsistent pie quality of late. Stick to the plain pies, either regular or fresh mozzarella, and try going with a number of peoplemultiple pies guarantee that you'll get at least one or two superb pizzas.
With its coal-fired oven; tasty pies; legendary provenance; and large, downbeat dining room, Patsy's was the natural choice for the occasion.
In his book American Pie, Peter Reinhart describes two kinds of perfect pizzas: the contextually perfect pizza and the technically perfect pizza. The contextually perfect pie, he says, might not be perfect in execution, but for some reason it's the perfect pizza at that time. Maybe, as a cash-strapped graduate student, it was the place you began your first date with the woman who, a couple years later, would become your wife. Sure they used canned mushrooms and their crust was a little too thick, but you can't order a pie there without thinking of how nervous you were meeting her there before heading off to see Titanic. Or maybe it's the only place you can afford to take your kids when you have 'em for the weekend 'cause your lying cheat of a husband left you for that tramp, gained custody, and then took half your goddamn money, but gee how those kids love that pizza and damn how they look at you when you indulge them in the doughy goodness that their Atkins-following dirtbag of a father denies them. That is contextually perfect pie. Technically perfect pie is like the pizzas that a coworker and I had last night at Una Pizza Napoletana.
The first time I had Patsy's, it embodied both kinds of perfection. From the red patinated neon sign in the window to the empty, dimly lit dining room with its Frank Sinatra portrait on the wall and its black-and-white penny-round tile floorthis was a classic Italian eatery (even though it was by then owned by Albanians). Heck, I half expected to find a gun taped behind the toilet tank. And the pizza itself, my word. Thin, light, crisp charred crust. Perfect balance of cheese and sauce. Excellent toppings. You get the picture. It has been a favorite of mine since.
Joining me on this auspicious evening were seven guests. Slice's metro editor, Seltzerboy, had tickets to the Yankees game and sadly could not join us. As for our roving reporter E-Rock, I sent that sumbitch to Chicago as punishment for having missed too many pizza clubs in the past. (He will, of course, provide a full report of his deep-dish detention session.) Among the illustrious guests were veteran pizza clubbers Tien, Janelle and Joe S. Rounding out the party were first-timers "JXM" (a good friend I was happy to see there), Youngna, Danny G., and Jen from Gothamist.*
What can I say about Patsy's that I haven't already said? Once all the guests that seemed likely to come had arrived, we ordered four pies: a plain with regular mozzarella, a plain with fresh mozzarella, a sausage-and-onion pie, and a mushroom pie. First out was the sausage and onion (above right). Normally my favorite combo for a pie, the meat and vegetable proved to be tasty but sog inducing. This was universally the least favorite pie at the table.
Next out were the plain piesboth the regular- and fresh-mozzarella varieties. These were well received, with a couple Patsy's first-timers commenting that they represented the best pizza they had ever had. Unfortunately, I had had better from Patsy's. While not as soggy as the plain regular-mozz pie I had on Tuesday night (I was doing pre-club recon work), it wasn't up to the level of quality of which I knew Patsy's was capable. The mushroom pie, which followed quickly on the heels of the two plains, also was not well received (though it did prove more popular than the sausage pie). Mushrooms, with the large volume of water they release while cooking, are notorious crust soakers.
That's when Danny G., who we had written off as a no-show, walked in. He made quick work of the two remaining slices and we ordered another plain regular-mozzarella pie. Out in no time at all (it only takes about four minutes for a pie to cook in the coal oven at Patsy's), this pie put all the others to shame. It was the perfect pie, technically, and even Patsy's first-timers could tell that it was markedly better than the rest.
Contextually, I'd say Patsy's is still tops. Our waiters, Joey and Victor were, in that New York sort of way, hard-edged yet friendly. They were fast, attentive, and willing to answer many of the questions that this inquisitive crowd had, so we were especially sorry to have almost stiffed them on the tip. (With the excitement involved in raffling off a copy of American Pie, which went to Joe S., this reporter forgot about leaving the gratuity on the table.) Technically, however, the last few times I've been to Patsy's, there has been a disturbing consistency of inconsistency. Time was you could count on a superb pie. Now, it seems, there's a great-piemerely-OK-pie ratio of 1:2 or, at worst, 1:3.
Given its place in our cheese-clogged hearts, we hope that this is just a phase for Patsy's, and we're going to hold off downgrading it from Eight-Slice status (eight of eight is our highest rating). But be warned when you visit Patsy's: You might want to go with a large group so you're sure to get at least one or two transcendent pies.
All images by Tien Mao, except top right and bottom right, which are by Joe Schumacher. (Out of spite, E-Rock took the Slice digicam to the Windy City.)
* It was fitting that Ms. Chung was in attendance because when I started Slice, Gothamist was one of the blogs I looked to as an example of what to do and how to present information. Friendly in tone, enthusiastic, and decidedly not cooler-than-you, Gothamist's support in terms of mentioning Slice now and again and then linking to us has been invaluable. Plus, I sorta "borrowed" their templates (their design is aces) and Jake was nice enough to let me keep using them when he found out.