The rise of the dollar slice in New York has been heavily reported on, both by us and by others, but what has not been mentioned is that not only is New York dollar-slice pizza a new phenomenon (the average "regular" NY slice runs around $2.50 these days — even when I was a kid they were at least $1.25), but in my estimation, it actually represents a unique style of pizza made in a way that I've not seen anywhere else.
Sure, on the surface, it resembles a typical thin-crusted New York slice with a thin layer of sauce and cheese and a mildly blistered, brown edge. Lift it up a slice at a time, give it a gentle lengthwise fold, and it'll stand to attention, allowing you to eat it as you walk down the street.
But superficial similarities belie some fundamental differences. Here's what makes a one-dollar-New-York slice a completely unique entity from a normal New York slice.
An Oil-Coated Crust
New York pizzas are typically stretched out on a floured board, resulting in a crust that sports spotty browning with deeply charred spots interspersed with lighter areas. Since the powdered flour on the surface of the crust burns more easily than the dough itself, it also adds a charred, smoky flavor to the pie.
Dollar slices, however, are stretched out on an oiled surface, resulting in completely different cooking. Because of the oiled stretching surface, pies end up with a thin layer of oil coating the entire surface of the dough before it goes into the oven. Since oil is such a good buffer and transferrer of heat, oiled dough will cook much more evenly, resulting in a burnished, golden brown appearance rather than the spotty baking of a more traditional New York pie.
This type of even cooking is great for turkeys, but not necessarily what you'd look for in a good slice of pizza.
Cooked On a Screen
Largely due to the fact that you can't slide an oiled pizza crust off of a peel, dollar-slices are stretched onto metal screens that are then transferred directly to the gas-fired metal ovens to cook. This differs from NY pies, which are cooked directly on the hot oven floor. What difference does this make?
Well, as we all know, heat is transferred via three methods: conduction, convection, and radiation. With NY pies, the vast majority of the cooking on the pizza's underbelly is done through conduction, where the dough comes in direct contact with the hot metal, and radiation, on the areas of the crust that are lifted away from direct contact. Because conduction is much more efficient than radiation, this results in dark spots (those heated by conduction) and light spots (those heated by radiation).
With a pizza screen, conduction doesn't really enter into it, resulting once again in a very even golden brown undercarriage instead of the desirable charring/spotting. It's also significantly less crisp than a real NY slice, with a thicker layer of cooked, spongy dough.
Dry but Un-aged Mozzarella
NY slices never use fresh mozzarella (with the exception of specialty slices at certain shops), instead relying on bricks of dried and aged mozzarella that are grated and applied sparingly to the pies. Often, they'll also get a sprinkling of a stronger grating cheese like Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, or Grana Padano. The aged mozz, along with the optional grated cheese, results in pies with a distinct, slightly nutty tang — a flavor that's completely lacking in the dollar slice joints, which use cheaper dried mozzarella that hasn't been aged.
I know that in our pizza style guide, Adam went to great pains to represent all styles of pizza without passing judgment or implying that one is better than another (and well he shouldn't!); however, I do believe that as a relatively new, but completely distinct style of pizza, dollar-slice style is in fact inferior to most other types of pizza. Does that mean it's not a great deal or not worth eating? Certainly not! There are many worse things in this city to spend your hard earned dollars on, and I must admit to frequently stopping by either a 2 Brothers or a 99¢ Fresh late at night when my liver is heavy and my pockets are light.
It's fast, it's cheap, it's pretty filling, and hey, for all its faults, it's still pizza, right?