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Undercover Pizza Lover, Part III: Slingin' Slices

Editor's note: Some of you may know Scott Wiener from his NYC-based pizza tour company, Scott's Pizza Tours. Or, if you're a regular Slice reader, you're probably familiar with his monthly column, Scott's Pizza Chronicles. In this new mini-series, Undercover Pizza Lover, we'll follow Scott as he he goes behind-the-scenes of the pizza industry and crosses over to the other side of the counter to earn his pizza-making chops in a mom-and-pop pie shop, a major US pizza chain, and a New York corner slice shop.

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Intense moments at a New York slice shop. [Photographs: Omar Qadir]

Remember when pizza wasn't academic? Most of us entered the fray based solely on simplicity; not an "authentic" Pizza Margherita or anything with kale and green garlic, just a regular old slice that made us happy. There was no talk of fermentation time or rare tomato varieties, only a feeling of comfort within our souls. But the journey took a turn down a rabbit hole and we kept going, leaving every Spartan thought in the past. Every now and again there's a moment of simplicity that refocuses everything, even if just for a brief time. That moment happened for me behind the counter at a slice shop across the street from Penn Station in Manhattan. For my third and final (for now) mission as an Undercover Pizza Lover, I spent the last week of April slinging slices at one of the busiest pizzerias in New York City.

NY Pizza Suprema is so obvious it may as well be invisible. (You can catch up on past Slice coverage of Suprema here.) The large red lettering outside the place is gaudy enough that locals often walk right by, writing it off as just another average slice shop. Its location across from Madison Square Garden/Penn Station positions Suprema in a culinary dead-zone. Then there's the name—not even something boring-yet-personal like Joe's or John's—it's about as anonymous as you can get. Employees wear khaki pants and striped shirts so stereotypically "New York pizza" that it must be a gimmick. But it's not. Every Suprema employee has worn these shirts since the late 1960's. It's a statement about honor and integrity that owner Joe Riggio takes very seriously.

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Yes, I did actually grow a mustache to fit in with the counter staff.

When I first stepped behind the business side of the counter, I felt an immediate sense of achievement. It was the realization of a dream I never knew I had. As a kid, I always admired the guys behind the pizza counter more than the ones making the pies. We had direct interaction and they were responsible for delivering the slice into my hands. It was strange to be in that position after spending so long on the other side, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The uniform gave me a sense of pride, as if I belonged to a group. I have to admit it was a bit of a power trip to have people lined up for something over which I had control, but I did my best to get everyone what they needed.

Down to Business

The job sounded simple enough: ask customers what they want, reheat the desired selections, and serve them when appropriately heated. Easy enough when things are slow, but much more complicated when the line's out the door. I was pretty good at putting all the right slices into the oven, but could never remember who ordered what. It's even worse when one person wants their slice only slightly warmed while another asks for it extra crispy.

Everybody's in a rush and I'm a terrible juggler. Good thing there's a crew of able fellas there to back me up. I was pretty amazed at the flow behind the counter. Sometimes these guys would have a slice in the oven before the customer finished telling me what they wanted. They knew the location of every pie and handled transportation from display to oven with incredible ease. Finished slices were plated and served without a single dropped slice. Downtime between customers was spent cleaning up the display area or filling cups of soda. Nobody missed a beat. It was the most beautiful dance I had ever seen.

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Low-tech cash registers expose those who can't handle simple arithmetic.

Highs and Lows

The most frustrating component of my slice-slinging experience was also the most embarrassing. As it turns out, I am incapable of basic addition. NY Pizza Suprema doesn't use a fancy POS system that tracks efficiency, inventory, customer habits or cash; they use an old push-button register. The first step is to figure out what the customer owes. Not too hard. Basic slices (cheese, Sicilian, upside-down) are $3. Marinara is $2.50. Slices with a single topping are $3.75. More complicated slices are $4.25 and calzones/rolls are $5.50. Then there are drinks for $1.50 to $2 depending on size. People tend to order similar combinations so you get used to pricing patterns. This really is about as easy as you can get, but I had serious trouble first remembering prices, and then adding them together while under pressure. It was totally embarrassing. Next step was giving change. It's no fun to give incorrect change and have a customer explain what I did wrong.

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But as much as I hated having my shortcomings completely exposed to customers, interacting with them was actually my favorite part of the job. My position as pizza maker at Metro Pizza kept me separated from the customers by both a high counter and a front of the house staff. As a delivery boy at Domino's I was left only with the responsibility of dropping the right food at the right house. Suprema felt like a team of independent contractors rather than a series of gears in a larger machine. As the single point of contact from the moment customers entered the door until they left the building, I felt a certain degree of significance. These people didn't differentiate between who stretched the dough and who worked the oven. It didn't matter to them what kind of cheese was used or how finely it was shredded. All that mattered was a slice on a place with a large root beer. Beautiful simplicity.

Sweet Talker

That realization allowed me to slip into the cadence of the job at hand. More than simply reheating slices for people, I was there to communicate with them. Slow times even allowed me to have conversations with customers and give recommendations on what to order (I always pushed the upside-down Sicilian slice). Regulars would thank us on their way out, saying how much they appreciated us "doing the Lord's work" or reminding us they'd be back the next day for more. The job became more familiar as rushes came and went. I even found myself greeting customers with crazy phrases like "What can I get for ya, boss?" and "What'll it be buddy?" Nobody ever taught me to say things like that, they just came out automatically. I even found myself telling the cashier "One regular slice and a large soda for the young lady" when referring to a customer who was anything but young. Maybe it was the striped shirt, it could have been the red NY Pizza Suprema cap, or perhaps it was the mustache I grew just to fit in with the other slice slingers. All I know is it felt great to be the guy who served happiness on a paper plate, one slice at a time.

About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour

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