Pizza Obsessives: Niki 'Lady Slice' Achitoff-Gray
Editor's note: Earlier today, Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine welcomed our new editor of Slice. You've probably seen her NYC Oyster Happy Hour Guide or read about her Meatopia-induced bliss. We think it's high time y'all get to know her a little better, so let's give a big, pizza-obsessed hello to Niki Achitoff-Gray.
Name: Niki Achitoff-Gray
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Spankin' new editor of Slice (a.k.a. Lady Slice!)
So, what type of pizza do you prefer?
I'll preface this by saying that you'll be hard-pressed to find a well-executed pizza of any variety that I won't gleefully devour. But I'm definitely a thin, crispity crust girl at heart. I spent my college years in Connecticut, where I turned into a pretty rabid apizza fanatic. My school was about a 40 minute drive from New Haven (25 if your craving has a mind of its own, and that mind applies extra force to the gas pedal), and I carried out a lengthy love affair with Frank Pepe's white clam pies. A great Neapolitan pie also definitely hits the spot. But at the end of the day, I'm a born and raised Manhattanite. I grew up—and will forever remain—spoiled and enthralled by the classic New York slices that, for so many of us, define this city.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
I have a pretty strong conviction that if someone snatched away my first pizza encounter, a horrifying butterfly effect moment would ensue and instead of editing Slice, I'd find myself in a squalid flophouse addicted to some other far less nourishing drug. But I honestly can't recall my first slice. I guess I'll take that as a sign that my parents raised me right: immersed in consistently decent pizza from the moment I grew enough teeth to chew it.
I do know that my family spent a whole lot of time at a branch of John's Pizzeria, just a couple of blocks from our apartment on the Upper West Side. I remember standing slack-jawed, face pressed against the glass guard surrounding the counter, watching the pizzaoli at work. When the restaurant closed in the early 2000s, I was heartbroken. I was still in middle school, so my recollection of the pizza quality is on the foggy side. If it was anything like the original John's of Bleeker, then suffice it to say that I was one lucky kid.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
I'm very excitable when it comes to toppings and, when left to my own devices, I have a tendency to forget my ultimate goal of a great pizza and instead turn its surface into a blasphemous casseroley salad. So I usually have to take a few deep breaths and count to 10 before I place an order (or, in this case, answer your question). Okay.
I love artichoke on pizza, especially alongside prosciutto. Anything that crisps up nicely is a win—Brussels sprouts or basil, in particular. Super-soft roasted garlic and anchovies make me exceedingly happy. And when I'm picking up a non-descript NY corner slice, I have a childhood-induced soft spot for a combo of mushrooms and olives. At the end of the day, though, I'm often happiest when I forgo toppings altogether and embrace the plain.
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
I'm lucky enough to live a few blocks from Roberta's, which leaves little incentive to eat anywhere else in my neck of the woods. With one exception. When I don't feel like dealing with a long wait or a noisy crowd, I head over to Verde Coal Oven Pizza. The owners are almost always bustling around the dining room, delivering some major old-school Italian charm. They churn out super solid pies and it doesn't hurt that their oven has a heartwarming origin story - installed in the early 1900s, it sat walled up and forgotten for decades. Oh, also, it's BYOB. So, duh.
Do you make pizza at home? If so, how? What recipes do you use?
Nope! Unless you count melting cheese and toppings on store-bought flatbread. I'm completely intimidated by the process of turning a ball of dough into a kickass crust. I'm really envious of the amazing My Pie Monday contributors who execute such stunning pies each week. Hopefully one day I'll be able to join their ranks. I did begin a part-time culinary program a few months ago, so if all goes according to plan, I'll have a radically different answer for you by this time next year.
What's one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
Um. Did I mention I'm excitable when it comes to toppings? I'm sure there's a good answer to this, but unless it's a sugary breakfast cereal, I'll probably try it. In fact, if enough of you tell me that "Pizza Challenge" should be a column, I will allow you, dear readers, to induce me to eat weird topping combos once a month. I propose that we begin with chicken liver, a personal favorite that I have yet to enjoy on a pizza.
Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?
Man. This question is giving me a serious complex. I'm obsessed with eating "weird" food (live seafood, anyone? How about some human cheese?), but I have yet to encounter a truly bizarre pie. Pizza Challenge? Yes??
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
I wish I had some epic pizza journeys up my sleeve, but I can't say that I've traveled more than an hour expressly for pizza. To be fair, though, I never learned how to drive,* which handicaps the capacity for pizza roving pretty severely. As the newly appointed Lady Slice, I'm definitely excited to pressure my parents/boyfriend/strangers into shuttling me around. Because, you know, eating pizza IS MY JOB.
This probably doesn't count, but now I'm feeling inadequate. Back in 2007, I spent a couple of months living in Senegal. The food there was great, but consistently...on the mushy side. I needed pizza. No question. I found myself ranging farther and farther through Dakar, trying to find something that came even remotely close to a NY Slice. In retrospect, the mission was complete madness. But I think I traversed most the city on foot fueled by little more than a pizza mirage.
* In response to the inevitable Slice'r who will question my reference to pressing gas pedals in my answer to question 1, I will simply say that my cravings were powerful enough to vicariously inflict said acceleration upon the driver.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
Until my late teens, I left behind crust on all slices (and sandwiches), no matter how well-executed. Also, when my pizza craving kicks in after a few beers, I have an embarrassing habit of quoting Zoombinis. What is Zoombinis, you ask? Only the best educational software of the 90's. But I'll let you decide:
Zoombinis - Make Me a Pizza!
Now: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?
I desperately want to talk to the team responsible for this masterpiece:
Apocalypse Pizza Video
My favorite interviews are with our dedicated Slice'rs, but I wouldn't mind throwing some pros into the mix every now and then. I'd really love to get an official Paulie "Gee" Gianonne Pizza Obsessives up in here. But you'll learn soon enough who I'd like on the site...hows about you folks?
What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?
They're pretty thrilled that it's translated into a paying job. Especially one they can mooch off of as much as they please.