The pandemic forced New York pizza shop owners to rethink the signature slice – and just about everything

Kevin Armstrong

THE WASHINGTON POST – HVAC technician Marc Carr wore a white construction helmet and matching N95 mask as he approached Scarr’s Pizza on the Lower East Side. It was late May, and the popular shop was re-opening after being closed for two months due to coronavirus concerns. He wanted two slices, but a greeter informed him that they were not yet ready for walk-ups; he had to call or order online. Also, they were only selling pies.

As Carr walked away, hungry, the worker fixed a sign on rope by the door. “No slices for now,” it read. “Sorry :/”.

Pizza by the slice – the city’s signature comfort food – went missing amid the pandemic. From Gravesend to the Grand Concourse, restaurateurs grappled with ways to remain open while protecting employees from the pathogen. Some wanted to eliminate lines at sidewalk windows; others sought to reduce germ-ridden detritus – grease-stained paper plates, aluminIum soda cans and plastic straws – on countertops. In the end, many reached the same conclusion: move the slice off menu.

In Harlem, at Mama’s Too, patrons had to buy “half pies”, or four slices. When they picked up orders, owner Frank Tuttolomondo initially only pulled up the glass garage door six inches above the ground before sliding pie boxes out on a rack. (Now he uses a waist-level shelf to slide pizzas out to customers.) Of the myriad changes, though, the slice’s disappearance rankled regulars the most.

“People really had an issue with no slice,” Tuttolomondo said.

The ‘House Pie’ slice from Mama’s Too pizzeria in Manhattan. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A customer picks up a pizza which is passed to him on a metal table under the restaurant’s glass roll gate

New Yorkers take pizza personally. When Mayor Bill de Blasio ate his with a knife and fork at Goodfella’s on Staten Island in 2014, his eat-with-your-hands electorate was apoplectic. When a denizen captured a rat carrying a slice down subway stairs on video in 2015, the rodent was feted as the city’s next big star. Even when they leave, locals remain loyalists to cheap, foldable slices. Kemba Walker grew up in the Sack Wern Houses in the Bronx, and is now a multimillionaire all-star in the NBA. He highlights his roots when he wears a gold chain with a pizza slice medallion around his neck. He gave them to several friends from home, too.

“Everybody has their piece of the pie,” said Kedow Walker, the player’s cousin.

But many pizza makers wonder if or when their businesses will be whole again. Since March 16, no customers have been allowed to eat inside shops despite a variety of other industries being allowed to restart during phases over the summer. In early spring, as Wall Street panicked and hospital workers needed fuel around-the-clock, owners kept ovens going at 500 degrees, melding tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese. Day in, day out, obstacles bubbled up, and managers adjusted to increased scrutiny from the city. To mark six feet of social distancing Da Nonna Rosa owner Anthony Sagos, who serves 180 slices per day typically, spaced tomato cans on the sidewalk in front of his shop. Fire marshals and police visited to enforce the ban on indoor dining, with one marshal going so far as to inspect a backroom.

Managers negotiated new guidelines regarding hygiene while trying to stave off financial collapse. Now, health department letter grades remain in front windows, but no diners are allowed inside. Plexiglas separates customers from cashiers; assembled cardboard boxes are stacked high on tabletops; dispensers of hand sanitiser stand alongside shakers of garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano. Need ingredients? At Artichoke in Brooklyn, a sign advertises a “DIY Home Pizza Kit” – dough, sauce and cheese – for USD15. Pepperonis are another USD5, oven not included.

Pino’s co-owner Joe Caruso called covid-19’s toll “a disaster”. In 2019, his place went Hollywood when the filmmakers shot a scene from Marriage Story on site. Today, the interior resembles a crime scene, yellow caution tape blocking patrons from sitting down.

A few blocks away, the slice never went away at Antonio’s on Flatbush Avenue, but business is slow. Outside, a statue of a pizza maker – an advertisement of a free soda for those who order any two slices in his hands – has been updated with a single-use mask covering his face. In addition, the owners moved the classic booths onto the sidewalk by the Seventh Avenue subway station, where they remain rain or shine. Inside, a painting of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone from The Godfather promises, “I’m going to make you a pizza you can’t refuse.” But deliveries are down, and commuters, who grabbed their greasy triangles to go, are not using the subway. Well-to-do neighbours uprooted during the upheaval.

Delivery drivers are being dispatched beyond regular boundaries to reach new hands. Parlours like L&B Spumoni Gardens, open since 1939, in Brooklyn and Upside Pizza in Manhattan, which opened in 2019, expanded delivery zones. The Upside radius now stretches from the Hudson River to East River and 14th to 65th streets. Transactions are completed at the curb with as little human interaction as possible.

Even Lombardi’s in Little Italy, which brands itself as the nation’s first pizzeria (established in 1905) on its boxes, ventured into new territory when it dropped off 50 pies for the USNS Comfort, docked at Pier 90. Still, without tourists and weekday workers, owners pivoted to selling grandma pizza by the slice (USD4 plain; USD5 with toppings) for the first time in the shop’s modern iteration.

“We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” Lombardi CEO Michael Giammarino said.

Many have already fallen. A city comptroller report tallied just under 1,300 restaurants that permanently closed between March and July. Olga’s, a mom-and-pop operation in Hamilton Heights, was a staple on Broadway. During the lockdown, customers held a rally in support of the store, and a GoFundMe page was started for the proprietor Evangelina Gritsipis who was known to give a free slice to indigent guests. But today, the roller gate remains down and locked. Only the shop’s name and ubiquitous boast – “The Best Pizza in Town” – mark its past status.

Pizzaphiles make pilgrimages elsewhere. Upon re-opening in late May, Scarr Pimentel, owner of his eponymous shop, recognised familiar faces despite their masks. He sealed boxes with orange stickers; customers came by foot, bicycle and SUV, the latter driven onto the narrow street’s sidewalk to retrieve orders. Pimentel smiled.

“I think we’re going to sell out by noon,” he said.

The slice has since returned to his menu, just as it has at Mama’s Too, where credit card is preferred for contactless payments. Few pizzerias benefitted more from the city’s approval of roadway enclosures for outdoor dining than Mama’s Too. Typically, there are only four stools in Tuttolomondo’s shoe box of a shop. Now, he increased seating capacity to 10 tables with two chairs at each. He appreciates his lot, aware that others are limited in their options due to fire hydrants and bus stops.

Rocco Vitalone, 26, is a regular. He lives alone, and noticed the slice’s absence when he walked by one day in March. He considered the pie too much for one and did not eat pizza from March to May. When the slice returned, so did Vitalone.

On an overcast afternoon in August, he ordered two slices. He could not see the pizza being prepared, as he could in pre-covid-19 times, but he took the finished product to a table in what is normally a curbside parking space.

“Quick seller,” he said. “Sad, sad day when it’s not on the counter.”