When one is writing about cheap places to eat in NYC, one can only avoid 99 cent pizza for so long. I know this topic has been covered to death in various food and pizza blogs, but I’d be remiss not to discuss this phenomena. And phenomena is the right word. Since the first one appeared maybe 4 years ago, dozens of places to get 99 cent slices have popped up in Manhattan, ranging from fly-by-night holes-in-the-wall to corporate entries from 7/11 and Papa John’s. Even Gray’s Papaya, long known for their cheap hot dogs, now sells 99 cent slices as well. I understand that it is certainly more comforting to eat cheap dough, sauce, and cheese than to eat cheap processed meat, but it seems like some sort of passing of the torch for bottom of the barrel Manhattan street food (and what will be the side item at Grey’s Papaya in 10 years? Egg Rolls? Short Rib Tacos?).
I am not a huge fan of these places, but lately I’ve been eating at them more often. There really isn’t much to say about the pizza besides that it costs 99 cents a slice and tastes like it. LOL at these people actually taking the time to give detailed food reviews to every single place. That’s like having a taste test with postage stamps: there IS a distinct flavor to each one, but that’s not really the point of their existence. However, I would say that most 99 cent pizza joints are just as good as about 1/4 of the places serving pizza in Manhattan.
In the last few years, with Famous Original Unique Ray’s dotting the landscape and every crummy low rent deli deciding to throw a pizza oven in the mix, pizza-by-the-slice in Manhattan has hit a real low. In fact, if some poor tourist got off the train and grabbed a slice by random, more often than not it would be mediocre, and probably not as good as the best pizzeria in their town. I’d see this all the time at the hotel I worked at; bumpkins just off the boat from Iowa and filled with zest: bright-eyed, and holding their New York City Checklists. Number One, of course, is real New York City Pizza (I can’t claim any different. Like, I’ve never been to Chicago, but if I was to go, the first thing I’d want is a hot dog with all that crazy crap they put on it, and the second thing would be that funny bread they call pizza). Now, there were three pizza places in a two block radius of the hotel, but I’d feel guilty sending anyone to eat at any of them, and would encourage them to go get a hamburger or something instead. Which is sad. Imagine being in San Diego and being told every single taco place nearby was disgusting (FYI: this would mean you were in Mission Beach).
Now, I am not saying 99 cent pizza is helping that problem any, but at least you know what you’re getting into. A plain slice at Famous Ray’s is damn near three dollars, and it’s terrible. Is it better than 2 Brother’s 99 Cent slice? Maybe, but it’s not three times as good! Again, for people who make living wages, flushing three dollars (and not much later, other things) down the toilet at Famous Ray’s is not a big deal, but for the people scraping by, every nickel matters. This is probably why every single 99 slice place I’ve been to invariably has a homeless dude hanging out next door. He may be homeless, but he won’t be hungry.
So, I understand the economic realities that drive 99 cent slice places, but I am confused by people hanging out at them. The 2 Brothers on St. Marks is constantly packed, with people sitting down and chilling like it’s fucking Starbucks. This is akin to just kicking it in a Greyhound station restroom. I don’t even like to set my slice on the table, for fear of any of the miscellaneous diseases carried in and deposited by the numerous degenerates, crust punk panhandlers, and foot messengers who frequent the joint. Yet, some kid is in there typing out his screenplay as I speak.
Today I went to the 2 Brothers on 25th and 6th (as far as I can tell, this is my favorite out of all the 99 cent joints, but maybe just because I end up eating here the most), and there were 2 effete hipster couples (girls looked like Asian versions of Kreayshawn) in there with their feet up, pizza crusts in front of them, talking leisurely. Maybe this is some sort of bourgeois Catholic guilt mechanism of mine, but I feel like I’m in an adult bookstore when I’m in one these joints: I want to conduct my business as quickly as possible, no eye contact with anyone, and I hope no one I know sees me. It’s like taking a shit in prison: fulfilling a biological need in less than ideal circumstances, so you’d like to get it over with a minimum of embarrassment. Perhaps the reason these analogies are coming to me is that most of these places are decorated in an industrial steel and tile motif (presumably for easy hosing down).
But, for people with nothing but a pocket full of change, you aren’t going to get much more bang for buck in NYC in 2011.