Most people who live here will tell you they love pizza, some will even say that they’re obsessed with it. Few have devoted their lives to it the way that Scott Wiener has, though. Beyond leading his eponymous pizza tours, the pizza obsessive has made an entire career and life revolving around pizza, from having a column in Pizza Today to consulting for pizzerias and tomato companies on marketing matters. Wiener is also the brains behind Slice Out Hunger (taking place October 7), the now annual charity event where the best pizzerias in the city sell their slices for just $1, with all the money raised going towards City Harvest. We chatted with Wiener about the evolution of Slice Out Hunger, how you can make your life’s obsession your life’s work and even got him to play Pizzstradamus and predict what the future holds for pizza in New York.
You might look at Wiener’s life which revolves entirely around pizza and think that you would also want to just devote your life to a single subject that you love, whether it’s baseball, cartooning, tacos or modern dance. After all, why wouldn’t you want to spend every minute of every day devoted to a subject you love? Wiener says that while there’s plenty of fun to be had, “If you want to make your life revolve around one thing, you really have to appreciate it for what it is, and have an appreciation for the flaws as much as for the victories of it.” So, for instance, his chosen path isn’t just about eating New York’s best pizza. It’s as much much about eating slices of pizza he doesn’t like, in order to understand the way that good slices are made.
And again, you’ll have to devote all your time to your obsession of choice, which Wiener tells us seven years in to his pizza-centered life includes deep studies of pizza boxes and the white, grease-stained plates that slices are served on in pizzerias across the city. It also means things like keeping track of his pizza consumption with an app that helps him “limit” his pizza to merely 15 slices per week and 700 slices per year. For Wiener, it seems to be working out though. “The longer I do it, the more into I get and the more into I get the more into I get,” he tells us.
With New York and pizza together in the news recently, from Pizza Rat to specially-made Pope pizzas, we also wanted to get Wiener’s thoughts on what it is that makes pizza the city’s most iconic food. Pizza in general is treated differently in New York as opposed to other cities, Wiener told us (something he’d know from his days planning band tours around where to get good pizza), where they have such barbaric ideas like not eating pizza by the slice and only reserving pizza for sit-down dinners. Given our status as a pedestrian’s paradise, “The portability of [the slice] really lends itself well to New York City,” according to Wiener, which helped us forge such a close psychic and mouth-based connection to it. Wiener brought up the case of a hypothetical commuter in the city: “You’re getting out of the subway and you’re walking a couple blocks to work and then you get back on the subway and you’re walking two blocks on the other end back to your apartment. And there’s a pizzeria in every one of those spans.”
Sadly, like so many New York institutions, the humble slice doesn’t have a bright future according to Wiener. There’s the rise of the dollar slice, which Wiener says has “dumbed down” pizza in New York City. “The goal of a dollar slice is not quality, ever,” Wiener tells us. “It’s a short term business model, there’s no way those places can last very long.”
Wiener also sees the city moving away from the slice, towards an upscale experience, which sounds pretty familiar in the abstract:
“The days of the classic New York slice, the heyday of the New York slice is definitely gone, it’s over. I think you’re gonna see a rise in quality in pizza, but it’s not gonna be the same style. It’s gonna be by the pie, it’s gonna be fancy, it’s gonna be dressed up. And that’s something we’re just gonna have to deal with, unfortunately,” he told us when asked about the future of the New York slice. “It’s a bummer to think about it that way but it’s the truth. It’s something I think about every day and I’m never really happy about it.”
Luckily for you, at least there’s Slice Out Hunger, which manages to get even those fancier pizza places in the city to serve up slices for just one night. For a charity event that’s become an annual tradition now in it’s seventh year, Wiener told us that the first event was a thrown-together affair relying on the good will of the pizza places he had been taking people to on his tours. “We told them we were having a pizza party and decided to give the money to City Harvest. It was a symbiotic relationship between the tour and the non-profit in a really good way,” he told us. From those humble beginnings, Wiener built a charity event that he says is looking at a haul of $35,000 for the Food Bank for New York City this year.
Telling us that anyone with just a single dollar can make it in the door, Wiener sees the night as a distillation of his own pizza philosophy: “Pizza is always something that should be affordable, it should be a thing that everybody can achieve, it should never be an exclusive experience.”