Interview with Colin Atrophy Hagendorf, the “Slice Harvester,” by Scott Wiener
Every New Yorker claims to know where to find the best slice in the city. They argue about it as if it were a question with a definite answer. And even if a real answer existed, confirming its legitimacy would require tasting every single slice in town. Enter Colin Hagendorf, the only man who can truly claim to have explored the depths in search of New York’s best slice.
Between August of 2009 and November of 2011, Colin (along with a rotating crew of guests) tried a cheese slice from every by-the-slice pizzeria in Manhattan. He started at the northern tip of the borough and worked his way south without returning to check out newly opened pizzerias. After 435 stops, Colin was able to name one pizzeria, near Madison Square Garden, with the only perfect score, an award that only amplified the controversial nature of his quest. He documented his journey in a series of handmade zines and was eventually tapped by Simon & Schuster to pull his experience into a book called Sliced Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza.
Colin has since left the glorious slices of NYC for the easier pace of Texas. I asked him a few questions via email and am pleased to share his responses. Enjoy!
Scott: The reviews in your zine (and in the book) are not typical restaurant write-ups. In some ways, it feels like you set out to be the anti-restaurant reviewer. Did it take some time before you found a groove with how you approached the reviews, or were you clear on that from day one?
Colin: I was so hung over on day one I wasn’t clear on anything! I mean, the thing about Slice Harvester is that at the outset I thought only my punk friends were gonna read it, and so I wasn’t thinking about myself as a restaurant reviewer. To be completely honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever read an actual restaurant review in my life except for that really mean one about Guy Fieri, and all the bad Yelp reviews I got when I was called “Brooklyn’s Meanest Brunch Waitress” [Note. Colin worked as a waiter at Jimmy’s in Brooklyn and was admittedly not the most polite to his customers ]. But I definitely did have an authorial voice in my mind from the outset, and that was just to turn all my brusque New Yorkness up exponentially, because I thought that was a funny character.
Scott: Hitting over so many pizzerias in just two years, you must have hit some bad ones. Did you ever have such a long string of disappointment that you thought about giving up?
Colin: There was that one block in midtown, I think like 46th St between 5th & 6th, but I’d have to check. I wrote about it as the third or fourth chapter in the book. I was eating with my friends, Cory Feierman — who is in the band Honey — and Nate Stark, who has been in many great bands, but most notably to me was in Bent Outta Shape. We ate at these two kinda crappy places that were on the same block and were both called Pronto Pizza, but didn’t seem to be related, and these two places were followed by a string of what I’ll call “Pizza Delis,” which are places that aren’t pizzerias, but serve pizza as part of a larger cafeteria situation. Mostly they’re in Midtown and the Financial District, where a lot of office workers are on short lunch breaks. It was absolutely treacherous and, though I never planned to give up entirely, I did advocate that we stop eating pizza that day. But Nate was very insistent that we continue, and ultimately, I’m glad we did because it led to me no longer eating at these pizza delis and instead only going to actual pizzerias.
Scott: Did you ever visit a pizzeria so terrible you sugar coated the review because you felt bad for them?
Colin: Absolutely not. While making good pizza is an art and a skill, it’s not unobtainable. I believe that anyone can learn to do it. A place that’s serving bad pizza simply doesn’t care, so why should I care about them?
Scott: How was writing the book different than making the zines?
Colin: I had actual deadlines. And there was someone besides me fact checking and reading over everything I did. It was kinda nerve wracking because I’d never had an editor before but, ultimately, we were able to work it out. Self-publishing is endlessly more gratifying than writing a book for a publishing house, but the latter pays way better, and in some ways, having another set of eyes on what I did led me to push myself as a writer in places where I may previously have just been lazy.
Scott: Now that you’ve completed the challenge of visiting all the slice shops in Manhattan, do you approach pizza eating any differently?
Colin: Nah. I was always a dick about pizza and I was always very discerning about where I’d get a slice. I guess now the difference is that, if I’m in Manhattan I’m less likely to “take a chance” on a place because I’ve probably already eaten there.
Scott: What do you look for in a slice of pizza?
Colin: Well, I want it to be a triangle unless it’s a grandma slice or a Sicilian. Some of these fakakta places are serving rectangle pizza and that’s unacceptable for a plain slice because it screws up the geometry of eating it on the go.
Scott: Why did you limit yourself to pizza by the slice rather than including places that only serve whole pies?
Colin: Because, otherwise, I couldn’t call it Slice Harvester. I don’t know, man. They’re two different foods. I was trying to do a thorough survey of a thing most people take for granted, that isn’t elevated to the stature of gourmet. You can’t go to Naples and learn how to make a slice of pizza from a master, you know? There’s no pedigree. It’s something that people do without fanfare and aren’t particularly lauded for, and I wanted to highlight that. I wanted to focus on something accessible and lowbrow.
Scott: Why was pizza the subject of your quest? Why not tacos or donuts? Is there any other food you’re as passionate about?
Colin: I can’t believe you’re even asking me this, Scott. Pizza is a perfect food and is inextricably woven into the fabric of my life as a New Yorker, whether it was hanging out at the pizzeria playing the Addams Family pinball machine as a kid, or dumpstering slices in the middle of the night as a dirtbag crust punk adult. Tacos and donuts are great, but I’ve never heard of a New York-Style Taco, and a Brooklyn Donut sounds more like a wrestling hold than a food.
Scott: Since completing the challenge, have you run across any other perfect slices?
Colin: Of course there are other great slices! The now-shuttered Carmine’s Original, on Norman Ave in Greenpoint, was basically unstoppable. Rosa’s, on Fresh Pond, and Metropolitan, in Ridgewood has been a favorite of mine for many years. And this won’t be news to anyone, but New Park Pizza, on Cross Bay Blvd in Howard Beach, is transcendent.
Scott: You moved from NYC to Austin, TX a couple years ago. How is the pizza scene there different from NYC?
Colin: Most NY Style pizza in Austin, much like most NY style pizza anywhere outside the tri-state area, is pretty consistently terrible. I’m not gonna put anyone on blast, but it’s not good. But also, like, part of what was cool about the world, before the homogenization of culture via-global corporations and the Internet, was that things were local. Like, no one would’ve ever expected to get good pizza in Austin, just like no one would expect to get a good breakfast taco in NY. I cherish those regional differences.
Do I miss eating a slice whenever I want? Sure. Does my mom mail me bagels from my favorite bagel shop at exorbitant overnight rates because I would die without bagels? Absolutely. But the fact that you can’t get a good bagel or slice of pizza in this town is fine with me.
As far as non-NY style pizza, though, there are two places of note here. Via 313, which makes Detroit Style Pizza (I didn’t even know this was a thing), that is absolutely KILLER. And this new all vegetarian truck Li’l Nonna’s, who make bar pies. They have the only good vegan cheese I’ve ever had on pizza, their pies are always cooked perfect, the ingredients are top notch and they do all their fake meats in house.
Scott: What aspect of your quest through Manhattan did you enjoy the most?
Colin: Honestly, I think the best part of it was walking almost every block of the city. I spent a fair amount of time in Manhattan growing up, but once I hit my mid-20s, almost all the countercultural institutions and subcultural activities I was participating in had migrated to North Brooklyn, so I would basically only be in Manhattan to work catering jobs or go to protests. I had kind of patronizingly written Manhattan off as being “over” when they put that Gap on St Marks Place when we were teenagers — but that’s an incredibly limiting perspective steeped in some pretty messed up notions about what constitutes the worth of a place.
Walking the streets of every single neighborhood helped me to realize that there are still plenty of weirdos being weird, plenty of marginalized communities persevering, plenty of extralegal activity happening on the island despite the machinating of capital and the attempts to turn it into a place that’s only accessible to the wealthy. It’s a nice reminder that even in the shadow of some of the largest financial institutions, corporate entities that literally ruin thousands of peoples lives on a daily basis, there are people fighting back, but also that there are people just living their lives, who refuse to be uprooted or displaced.
Scott: So why did you leave NYC?
Colin: Thanks, Scott!
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Pizza Quest Info
Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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