Interview with Scott Wiener, of Scott’s Pizza Tours
Note from Peter: Scott Wiener is a regular guest columnist here on Pizza Quest but, if you haven’t been on one of his legendary New York City pizza tours, you might not know much about him or about his impressive collection of pizza boxes from around the world. So, here’s a closer look from my recent conversation with Scott. There are some links at the end if you want to follow up and, for anyone who has been on Scott’s tours, or if you go on one later, feel free to add your comments below. Enjoy!!
PQ: Scott, a number of our Pizza Quest followers have commented on how much they love your guest columns. Can you tell us a little about your own journey and personal quest that has led you to become a leading voice in the pizza world?
I’m so honored to contribute to Pizza Quest because my own entrée into the pizza world happened through books like American Pie. I always loved pizza in the normal way any kid loves pizza. It was the celebratory dish of every birthday party, every soccer game we won, every baseball game we lost, and every time our third grade class scored well on a test. If you asked me to describe pizza, I would have given you a pretty short response: it’s cheese, sauce, and toppings on bread. Simple. All pizza was pretty much the same, with the only variation being whether it was good or great. That all lasted until just after college. My first slice at Grimaldi’s (under the Brooklyn Bridge) completely blew my mind and expanded my pizza paradigm. This wasn’t the same pizza I grew up with. It was much more mature, more refined, yet still accessible. I knew this couldn’t be the only upper level pizza out there, so I started paying more attention to food media and followed recommendations to New York’s best, oldest, and most classic pizzerias. Not only did I find great pizza, I also found some great stories about these family businesses.
I started going out on crawls to multiple pizzerias, dragging my friends along for the ride. Our voyages became regular occurrences and my friends’ friends started asking if they could tag along. It wasn’t long before I realized my tiny car wasn’t big enough to fit all the people who wanted in, so I rented a school bus for my 26th birthday and invited thirty friends and family to join for the ultimate pizza adventure. That transformed into the sun of my pizza solar system: Scott’s Pizza Tours. Now I have a team of pizza enthusiasts who help me run daily tours of incredible New York pizzerias.
I never set out to be an expert or an industry voice, but my constant curiosity and unique business have given me the opportunity to do the research and development that make this bizarre career more of a passion than a job. My tour guests always ask, “So, what do you do for a real job?” and it’s the greatest question I could ever get. The truth is, I don’t really have a job, I have a lifestyle. That lifestyle happens to involve running tours of great pizzerias, writing for pizza publications, consulting pizza businesses, judging pizza competitions, and just about anything else you can think of that’s cheesy, saucy, and crusty. It’s totally weird, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PQ: You’ve written a lot about pizza boxes. What is this fascination about?
When I tell people I collect pizza boxes, they immediately assume I have a stack of dirty boxes that all say the same phrase “Hot and Fresh” or “You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Try the Best.” They’re completely blown away when I show them pictures of the 1,200+ unique boxes I’ve collected from 70 countries over the years. Pizza boxes are fascinating because we perceive them to be completely unremarkable. The average person doesn’t really notice the box, it blends into the routine. That’s mostly because we tend to order from the same pizzerias every time and the box design rarely changes. But if you see enough pizza boxes, you start to notice their differences. Their artwork often reflects the local culture, so a box from South Africa is very different from one in Scotland. Seeing these boxes side-by-side reveals another level of pizza’s incredible ability to adapt to its surroundings. Pizza is everywhere, as is the packaging with which we transport it. That makes the pizza box a tangential witness to the globalization of our favorite food.
PQ: You’ve probably been to as many or more pizzerias than anyone I know. Without burning any bridges, can you tell us about some of your personal favorite pizzas, pizzerias, and pizza personalities, and how they made your top tier?
I have so many favorites; choosing one top pick is really impossible. It’s easier to talk about pizzerias that have altered my perspective on the dish. Totonno’s in Coney Island is one of my absolute favorites. It’s so simple and frill-free, yet so incredibly delicious – especially the white pizza. I’ve only been to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix once but it was the most complete dining experience I’ve ever had. Both the food and the space were absolutely beautiful. Sam’s Restaurant in Brooklyn is a perfect time capsule that makes me feel warm and cozy inside. New Park Pizza is a great slice that’s sadly inconvenient unless I’m out near JFK airport. Di Fara is a true specimen of pizza heritage. Luigi’s in Park Slope is a classic slice shop that often gets forgotten because it’s not in the middle of Manhattan. As for pizza personalities, I’ve learned so much from pizza makers like Roberto Caporuscio, Giulio Adriani, Tony Gemigniani, John Arena, Jonathan Goldsmith, Norma Knepp, and everyone else I’ve met in my travels. I’m learning Italian so I can continue to learn from my Neapolitan pizza heroes. There are so many amazing people who have opened themselves to me in my research, I’m just incredibly grateful. Then, there are pizza obsessives like Adam Kuban, Ed Levine and Paul Giannone whose pizza pontifications make me love the food even more.
PQ: Your pizza tours in New York City are legendary. How much of your time is dedicated to these and how do you foresee growing this business? What do you think makes your tours so popular and interesting, and what are some of the challenges that the casual viewer might not be aware of to make these tours possible?
I spend most of my time working on pizza tours, leading anywhere from 5-10 every week. I have an amazing team of pizza enthusiasts leading tours as well, but beyond them I don’t really see myself expanding the business much more. I don’t want to dilute the quality of the tour by overloading pizzerias or pushing into other cities (besides one-offs). The tour is popular because it gives our guests a unique look at pizzerias by bringing them behind the counter and into the kitchens to understand what makes each pizzeria and style so different from the others. My goal is for guests to become more educated pizza consumers and we accomplish that by giving them as much information as humanly possible while allowing them to uncover the unique characteristics of each pizzeria by tasting and visiting the places where each style was born. The response has been incredible and I think it’s just because we’re accomplishing that mission.
PQ: Scott, thanks so much for your passion and ability to inspire others. Can’t wait to see your next guest column on Pizza Quest!
YES! I’m very excited to write more for Pizza Quest. Summertime is very busy and I’m working on lots of other pizza projects, including the nonprofit Slice Out Hunger. We’re uniting the entire pizza industry to fight hunger in the US. Stay tuned for more information about that!
Note from Peter: Here are some links that Scott provided for those of you who want to follow up, book a tour, or even see his pizza box collection. Enjoy!!
Tour website — www.scottspizzatours.com
Slice Out Hunger charity — www.sliceouthunger.org
Here’s a link to the pizza box collection… https://www.flickr.com/photos/captainscooter/albums/72157657335094071
And Scott’s pizza box book … https://www.amazon.com/Viva-Pizza-Art-Box/dp/1612193072
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.
...and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com