This proliferation was also helped along by the same thing that brought pizza to this country in the first place: immigration. In the ’60s and ’70s, waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America began joining the work force and landing in food service roles, where the barrier to entry was much lower than in other fields.
As one of the standard-bearers of the current slice-joint renaissance, Scarr Pimentel remembers his spot on 138th Street and Broadway. “Kids like me pretty much grew up in pizza shops,” said Mr. Pimentel, whose family moved to New York from the Dominican Republic. “If you had five bucks you could have a slice, a soda and some ice cream. It was a full meal and sometimes the owner would slip us an extra slice or something.” Mr. Pimentel opened his own pizza shop in 2016, the sleek and retro Scarr’s Pizza on the Lower East Side. His slices and pies are made with organic flour, high-quality tomatoes and cheese and carefully sourced (often organic) toppings, but the slice-joint spirit holds true. “Who would’ve thought a kid like me from the Dominican Republic would own a pizza shop in New York City one day?” he added.
John Kambouris immigrated to Washington Heights in 1965 from a small Greek island about 200 miles east of Athens. “I had $10 in my pocket,” he said from behind the counter of Pizza Palace on Dyckman Street, which he has owned since 1979, when he bought the business from an Italian couple he knew from the neighborhood. “They say the Italians bring the pizza here, but we put our culture on it.” In the 1960s this area was Irish and Jewish, he explained. Today, the neighborhood is home to a large Caribbean population, including a large concentration of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “I love what I’m doing … we’re making pizza that people want and I don’t have to be Italian to make good pizza,” Mr. Kambouris said, before noting, “I’ve put three kids through college off of this shop.”
It’s in hundreds of shops like his around the city, many no bigger than subway cars, where you’ll find New Yorkers shoulder to shoulder, eating slices in near silence. “Teens, Wall Street guys, guys camped out with a shopping cart, a pizza place is the most diverse space in the city,” said Colin Atrophy Hagendorf, author of “Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza” and host of the Radio Harvester podcast. “Inside a pizzeria that dream of diverse New York City is a reality. I think that’s such a beautiful thing.