By Scott Wiener
I heard rumors about it. I received emails about it. But I wasn’t too upset until I saw it last weekend: a Papa John’s store had opened in New York City’s East Village and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I consider myself an equal opportunity pizza eater, so it’s my opinion that the “Big Four” chains exist for a reason. Historically, they opened stores in areas that had either no pizza options or no cheap pizza options. China first tasted pizza with the arrival of Pizza Hut in 1990. Domino’s followed in 1995 with its first Asian location in Shenzhen. Most New Yorkers wouldn’t know Little Caesars still exists if they didn’t leave Manhattan, but they are all over the boroughs, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Wherever there’s a gap in the pizza market, you can expect one of the big chains to fill it.
The East Village has plenty of pizza options, five of which are in direct sight of the new Papa John’s. In fact, I first laid eyes on it when pulling up to Luzzo’s with a tour last weekend. The group thought I was taking them to Papa John’s as a joke, but our true destination lay directly across the street. While Luzzo’s tends to be a bit under the radar because of its rustic and quiet exterior, the exact opposite can be said about their new neighbor. This stretch of First Avenue now boasts PJ’s loud green awning adorned with streamers and “Grand Opening” flags around the sidewalk. It’s very unsettling.
But I can’t blame Papa John’s. They’re just doing their job. I have to admit that as confusing as their placement may be, it’s also very intelligent. Like Luzzo’s, Motorino and Artichoke are also located across the street from the new Papa John’s. Motorino’s pies run about $14 for a 12 inch, Luzzo’s basic cheese pie is $21, and Artichoke’s Margherita pie fetches a whopping $24. I think these pies are worthy of their price tags, but not everybody in New York shops for taste. Papa John’s is sliding perfectly into the budget pizza niche with a large two topping pizza with two 20-ounce sodas for just $12.99.
There will undoubtedly be people who look to this newcomer as a convenient solution at mealtimes. The big chains do an incredible job of providing a consistent product delivered hot to your front door for less money than anybody else. I have a feeling that the other East Village pizzerias will barely feel a change from the entrance of Papa John’s. They serve a completely different product to a completely different clientele.
So for those who groan about the eyesore across the street from Luzzo’s, I hope they take this opportunity to enjoy the mom-and-pop shops in the neighborhood. Vinny Vincenz serves a solid New York slice (you have to try the Grandma pie) that won’t break the bank. Artichoke’s pies are so massive they’ll feed you for weeks. Luzzo’s pizza is so delicate and simple you’ll wonder why you don’t go there more often. Motorino’s crust has so much personality it will make you understand why the new place opened right across the street: it has none of the merits of its new neighbors.
Scott Wiener owns Scott's Pizza Tours, a guide to New York City pizzerias. TripAdvisor.com has called his pizza tour among the top 10 tours in the country. Visit his site at http://www.scottspizzatours.com/ for more information.