By Scott Wiener
We are fortunate enough to live in an era of pizza ubiquity. What was once the street snack of Southern Italy is now widespread and readily available all around the globe. Though slow to catch on, pizza took off after World War II and hasn’t lost steam since.
Shifting gears to the physical pizza landscape, New York City is often thought of as the pizza capitol of the universe, but not just because of the availability of good slices on every corner. What makes the Big Apple so is its rich pizza landscape, packed with a variety of styles. One must look no further than Greenwich Village's Bleecker Street for a cross-section of styles and formats, all of which coexist in what has become the world’s most varied pizza neighborhood.
But what do these pizzerias have to do with the global pizza industry? The answer is simple: differentiation. Regional and national chains excel at uniformity, so a customer’s experience in Utah is identical to his or her experience in Indiana. But in towns where chains are the only option, a hint of Bleecker Street may go a long way. Why not give each of your stores a unique twist? It might be interesting to design a special pizza for each town based on the tastes of local families. Perhaps you can name a specialty pie after the local high school’s mascot. Or maybe there’s a local artist whose work would look particularly good on your walls.
In this competitive industry, you have to look for reasons to attract customers. Flaunt your differences because they are what make your restaurant special. When I’m looking for a sit-down meal, I go to Keste. If I’m hanging out with friends we go to John’s. When I’m grabbing a quick slice, I go to Joe’s. Each pizzeria excels for a different reason, which is exactly why they are able to coexist. On the same block.
In fact, we can quickly dissect the appeal of each.
Beginning at the corner of Bleecker Street and Sixth Ave (Avenue of the Americas), we find Joe’s Pizza.
Niche: For over 35 years, Joe’s has served the Village with fresh slices from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next morning, unlike many other operations. They offer only four varieties: standard cheese slices, pepperoni, fresh mozzarella and Sicilian. You can order other toppings, but it’s much faster to grab what’s already available. Pies rarely sit for more than 10 minutes and heat lamps are nowhere to be found.
Demographic and service model: It’s the quintessential slice joint, perfect for NYC’s on-the-go culture. A lack of seating helps speed the customer flow, which only makes waiting in line that much less excruciating.
A lack of table service (and tables themselves) keeps Joe’s in a very tight niche, leaving plenty of space for other pizza businesses. Just across Bleecker Street sits a pizzeria called Numero 28.
Niche: Its banner reads “The Original Brick Oven,” referring to Numero 28’s use of a wood-fired brick oven.
Demographic and service model: This sociable, higher-scale pizzeria has ample seating and offers a full menu of Southern Italian dishes, and many native Italians to vouch for them. With products so different from its neighbor’s, Numero 28 serves as a perfect alternative to the street slice at Joe’s.
Italian authenticity is gaining ground across the country, but New York has its own tradition that dates back over 100 years. Tourists often want a taste of NYC’s own brand of pizza, which is available just one block west on Bleecker at John’s Pizzeria.
Niche: John’s opened in 1929 and remains an institution, often with lines out the door. In fact, John’s is Manhattan’s second oldest pizzeria and still uses a coal-fired oven to produce thin, charred pies.
Demographic and service model: John’s provides an authentic New York flavor both in its pies and in the décor of the restaurant. Murals of the Bay of Naples and Capri’s Blue Grotto provide the only callbacks to Italy, but they are overshadowed by the black and white checkerboard floor and dark wooden booths and walls. Unlike Joe’s, John’s Pizzeria doesn’t sell pizza by the slice because the oven is too hot to be used for reheating.
Although John’s Pizzeria splits from Italian tradition, you don’t have to go far to find true Neapolitan pies in Greenwich Village. Keste Pizza & Vino opened last spring directly across Bleecker Street, serving beautiful wood fired pies baked according to centuries-old tradition.
Niche: Most ingredients are imported from Naples, including the bricks used to build their oven. In fact, Keste is one of a handful of pizzerias in the U.S. that bears certification from both the Vera Pizza Napoletana and the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletana, deeming their pies authentically Neapolitan.
Demographic and service model: Keste brings pizza back to its roots and serves as a reminder of how coal-fired pies like those found at John’s came into being. An increasing number of amateur food historians and pizza gurus, educated by popular food media like Slice or anything on the Food Network, find this appealing.
For a city that is so well known for huge cheesy slices, it’s amazing to see the emergence of pizzerias whose menus boast words like “organic” and “all natural.” Perhaps the most shocking addition to the New York pizza scene appeared just a few weeks ago in the form of zpizza. Shunning any desire for authenticity, zpizza instead makes California cuisine its point of inspiration. But even this trend isn’t new to NYC, with pizzerias like Slice located just a few short blocks north.
Niche: Slice serves incredible pizza with as much an eye on flavor as health.
Demographic and service model: They offer choices for diners with any dietary restrictions and do so with flare. These pizzerias are a hint at things to come, as evidenced by their ability to infiltrate and succeed in a cut-throat restaurant city like NYC.
I am in awe of the fact that these different pizzerias coexist, mostly within a single city block! Their ability to establish themselves as different products has kept these pizzerias successful throughout the years. Instead of competing for business, they have created a community of complementary restaurants that boost the industry as a whole. Owners don’t get into fistfights over who has a longer line or their door. Instead, they help each other out when the flour supply runs low or a mixer breaks down. When one pizzeria cannot accommodate, another is just a few feet away.
Just remember the example of five pizzerias on one city block and your competition across town won’t seem so threatening.
Scott Wiener owns Scott's Pizza Tours, a guide to New York City pizzerias. He claims himself a historian and aficionado of pizza around the world -- and dozens of publications across the country agree. 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.