Sunday, December 28, 2008


I talk about pizza a lot on my tours. The more highbrow guides hate this - they want to focus on 19th century poets and Beaux Arts architecture. But this isn't what tourists think of when they think about New York - they think about things like pizza.

There are countless shows about various types of cooking and cuisine on TV nowadays - eating is big, and it's something everyone does. When tourists come to New York they want to experience culture, but they don't want the expense of theatre tickets, or the awkwardness of actually conversing with locals. So they go with food. Food is the easiest way for tourists (and most New Yorkers) to experience culture. They grab a slice, pretend it means something more than just some bread, cheese, and tomato sauce, and pat them selves on the back for doing something authentically New York-ish.

It's kind of irrelevant what the "best" pizza in New York is, if such a think can even be qualified. I generally tell them DiFara's first, then Lombardi's, then Totonno's, then Grimaldi's, but that's mostly just because it's what fits in with my shtick. If the route was different, the pizzerias in other neighborhoods, I'd probably tell them something else. Many times the tourists argue with me simply because the TV has told them something different. The TV is still the official arbiter of truth in our society, and to a tourist the opinion of one person on TV is worth 1000 opinions of people who aren’t.

But there's a certain limit to my playing it fast and loose. I let them know about coal-fired brick oven pizza (for those of you who don't happen to be pizza aficionados, the "coal-fired" part is more crucial than the "brick oven" part), and when talking about the best pies I stick to the generally accepted heavyweights. And like any responsible tour guide, I let them know that they aren't going to find anything really good anywhere near Times Square. In fact, on my last tour I spent a good 15 minutes letting them know not only what the best pizzerias are and how to get there, but also that there specifically aren't any anywhere near midtown. I mean, there's some OK ones: Patzeria is good for a slice, and John's on 44th isn't totally awful - but there certainly aren't any top, or even second-tier guys.

When I worked on the Blue Bus, our dispatcher was guy named Rodney. Rodney's quite a character in his own right, and there'll be lots more stories about him, but perhaps his most amazing trait was the way he answered questions. He always had one, and only one consideration when answering any question from a tourist (or anyone for that matter) - which is what answer would get them out of his hair the quickest. I don't think he was even of conscious of if the answer was entirely factually accurate or completely ridiculous - what happened to actually be the truth was completely irrelevant. One time I heard Rodney get asked by a tourist where he could find the best pizza in New York. Rodney’s answer – given without a moment's hesitation - was "Ray's, two blocks up." Now, if he had happened to be down on Mott Street, I'm sure the answer would have been "Lombardi's, right around the corner." But giving that answer on the corner of 50th and 8th, where he was at the moment, would have entailed explanations, subway directions, other questions, and generally a lot more hassle, so for that particular moment, on that particular corner, a day-old cardboard slice at the generic Ray’s across from the Hampton Inn was the best pizza in the 5 Boroughs of Greater New York City.

And you know what? That tourist was probably really happy that he just happened to be 2 blocks away from the best pizza in all of New York. Tourists don’t want to hear the truth. They want to hear what’s convenient. They want the New York that’s easy to also be the New York that’s good, and the New York that’s cheap, and the New York they’ve seen on TV.

I shouldn’t have brought up pizza on my tour. As it ended and folks were disembarking at the Northern outskirts of Times Square it was what was in their heads. I kept getting asked “so where’s a good place to get pizza?” I told them they could make it to Lombardi’s by the 10:45 last seating, but of course, nobody was interested. Despite my rant during the ride, the response was inevitably “no, where’s a good place like, around here?” Keep in mind “around here” to tourists means “between where I am and my hotel.”

The more I deal with tourists, the harder it is to not just follow Rodney’s philosophy of telling them the answer they want to hear. When I got asked, for the fourth time, where to find good pizza I almost gave in and said “Sbarro’s, one block down turn right.” But I couldn’t do it – I haven’t degenerated to that level of cynicism. Yet.