Monday, November 23, 2009

Another Pizza the Puzzle

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension of many pizzerias all claiming to be the original and famous Ray's. A journey into a wondrous city of entrepreneurs who have no imagination. That's the red font up ahead and the aroma of cheesy grease - your next stop, the (Pizza) Pie-light Zone!

For those few of you who have never been to New York (or don't leave their apartments in Staten Island), Ray's has been the go-to New York slice joint since the late 1970's. Unless you're a strict vegan or the owner of the Sbarro company, odds are you've ordered a regular slice from at least one of the many Ray's locations. And the running joke is that they all claim to be the Original Famous Ray's.

So which of the dozens of locations is the original original Ray's? How did they manage to sprout up in every neighborhood of NYC? And who is this Ray guy anyway?

I'm not a detective, but I did a little snooping (thank you World Wide Web) and this is one mystery that may never get solved. There is an ongoing debate as to which of the famous Ray's is actually the original. But the consensus seems to be that the oldest documented Ray's pizzeria still stands in Little Italy. It was opened by Ralph Cuomo in 1959. And as far as I can gather, no Ray actually exists (or at least not in conjunction with this franchise - apologies to Mr. Charles, Mr. Liotta, and Mr. Bradbury)

But then in the 70's, along came the Famous Ray's Pizza in Greenwich Village. And many people say this is the Ray's that started the whole slice phenomenon of the 70's, 80's and today (that sounds like a commercial for a lite FM radio station).

The name was trademarked by three owners of separate Ray's in the 1990's and now if anybody opens a pizzeria calling themselves Ray's, these guys get a cut. So somehow it seems they are now all related. What that means exactly I don't know, but I'm not about to go to every Ray's in the city to see if one is better than the other (my stomach hurts just contemplating that idea).

Over the years, I've been to many Ray's on a quick lunch break or after a late night drinking binge. I could never really tell the difference and so I'm going to lump them together as many NY-ers do and give them one overall rating.

The Prince Street store (Ralph Cuomo's 1959 location) has a completely different feel inside than the other Ray's. It's a bit more old-fashioned and rustic and welcoming.

I ordered a plain slice, which the cashier cut from the pie that had been sitting out for God knows how long and threw in the gas oven. This is the way most slice joints work in this city. During my pizza journey, I've been spoiled by pies made to order by a chef or a line cook. But that's not the old school NY way.

Ray's pizza is dirty, messy, and cheap. It's everything people come to expect from NY slices. I was actually pleasantly surprised by my first bite. I got lost in the greasiness of the cheese and the butteriness of the crust. But then I came to my senses...

After a few more bites, I felt a little heavy so I let the grease drip down onto my plate. I usually sop up the grease right away with a napkin but figured I needed to take it all in to get a fair assessment.

This pizza is adequate for a NY slice. The ingredients aren't terribly fresh (that seems to be a new craze) and nothing really stands out here except for the cheese and the grease. There's no balance of flavors or interest in cheese/tomato proportion. But do many people care? Probably not. Although for some reason, many people care which is the original Ray's. And just as that mystery will never be solved, why people love this greasy mess will continue to be an enigma.

Is Ray's pizza the best in NY? It's good for what many people desire, but it's not quality pizza and makes NY pizza seem dirty and cheap. There are many places out there that do better NY style pizza without all the calories and heartburn. But if you want that pain and artery clogging and (I reluctantly admit) tastiness, then Ray's deserves at least a 6 out of 10.

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