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Pizza by the Slice or Pizza by the Piece?

By on Friday, June 14th, 2024 at 4:01 pm | 886 views

A New York Slice from Joe's Pizza; its a slice, not a piece of pizza

A slice of pizza from Joe’s in the West Village of Manhattan. Joe’s sells pizza by the slice, but not by the piece.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul caused quite a stir when referred to a pizza slice as a “piece of pizza.” Who was this interloper, anyway, and where did she eat her pizza? It was almost as bad a gaffe as former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio caught cutting his slice of pizza with a knife and fork.

Governor Hochul assumed office after Andrew Cuomo stepped down amidst accusations he had groped staff members. Cuomo, for his part, defended his actions by insisting, “I’m not perverted, I’m just Italian.” Ever since then, Hochul has bumbled her way through governing the state of New York.

For instance, last year when Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced her retirement from the state’s highest court, Hochul nominated Hector LaSalle. The anti-union judge was so unpopular, despite Hochul’s party controlling the legislature, his nomination failed to get out of the Senate committee.

Her tenure in the governor’s office has been marked by missteps, but none more surprising than her unexpected announcement on June 5th. With less than a month before implementation, Hochul declared a pause to congestion pricing, the long planned to toll lower Manhattan streets to fund subways and regional commuter rails while reducing gridlock. The decision surprised many, and instantly a coalition across a broad spectrum of conservative and progressive organizations quickly coalesced to oppose her decision.

So what the heck does this have to do with pizza?

At a press conference on June 13th, Kathy Hochul was defending her decision to cancel the toll. She tried to describe the impact of the fee arguing it would make things more expensive, with “everything from the cost of a piece of pizza,” would cost more. The New Yorkers in the room immediately took issue with the phrase. A piece of pizza? Didn’t she mean a slice? What state was she the governor of, anyway?

A screenshot of the governor's press conference where Hochul called a slice of pizza a piece of pizza, creating a massive scandal for her administration

Governor Hochul refers to a piece of pizza in her June 13th press conference creating the Pizza Piece-gate scandal

New Yorkers eat pizza by the slice. Order a regular slice, and you’ll get a pizza with tomato sauce and cheese. (New Yorkers also drink regular coffee, meaning with milk and sugar). A good slice is thin, but sturdy enough to be folded without drooping over. It’s a literal icon, starring films such as Saturday Night Fever, where in the opening scene, John Travolta buys two, stacks them on top of each, and shoves them into his mouth, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where Radio Raheem tries order “two slices” while blaring his boombox.

The pizza slice also serves as a bellwether of the subway fare. The pizza connection or pizza principle, is a theory that the price of a slice can accurately predict the price of a subway fare. The link was first observed by Eric Bram writing in the New York Times in 1980. It largely has held that as pizza slices increase, the subway fare follows. The $3 slice common in slice shops today still mirrors the $2.90 subway fare. Ironic since the congestion toll Hochul is trying to cancel is meant to prevent a steep increase in the fare.

Where do slices come from?

The Neapolitan pizza invented in the working class neighborhoods of 19th century Naples was sold by the pie. Customers could buy pizza from shops or even from pizzaiolo ambulante, mobile street vendors who traveled around the neighborhood, but nobody sold slices.

Pizzerias in New York changed everything. The earliest of these pizzerias were Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, John’s, and Patsy’s, all founded in the pre-War years, and primarily sold whole pies. John’s of Bleecker even went as far as making the “no slice” policy part of their branding, adding it to the awnings of the shop.

John's of Bleecker is famously No Slices

John’s of Bleecker Street famously has a “no slices” policy. They sell whole pies only (but not pieces of pizza).

New York’s pizzas were larger than in Naples because instead of baking in specially-designed pizza ovens, the pizza cooked in standard bread ovens designed for large batches of loaves. The whole pies were cut into slices, but it wasn’t until Patsy’s in East Harlem started selling pizza-by-the-slice that anyone started using the phrase.

Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri opened the pizzeria with his wife Carmella in 1933, and it eventually became a favorite of Frank Sinatra. The name also became embroiled in numerous legal battles, including lawsuits from Patsy’s, a sit-down restaurant in midtown Manhattan, franchise owners, family members who opened Patsy’s in Brooklyn, and a jarred sauce bearing the name Patsy’s.

Although Patsy’s was probably selling pizza-by-the-slice before World War II, it was only after the war that slice joints started becoming popular. New York Slice shops started becoming ubiquitous around the city beginning in the 1950s for one important reason: the development of the gas-fired pizza oven. Ira Nevin, an aircraft engineer from Westchester, patented an oven dedicated to making pizza heated by natural gas. Before then, the pizza ovens relied on coal and wood. While these ovens helped create the iconic New York-style pizza with a crispy bottom and soft top, they were difficult and expensive to maintain. Nevin’s Baker’s Pride ovens made cooking pizza easier and cheaper, and paved the way for the slice shop.

By the 1950s, the pizza slice was going mainstream. One example from south Brooklyn is Nino’s, a pizzeria once located at 489 New Lots Avenue. Throughout the 1950s, the shop advertised $0.15 slices. Coincidentally, the subway fare increased in 1953 to $0.15, becoming the foundation for the Pizza Principle. Another pizzeria, Fran’s Italian Cuisine at 331 New Lots Ave, began advertising pizza by the slice around the same time, although no price was listed. Neither shop still exists today.

Pizza “slices” aren’t only a New York thing. Over in New Jersey in 1954, Sussex County residents woke up to find “slices of tomato pie instead of mail” stuffed inside their mailboxes, according to the Pennsylvania Standard-Speaker. Advertisements for pizza slices appear throughout the 1950s in Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, and even as far off as California. That is to say, by the mid century, the pizza by the slice was becoming a popular, widespread term.

So who says “piece of pizza?”

The term “piece of pizza” is far less common. Even before pizza-by-the-slice, there are few references to pieces of pizza. The phrase just isn’t part of any parlance.

However, Pizza Inn, a Texas restaurant, ran an ad campaign in 1976 featuring the phrase “Find Inner Piece At Pizza Inn.” The play on words was clearly referring the copy of the ad that includes the phrase “enjoy every piece of pizza from Pizza Inn”. To turn the mid-1990s Pace Thick and Chunky Salsa around, this stuff is made in Texas? Texas?!?

The phrase “piece of pizza” does appear in 1948 in the song “Pass A Piece of Pizza Please,” by the singer Jerry Colonna. Colonna sings, “I don’t want salami, or any pastrami, but please won’t pass a piece of pizza.” The diddy’s lyrics include other word play like rhyming spumoni and macaroni so perhaps Colonna can be forgiven for the alliterative “piece of pizza.” Colonna, who was born Gerardo Luigi Colonna, also had a film career including voicing the Hare in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

There are other lesser examples of the phrase: Another song “A Piece of Pizza,” copyrighted by Bob Harvey; A patent application from 1970 for a “handheld food folder” described as holding “a hamburger or a piece of pizza”; but nowhere really is the phrase particularly widespread.

New Yorkers might be rightfully questioning how well Kathy Hochul understands New York City, but she isn’t the first governor to use the phrase “piece of pizza.” The New York Times reported in 1985 that Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo’s father, was in Washington D.C. lobbying for local and state tax deductions. At a pizzeria, Cuomo came across a North Dakota congressman who had been undecided on whether to support the SALT tax deduction. The governor is quoted as saying: “Give him an extra piece of pizza.”