A pizza their mind: New Yorkers dish on the local tradition of their favorite cheap eat

New York, New York – When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza "dollar slice" – that's New York City serving you it's finest.

The Dollar Slice is an iconic rite of passage for those that live in or visit the city.
The Dollar Slice is an iconic rite of passage for those that live in or visit the city.  © Lena Grotticelli

There is one legendary food that is heralded by city natives as "the true New York" – affectionately and simply known as "dollar pizza."

The king of New York cheap eats is just like the cut-to-the-chase people who live there. It's the staple for any on-the-run pedestrian and the pinnacle of a drunken night on the town.

What makes the treat so iconic is its two key components: its reliable quality and cheap price.

The dollar slice is an ultra-thin crunchy crust topped with hastily thrown-on sweet tomato sauce and dripping with cheesy goodness. And despite its quick production with relatively inexpensive ingredients, it rarely disappoints.

Since pizza places usually have a flow of rinse-and-repeat pies going in and out of the oven for eagerly awaiting customers, each slice is served piping hot on a no-frills white paper plate – which soon becomes a greasy catch-all.

But in a city with astronomical rent prices, and inflation causing the price of just about every other type of food to rise, how has the cost of this magical mozzarella Godsend remained the same over time?

The answer can be found in businesses that have built a successful brand solely around the allure of the $1 price point, while also having next-to-nothing overhead costs. Ingredients are ordered in bulk and employees are mostly undocumented and underpaid.

The slice price also doesn't add on sales tax or handle credit cards – just paper bills for an all-cash business, no plastic accepted. Even extra toppings, like barbecue chicken or pepperoni, will only have patrons shelling out an extra dollar or two.

And with a built-in client base of foot traffic that already knows the product with no marketing pitch needed, the unaffected price has remained "New York tough" – and survived the test of time.

Grab-and-go for the city that never sleeps

The dollar pizza storefronts are no-frills and grab-and-go establishments.
The dollar pizza storefronts are no-frills and grab-and-go establishments.  © Lena Grotticelli

The dollar slice can be found at a number of well-known chain restaurants, like 99 Cent Express Pizza or 2 Bros Pizza, that mostly line midtown Manhattan. There's no seating area, just enough room for a counter manned by busy worker bees continuously making slices to take away.

Just like the pre-pandemic 24-hour subways in "the city that never sleeps," some locations even remain open late into the wee-hours of the night – when the city's homeless mingle with tipsy Wall Street-types in line.

YouTube vlogger Jason Rupp has traveled around the world, but found himself fascinated with the unique trend that has made a name for itself in NYC. He did an hour-long livestream documenting the ins-and-outs of the addictive local tradition.

"So my trick is we're enjoying this one slice, right. And we buy it hot and fresh. If we got two slices, one would get cold. So now, you just keep going up when you want another slice, right. Because they're only a straight up dollar– over and over again its a dollar – there's no discount if you get more," he explained.

Rupp couldn't believe the "wholesale" price of the pies and the quality that kept hungry nightcrawlers coming. He even watched people fall asleep as they downed their end-of-the-night snack.

"He's gonna lose his slice!" Rupp joked of one dozing-off customer.

Yet, a "bridge-and-tunnel" Pennsylvanian who was visiting the city wasn't completely sold.

"You are taking a risk with dollar pizza. You might get sick," she warned. "I have a love hate relationship with dollar pizza."

The same clearly couldn't be said for the rest of the true blue patrons who continued their counterside grab-and-go.

The tradition may have origins in the outer boroughs

Many New Yorkers believe that paying more than $1 for a slice of pizza is paying too much.
Many New Yorkers believe that paying more than $1 for a slice of pizza is paying too much.  © Lena Grotticelli

The exact origins of dollar pizza is as much to unpack and as the reliability of the product itself.

Different sources credited the Big Apple's rite of passage to various points during the last half-century and numerous boroughs, in the city's true melting pot fashion.

One life-long Queens native said he'd been enjoying the delicacy for decades and had a logical theory.

"I think it started in the outskirts of Brooklyn or Queens due to competition of there being too many pizza places. And it just took off," he told TAG24. "There were always lines around the block growing up."

"You won't find it anywhere else in the county," he added. "It's the best food and its in the best city, period. There's nothing else to say."

One thing's for sure: Saucy New Yorkers will give you a mouthful – and a pizza-their mind – when it comes to the famous dollar slice.

Cover photo: Lena Grotticelli

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