Monday, October 31, 2011

Ray's Pizza


Yesterday was the last day, after 52 years, for Ray's Pizza on Prince Street. Throughout the day they offered nothing but plain cheese slices--on the cheap. "Enjoy your last slice of the original Ray's Pizza," said a sign in the window, "for only $1.50."

This truly original Ray's was opened in 1959 by a man named Ralph Cuomo. He didn't call the place Ralph's because, as he explained to the Times in 1991, "Ralph's might have sounded, I don't know, maybe too feminine. Besides, nobody ever called me Ralph. My family took the Italian word for Ralph--Raffaele--and shortened it to Rayfie or just Ray. All my life I was addressed that way."

I went in a couple of times over the weekend for a last slice--or two. The place was busy, but not overcrowded. In steady streams, people lined up for pizza. Some stayed to snap photos and say, "This makes me sad," but most just folded their slices in hand and walked back out the door.

Ray's slices came fast and hot. At a marble-topped counter, a guy in a sauce-stained apron massaged fat disks of sweaty dough into pizza-appropriate shapes, dressed them in sauce and cheese, then slipped them into the oven, one after another. At the front counter, another guy took the cooked pies and cut them into slices with a greasy circular blade. That was it. No screwing around.

This is not how it is at the new artisanal pizza joints springing up all over town, where one pie is made at a time to ensure absolute, up to the nanosecond freshness.

I tried one of these places over the summer. I asked for a slice and had to wait 20 minutes for the pizza to be assembled and cooked. The "artisan" took his sweet time, ladeling out the sauce, carefully placing each leaf of basil just so. While I waited, a young woman burbled on about how "it's worth the wait" because "it's just so amazingly good." It was good. It also took an eternity and cost too much. But people fall for this kind of medicine show every day.

At Ray's, along with no waiting, there was no performance art, and the slices had the usual price tag (except on the last day, when they went down to a buck and a half). The cashier managed to call everyone "Hon," even as she kept us briskly moving it along. And, yes, the pizza was good.

But as the Times recently said, "the 2011 version of Little Italy with its five-figure commercial rents is not designed in the interests of mom-and-pop pizza parlors."

On one side of Ray's there's a Ralph Lauren store, on the other side there's a Gant. Across the street is a cupcake shop where people obediently go for sweets, exiting with heads bowed, eyes glued to iPhones, thumbing reviews to Yelp that go: "oooh maahhh gaawwd, the dreaming princess cupcake was SOOOOOO GOOD! That was like one of the best cupcake flavors i've ever had!"

And there's nothing we can do about it.

Remains of my last slice


thegaycurmudgeon said...

This is so sad. This truly was the best pizza in New York.
It's also sad for what it symbolizes about what's happened to this neighborhood. I've lived in this neighborhood for 24 years. It's gone from a quiet, relatively inexpensive neighborhood with a real community feeling to an overpriced, bar and boutique-infested theme park with drunken, screaming yuppies and tourists who generally don't give a shit about the people who actually live here.
I guess the same could be said for the entire city in general.

everettsville said...

“No performance art”…“no screwing around” is a great way to put it.

At the local old-school pizza place in my (gentrifying) Brooklyn neighborhood I can stop in at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, tell them I want a large plain pie to go, and they’ll say “10 minutes, boss!”
By the time I get back from the liquor store one block away it’s just about done.

While I’m waiting for a couple more minutes I get to hear the guy behind the counter tweak the lyrics to “The Lady is a Tramp” (“She’d never bother with an Italian guy like me”) or take somebody down a notch with “who does he think he is, the King and I?!”

Marty Wombacher said...

I dread to think what's going to go in there. The last line of your post is sad and all too true. Ugh.

Brendan said...

"I guess the same could be said for the entire city in general."

Ahhh no it couldn't! This is the thing about this blog and its readers that drives me crazy sometimes! Manhattan below 96th St. and the northwest quarter of Brooklyn are not the entire city!

I am sad about Ray's though. Basic pizza joints are increasingly hard to find in lower Manhattan. I also didn't know pizza parlors were getting the "artisanal" treatment now, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Anonymous said...

Brendan-if you're the same Brendan who claimed he moved here in 2003, then you don't have the proper perspective to appreciate how radically Manhattan below 96th street has changed.
People who have lived here for 20 + years have a right to be bitter and/or stunned at the continuous upheaval.

bowery boy said...

I can appreciate those who have a fondness for this Rays, and I always liked the ladies on the sit-down side, but I never thought the service on the slice side was all that good, and the slices were mediocre at best. They were also closed down by the DOH a couple of months ago. So, I'm not crying about this one because they seemed to take customers for granted.

If anyone in the area needs a replace joint, I'm recommending Pizza Junkie on Stanton, just east of Bowery. I like the slices, and no one beats the $5 price for the chicken parm' dinner that includes a can of soda. So cheap that I don't know how they expect to stay in business.

Brendan said...

Yep, same Brendan.

I agree. I'm not trying to take away from anyone else's experience here. I just think there's value cherishing the majority of NYC that's still the great city it's always been, rather than only mourning what's been lost.

Tricia said...

Having a Ralph Lauren store next door and a cupcake bakery across the street spells certain death. Your photo of the vintage menu board and Infant of Prague statue is touching. I hope they keep these things out of Wednesday's auction

Anonymous said...

NW corner lex & e. 101 st. great pizza. is it still there? (from 3yrs back)

maximum bob said...

Cupcake shop...heh heh, to me, nothing says infantilized adults more than cupcake shops...

Anonymous said...

what about just a few months ago when it was shut down by the health department? forget about a C grade, it was even worse. since then, even my nostalgia for this place could not bring me back for the finale.

Anonymous said...

I do not understand 2 things. 1) Why there is not enough reverence for NYC tradition to cause the landlord/landlady to go lower on the rent. Surely someone must have tried to convince him or her that it was the right thing to do? 2) Why a celebrity (or anyone) with big fat bucks -- and there are plenty of them -- couldn't make a donation large enough to keep the doors open until a financing partner could be found. Just sayin.

RockRose Development said...

Famous Ray's will be sorely missed. We have many memories of eating a slice (or five) on Prince St. Luckily there are still other locations to cling to, but we agree that Ray's on Prince will be sorely missed.