Pizza. The word alone brings an immediate smile to our faces. We can’t contain the joy it sparks, and nowhere is the joy of pizza more prevalent than in New York City. Rachel Josar, the creator and host of the They Had Fun podcast, joins JoyProject to talk about all things pizza, her weekly tradition with her husband, her passion for this incredible city, and the history and culture that is entwined with food. After 250 weeks of Friday night pizza, Rachel gives her expert opinion on where to get the best pizza in New York.
Topics discussed in this episode:
- The best places in New York to get pizza
- Rachel’s weekly pizza tradition with her husband
- The history of pizza and it’s place in New York city culture
- The quote about pizza in the New York Times that helped Rachel and Christa connect and become friends
- Rachel’s amazing podcast, They Had Fun
- Why New York City is the greatest city
- New York’s restaurant scene and supporting restaurants through the pandemic
- Christa’s favorite childhood memory about pizza
Links to resources:
- Rachel on Instagram – @they_had_fun
- They Had Fun podcast – They Had Fun
- They Had Fun website – TheyHadFun.com
- Christa on Twitter – @christanyc
- Christa on Instagram – @christarosenyc
- Christa on Facebook – @AuthorChrista
- Christa on Medium – @christaavampato
- Christa on TikTok – @christanyc
- Christa’s website – ChristaAvampato.com
- Christa’s quote about pizza in the New York Times – Chicago Pizza vs. the New York Slice
- Lucali – https://www.lucali.com/
- Best Pizza – https://www.bestpizzawilliamsburg.com/
- Mano’s Pizzeria – https://slicelife.com/restaurants/ny/queens/11385/mano-s-pizzeria-queens/menu
- Motorino – https://www.motorinony.com/
- Mama’s TOO! – https://www.mamastoo.com/
- John’s Pizzeria – https://www.johnspizzerianyc.com/
- Carmine & Sons – https://carmineandsonspizza.com/
- Louie and Ernie’s Pizza – https://louieanderniespizza.com/
Transcript – Duration: 30:37
Christa Avampato 00:00
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the JoyProject. My name is Christa Avampato, and I am your host. I am so happy to be joined today by Rachel Josar. Rachel, welcome to the JoyProject.
Rachel Josar 00:10
Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.
Christa Avampato 00:13
And we actually got connected by the topic that we’re going to talk about today. I did an episode recently for your podcast. And I wanted to know, before we jump into what brings you joy, could we talk a little bit about your venture into podcastland as a new podcaster, what your podcast is about, and how you find people. And what sparked you wanting to get into that world?
Rachel Josar 00:36
Sure! My new podcast is called They Had Fun. And it’s all about New York centric stories of having fun. And the idea came up for it just always being a big lover of New York, and thinking it’s the greatest city in the world and kind of always fighting anyone who would challenge that. Then the pandemic hit. And I thought, “Now, this is really the time to talk about this.” Everyone needs to remember all of the good times and the fun and, you know, frankly, joy that we have in this city. I just thought now’s the time to do it.
So after a great deal of wrestling with myself on if I should and following through with it, I finally decided to and it’s been amazing seeing people just say yes, for absolutely no other reason than I guess they really like New York, including yourself who agreed to be on my podcast. The way that I’ve been finding people to do it as with you is I guess kind of the best way to put it as sort of stalking. I saw that you had this fabulous quote in the New York Times about pizza. It was such a perfectly written, beautiful, lovely quote about pizza and New York and I read it and I was like, “This is the gal for me. If I if I get this podcast together, I need to reach out to her and I need to ask her. Would she be on this podcast? And can she talk to me about why she loves New York so much?” Because your quote was so amazing.
Christa Avampato 02:06
I do love to wax poetic about pizza. And I mean, and who doesn’t? I can’t wait to hear people’s stories about having fun. Like you. I also stayed in New York City through the entire pandemic. Yes, it was a harrowing time. I felt like the city had done so much for me over the course of my life. It was always my dream to live here. I grew up in upstate New York, and we would come down into the city and I always thought someday New York City is going to be my home. And so really, for me, it brought out so many dreams. It made so many of my dreams possible. And I thought well, I can’t abandon my city in a time when it really means me. I really think of New York as my family member.
Rachel Josar 02:56
There really is an affinity and obsession I have with the city because when all of that was going on, and every article about it then was like, “who’s leaving? who’s staying? Is it worth it to stay? Is it worth it?” I was just in constant defense mode. We’re never leaving. And the city means so much to me I getting upset with people who were leaving, and you know, that the energy just kind of being like sigh. And I was like you know what, we’ll figure it out without you. There was just so much happening that gave you a lot to believe in. And there was just no way to leave, it wasn’t gonna happen. And also, I just love it here so much. And I love it. The seven o’clock claps and like all of those things, in that sense, feeling a sense of community and just like doing what we could even when we couldn’t do anything.
It was so inspirational to just see everyone putting together specifically think about the restaurants and like how they just completely had to shut down in the very beginning and the way everyone just jumped in on the GoFundMe campaigns and how can we support them, donating to the Restaurant Workers Federation, and just seeing everyone still come together and try to support the city as much as possible was really inspirational. And yeah, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Christa Avampato 04:17
Absolutely. And seeing people really come together, where in lots of other cities, I was hearing from friends that that wasn’t happening. People weren’t coming together. They weren’t necessarily supporting their local businesses. And I feel like even here in those very, very dark times, especially at the start of the pandemic, there was still a lot of light here. And there was still a lot of joy and it was in the people. And it was in New Yorkers. I would never bet against New Yorkers.
Rachel Josar 04:48
That’s a good bet. I think you’re right about that. They’ve got some gumption for sure.
Christa Avampato 04:55
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And so I’m so excited about your podcast. I can’t wait to listen. We will put the links and everything up on the website so people can go and check out about fun times in New York City.
There are so many things that bring you joy. You have a long and storied history with this city. And I wanted to know if you could talk to us about something uniquely New York, and something that brings you joy that has been in your life in a very meaningful way for a long time. Please tell me what brings you joy.
Rachel Josar 05:30
I’m gonna go with the classic New York answer of pizza.
Christa Avampato 05:36
Pizza. What a perfect food and it really it is the food of my people. I’m 100% Italian and so this is in my soul, which sort of explains why I write poetically about pizza in the New York Times.
Rachel Josar 05:52
Exactly. That’s how we connected. Pizza brings so much joy to everyone, including myself. Honestly, I think my friends are perhaps a bit annoyed with my husband and I at this point, when it comes to pizza. We’re sort of maniacal about it like so we have the story behind our pizza obsession is this thing we do called pizza Friday, which is exactly what it sounds like, we eat pizza every Friday. And this kind of started on a whim, maybe four or five years ago. We were talking about how we wanted to be regulars somewhere. That’s one of the great New York things is you can go somewhere and someone knows your name, and you sit down at the bar, and they know what your drink is, you know, and we always wanted that. But because of my constant curiosity, we never get to be regulars anywhere. And my husband is always so frustrated by it because he wants to go back to the same place. And I’m like, Well, we have to try somewhere new. And somehow in that idea, I thought, well, what if we just get a routine where we do we’d have pizza every Friday because we love pizza so much. And so we have pizza every Friday. It has actually done the inverse of what we expected it to do. Now we just go try different pizzas all the time. So he’s still not getting his regular kick somewhere. It’s the opposite of what he wanted. But we have now been celebrating pizza Friday for I don’t know, four or five years. But I was saying I think it’s getting to the point that some of our friends are perhaps getting a bit frustrated with us because we went down to see our new friends beautiful home outside of Baltimore. And it was a Friday that we drove down. And she had made us this beautiful dinner. And as we were heading down, I texted and I was like, “hey, is there anywhere by you that’s good that we can get pizza?” And she was like, “No, you’re not in New York City anymore. Like there’s no pizza here for you. I’ve made dinner for everyone.” She made a lovely pasta and a salad. My husband and I are just sitting in the back of the car and we’re like, well, we got to have pizza. What are we going to do? So we stopped at a Wegmans and picked up a frozen and brought it to her house. And I could see she was like, “Are you serious? Did you really just bring this to my home?” I didn’t know what to say.
Christa Avampato 08:04
So it really is more than just, “oh, we really like pizza.” This is part of your tradition, your marriage.
Rachel Josar 08:20
It is it is a commitment. And again, I think perhaps we’ve taken it a bit too far. It might be my perfectionism or something. We’ve had pizza Friday in Argentina, Italy, Greece. St. Louis, California. If we hit Atlanta on a Friday, we’re having pizza.
But our best pizza Fridays are in New York. We have the best pizza in the world. Sometimes we make pizza. Mostly we go out and part of the fun is trying a bunch of different pizza places. And I feel like I have a pretty good handle on some of the best.
Christa Avampato 09:12
In the New York City pizza landscape, you have carved out a niche for yourself. Do you have some though that you stand heads and shoulders above the rest?
Rachel Josar 09:25
God yes. Yeah. Would I be in New Yorker if I didn’t have obscene opinions about everything? Let alone pizza? Yes, of course. Okay, absolutely. Hands down. Number one pizza all over New York City. Lucali in Brooklyn. It’s amazing does have quite the following now but like, who cares? It’s great pizza like he worked his ass off to make that a wonderful pizza and it’s delicious and I’m big on the sauce. That’s a huge part for me and his tomato sauce is absolutely perfect. Like talk about sparking joy. Okay, that tomato sauce you I don’t know if you’ve been but when you Go, you can get a side of it and they just put it in a bowl for you to just continually dip. And it’s not just like a little side it is a genuine like soup bowl of tomato sauce. And I will seriously just like take the spoon and when no one’s looking, just start eating the sauce. It’s such a good sauce. It’s so perfect. I love it so much. And then I dip all the crust in there. And then we’ll take a spoonful and put more on the pizza like it’s it’s such a good sauce. So that is hands down. Absolutely. My number one favorite pizza.
Christa Avampato 10:27
And they don’t do delivery. You have to go in there for the pizza. And you have to order a whole pie. And there’s no reservation system. I have friends who live right by there, and they keep telling me that they’re going to take me there. I have never been. And they were like, “Listen, he does incredible pizza, but it is done his way. You will stand in line, you will wait, you will get a whole pie. This is how this works.”
Rachel Josar 11:07
Yeah, it frustrates a lot of people. I’ve been blessed with a very loving husband who loves food and doesn’t mind waiting in the line. But you have to get there on the earlier side. They start taking names I think at five. Now most people get in the line around four. If it’s a really nice weekend night, I assume some people might be getting in line around 3:30. And when you do that, you just get to the front of the line, you put your name on the list, and you might not get a seating until seven or eight, which is fine for us. My husband just stays down there and waits for me to come meet him and then we go get a drink somewhere, and then we head off to get the pizza. But I know a lot of times I’ve read reviews and people are so frustrated by the system. I like that vibe of New York that’s like, “this is our way of doing things and get in or get out.”
Like if you don’t want to come you don’t have to come and they will be just fine. The pizza is truly phenomenal. If you don’t want to wait for the table, they do a certain amount of take-out pies a night. If you get there in time, you can ask for one to go and then go around the corner and sit on a stoop with a beer and I’ve done that too. And that’s lovely. There’s nothing more lovely than just saddling up on a stoop in the middle of beautiful Carroll Gardens and opening up a box and having a slice. It’s awesome.
Christa Avampato 12:52
And he can demand that system because the pizza is so good. Nobody does that kind of thing for mediocre pizza. He knows what he has. He knows the quality of it. And it’s worth waiting for and worth doing it his way because it’s so delicious.
Rachel Josar 13:12
You really should take your friends up on going there, especially if they live right there. They can go get in the line real quick and then go hang out at their house. Take them up on it.
Outside of that, some of my other favorite pizzas:
There’s a spot in the Bronx called Louie and Ernies. It’s an old school slice joint. It gets written up a good amount but it doesn’t really get the traction everywhere else does. Maybe because it’s not extremely close to the subway. You have to walk a bit or jump on a bus. But they have an excellent pizza. I don’t eat meat but my husband does. He’s obsessed with their sausage slice. I mean, I just think the regular plain slice is amazing. It’s not close to my house and it’s worth it to me if we happen to be in a car going through the Bronx. We’ll take a detour just to go there.
People ask us for recommendations all the time because everyone’s so aware this is our thing. I mean five years of pizza Friday. That’s a lot of pizza.
Everyone’s got their neighborhood slice place that they love. We lived in Williamsburg forever and Carmine’s on Grand Avenue, Grand Avenue—they just make an excellent slice with great sauce. One half of it used to be just a slice joint that was there. And then they expanded next door and have more of a sports bar where you can sit down and get woodfired pies. So they offer like both options now. And it’s just such a classic neighborhood place. There’s a lot of new people who had moved into the neighborhood. There’s families who have younger kids that are there. And then there’s old timers who have lived in the neighborhood forever and we became close to them when we lived in that neighborhood. They’ve got TVs if you want to watch sports; it’s really fun. I love that.
There’s a new spot that opened in Ridgewood called Monos. I think he was born and raised in the neighborhood. And then he decided he wanted to open a slice spot over in Ridgewood. And he does an excellent, very thoughtful pizza process. He ferments his dough for like 36 hours. He uses really great flour, excellent tomatoes. It’s an excellent, excellent pizza. It’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. I love onion and garlic on a pizza. They use red onions. And I know it seems so obvious. But the first time we got it, we had friends over and all of us were like, “Whoa, red onions—this is the way to go from here on out. They’re so good on a pizza. Am I going too far with my love of pizza?
Christa Avampato 16:00
Oh, never. I don’t think anybody can ever go too far with pizza. That’s really my feeling. It has such interesting historical roots. The city of Naples, Italy grew up around pizza. My family came over here in the early 1900s. Neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens were traditionally an Italian neighborhood. It was a huge enclave in Brooklyn of Italian immigrants. Same with the Bronx and Arthur Avenue. Those were all Italian immigrants who needed a place to live. They couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan; it was too expensive. And their people were there in those neighborhoods. They could go and they could speak Italian all day long. All of their culture and their history and their food was there.
Pizza is like a really great pair of jeans—you can like dress them up. Or you can dress them down. Same with pizza. You can have crazy gourmet toppings, fancy fermented dough, sauce with only certain kinds of tomatoes. It can be incredibly luxe. But my personal favorite— I just want to go to a hole in the wall slice shop and eat like piping hot cheese slice on a white plain paper plate. And walk through the city and eat that pizza.
Rachel Josar 17:39
Right? So good. It’s just such like a very specific New York joyful experience. Like, I mean, there’s a reason every time someone comes here, anyone who visits us, any family, it’s like, where are we getting pizza? They don’t care about all of the fancy stuff. They will always ask where should we get pizza? And of course, we go to recommendations from like, pretty much anywhere. NYC is known for excellent pizza for a reason. Stop at the place on the corner and pick up a slice that cost $2.50. It’s going to be excellent pizza most of the time.
Christa Avampato 18:17
And I love the idea that historically, the cost of a slice of pizza mirrors the cost of a subway so it’s called the pizza fare. A slice of pizza is relatively the same amount of money that it costs to get on the New York City subway all through the history of the New York City subway. So from the early 1900s, all the way through, as you saw the price of a subway ride go up, a slice of pizza went up, to, and I think that’s so interesting because it really does reflect pizza’s working class roots. It’s the food of the people, of the community. It’s for the people.
Pizza has just such a storied history in this in the city. I don’t think there’s a single neighborhood in New York that doesn’t have multiple pizza shops. Right? Even in Times Square. Not a neighborhood known as a culinary capital but does have some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. There’s a place called John’s Pizzeria in Times Square. It’s this huge, cavernous place. And they make fantastic woodfired pizzas. I’ve gone to birthday parties there. It’s right in the theater district so they get a lot of pre-theater, post-theater, actors and musicians and artists.
In my neighborhood on the upper west side we have Motorino’s and Mama too.
And you’re a red sauce only person, right?
Rachel Josar 20:09
I’m not messing around with pizza that doesn’t have red sauce on it. I don’t. That’s not for me. It’s like getting dessert without chocolate. Oh, don’t do that. That’s just my preference. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for me.
But there is one place that has a great white pie that I do like. And I was quite surprised that I actually liked it because I want the red sauce. Best Pizza, also in Williamsburg. He makes a white pie that has sesame seeds on the crust, carmelized onions. It’s an excellent white pie. I wouldn’t normally have gotten it on my own. But I think we were with people and they got it so I tried it. And I was like, Oh my gosh, this is so good.
I can sit here and say what my favorites are and whatever. But a lot of times what your favorite is, is your neighborhood place because they’re all so good. And they’re the ones you go to the most often. I have friends who live in all different neighborhoods. And inevitably, their favorite pizza is most likely the one that’s their neighborhood slice, which I think is lovely. And also, it’s just how it works here.
Christa Avampato 21:33
There’s a lot of personal history with pizza, too. I grew up very, very poor in the Hudson Valley. And it was a big deal for us to get pizza, like once a month on a Friday when we could afford to get it. And we would always get a Sicilian pie with pepperoni. And it was from this place called Three Guys Pizzeria. I went to school with their kids in our tiny town of Highland, New York in the Hudson Valley. And for me, when I have a slice of pizza, it sort of takes me back there. It was a joyful thing about my job. Even though my childhood was difficult. Having pizza was such an important thing for us, a real treat. And I can close my eyes and that scent of that specific pizza comes flooding back to me. I can see the little Italian man flipping the pizza on the cover of the white cardboard box, little plastic table tents so that the cheese doesn’t stick to the top of the cardboard box. Every time I have a piece of pizza, it takes me back to that joyful tim.
Rachel Josar 22:45
What an astute memory to have that can just bring you back there. I love that.
Christa Avampato 22:53
It’s one of the reasons that I love food. And I love that we are a foodie city and have been for a long time. And it’s people’s dream. Chefs dream to come here and work in a top restaurant, open a restaurant. I feel like one of the most wonderful things about the city is that we can get any kind of food anywhere, at any time of day or night. So when people come visit, I’m like, what kind of food do you feel like? They’re like, Oh, I don’t know, what are you known for? We’re literally known for everything because there’s so many people who, like my family did, made their first stop in New York City. And a lot of them just stayed. And grew these different communities.
I just went to the Veselka, the Ukrainian restaurant on the Lower East. I had never been there before and a friend of mine wanted to take me out for a birthday brunch. And she asked where I wanted to go. I wanted to support the people in Ukraine. I want to support the Ukrainian community because we have a lot of Ukrainians here in New York City on the Lower East Side. Walking in there was like going into a small restaurant you’d find in Ukraine.
Immigrants often can’t bring a lot of things but they can bring their cuisine with them. And we can support them by eating in their restaurants and food trucks. For many immigrants, their way into the economy is through food, through restaurants. It’s how they’re able to start to rebuild their lives here. And that’s been the history of food in New York for as long as the city has been a modern city.
Rachel Josar 24:48
I love that New York is a foodie city. I just had someone tell me recently their favorite thing about New York is the food. And I thought that was lovely. Because, you know, we could always try to come up with some super amazing answer about all of these things. But to just be quite frank, like, it’s the food and it’s everything. You name it, we have it. Exactly what you said, you know, whether it’s Indian, Thai, Chinese, Cantonese, Nepalese, Ecuadorian, Ukrainian, I mean, across the board, and it’s because of all of the immigrants that we have to thank for bringing us all of that food. And we’re so lucky to have every single form of it.
I had someone visit a few months ago. And I said, What food do you want? And they wanted Georgian food. I had no idea what that was. And I looked it up. And I was like, Oh, I think I have something for you. And so we went to this Georgian spot on 14th Street. And he was like, this is amazing. He was impressed. And he loved it. So yeah, come to New York, eat some food, any food you want. Throw pizza in every other meal and you’re gonna have a great time.
Christa Avampato 26:53
I think people can eat their way through the city, right? There are food tours you can go to. Certain neighborhoods are known for certain types of cuisine. The Lower East Side has a lot of Ukrainian restaurants. There are lots of pockets down Lexington Avenue in the 30s with a lot of Indian restaurants known as curry row.
I do think that pizza though, is really that ubiquitous food that’s spread out everywhere. Which I love. Rachel, this was so fun. Thank you so much for joining me.
Rachel Josar 27:41
So fun to just talk about pizza for half an hour. I mean, I could I could go on but what we have to do is get you at a pizza Friday. You have to go with us.
Christa Avampato 27:51
Yes. Anytime. I am happy to be a pizza eating third wheel.
Rachel Josar 28:00
We do this with friends. We do with family. Anyone who will have us so you would never be a third wheel.
Christa Avampato 28:06
It is a date. I cannot wait. And we will toast with pizza. And I’m just imagining us smiling and laughing, giddily and ridiculously, while we’re just stuffing our faces with cheese and sauce and delicious dough and red onions apparently, which I did not know, was a thing. But it makes sense to me because they have a little bit of sweetness to them. So yeah, caramelize those red onions, put them on a pizza with some garlic and I’m there.
Rachel, thank you so much for joining us on the JoyProject, an absolute joy for to have you here. And we will eat many of slices together for sure. Thanks, Rachel.
An absolute joy to have Rachel join us on the JoyProject. It makes me happy to meet someone who loves pizza and New York as much as I do. We recorded that episode about 6 months ago and I’m happy to share that Rachel and her husband and their dog and I did get pizza together on a Friday and we did take a photo together with our pizza. We went to Ops in Bushwick and it was awesome. And we did laugh and stuff our faces with that delicious pie. That photo of us is up on the JoyProject website christaavampato.com/joyproject. On the website, we also have all of the links to the pizza places we chatted about on this episode. Please visit them and let me know what you think. Let me know what your favorite pizza place is so Rachel and I can check it out. You can find me on Twitter at christanyc and on Instagram at christarosenyc.
And you must check out Rachel’s awesome podcast, They Had Fun. The website for her podcast is TheyHadFun.com. You can also connect to her on Instagram at they_had_fun. And subscribe to the They Had Fun podcast anywhere everywhere that you get your podcasts. I was a guest for one of the episodes and of course we talk about pizza. We also talk about Drew Barrymore and how the value of being a cranky optimist so check it out!
I also wanted to share my quote about pizza that was in the New York Times, the one that brought Rachel and I together as friends. And I stand by these words:
I would take a New York City slice, served piping hot out of the oven onto a generic white paper plate as I walk around the city, over any other slice anywhere in the world. It’s not just the pizza, it’s the spirit of the city embedded in it that makes all the difference. We all have our preferences. And for me, New York is the place for pizza, and for life.
Have a wonderful, joy-filled week, friends. Get yourself some piping hot pizza wherever you are. I’m sure it’ll be delicious and you deserve it. I’ll be back in 2 weeks on November 15th with another episode of JoyProject. Talk to you then.