“Try drinking a grape soda,” advised Ray Cabrera, 57, a lunch companion at Patsy’s Pizzeria during their 76th anniversary celebration in Harlem, “it keeps the weight off your chest.”
Ray should know the best way to eat pizza at Patsy’s — he has been doing it since he was 17. Today, he and his friend Tommie Kirk were taking a break from work to enjoy their lunch during the rollback to 1930’s prices, which Frank Brija, the owner of Patsy’s described as their way of “giving back to the community,” after being in the neighborhood for 76 years. Also on the docket later was a pizza-eating contest and the unveiling of a new street sign depicting the block on 1st Avenue as “Patsy’s Way.”
Doors were scheduled to open at 11 am but the long line of crying children, bloggers, hungry locals, and patrons doused in Aqua Blue didn’t start getting let in until almost a half hour later. Then, Israel Miranda, the dapper, suit-wearing doorman started asking the security guard to send in parties of people, “Sexy, five,” he teased. “Sexy, two!”
“I keep telling him, ‘Today I’m Mr. Garcia,’” explained the guard.
Inside, lunch with Tommie and Ray was on my dime. At these prices, it might have been possible to buy lunch for the entire restaurant without breaking $150. The waitress explained that each person was allowed to order one appetizer, one primi piatti, one secondi piatti, one pizza, and one dessert. The menu noted that there were “No Substitutions. No Take-Out or Doggy Bags,” allowed. It ruined a lot of plans devised by people on line to “roll in, order five pies and two of everything to-go.”
At my table, the bill totaled $3.75. Three people managed to eat and drink: a Coca-Cola (10¢), a grape soda (10¢), an organic house salad (30¢), vongole fresche (45¢), pollo alla Parmigiana (85¢), the fusilli con pollo al marsala (70¢), a coal oven pizza with sausage (75¢), and an original coal oven pizza (60¢). With a $10 tip, we still escaped under $15, well under the $70.90 bill it would have cost without tip. This reporter downed his first pie at Pasty’s by himself. There was good sauce-to-cheese ratio and the crust was exceptionally thin. “You have to eat it within the first two minutes,” advised Tommie, “it gets floppy fast.”
“You have to eat it within the first two minutes,” advised Tommie, “it gets floppy fast.”
It would have been good advice to the participants in the pizza-eating contest that took place soon afterward outside. But there wasn’t much time for advice. Six contestants (three teams of two) faced off to see who could eat the most pizza in 12 minutes. The Fire Department, the Police Department, and EMS were cheered on while an official timekeeper, and a real judge (ret.), Leslie Crocker Snyder (a Democrat running for District Attorney) watched over them. The winner of the contest would bestow Patsy’s $2,500 scholarship to Derrick Cox, 15, who had been brought to the attention of Patsy’s by Deputy Inspector Eddie Caban of the 25th Precinct, after a summer of hard work in an internship at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
The fire department took the early lead and kept it through the entire twelve minutes. Al Serino of Ladder 43 looked like a pro, folding slices over, eating two at a time, even dunking them in one of the two pitchers of water each eater was given.
“Don’t be afraid to get chubby!” shouted a woman watching from the crowd in the street. Down the stretch with a minute left, Al of the FDNY was a full pie ahead of everyone else, having eaten three pies. He didn’t even bother to eat from the second to last pie. He just sipped water. But when the tossed boxes were examined, the Fire Department was disqualified for not eating their crusts. “They were stuffing the crumbs underneath,” explained Mr. Brija.
After 36 slices and three and a half pies, the contest was tied between the Police Department and EMS. A runoff was declared. One member of each team would face off to see who could eat one pie the quickest.
Carlos Jimenez of the 26th Battalion FDNY EMS took an early lead and looked like the champion but Officer Angel Lopez of the 25th Precinct wasn’t to be outdone. The contest actually came down to who could swallow the last bite, and it was Carlos who raised his arms in glory. “Next year, Sanitation!” shouted two sanitation workers, flexing their muscles as they watched the celebration.
Derrick Cox and his mother, Alicia, a single mom watched the event, smiling. “It’s a blessing,” she said. “I’m very grateful to be involved with Patsy’s. I’m very proud of Derrick. He works hard. He’s an example of what a good son should be.”
As the line outside Patsy’s continued to grow and the contestants waddled away, Ray’s advice might have been well-used. Everyone, it seems, could have used a little grape soda.
2287 1st Avenue,
New York, NY 10035
Phone: (212) 534-9783
Subway: 6 (E 116th St)
This post was originally published August 26th, 2009, on the now-defunct, James-Beard Award-nominated blog AlwaysHungryNY.com.