Ivan Orkin, the brash Jewish guy from Long Island who supposedly had no business opening a wildly successful ramen shop, is now the ramen guy whose brand seemed to have nothing to do with pizza and who has now opened Corner Slice, a grandma pie joint.
“You could say I’m the white guy making ramen, but the white guy went to Japan in 1980 and learned how to make it for 30 years,”Orkin retorts. “My family was Japanese and my heart is Japanese. Pizza is no different. I was born in Lenox Hill Hospital and been here my whole life. The experience of a great pizzeria… it’s who I am. If you listen to my backstory one of the things that reminded me about ramen was New York diners. Your guy was always there. You could get your food pretty quickly. I think pizzerias are really similar.”
The truth, as Orkin and partner David Poran quickly point out, is that Corner Slice, Gotham West Market’s new pizzeria, is the brainchild of chef and partner Mike Bergemann, 29, who Orkin and Poran call “the mastermind of the pizza.”
It’s been asserted that 2017 will be the year of the square pizza in New York City, a declaration Corner Slice will help cement. Bergemann describes the pizza he and his younger brother Pete, 27, are baking in an electric PizzaMaster deck oven from as “a blend of every square-style pie.” Actually, thinking inside the box has been on the rise for years. Prince Street Pizza opened with squares in 2012, when chef Michael White was also testing square pies at his East Village Midwestern riff Nicoletta. Razor-thin edged square icon Rizzo’s opened in 2013, on the Lower East Side after being Queens-bound nearly 55 years, and quadrate aspirations made news in 2015 at beloved Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s and with Matt and Emily Hyland of Emmy Squared.
Square-centric pizzerias have been pretty successful recently. Prince Street’s Spicy Spring square now tops many pizza-lovers best-of lists, Rizzo’s soldiers on and Matt and Emily’s Emmy Squared is an Instagram staple bound to amplify the trend when their second Detroit-style spot opens in the former Blue Ribbon Bakery space. (It will be their first Manhattan pizzeria). With 310 Bowery, grandma pizzas (always square) have even entered a New York City bar pie arena dominated by poofy crusted quasi-Neapolitan rounds at Alligator Lounge and Crocodile Lounge in Williamsburg and the East Village. But lackluster “Detroit” squares at the new Bryant Park Whole Foods (not good) are a reminder that it’s quality, not being on-trend, that leads to success.
You’ll find that focus on quality at Corner Slice.
“The pie is special because it’s made properly,” Orkin explains. “I don’t mean to sound like a jerk but we have good flour made with care and fermented the way dough is supposed to be fermented in my opinion. And I think we decided we could make a little less money and buy better ingredients and make it up in volume. We’re really doing that on purpose because we want people to enjoy the pizza and not get caught up in the price of artisanal ingredients. The reason why slice business has fallen off is because they’re not using great ingredients. New York took a bit of a left turn into Neapolitan style and we’ve lost our way a little bit in terms of what New York pizza is. It’s been an international phenomenon and while it’s absolutely delicious when done properly, it’s just not New York pizza. Remember, that’s means going to John’s where they say, ‘No Slices,’ and it’s like, ‘Dude, how many times do I have to tell you we just serve pies.'”
Corner Slice’s signature tomato square calls on New Haven tomato apizza and Jersey tomato pies for inspiration. The crust is airy and light with a pocked, golden-crispy undercarriage and a wide, dark edge reminiscent of a crunchy bread loaf that should eliminate comparisons to focaccia. There’s a thorough slathering of bright tomato — part California sauce, part Jersey chunk — spread across the base and a scattering of garlic confit. It’s garnished with a gentle Di Fara finish of grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil (fresh basil goes on the pie into the oven).
The effect of enjoying Bergemann’s tomato slice and an espresso almost has more in common with the fresh, crusty pan con tomate traditionally served with coffee in Catalonia. And in case it wasn’t obvious, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s a delicious slice.
Bergemann has a ton of ideas and he’s been involved in every part of the design and process. (He did all the branding and design with his girlfriend Courtney Inge.) There are 10 to 20 baked goods in the mornings until pizza starts being made at 11:30 am, including a delicious lard bread. I caught up with Mike Bergemann the day before he opened Corner Slice to learn more about the philosophy behind what he and his partners are doing at Corner Slice.