I don’t like to write sad reviews. It’s not in my blood. But I need to. It’s my duty as an American and as a man who once lived in New York to memorialize this restaurant.
RIP: Sal’s Famous Pizzeria (1974 – 2013)
I’ve looked through the archives since my first slice in 1990. Below is a reflection piece of Bed-Stuy history.
You remember your first slice. The cheese is bubbly and hot. The pepperoni is singed and curled up like the scared pig it is. The gravy, a petite spread of clumpy tomatoes, basil, garlic, and sugar is not too salty and not too sweet. And the dough, hand kneaded and tossed, is crisp, always slightly burnt to give it the added texture and pliability that makes the fold-up New York slice of its own breed.
Sal, the original Italian owner of the namesake pizza place, was not at the helm when I started frequenting the joint.
Sal Sequel was, at least that’s what the entire Bed-Stuy neighborhood called him. Sal Sequel, a 6’ 8” black man from London, wasn’t a runner, a sports player, or academic. He was just a pizza cook. He didn’t even consider himself a chef. He apprenticed in Naples, Italy, since he escaped from his orphanage and the Neapolitan mafia protected and took him in as long as he always made fine pizza.
When the original Sal’s caught on fire and the original owner (we will call him Old Fat Sal) took it as a sign to jump ship and voyage somewhere else, Sal Sequel heard about the news through the papers and took it as his own good karma to rebuild and take the role as captain.
Funded by the mob, Sal Sequel reopened Sal’s Famous Pizzeria on Lexington and Stuyvesant Avenue, across the street from a Korean grocery and deli, six months after the fire to little foot traffic.
Patrons complained that the pizza wasn’t the same. All of the locals fumed day in and day out over the littlest of things. “Old Fat Sal would give me 8 pepperonis, you only gave me seven. Old Fat Sal would only charge me 50 cents for extra cheese, you charged me 75. Old Fat Sal had five different flavors if Italian ice, you only have one.”
In 1989, before Sal Sequel took the reigns of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a boycott was attempted because there weren’t predominant black figures hanging on the walls.
In 1990, after Sal Sequel took command of the pizza joint, a second boycott was successful because the entire neighborhood decided the pizza wasn’t the same.
Sal Sequel made me a slice using his own recipe and the recipe he received from Old Fat Sal. After a taste test, I concluded that the neighborhood was right, Sal Sequel’s pizza wasn’t the same; it was better.
The ingredients from Sal’s Famous Pizzeria were distributed from a refrigerated truck from god-knows-where. He always used whole sale, grocery store, preservative enriched products.
“Kraft parmesan cheese! Can you believe this crap! People were getting used to bad tasting food,” Sal Sequel confided in me.
Sal Sequel aged his own Parmesan and pepperoni. He had a different purveyor come almost every day that specialized in one ingredient. He had a woman come down from Buffalo to bring the cheese, another woman from Hartford, Connecticut, to bring the flour, and even an Amish family who specialized in charcuterie bring the sausage. The list went on and on and on.
Sal Sequel couldn’t win the neighborhood over. He couldn’t afford to keep the place open either. He kept the $1.50 a slice price the same. He put up famous people’s pictures of all colors and creeds eating pizza from all over the world. He bought the best air conditioner money could buy to keep the blistering and humid New York July and August summers cold. He even would hand out a slice or two to the homeless and the local DJ. None would accept it.
So Sal Sequel called for help. He called the mob over. Within one week, they got Mayor Dinkins to come and endorse the place. They harassed New York Times critic Bryan Miller to do a piece, which at the time, was an outrage because Miller only frequented cloth napkin type restaurants. This initial press started a press wave of local news.
The neighborhood didn’t like it. Soon, police started showing up more and more. Not to cause a disturbance, but to eat. Same thing happened with the firefighters and ambulance medics.
Though the Bed-Stuy neighborhood wasn’t eating at Sal’s Famous pizzeria, the rest of Brooklyn and Manhattan were.
Some wonder how gentrification started in Brooklyn. People will say it was because of new legislature that brought more of a police presence in. Others will say it was because Manhattan was overly expensive and Brooklyn wasn’t. More than not, the majority says corrupt politicians drafted new codes and building laws, which displaced all of the old and invited all of the new trust fund baby hipsters.
The real reason was because of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and it’s executive chef, Sal Sequel.
As the gentrification kept expanding, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria made profit for some time. Sal Sequel was impressed that this new group of folks could distinguish his special custom ingredients.
But then, even Sal Sequel’s new customers became snooty. Instead of boycotting Sal’s Famous Pizzeria because it wasn’t like the original, they simply boycotted it because it wasn’t a trendy new-wave pizza place. There was no celebrity chef behind it. It wasn’t reviewed on Yelp, Urbanspoon, or Zagat.
“And I would have thought the hipsters would love a place like this forever,” Sal Sequel told me. “Evidently, the young who think it’s cool to drink PBR are really just posers who want a much more sophisticated experience, especially when it comes to pizza. And I can’t compete with what’s out there. I’ve been making my no frills pie for a few years now and I think it’s time to close up shop.”
The landowners kicked out Sal Sequel too by raising his rent by four times. This was all because they wanted to make room for Mario Batali’s new pizza place from LA, Pizzeria Mozza.
You know, there are still great pizza places in New York. You have the touristy places like Lombardi’s and the ubiquitous Ray’s. You have all of the corner stores in Spanish Harlem who dish out a hot pie every thirty minutes or so. But New York will never have Sal’s Famous Pizzeria again and that’s a living and breathing shame.