Untitled Pizza Movie is a clever title. It made me want to watch David Shapiro’s unconventional 7-part documentary series before I even knew what it was. They had me at pizza. Back in the mid-90s, pals Dave Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson took advantage of a camera shop’s generous return policy and borrowed some film equipment. They scoured NYC, seeking out the best pizza the city had to offer. They ate slices, pies, rounds, and squares, camera in-tow, embellishing their credentials and enjoying lots of free pizza. They were recording Eat to Win, a “show” featuring the city’s best pizza shops. They were initially going to cover all varieties of NYC grub, but ultimately narrowed the scope to pizza, something they’re both obviously passionate about. Leeds called their pursuit “a holy quest.”
That’s just the jump-off for a story that goes in many directions and touches on a variety of topics other than pizza, including friendship, New York, memory, ambition, obsession, transformation, gentrification, and food as art. Pizza, however, is the through line, the dough that these other ingredients rest on. A third main character is introduced when Dave and Leeds find their favorite pizza in NYC at Lombardi’s, made by pizzaiolo Andrew Bellucci. Described as “a pie man,” Andrew is a compelling character, a passionate guy with a mysterious past. He wears his heart on his sleeve and through the course of the series we see him go through some ups and downs. In the 90s, he helped bring Lombardi’s back to glory with his emphasis on quality ingredients and dedication to every pie. The coal-burning oven helped too. If you’ve ever eaten at one of the “founding four” coal joints, Lombardi’s, John’s, Patsy’s, or Totonno’s, you know what’s up.
Bellucci becomes a rising star of the NYC food world and the press he gets leads to some unexpected consequences. The doc is always circling and weaving, revolving and evolving, and by the end of the seven 30-40 minute episodes, it comes full circle and leaves you satisfied. Well, almost full circle. I’ve never had a pizza with 7 slices. I’d love to see an 8th, final episode down the line to update viewers on what happens and complete the pie. (For the record, it doesn’t feel incomplete by any means. I just like the episodes-as-slices metaphor, and if the material is there down the line, an update would be cool.)
Director Dave Shapiro is one of the three main characters, but he puts the focus on Leeds and Andy. His fingerprints are all over the documentary, however, through his style and approach to the material. He collected a significant amount of artifacts from their past experiences; bearers of memories, tokens of times lost. Each episode ends with a uniquely edited presentation of these mementos. In real life, “Eat to Win” was never finished and Dave and Leeds eventually drifted apart on their own adventures. But it exists here, inside of Untitled Pizza Movie, and as a pizza/NYC/NYC pizza junkie I genuinely enjoyed looking at the footage of these guys traveling around and hanging in the old gritty city. I loved seeing the old pizzerias and hearing some of the pizzaiolos, shop owners, and customers talk ‘za. I was thrilled when some of my favorite places popped up like L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn and Patsy’s Pizzeria in Harlem. I was also moved by the non-pizza stuff and the very human and sometimes desolate story woven together throughout the series. Pro-tip: Make sure you’re either full of pizza or have quick access to it when you watch this or it’ll be torture. You’re gonna need a couple slices after watching them nosh on New York’s finest.
High marks to The Metrograph for their presentation of the series. The hip, well-programmed cinema on the Lower East Side is currently closed, but their movies are available online and for a great price: $5 per month or $50 per year. The episodes were rolled out a day at a time and most of them were followed by Q&As with Dave Shapiro and a variety of guests. If you prefer to avoid spoilers, I recommended saving the Q&As until after you’ve watched the entire series.
My favorite bonus feature is the “Pizza Panel” after the final episode. A variety of pizzaiolos and restaurateurs join Shapiro for a fun discussion on the finer details of New York pizza. They ask the important questions like: Circle or square? Corner slice or middle? Who has the best grandma slice? They also discuss their earliest pizza memories and serving pie in a pandemic. Miriam Weiskind talks about opening a pizza speakeasy out of her tiny NYC apartment and her journey from wannabe artisan to skilled pizza maker. There’s currently a 2-month wait to purchase one of her pizzas and there’s a charitable aspect to her operation that is commendable. It was also cool to hear from Scarr Pimentel, the man behind the Lower East Side gem Scarr’s Pizza. On my last trip to NYC, my first stop was Scarr’s followed by a movie at The Metrograph (the Leon Vitali doc Filmworker). The pizza was fantastic and we really enjoyed the vibe at Scarr’s. Pictures of that experience and my other favorite NYC pizzerias below.
Untitled Pizza Movie is available now through March 14th in The Metrograph screening room.
Shots from Untitled Pizza Movie:
Shots from my May 2018 trip to NYC:
Scarr’s Pizza, Lower East Side
Scarr’s has killer slices (round and square) and an unassuming vibe. Best atmosphere out of all the pizza joints we hit on the trip. Bonus points for the Coming to America art and the friendly bartender who ripped it off the wall and snapped our pic.
Patsy’s Pizzeria, Harlem
The coal oven leads to tasty burnt patches in the crust. Battling Di Fara for my favorite classic NY slice.
Di Fara Pizza, Midwood, Brooklyn
For over 50 years, master pizzaiolo Domenico “Dom” DeMarco made every pizza at Di Fara himself and finished them off with fresh-cut basil. This was hands-down Claudia’s favorite. Probably mine too, but Patsy’s was close behind. Snapped a pic with the man himself after thanking him for the delicious pie.
Joe’s Pizza, Greenwich Village
Nothing fancy, just some reliable, damn good NY slices.
L&B Spumoni Gardens, Brooklyn
Best deep dish in NY and best spumoni in the world. Love this spot.
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