Some people have the guts to take on groundbreaking projects that become bigger than themselves. Setting out to eat at every pizzeria in New York City seems to be one of these undertakings, but the magnitude of it did not dissuade Colin Atrophy Hagendorf. At first, he was hesitant about liberating the idea from the safety of just being an idea, to something for the greater good of pizza lovers everywhere. Even standing before the first pizzeria for his inaugural slice, Hagendorf had reservations about following through with the plan. But on that first day he hit seven pizzerias; most of them were not good, but the last one gave him hope to carry on.
From August 2009 to November 2011, Hagendorf became known as The Slice Harvester, a self-proclaimed “mozzarella-fueled superhero” warning “fellow citizens against inferior pizza” by consuming 435 different slices across the city. He documented each visit in a notebook and published them on his Slice Harvester blog, along with a quarterly print version zine. His book, Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza (Simon & Schuster, 2015, $30.00), that came out after the project was completed, is different than his blog and zine, which focused on each slice as the research unfolded.
The book does have snippets of the best and worst slices he had, but is more about what he was going through personally on his pizza mission. Hagendorf is not a mainstream guy: he is anti-yuppie, anti-government, anti-Billy Joel and, since his teen years, his punk lifestyle has been as formative to his character as pizza. He was dedicated to his project like nothing he had set his mind to before, trying to put his unique mark on the world, all the while fighting hangovers, battling past demons, and dealing with relationship commitment issues. He writes: “All I had ever wanted as a kid was to create something that would resonate with people — and here I was, doing just that.”
He often attended his harvesting sessions with other friends, mostly punk musicians or zine artists, but also had one memorable experience with actress Phoebe Cates and her teenage daughter. He put in a lot of miles during tasting days, often hitting up to eight or nine pizzerias in a few blocks. He dropped into places with names like Pizza Palace, Grandpa’s Brick Oven Pizza, Amadeus Pizzeria, and Hell’s Kitchen Pizza, and reminds his readers to never judge “a slice by its storefront.” He might have had a nearly perfect slice in one pizzeria and one block away had one that made him throw up (yes, that happened once).
He ordered a plain cheese slice (or “a regular slice” in New York parlance) at each location to keep a consistent comparison. Each slice was given an overall rating out of 8, based on certain qualities: sauce flavor, dough quality, cheese flavor, ratio of ingredients, aftertaste, temperature (he prefers reheated, rather than fresh out of the oven), structural integrity (being able to eat it on the go), and value for the price. His ideal slice could be described as “tangy, not-too-sweet sauce, crisp crust, good quality cheese, all working together in the delicate balance of ratios that separates a great slice from a mediocre one.” Even with several of the 435 slices fitting this description, Pizza Suprema, with such accolades from his blog as “the ratios on this slice were superb” and “the crust’s flavor was unstoppable”, was the only restaurant that received a perfect 8 during his entire pizza journey.
His project gained traction and attention from the media. He was acknowledged for his work by the pizzerias themselves (at least those with glowing reviews). People started using his reviews as a way of knowing where to go for good pizza in certain parts of the city. He was being taken seriously for pizza advice, generating a following of people interested in pizza culture. The harvesting of pizza gave him a purpose in life that he had been avoiding thus far.
The memoir goes beyond pizza ratings, however, and the discipline involved in his project caused other revelations to arise in his life, like reconciling with his parents years after being an unkind teenager, admitting that his method of looking for love through online dating may be misguided, and recognizing that a clean and sober path might be a better way to get his life out of a rut. After completing his two-year project, a combination of success, fame, and true love prompted him to come clean with his addictions and to control his life in a way that may not have come about if not for his love of pizza.