$1 Slice-o-Rama: Papa John’s Finishes the Column with a Thud
Don’t pinch yourself (unless it’s what floats your boat), don’t power-cycle your monitor, don’t panic. This is legitimate, this is for-real, you are not experiencing a wire cross somewhere in the tubes. Papa John’s has a location that does dollar slice pizza. It is on 28th between 7th and 8th. We have reviewed it. Yes, this is still Midtown Lunch. While we generally aim – rightfully so, IMO – to steer our lunch dollars towards the little guy, we are still doing a comparison of individual pizza slice purveyors that sell for a dollar per plain cheese slice. This fits the criteria, and it is up to us to advise for or against. In the past, there’s been no issue calling out awful dollar slices just as easily as there’s been no issue lauding surprising good finds in unlikely places. As this, the final column in $1 Slice-o-Rama comes to a close, do we end off with a corporate underdog story or do we merely shake our heads at having done a necessary, but not joyful, service to the lunch community?
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only Papa John’s participating in the dollar slice phenomenon. Those dollar slices are only available from 10 AM – 6 PM Monday through Friday. Clearly a shot at the far northern Flatiron/far southern Midtown office crowd, which is drearily absent in foot traffic at this location. Literally right across from FIT, I’m pretty sure that it’d take a whole lot of vodka and Trimmings 202 textbook overdosing for an FIT student to be caught dead in a Papa John’s.
The dine-in area was damn near empty at 12:13 PM this Monday in early October.
The back of the house is clearly visible. Stacks of empty boxes await a conveyor belt-like pizza oven, whose lower-temp cousins probably inhabit Quizno’s locations across the country.
$2.16 (yes, they charge sales tax, and we’ll note this later) gets you two slices in an individual carryout. Stacked atop each other. Thanks, guys, who needs to keep their hands clean anyway?
Cheese. Pungent and well-heated, mostly to the point of spots of individual overcookedness, it has a polka-dot appearance that seems to suggest the heat coming down on top of the slice is too powerful. There’s zero gaps in coverage and strong adhesion to the slice, as well as plenty of stringiness. I didn’t see this come straight out of the oven so my hope is that out of our sight is a very, very effective heat-maintenance system. Sadly, it was way lacking in salt, and it pains me to think that the tragically bad cheese at Roll & Go has found its cousin here. 3 out of 5.
Sauce. Quick answer: there was sauce? Longer answer: hey guys, can you actually put more on next time? The only sauce present and tastable was a watery, underspread concoction that really lent nothing to the slice. Whereas I was surprised by Joey Peppersoni’s sauce in its complexity and density, I was shocked by what amounts to a near-absence of any sauce whatsoever. While there wasn’t enough liquid to prevent cheese adhesion to the slice, there was no distinction between cheese, slice, and crust – this was just cheese melted over the crust. The needed salt, tang, herbiness, and texture were lacking. The experience was a wash all around. Even when I lifted up a layer of cheese, all there seemed to be was red food coloring water. 0 out of 5. If I could disqualify based on utter failure to present in a category, I would have done so here.
Crust. There seems to be two distinct crust sections on a Papa John’s dollar slice, way more so than others. I’m not talking about variations, I’m talking about assembly: 1) Assemble pizza, 2) Extrude outer crust, 3) Join outer crust to inner crust by applying 5 Newtons of force per finger with the four main fingers of each hand as you rotate around the pie. See above: this is the slice held flat, with the outer crust levering off the inner. Instead of a margin between the two it’s easily rolling right off of the slice.
As you see above, there’s also odd stripping on and around the crust itself. My theory: wherever these crusts originate, the machines apply that requisite force to take the human equation out. We see an attempt to optimize the process and take the human out of the loop, which may have caused issues for 99c Fresh Pizza in their assembly process.
Odd textures aside, the inner crust measured a doughy 3-4mm, with the outer crust a voluminous 24mm. There was an interesting, barely perceptible cinnamon taste at the edge of the palate when the outer crust was consumed. Both the outer and inner crust were extremely doughy and fluffy, but they were without a degree of crispness. Whatever stippling process was used in hopes of imparting small grooves to allow heat to penetrate and expand seems to backfire, if that’s what they were going for. I’d love it if someone better versed in thermodynamics than me could confirm or refute this as a theory, but it crunches not nearly enough. Moreover, folding the slice almost caused serious structural failure of the inner crust. The roll-away factor highlighted above goes against the traditional slice fold. A final nail in the coffin, but uniformity and temperature do come into play to maintain a 2 out of 5.
Overall. It’s easy for a nationwide franchise to dictate the experience and clamp down on those who don’t deliver. In doing so, there’s not much left of the individual who works there, and you’ll have your uniform service at a price. There’s nothing New York to the location, which is too clean, too well-ventilated, too roomy, and well aware of its purpose as a primarily delivery and carryout oriented pizza chain. I will say this: I was in and out in less than a minute and a half, but huge service hits come in the form of completely absent condiments save for one shaker of unidentified dry substance. It looked like some pizza-spice amalgam with tiny dried onions (kind of like the McCormick bottle) in the normal spice blend. No red pepper, no garlic powder… nothing.
This mixed bag of fast service and hot pizza was turned into a flaming doorstep bag really swiftly: Sacajawea dollars, the bane of the large-bill carrier, were handed to me as change. It’s hard for me not to let personal distaste of coins influence the overall opinion, but on pure anecdotal evidence alone, I’ve never met anyone who was ever happy to have a Sacajawea dollar. Not even the cashiers of other places. I know, I know, it’s necessary to be able to break large bills on Metrocard and NJ Transit vending machines, but this is 2012 and I’d really love to see bills stay as bills. Let alone the sales tax part – is this something that only Papa John’s has to do and they refuse to roll it into the cost of the dollar slice? Is their same-store profit margin at this location that low that they’re forced to do this? To set aside the arguement for the sake of rendering judgment, the fact that these two coinage-centric issues even merit addressing as part of a dollar slice pizza joint creates a burden upon the experience. 2 out of 5.
Final score: 1.75/5. The old adage “it could always be worse” is damn near universal, as our pizza case shows thusly. While we’ve seen $1 slice operations suffer as part of the Pizza Wars of 2012, these results speak for themselves. The cheese is far too neutral, the sauce simply doesn’t exist, the crust tries but falls short of the very basics, and there’s nothing that kills the pizza experience worse than cumbersome currency and a literal embodiment of post-Giuliani Times Square here right across from FIT. I’m not exactly a snazzy dresser (they can take my United Federation of Planets bomber jacket from my cold, dead arms) but I haven’t felt as unfashionable as going to a Papa John’s across from one of the centers of fashion and couture-related crap in the city, if not the world.
Fitting, if nothing else, that we end with that “it could always be worse.” When I started this column, it was not with the intent to find the best of the best. Going for $1 slice pizza, it seems that we acknowledge it isn’t going to have gorgonzola cheese and porcini mushrooms on it. No, this is the utility slice. Plain cheese, hit it with some red pepper flakes and garlic powder, and you’re out the door, folding it up to eat. We want to fill both a niche and our stomachs on the cheap without resorting to a gigantic chain (unless you really want to do so, as we’ve proved above).
Looking back, I found it rewarding as hell to be able to tackle a single item, set it into quantifiable categories, and make judgment calls backed up by solid evaluations of individual criteria. Not all food items lend itself to this kind of scrutiny in terms of a process to criticize them, but something as ubiquitous as cheese pizza speaks for itself.
I’m honestly shocked at the universal disdain that came forth about 2 Bros when they were reviewed to be less than decent, just a step or two above Papa John’s in the end. While probably no death knell for the biggest dollar-slice chain out there, it could well be a chink in the pizza armor. With one step down being the single nationwide chain reviewed here, could there very well be a breaking point for the pizza at which point the confluence of lease, labor, and ingredients simply break an establishment and force it to sacrifice something?
Congratulations to the best of the bunch, Joey Pepperoni on 6th and 39th. While not perfect pizza, it was the best across the board. I feel confident in saying this since some other places could well have done better had other components stacked up to other examples. Could it compete with normal pizza? While being outside the scope of this column, given what I had I could give it a solid “maybe.” It was a good slice that had everything working for it overall. While it’s worth noting that only one category of the slice itself rated 5 out of 5, it wasn’t just an isolated factor. It all came together well and was served up right.
We leave it now to the industrial process engineers to speculate, and of course, to the readers to taste for themselves.
Thanks for reading and stop blotting the grease already!