Here’s a commonly-debated topic among residents and visitors alike of New York City: There are about 30 different places called Ray’s Pizza, each one claiming to be the original, but which one of them really is the original? It’s a question that has provoked more than one friendly (and unfriendly) argument. When I moved to New York in 2006, a friend who is a lifelong resident swore to me that the original Ray’s was located on Columbus and 82nd Street. Still, another thought the original Ray’s was on the corner of First Avenue and First Street — a viewpoint supported by none other than Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld! Even Santa Claus got in on the debate in the 2003 film Elf:
“…there are, like, 30 Ray’s Pizzas. They all claim to be the original. But the real one’s on Eleventh.”
Sorry, Santa, but according to a recent article in the Huffington Post, the first Ray’s Pizza, established in 1959, is located on 27 Prince Street in Soho. Case closed. Unfortunately, so is Ray’s! This same article also broke the sad news that this particular Ray’s location had set the end of September as its final closing date.
That’s right. The original Ray’s has shut its doors for good. The principal reasons for this, in addition to unmanageable rent increases, were the rising cost of ingredients such as wheat and cheese. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had never been to Ray’s before. I enjoy a slice of pizza as much as the next red-blooded carpet-bagger Brooklynite, but as the son of a fitness instructor, I was brought up to regard pizza as an occasional treat, and not a dietary staple. In fact, the last time I had pizza, it was at a no-name hole in the wall establishment in a forgettable part of town. The pizza, much like the shop it came from, was unremarkable. Even so, I felt compelled to seek out the original Ray’s to enjoy a slice there, if only to say I had.
On Tuesday, September 27th, just three days before its official closing, I decided to take the plunge. Hastily scribbled Hopstop directions at hand, I made my way toward Prince Street where the street numbers disappear and a sudden loss of direction sets in. You would think that five years into my residence here I would have gotten used to that disconnect from numbered streets to named streets, but I guess not.
After walking past the location at least twice, I looked up from my terrible notes to see it standing in front of me, as if hiding in plain sight. The canopy on the front of the shop simply read “Ray’s Pizza and Restaurant, established 1959.” That’s all. No explanations, no fanfare, no declaration of being “the original,” simply a well-lit, low-key façade to let visitors know they had arrived. The shop itself was divided into two halves. On the left was the restaurant; a more fashionable sit-down establishment for those looking to make their visit a full-course experience. On the right was the pizzeria itself; a tiny hole in the wall akin to the thousands of other pizzerias in New York.
What set this one aside from the rest is the name. Proudly displayed on the exposed brick interior was a banner commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Ray’s in 2009. T-shirts bearing the same slogan were for sale by the menu, right alongside the Stromboli and mozzarella sticks. “Ray’s Pizza” felt almost like a stamp of approval, as if to say “you’re here, now have some real pizza.”
In spite of my admitted lack of passion toward pizza, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had arrived at the place where the pie has moved past mere food and toward the consumption stuff of kings. My fellow patrons and I were far from royalty, but for the 15 minutes or so I spent enjoying my two slices of pepperoni and cheese, I felt as if I should have been wearing a crown emblazoned with a golden “R.” Even the counter staff seemed in on the experience, offering me (albeit jokingly) my choice of Coke, Sprite, champagne, mimosa or cognac as a beverage!
I’m hardly a pizza expert, but Ray’s was out of this world! The pie was nice and hot, but not too much. There was just enough sauce, and the lightest dusting of garlic, not to mention a crispy crust for ultimate crunching capacity. I liked it so much I whipped out my Blackberry and raved about it on Facebook, (something I rarely do) proudly announcing my dinner at Ray’s for all my friends to see.
Within just a few minutes, my friend who had previously sworn that the original Ray’s was on Columbus added a comment lamenting the sad news that the first location is closing. I sympathetically replied that with about 29 easily accessible other locations, it isn’t as if Ray’s is really going anywhere.
“True,” she retorted, “but it’s the ORIGINAL!!”
I stopped and thought about this for a moment. As rent and miscellaneous costs regarding basic expenses get more and more out of control, how soon will it be before other long-cherished New York landmarks go the way of Ray’s? CBGB, the birthplace of American punk rock, shut its doors for good in 2006. H&H Bagels, the beloved Upper West Side eatery followed suit not too long ago as well. Cherry Lane Theater, a long-established Off-Broadway theater that premiered the work of several prominent American playwrights was also forced to close last year when the cost of keeping it open became unmanageable. No place, it seems, is immune to the downside of gentrification.
It’s just pizza, I reminded myself. Still, I couldn’t help but stifle a nostalgic sigh as I wiped the extra sauce from my mouth and cleared my table. On my way to the train in Greenwich Village, I passed at least one other Ray’s Pizza and cracked a smile. This is the Ray’s that I thought was the original until just a few days ago. Maybe as long as the argument keeps going, and the pizza keeps cooking, Ray’s will always have a place in New York City.