An Exclusive Excerpt from a Memoir in Pizza
In August of 2009, Colin Hagendorf set out to review every regular slice of pizza in Manhattan, and his blog, Slice Harvester, was born. Two years and nearly 400 slices later, as his celebrity was rcontinuing to rise, his life started to fall apart. Colin was kind enough to share his lovely "Memoir in Pizza" with us, and we thought you might dig reading it too. This is one of our favorite sections on how a pizza place in Inwood has remained a constant in a neighborhood that's changed so much over the decades.
In order to fully understand the magic of Pizza Palace, we need to get to know John Kambouris, the man who has run the place for the past thirty years. Kambouris, who owns Pizza Palace with his brother, George, moved to New York City’s Inwood neighborhood from Greece in the 1960s. He got a job as a dishwasher at a little restaurant on Broadway, then became a cook at a small diner in the Bronx, slowly crawling up the food-service food chain until 1971, when he opened his own coffee shop on Sherman Avenue. He ran that until 1986, when he bought Pizza Palace, which had originally been opened in 1945 by three brothers.
“They were guys from my home island,” John told me in his slight Greek accent one afternoon when I stopped at Pizza Palace for a slice. “The three brothers, one of them wanted to leave. He said to me, ‘John, what are you doing in this coffee shop? Buy my share of the pizza parlor. Pizza—this is where you will make your money.’
‘But what do I know of pizza?’ I asked him. ‘Pizza is easy,’ he told me. ‘I will teach you.’ And so I thought this offer over, and I have been here ever since.”
He punctuated this statement with a small stamp of his foot and a grand sweep of his arms around his pleasantly run-down pizza shop, smiling proudly.
Like any part of New York, Inwood is a neighborhood with a long and complex history. Inwood Hill Park is where Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from the island’s indigenous people. The Dutch began settling there in the seventeenth century, but the only traces of their former presence are the name of Dyckman Avenue and a Dutch Colonial farmhouse built in 1784 that’s now a museum called the Dyckman House. And the projects in Inwood are known as the Dyckman Houses. A museum and a housing project are nearly polar opposites in terms of usage and public perception of value, so there is a certain unpleasant irony in the fact that these two spaces share a name.
The neighborhood remained relatively rural until the early twentieth century, when subways were built to connect it to the rest of the city and new construction began to flourish. Irish laborers were brought in to build apartment houses, which they subsequently moved into. The Irish were soon followed by a wave of Jewish immigrants fleeing the dreary claustrophobia of the Lower East Side, and a small enclave of Greeks (including John Kambouris) came over from Kos, a tiny island one-twentieth the size of Delaware, with a smaller population than that of Minot, North Dakota.
Inwood was pretty suburban until the late 1940s, when Robert Moses built the Dyckman Houses, a seven-building project on Tenth Avenue. This was also when two of the neighborhood’s most famous residents were born: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was born and raised in the Dyckman Houses and grew up to be really tall and also the highest-scoring basketball player ever, and writer/famous junkie Jim Carroll, although he didn’t move to Inwood until he was fifteen. His most famous book, The Basketball Diaries, is about being a dirtbag teen here, though pretty much any New York neighborhood worth its salt has inspired some kind of art about being a dirtbag teen: Upper East Side: The Catcher In the Rye; Queensbridge: The Infamous Mobb Deep; Lower East Side: Low Life by Luc Sante; etc.
By the seventies, many of the Irish, Jewish, and Greek families had left, following the pattern of white flight exhibited in much of the city, and the neighborhood was settled by a wave of newcomers from the Dominican Republic, many of whom remain today. During the eighties, Inwood was hit hard by the crack epidemic and all its accompanying violence and desolation—which brings us to 1986, when John Kambouris bought Pizza Palace from his buddy from the Old Country.
During the next two decades, John saw the pizzeria he had taken over as one of the few constants in the otherwise unstable urban terrain of Inwood. Many of the Dominican residents who had come to the neighborhood as kids during the 1970s had grown up eating the pizza there, and began to bring in their children to sample the slices. Today there are at least three generations in the neighborhood who have eaten at Johnny’s, as the place is locally known.
I asked John’s son, Nick, a jovial guy about my age who at the time was studying for his master’s in education but still helping out around the pizza shop on busy days, what he thought of the neighborhood and what had compelled his father to stay when the bulk of the Greek community left for Queens and the Bronx. “Even though the people have changed, the neighborhood is still the same: a stepping-stone for recent immigrants. Neighborhoods like this are important to the city, and our pizza shop ties the community that is currently here to the community that left. It gives people a reason to hold on to their identity. Inwood is a great place to keep your culture and traditions and learn what it means to be American at the same time.”
This is why I love New York. The dense population and physical proximity to other humans from wildly disparate backgrounds forges bonds that would be hard to create elsewhere. And yet I often run into lifelong New Yorkers who seem to feel the exact opposite way. A couple of days ago, for instance, I was talking to a guy standing in line in front of me at a pizza parlor (another result of the close proximity of New Yorkers: people waiting in line together engage in light small talk, and it isn’t weird), and he mentioned that he had grown up in Richmond Hill.
I said, “No shit! A bunch of my family lived there decades ago, and I’ve got a couple of friends who grew up there. Seems like an interesting neighborhood. It’s mostly Caribbean and Indian these days, right?”
“Yeah,” he said wistfully, shaking his head slowly back and forth and looking down at the counter. “It used to be Irish and Italian.” He raised an eyebrow and looked at me as though I obviously understood and agreed with him that it should have stayed that way. What a nob!
My dad’s family moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Rosedale, Queens, when he was still a kid. Rosedale is a suburban neighborhood just north of Kennedy Airport, right on the border of Queens and Long Island. When my dad was little, the neighborhood was mostly Jewish and Italian families like my father’s—immigrant parents trying to inch their children out of the densely populated urban enclaves where they had initially settled, taking one incremental step closer to realizing the suburban American dream of a white picket fence and a sprawling lawn.
I spent a lot of Jewish holidays in Rosedale as a kid. My grandparents would take me to the park, and then we’d go to the Buttermill, a Jewish bakery that made the best mandel bread I’ve ever had, or to the Woodro delicatessen for knishes, pastrami sandwiches, and black cherry soda. My grandmother died when I was thirteen. When I was nineteen, my grandfather moved to Florida as part of the ongoing Great Jewish Migration. (All New York Jews, when they reach a certain age and if they have the means, move to Florida.)
But I still go to Rosedale at least once a year to visit my best friend’s mother, Mrs. Watson, who came to New York from Jamaica thirty or forty years ago. As I observed to the Pizza-Line Bozo about Richmond Hill, Rosedale seems predominantly Caribbean these days—mostly Jamaican and Haitian, I think. When I visit with Mrs. Watson, instead of knishes and black cherry soda we eat beef patties and drink sorrel punch, but the feelings of love are the same. The kvetching is the same, though in a different dialect. The sense of pride in being able to own a home in a nice neighborhood is the same.
I began visiting Mrs. Watson a few years after my grandfather moved out of Queens. Returning to Rosedale, seeing the same landscape populated by different people, always seemed so beautiful to me. That a geographic location could serve the same function for multiple immigrant communities in succession always seemed like a tiny victory in a city full of tragedy. So when people like that shmuck at the pizza shop spew their xenophobic nostalgia, it really galls me. Part of me wanted to shout at the guy, but part of me wanted to talk to him nicely. In my day- dreams I tell him, “You do realize, don’t you, that back when that neighborhood was Irish, the Irish were scorned and quietly feared by mainstream white America in the same way you are looking down on your desi neighbors in Richmond Hill? You’ve only been white for, like, a hundred years! Get over yourself! And enjoy the slice. It’s on me.” Of course I didn’t say any of that, because I don’t usually lecture strangers, and I can’t afford to buy their pizza. Or I’m a gutless coward. You decide.
In his two-part essay Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel Delany—Bronx native, award-winning science fiction writer, preeminent documentarian of cruising culture in New York City, my favorite author—writes that within the now nearly eradicated cruising scene in the porno theaters of Times Square, he saw more “cross-class contact” than in any other type of space in New York City. I would say that the Ideal Pizzeria shares this quality—though perhaps to a lesser extent—and that these characteristics are embodied perfectly by the scene at Pizza Palace on Dyckman Avenue.
Here we have first, second, and third generations from a handful of different nations preparing and eating food together: young mothers gossiping in Spanish with their strollers parked at the edge of the table; less-affluent Columbia students who can’t afford the rents in Morningside Heights, and so settled in Inwood; seemingly ageless neighborhood junkies who could be a world-worn thirty or a pickled, preserved seventy; young seminary students on their way back from visiting the Cloisters—all have a slice waiting for them. And in the midst of it all is John Kambouris, standing in the back room at his sixty-year-old industrial mixer, making the dough for tomorrow’s pies. In the two hours I sat at Palace Pizza during my last visit, nearly everyone who came in took a moment to wave at John, and he addressed most of them by name.
And the community spirit emanating from Pizza Palace traverses not only ethnic boundaries but national borders as well. The week I ate my last slice in Manhattan (two and a half years after the day I stepped into Johnny’s), I was written up in a couple of local papers, one of which published a list of my five favorite pizza parlors, Pizza Palace among them. A week later I was doing a vanity google (that’s when you type your own name into Google—don’t try to pretend you haven’t done it and don’t know what I’m talking about) when I found a result written in the Greek alphabet. I sent it to a high school friend who reads Greek, and he informed me that the article was about Pizza Palace making my top five. The local paper from Kambouris’s home island was so proud that one of their own had been awarded such a hefty distinction (one of the five best pizza parlors in all of New York City!) that they had chosen to write a human-interest piece about it.
In essence, Kambouris’s success as a pizza man didn’t impact only the residents of his neighborhood, who routinely have their bellies warmed by his wonderful food. His influence spreads farther even than the Inwood Diaspora, some of whom stop at “Johnny’s” on Dyckman first thing after landing in New York, before seeing their own families. No, the ripples of John's labor and dedication to his neighborhood and his craft reached all the way across the Atlantic to the remote Greek island where he was born. Because the thing is, John Kambouris doesn't just own a warm and inviting establishment—no easy task in itself—that's chump stuff compared to John's other skill: making damn good pizza.
For more of Colin's incredible writing, be sure to purchase his wonderful new book Slice Harvester, available online here.