Earlier this month I exchanged a couple of emails with a Brooklyn woman named Jane. Her public relations company had pitched to me a story about a Midwest zoo’s new tiger exhibit. (It had been designed with ample natural light, according to green building principles, and the PR firm had evidently seen my name in some architecture magazine).
As often happens when I get talking with a New Yorker, I wind up referring back to my time there while in college and beyond from about 1990-97. Before long, I always reminisce (probably whether the person I’m talking to cares or not) about my favorite pizza destination.
The place is called Ray’s, but as many of you know, that name gets confusing. In New York there are scores of pizza-by-the-slice outlets called Ray’s, but virtually none of them are connected in any way. There is Original Ray’s, Famous Ray’s, Famous Original Ray’s, and so on.
The Ray’s that I love is a very specific one. It is located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street in Greenwich Village. I’ve probably eaten there a hundred times, and it’s my favorite eatery on the planet.
So it was with shock that I read an email from Jane saying that Rays—my Ray’s—had moved to Brooklyn. Apparently, she said, the landlord had jacked up the rent so much that selling pizza by the slice there just wasn’t profitable anymore. (No matter that a New York Times feature rating all the city’s Ray’s franchises ranked my home shop #2 overall.)
I first came across this Ray’s late one Saturday night during my freshman year at NYU with my roommate, also named Brian. I believe we were on our way back to the dorm from seeing Jazz at a West Village Club—I want to say Sweet Basil, but perhaps it was the Village Vanguard. I’d saved up some of my work-study money.
We stopped in for a slice in the manner Manhattanites often do. One tends to assume there is always a pizza shop within a block or two (and a convenience store/deli). Maybe some are better than others, but they’re all going to be fairly similar and dependable, with a floppy texture and lots of cheese. So stopping for a slice at an unfamiliar shop is kind of like taking a freeway exit you haven’t driven before: It’s technically an unknown, but you trust the fact that it will be satisfactory enough to deliver you.
Our reaction to this pizza, however, was in my memory pretty instantaneous. We thought it was great from pretty much the first bite.
Soon we were walking from our dorm at Broadway and 10th Street, about ten minutes away, westward over to Ray’s a few times a week. I particularly remember Saturday nights about midnight or 1:00AM, after Saturday Night Live was over (this was before I began to find it unwatchable later in the decade). Brian and I would just look eat each other and monosyllabically say to each other, “Rays?..Rays!” When I graduated from NYU, my parents and sister came with me to Ray’s for my post-graduation meal after the ceremony. The Washington Square Hotel, where they were staying and I had moved in the night before from my dorm, was only three blocks away.
Today I got a new email from Jane saying it wasn’t my Ray’s that had moved after all. It was another Ray’s, this one a few blocks south on Bleeker Street. (Incidentally, it had ranked #1 in that Times feature.) It was that palpable sense of relief that got me thinking so much about Ray’s. And while I’m enormously thankful, I also was reminded I can’t expect things I love to be around indefinitely.
Since moving back to Portland for good in 1997, I’ve visited New York about once a year, or maybe every other year. Each time, Ray’s has been about the most important stop on my trip. Every time as I’m about to eat there, I wonder if I’ve overblown the taste of Ray’s pizza in my mind. But every time, it tastes like the best slice of pizza I’ve ever tasted.
Despite how many times I’ve eaten it, I can’t really describe what distinguishes this pizza shop’s slices from another. I just know it has a lot of cheese, and that the crust is neither paper-thin nor densely thick. You know it’s there, but it’s not overwhelming the cheese. Quite the contrary, actually.
There is a lot of sophisticated, artful food with more complex flavors that makes me swoon: seared foie gras and figs with a veal reduction; duck confit; coconut soup; aroncini; fettucini with puttanesca sauce; Ciabatta straight from the oven. But no taste pleases me more than that big greasy triangle of bread, tomato sauce and mozzarella from Ray’s.