Colin Hagendorf, 28, of Brooklyn, reviewing his final slice at Davinci Pizza in Lower Manhattan.
Manhattan is home to some of the country's oldest and most celebrated pizzerias, but the great metropolis also holds many mediocre slices. Colin Hagendorf has tasted it all.
Mr. Hagendorf, a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident, may know New York-style pizza more exhaustively than any other living soul. During a 2½-year quest, he has sampled nearly every pie sold by the slice in Manhattan. The feat—involving 362 slice joints—is unmatched by any modern-day enthusiast, according to local pizza experts.
"It's become a chore," he admitted recently, over a lunchtime slice. Folding the pizza lengthwise, he watched glumly as the end sagged, unsupported by a doughy crust. A proper slice, Mr. Hagendorf avows, should crease when folded and droop only at the very tip, "just like Johnny Cash's nose."
"This pizza is cotton," he sighed. Still, he was pleasantly surprised at the taste and scribbled notes for a review to be posted on his blog, where he chronicles his pizza forays and rates slices on an eight-slice scale.
Mr. Hagendorf began his project with the aim of trying every slice in New York City's five boroughs. But with more than 1,600 pizzerias in town, according to a health-inspection database, he soon realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. So he narrowed his focus to Manhattan and set simple rules: only order plain cheese pizza; only eat at places selling individual slices; and no going back after canvassing an area to catch newly opened establishments.
Mr. Hagendorf began in August 2009 at Grandpa's Place near 211th Street and Broadway—in Manhattan's northernmost neighborhood—and worked his way down to the island's southern tip. He excluded from consideration national chains and cafeterias that don't make their own pizzas.
The results are chronicled on Mr. Hagendorf's website, Slice Harvester, as well as in printed 'zines he assembles at copy shops and sells for $3 apiece—only slightly more than the price of the average cheese slice. The reviews are deeply personal and occasionally blue, written in the confessional manner of a pizza-obsessed Lenny Bruce. Each pizzeria gets a grade, from zero to an exalted eight.
He bestowed the only perfect score on Pizza Suprema, a slice joint steps away from Penn Station. The place may be the only establishment to proudly hang one of Mr. Hagendorf's reviews, which can be profanity-laced, and he is treated like royalty when he visits.
"It comes out looking beautiful, grease shimmering above the cheese," he says of the slice at Suprema. "You need that grease!"
For Mr. Hagendorf, the best slices display balance above all, cheese and sauce used in moderation upon a solid yet supple crust. He disdains many of the new wave of recession-friendly dollar-per-slice outlets. He also scorns purveyors of Texas-size slices.
"A good dollar slice is like finding the Ark of the Covenant," Mr. Hagendorf says. "The fixation on giant stuff is part of the current horrible state of American capitalism."
Mr. Hagendorf is a waiter at a Brooklyn diner and describes himself as "activist-y punk." He spent years working for tips as a puppeteer in Union Square. Before devoting himself to pizza, "my project was: I want to work as little as possible," he says.
His slice-eating endeavor was born after a cross-country trip in 2009, when he grew outraged at a New York-style pizza served in Colorado Springs, Colo. After hearing him berate that, friends jokingly suggested Mr. Hagendorf market himself as a consultant for out-of-town pizzerias. He set out to survey the city's slice joints.
"I'm not sure what made me actually do this idea instead of just talk about it, which is what I've done with my ideas for years," he says.
He has learned that even in the home of the New York slice, inferior pizzas outnumber truly delectable pies. But mediocrity may be the price for having so many pizzerias.
There are 1,676 New York City restaurants classified as primarily selling pizza, as well an additional 425 categorized under "pizza/Italian," according to a food-inspection database maintained by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Manhattan is home to 494 pizzerias and 97 other restaurants listed under the joint category. A spokeswoman for the agency cautioned that classifications are assigned by inspectors and are therefore inexact.
The 2010 Yellow Pages phone book lists 412 distinct Manhattan eateries under its "pizzeria" section, according to a hand count by Michael Berman, a Brooklyn-based photographer and pizza-focused food writer. Mr. Berman, 44, recently combed through past phone books stored on microfilm at the New York Public Library as a way to track the growth of the city's pizza industry.
In 1958, the phone book listing for pizzerias showed 117 in the five boroughs—and just 10 in Manhattan, Mr. Berman found. By 1970, the total number of pizzerias in New York had surged to 861.
Scott Wiener, 30, who runs New York pizza tours, credits the commercial gas oven with giving birth to the modern slice as a unit of sale. The dial-controlled technology and lower temperature made the oven easier to manage and allowed slices to be reheated without risk of burning bits of cheese on the cooking surface, which fouls the taste.
"It's that oven that made pizza by the slice a big deal," Mr. Wiener says. "It makes more people into pizza makers. You didn't have to be an experienced baker."
With his final slice consumed last week in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Hagendorf has eaten slices at 362 pizzerias. Of those, he's ranked 75 as good or great.
He hasn't gained weight as a result of the exercise, and continues to eat pizza even when not conducting reviews. He now plans to go through his archive and produce a best-of retrospective. "There's a huge body of work," he says.
New York pizza aficionados watched with interest as Mr. Hagendorf approached the finish line.
"A lot of the time I kick myself for not doing it first," says Adam Kuban, who started chronicling New York pizza in 2003 on his website, Slice. "But at the same time I'm glad I didn't have to endure it."