Syracuse University Magazine

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Q & A: Scott Wiener '04

Enticed by the Slice

For Scott Wiener, one slice of pizza always leads to another. And these days he leads a lot of people with him. In April 2008, Wiener launched Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City (motto: “New York’s Cheesiest Guided Tour”), an outgrowth of his never-ending quest to sample premium slices of pizza. What began as a personal obsession with visiting historic pizzerias soon turned into outings with friends on a rented bus and, finally, selling tickets and inviting fellow pizza enthusiasts to join him on foot or on his yellow school bus as they prowl the streets of Gotham, sampling slices as they go. “As I visited more pizzerias, I realized there was more to learn about them than I thought possible,” says the Newhouse alumnus, who traces the beginning of his analytical approach to pizza to his college days at SU. “Finally I realized I was spending more of my time going out of my way to visit pizzerias than I was at my normal, full-time job, so I quit—and decided to devote my time to studying pizza and that snowballed…”

Today, Wiener’s world of pizza stretches well beyond the tours, which include welcoming a number of SU student and alumni groups. He is a columnist for Pizza Today magazine, an international judge, the Guinness World Record holder for the largest collection of pizza boxes on the planet (1,200 and counting overcrowding his apartment), the author of Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box (Melville House, 2013), the subject of numerous national TV appearances and an upcoming documentary, and founder of the nonprofit organization Slice Out Hunger, which raises money for hunger relief organizations. “We sell slices for $1 and who can say no to that?” he says.

Wiener spoke this spring with Syracuse University Magazine editor Jay Cox, shortly after returning from Parma, Italy, where he judged the World Pizza Championship.


Tell me about your genesis as a professional pizza enthusiast.

I always liked pizza the same way everybody else likes pizza, as a comfort food, something that’s always good no matter what time of day. But it wasn’t probably until I was at school in Syracuse that I started to really like pizza. I liked pizza in a similar way to most college students, but I got a little bit more analytical. Instead of just getting whatever was the closest and the cheapest, I would go on a quest to figure out which one I liked the most. A lot of it had to do with meeting all these people from different parts of the world at school (I grew up in Jersey), and these kids from Long Island, the Midwest, and the West Coast, everybody had a different approach to pizza. That sort of got my mind wheeling and when I started to look a little deeper, I noticed there were historic pizzerias that I’d never realized existed and there were pizza styles that I’d never tried before. And so I started going out of my way to visit them. And as I visited more pizzerias, I realized there was more to learn about them than I thought possible. I’d meet people while waiting in line at a pizzeria and they’d say to me, “Oh, you have to go check out this place.” The numbers kept building and finally I realized I was spending more of my time going out of my way to visit pizzerias than I was at my normal, full-time job, so I quit—and decided to devote my time to studying pizza and that snowballed. It became me grabbing friends to jump in my car and visit pizzerias. And that turned into “Oh, maybe I’ll rent a bus and we’ll split the cost of the bus and use that to get around town.” And that turned into “Oh, gee, I can sell tickets to this bus and maybe I could get paid to eat pizza.” And that’s what happened in April 2008; I started running tours, selling tickets for them, and haven’t slowed down since.

Seems like you’ve carved out a nice niche for yourself.

It’s a niche I never realized existed until I was in it.

Did you ever imagine it would expand into the role it plays in your life today?

I never had any idea, never. But I think the one thing I’ve learned from all of this is not just to expect the unexpected, but to be prepared for any opportunity. When something comes up, what are the pros and cons? And when there are way more pros than cons, it’s an easy way to adapt. And that usually ends up with me in Sao Paulo [Brazil] giving a speech about pizza styles to a room full of pizzeria owners who only speak Portuguese and, through an interpreter, telling them all about my pizza box collection. That really happened. It was crazy.

How did your pizza box collection come about?

It was so weird. I was part of this group of people who were charged with testing out pizzas in New Jersey in 2009. We were doing it for a newspaper and I was visiting 333 pizzerias in New Jersey over the course of six months, so a lot of pizzerias. And, of course, after a while you start to notice the little things, like on the side of one box, I noticed a “Tour of Italy.” There was a picture that looked like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence on the top of the box, and on the side it said, “Tour of Italy, Volume 2, Limited Edition.” I saw that and thought, well, gee, if this is a limited edition, I should probably save it. Sure enough, it’s not at all a thing people actually collect. I was probably the only person who noticed that phrase on the side of the box. But I saved that and then I started noticing other pizza boxes to add to the pile of limited edition ones. Next thing I knew I had 50—and I started thinking, I wonder if it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records. Then people learned I collected them and started bringing them to me. My job is to meet pizza lovers every day, so I started getting tons—people were mailing them to me, bringing them on tours. Now I’ve got 1,200 pizza boxes and I don’t have any space. My apartment is packed. 

Was there a record established for the largest collection of pizza boxes?

There was not one established. When you want to set a new record, you just have to contact them. And then they tell you, oh, gee, well that sounds good. How about 500? And so I said, “Great, I have 600 boxes.”

You wrote a book about pizza boxes—the cardboard, the designs. Was that fun to do?

That book looks like a really basic coffee table book, with some pictures of pizza boxes in it, but it gets really intense once you start reading the captions and sidebars. I did a ton of really specific research about cardboard and paper and paper production. This publishing company said, “Hey, why don’t you do a pizza book with us? We’ve been throwing around ideas, do you have any interest in pizza box art?” And I said, “Are you kidding me, I have a closet with 450 pizza boxes in it.” And they said, “Wow, jackpot.” So we did the book, pretty quickly. It’s probably the only book the planet will ever need about pizza boxes.

You list 50 pizzerias on your website. How do you make the list and do you scout out new locations?

That list is intended to give people an idea of which pizzerias we might visit on the tour. On a walking tour we’ll hit three, and on a bus tour we’ll hit four. People wonder what kind of pizzerias they’re going to visit, so I want them to know it’s a spread—historic places, newer places, hip and trendy spots, old-school spots. Really, to be on the tour, it’s got to be something that has a very specific definition, that represents more than just itself. It can’t be just the pizzeria that’s totally unique. It’s got to be something that you could go to in Syracuse and see something similar. I want you to experience different ovens: coal fired, wood fired, gas fired, brick ovens, whatever. The idea of the tour is to treat you to cause-and-effect relationships that come into play and not just oh, let’s go eat some real good pizza.

Any idea how many pizzerias you’ve tried in NYC?

Wow, it must be a few hundred. I’m not really sure how many, but definitely in the hundreds.

Are you recognized?

Sometimes I’ll be eating in a place and they’ll say, “Hey, are you Scott?” And I’m not wearing my Scott’s Pizza Tours T-shirt. If I like something, I tend to ask a lot of questions and the vocabulary I use probably tips them off that I’m not just a normal customer.

How many tours do you personally give?

I give a public bus tour every Sunday and I usually do the public walking tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Beyond those, I do private tours. So, for instance tonight, I’m giving a tour for a company that’s entertaining a client. So I’m personally giving five or six in a week, with my other tour guides handling the rest.

Do you have a favorite part of the tour?

I love getting questions from the group about pizza making or something small they’ll notice. When they see a correlation from one pizzeria to the next, it shows me they’re actually paying attention! The whole idea of the tour is not just to give guests three new places to visit, it’s really about teaching them what to look for. Seeing their reactions is the best. Even better is I get emails a week later from a customer saying they got back to their hometown, and their daughter found this great pizzeria and she asked if she could see the oven, and told the owner about the tour and here’s a picture of the daughter in front of the old oven. It’s something they would never have known about if they hadn’t taken the tour.

You’ve given tours to SU groups?

Yes, a bunch of them. I just did a group from the iSchool the other day. Whenever an SU group comes to New York, I always meet with them about entrepreneurship or anything they’re studying that might have something to do with what I do.

How did you build up your pizza network?

It’s really just been years of being in that world and visiting pizzerias. The more they know about the tour, the more they are comfortable with me and what I’m trying to do. Social media has definitely helped because it means my message gets across without me having to meet every pizzeria owner in person. A lot of times I’ll go to a place and they’ll say, “Hey, I saw you on YouTube,” and I’m amazed that some little 30-second clip I did three years ago is still bouncing around and resonating with people. 

I never anticipated the relationship I’ve built with pizzeria owners. We’ve all become quite friendly. I just walked into place a half hour ago and the guy said, “I heard you were in Parma, why didn’t you tell me? I have a house in Modena; you could have stayed there and had a tour of the food factories.…” It’s so funny when word gets out: They’re only upset that I didn’t go and stay at their family’s house.… I was like I totally would have loved to stay with your family! Next time. They all know that I want to learn more, and anything they can do to help me is going to help them. And they’re all just really nice people.

Often the first time I take the tour to a pizzeria, the staff thinks I’m full of crap. I remember one place thought, “Who is this Cheeseburger American Boy? What does he know about pizza?” They called me Cheeseburger. Then they listened to me talk about their food and thought, “Ah, he knows more than we do.” So it’s kind of funny that I’m always having to prove myself, but I’m OK with that.

Describe the vertical hold test.

This is a test for New York slices. You hold a slice up by its crust and let the tip drop down; if nothing falls off of that slice, to me it means there’s an appropriate CSR—cheese to sauce ratio—and no excess to fall off. There are several pizzerias that have that. I’m always excited when that happens because it means it’s not going to be a mess. Pizzerias tend to go for more is more and I’m more of a less-is-more kind of guy. So the vertical hold test shows off the places that are less is more.

Do you do that every time you eat pizza or save it for special occasions?

That comes up when I would see a slice on a tour and want to demonstrate to people that it’s often dangerous to pick up a fresh slice vertically. Any practical tool you can give people that helps them see a cause-and-effect relationship is way better than me just saying some words.

What’s your ideal slice?

I’m a cheese-and-sauce guy, so for me, it’s about an even balance of cheese, sauce, and crust, a balance of sweet and salty—the sweetness of tomatoes, the saltiness of mozzarella cheese; some balance of proportion and ingredient. If one ingredient is overpowering the others, for me, that’s a negative. If it starts with a great bake and has sauce strong enough without being overwhelming, and a cheese that complements the sauce, then I’m very happy.

I guess pizza has become a model for fast food and it certainly doesn’t have to be a fast food. The way it’s been approached in Naples, at its origin point, is very balanced. And the bad pizzas I’ve had in Naples are only bad because they’ve become more Americanized. They’re over-cheesed or over-sauced.

What is it about Americans? We seem to overdo everything.

We want to show off, we have abundance. It’s all about showing off. Not that it’s necessarily bad, but it’s definitely in our nature to overwhelm rather than let simple ingredients speak for themselves.

Different ovens create different crusts?

Different oven types will have different bake times and temperatures and that will result in different crusts. You might have a coal-fired oven that chars the crust and dries it out; you might have a wood-fired oven that chars it in little blisters and makes it really soft.

Any favorite toppings?

I like a cheese pizza. If I had to pick one extra thing to add, it’s usually sausage.

Pretty simple then?

Yeah, I like to keep it simple, but when I’m judging these competitions, it’s the opposite of simple. They use like 15 different ingredients because they’re trying to show off to the judges, so I eat anything. When I’m eating myself, especially when it’s my first time at a pizzeria, I prefer something on the really, really simple side.

Anything that shouldn’t be a topping?

Yeah, Tater Tots. [He encountered such an entry at a Las Vegas contest.] I’m not a big broccoli fan, personally, for pizza. But beyond that I feel like everything is legal. The whole concept of pizza is that it’s a showcase for the foods that are important to a culture or to a group of people. If you’re in a Polish neighborhood and they want to put potato and onion on a pizza, then that shows off what they’re interested in. That shows off their heritage. It makes the pizza authentic—the concept of authenticity. A lot of people fight about it.

How do you avoid pizza burnout?

I have a limit—15 slices per week. Every slice I go over the limit, I chop off two from the next week’s allotment. It’s rough. I went way over last week with the Parma thing.

Do you give yourself a bit of extra room when you’re a judge?

I guess I should, but I’m really worried about burnout. And I figure if it’s going to happen at any point, it will be within the next year, because it’s been really busy. But I have to say, pizza is not an easy thing to burn yourself out on. I eat it every day, I’m going to different places, and I have not gotten sick of it. Not 10 hours have gone by that I didn’t want pizza.

You were a television, radio, film major at Newhouse. Ever imagine you’d be the subject of a documentary?

No, I was supposed to be making documentaries, based on my education as a TRF major. Then this pizza thing happened and I’ve been in front of the camera more than I’ve been behind it. But it’s great, because when someone goes to mic me up, I say, “Don’t worry, I got this covered.” My concentration was always the audio end of TRF.

Tell me about Slice Out Hunger.

Since 2009, we’ve done programs and events with mostly independent pizzerias to raise money for local hunger relief initiatives. We do an annual event in New York every October, which is National Pizza Month, and we just started doing these satellite events. We take them to college campuses and team up with an on-campus group. They run the event and we oversee it. And they do all the connections and advertising and raise money, and we donate the money to whichever hunger relief organization they want, either local or our national partner, Feeding America.

I’m hoping to team up with a group at SU that wants to run a pizza event on campus.

Any group that’s interested can email me directly and we can start planning. It’s a pizza party that raises money for hunger relief organizations. We sell slices for $1 and who can say no to that?

I certainly never thought I would run one business, let alone two—and one of them being a nonprofit, this is like trial by fire. There’s never a day when I’m doing less than three things.

As busy as you are, I guess pizza is a convenient food for that.

 Perfect for on the go.

Did you have a favorite pizza place in Syracuse?

I liked this place called ZJ’s. I think it’s gone now; it used to be Pizza Jerks, right above Harry’s. That was always the closest to a real New York slice.

 

 



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Top photo by Guinness World Records; other photos by Laura Togut