Scott’s Pizza Tours: Life on a Ferryboat, the board game Sorry!, and NYC PIZZA!

Today NERD TREK is sitting down with Scott Wiener from Scott’s Pizza Tours in NYC.  Scott is one of the most knowledgeable individuals when it comes to pizza, not just in the 5 boroughs but in the United States!

Jonathan:  Hello Scott!  How are you doing this fine morning?

Scott: To be honest, I’m a bit conflicted. Yesterday I went over my slice quota so today I have to go pizza-free. It’s a major bummer because I have lots of pizzerias on my hit list and today would be perfect to knock some out. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. 

 

Jonathan:  Scott, please tell us a little about Scott’s Pizza Tours, how long you’ve been in operation, and what it is that you do.

Scott:  I started running tours of significant New York City pizzerias in April of 2008, so it has been nearly 3.5 years since tour #1. Pizza has always been the love of my life, but it became a real focus as I experienced terrible pizza while in college at Syracuse University and when I toured the US with my band the Bikini Carwash Company. There’s lots of bad pizza out there and I wanted to find out what causes such variation in style and method. As it turns out, there’s a lot of social, economic, scientific and ethnographic reasons for food variation and pizza is the perfect case study. My tours are part NYC food history and part pizza geekery. We stop at a bunch of P.P.I.’s (Points of Pizza Interest) and eat slices at 3-4 places that each demonstrate a different angle of pizzadom. After eating each slice, we dissect and analyze its components and discuss what the cause-and-effect relationship between the oven, flour, dough stretch and topping selection/application. It gets pretty intense pretty quickly. I seriously study pizza nonstop, so I can either answer most questions or direct people to where they might be able to find answers themselves. 

Jonathan:  Can you tell us how you got started?  Feel free to ramble, we love start up stories… especially start up stories involving PIZZA!

Scott:  I never anticipated running my own business but I knew I didn’t want to spend my days doing something that didn’t make me completely jazzed to get out of bed in the morning. Starting the tour company wasn’t very hard and the evolution was pretty organic. After working in television and music, I took a full time job at City Hall in Hoboken, NJ. I was the on-call sound guy and event coordinator and the gig was actually pretty cool! The biggest problem appeared when somebody approached me to let me know it was my 1st anniversary of working there, which meant I only needed to hang on for 24 more years before I could retire with full pension. WHAT!??! This was the worst news I could ever hear. Not that I hated the job, but I just couldn’t imagine being in any one place for that long. So I put in my two weeks notice about a week later. 

People always say you should start looking for a new job before quitting the old one, but that just wasn’t going to happen because I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to be. I remember going on some job interviews and even got an offer, but I turned it down because I didn’t see myself loving it. But I wasn’t too worried. I decided to spend a few months not worrying so I could finish some projects I had put on hold. There was a record I had in the works, some repair work on a historic ferryboat I wanted to do, and a book about pizza I was interested in publishing. OK, maybe I should briefly explain that ferryboat thing… Through some friends in Hoboken, I met a couple who owned and lived on a 1907 Ellis Island ferryboat docked in town. They needed a caretaker to live on board and look after things, so I called them up and moved aboard a few days later. Since I was doing a job on the boat, I got compensated with free rent in the captain’s quarters. I ended up living there for three years, saving up cash to start the business I didn’t know I was starting until it was already happening. Here’s a video of the boat when we were featured on HGTV’s World’s Most Extreme Homes

Since I had no rent to pay, I was able to concentrate on things I loved doing. My friends would pile into my car for day-long pizza excursions and we’d check out 4-6 pizzerias in a row. It was awesome. I started asking lots of questions and picked up lots of great info. These trips became pretty serious and I had friends bringing their friends along for the ride. Eventually, there were so many people who wanted to spend the day eating pizza with me that I needed to make a change. I rented a party bus and invited 30 friends and family members aboard to celebrate my 26th birthday. We hit 6 pizzerias in 5 hours and it was a blast. When we finished up, everyone asked me when they could sign up to do it again. I had no intention of doing this on a regular basis, but I caved after a few weeks of people asking me about running another “tour” and started looking into the possibility. The first step was getting a NYC Sightseeing Guides license, which requires passing an intense test about all things New York. I failed the first time but studied over the weekend and aced it on the second try. The next step was approaching pizzerias about the idea. Most were into it, especially because I wasn’t asking them for anything but room to sit and maybe some information about their history. It turned out that I already knew more about some of these places than the managers, so they saw value in letting me come by to tell the story they were too busy to tell. After all, they are in the business of selling pizza. 

The next thing I knew it was time for my first tour and I was getting ready to head out when my phone rang. It was the Daily News and they wanted to ride with us for the first tour. I said no. I had never done this before and I did not want a major newspaper to experience my baby steps. But then I thought about how rare it would be to get a reporter and photographer on the tour ever again and I told them to come on out! The tour went great and landed a full page story on page 12 of the Monday edition of the Daily News. Then some local TV stations picked it up and I started taking complete strangers out for pizza tours. It was amazing. TripAdvisor.com named us one of the top 10 tours in the USA in 2009 and we’ve been the #1 tour in NYC on Yelp for over a year now. I’ve been on the Travel Channel, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Discovery Channel, in-flight magazines, and more just because I quit my job and decided I didn’t want to ever do anything boring. Now I write a column for the Slice pizza blog and Pizza Today Magazine. I judge pizza competitions across the country and travel to Italy to do research. I’d say it’s anything BUT boring!

Jonathan:  What are some of the best pizzerias in New York City?  What’s your absolute favorite?

Scott:  There are so many styles, it’s hard to give a direct answer to this question. I love slice joints like Joe’s in the Village, Pizza Suprema and Louie & Ernie’s in the Bronx, but classic whole pie places like John’s and Arturo’s are totally essential. Then there’s the Neapolitan wave, which has great options like Keste (Village) and Forcella (Brooklyn) and fluffy Sicilian slices at Ben’s in Soho and L&B in Brooklyn. I’m getting really into bakery style, which is square and usually served at room temp. You find it at bakeries, not pizzerias. I like Parisi Bakery on Elizabeth street for this style. So many places!!!

 

Jonathan:  So, say I fly into New York City tomorrow.  I want to check some of these kick ass pizzerias out, how do I get signed up to go on a Scott’s Pizza Tour?  Will you be my tour guide?

Scott:  Folks can sign up through my website at www.scottspizzatours.com, which also hosts my blog about living the pizza lifestyle. We do walking tours during the week and on Saturdays with multi-borough bus tours on Sundays only. I’m experimenting this month (October is National Pizza Month) with Pizza Safaris, which stray from our usual roundup of historic pizzerias. We did a vegan tour last week and there a gluten free tour coming up soon with a meat lovers tour to finish the month. I lead all of the bus tours and private tours plus most of the walking tours, but I have a couple other guides who are amazing and speak way better than I do.

 

Jonathan:  Scott, you and I go WAY back to the days of INFIDEL Records, the A-1 Deli, and Los Burbanks drunken shenanigans.  I remember one time I had a hankering for an old school greasy spoon diner and you drove me 2 hours into the heart of Jersey to take me to your favorite place.  You ordered only a soda, paid for my meal, and then drove me all the way back to the studio.  I’ll never forget that.

You always go the extra mile for people and make them feel special.  Do you exercise that same attitude for your pizza enthusiasts?

Scott:  Wow, I totally remember that night. What a blast! It’s really important to understand other people and I carry that through my business more importantly than anything else. People ask these great questions and, even though I may have heard the same question on every previous tour, it feels like the first time I’m explaining something like the fermentation process of dough because I know this person from Miami has never thought about it before. It’s really exciting. I genuinely have more fun doing these tours than anything else and I’m just deeply honored that people willingly spend hours of their weekends/vacations/sick days listening to me blab about pizza for 4 hours. The least I could do is make sure they’re having a great time. 

 

Jonathan:  Also during the time you were studio manager at INFIDEL Records I remember seeing a friend give you a “pizza journal” as a gift.  I remember it well, it was shaped like a slice of pizza on the front… with pieces of pepperoni and various toppings glued on as decorations.  I recall you being very excited to receive such a well thought out, hand made gift.  Was this THE pizza journal that started it all?  Who gave you that journal?

Scott:  Yeah, that was a real landmark moment. My friend Michele made me that journal and I filled it up pretty quickly. She actually made me 3 more books like that and they are all filled. I started going to too many pizzerias and couldn’t keep up with the journal entries. I was so amazed that I was visiting about 100 pizzerias per year but I hit almost 500 in 2009. Pretty amazing that now eating pizza has become my total focus. 

 

Jonathan:  Scott, one last thing before we go.  Please tell us about the tabletop game Sorry!  Tell us everything, really!

Scott: Wow, that’s a big one. My friends got really into Sorry! one summer. They even made up their own rules where players on opposite sides of the board play as partners. You can move both your pieces AND your partner’s. Instead of flipping over cards from the pile, you play with a hand of 5 cards and make your move accordingly. It’s pretty incredible and we got REALLY into it. Michele (the maker of the Pizza Journal) even made a beautiful wooden board for me for my birthday one year. It’s incredible. I made a floating board for a friend’s graduation gift. After the grad party, we hung out in the outdoor hot tub (it was January and ground was covered in snow) playing it all night long. We don’t play Sorry! so much anymore, but I kind of want to bust it out tonight. Now we’re really into Catan. But that’s a whole other story…

 

Jonathan: Well Scott, thank you so much for sitting down with NERD TREK to talk Pizza, Ferries, and Sorry!  I’ll leave you all now with a few more videos to check out of Scott doing what he loves best!  If you’re ever in NYC make sure you reserve a seat on Scott’s Pizza Tours, book early so Scott can leave a seat open for you!

 

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About Jonathan G. Nelson

Jonathan G. Nelson is the editor-in-chief and owner of NERD TREK. He is also owner/publisher at AAW Games / AdventureAWeek.com, a tabletop gaming company based in Snoqualmie, WA. Connect with Jonathan via Facebook.