Scarr’s – new royalty in the NYC pizza world14.12.2018
New York City, the long champion of pizza, has embraced the renaissance of this iconic dish. Pizza is having a moment right now in the hearts and stomachs of New Yorkers. This includes not only the traditional old school NY style slice, but also many regional versions as well, including Detroit and Chicago. But pizza is not only just food – it’s a lifestyle, an obsession and a passion championed by a few up-and-coming figures on the NY culinary scene.
I set out to meet Scarr Pimentel of Scarr’s Pizza – one of the bad boys and new royalty in the NYC pizza world – to see what makes pizza so good and increasingly sexy these days.
Erik: You came up with some of the greatest pizza establishments in New York City. What’s your history?
Scarr: I was born and raised in New York City. At 15, I was a knucklehead, but I needed a job. I wanted to work at Lombardi’s (ed. note: first pizza place in USA, established in 1905 in Manhattan). My best friend’s mother was working there as the General Manager at the time, so she put me in touch. They didn’t necessarily want me initially, cause we were like family, still are to this day. I suppose if I’d done something wrong, it would’ve been awkward to fire me. After I didn’t get the job at Lombardi’s, I began working at Milano’s. Then, I had to get out of New York for a second. I went down to Miami for a few months and when I came back, Lombardi’s gave me a shot. I started out working the phones. Back then, every order came through the phone lines. My first day was Superbowl Sunday – that’s the busiest day of the year!
Trial by fire.
(Laughs) After they saw what I could handle, they put me on the floor as a server. That’s when I met Ariel, the head pizza guy at the time. He was just out of jail, making pies and dating one of our family friends. He and another guy took turns teaching me how to work the ovens and make pies. I’ve always loved working in restaurants. I like the camaraderie, I like being around people. Back then, restaurants were like an extension of someone’s living room. I fell in love with that world and knew I wanted to have my own place someday. I developed a real interest in how pizza is made and stayed at Lombardi’s for six years. From there, I jumped over to this place called L’asso on Mott and Kenmare. That’s where I learned to make wood-fired pizza. I worked there around four years before they closed. From there, I jumped over to Artichoke and helped them open up their second location on 14th street. Those guys taught me a lot. The owners, Fran and Sal, are actually really good dudes. After Artichoke was up and running, I did some consulting with Joe’s Pizza and helped them open a second location as well.
You went from serving pizza, to making pizza, to consulting pizzeria owners on how to run their businesses?
Exactly – in terms of building out, logistics and so forth. I saw it as an opportunity to work with their old guard pizza guys. In those years, I saw Joe’s as the last real Manhattan slice shop.
Folks are like: I’ll just have this 99 cent slice, this shitty burger, this cheap hot dog and work it off tomorrow at the gym. It doesn’t work that way. Once that shit is in you, it’s too late and you’re fucked.
So what lead you here, to your place?
When I was at Joe’s I realized I wanted to open my own slice shop, but I didn’t wanna do the same thing Joe was doing. I wanted to do something… different. Before opening here I helped open Emmet’s (ed. note: well-known NYC restaurant). One day, I was testing out burger recipes with Emmett at his restaurant and he looked up and said, “Why does a burger have to be bad for you? Think about it. It’s protein, grains…the ingredients just need to be of higher quality all around”. That was when it clicked for me. Our cancer rates are at an all time high and it’s because of what we eat. Folks are like, “I’ll just have this 99 cent slice, this shitty burger, this cheap hot dog and work it off tomorrow at the gym”. It doesn’t work that way. Once that shit is in you, it’s too late and you’re fucked. And nobody was offering a thoughtfully sourced, health-conscious slice in New York. I did a lot of research, bought a stone mill and started grinding my own flour. In the beginning, we milled 100% of our own flour, but business kept pickin’ up, pickin’ up, so I had to find an offsite space for milling. I found a spot upstate that mills organic, non-GMO flour for us. We also started milling our own tomatoes, but seasons are problematic obviously. We sourced tomatoes from California and New Jersey, but when winter came we were bringing them in from Mexico and they sucked.
So did you have to start jarring your own tomatoes?
No, it was too much work with our time constraints. We started buying Otto’s from Italy, but they were a little too acidic. People have this assumption that tomatoes from Italy are better. Maybe when you’re in Italy they’re better or the cheese is better, but once imported they’re just too old.
People no longer understand that grains are good for you, so they start this whole gluten-free movement claiming that wheat is making you sick. It’s not that wheat is bad for you, it’s the wheat you’re using.
When did you open here on Orchard street?
We opened March 1st, 2016. It’s been about 2,5 years.
So the concept is a slice shop, a little retro, with an emphasis on sustainability and a badass, natural wine list ?
Exactly. Everything is organic. People are always asking, “Why do you go through such a hassle to make something so simple?”. People no longer understand that grains are good for you, so they start this whole gluten-free movement claiming that wheat is making you sick. It’s not that wheat is bad for you, it’s the wheat you’re using. It’s the way grains in America are produced that’s bad for you.
I have a daughter who’s gluten-free, not because of celiac. When she eats American wheat, she has acne breakouts. We went to Europe recently and she had no reaction, to your point exactly. I didn’t fully realize your specific ethos behind Scarr’s.
We're eco-friendly, everything’s recyclable, our to-go containers are biodegradable, no plastic bags, no plastic cups.
Your “bad boy” image is starting to diminish a little bit...
I could be a bad boy in the sense of doing what nobody else is doing. From the outside, Scarr’s looks like a Toyota Corolla, but inside it’s a humming Lamborghini. A sleeper car, sleeper slice shop!
I didn’t go into this to get cool points. I’ve always been myself. I like doing this because I like to see people enjoying themselves.
You were recently voted Best Slice on the Lower East Side?
The City. Best Slice in New York. I don’t pay for PR. They came to me with those results, I didn’t enter some competition. I was just like, “Alright, thanks!”. People see all these skaters and artists coming in and think it’s cause we’re “cool.” No. They come in cause it’s fucking good and they know how we source our food and they respect it. We don’t make as much as everybody else. I keep prices to a minimum because I want these kids to eat better.
They might initially come in for the cool-factor… then realize how good it all is and keep coming back.
I didn’t go into this to get cool points. I’ve always been myself. I like doing this because I like to see people enjoying themselves. If I don’t do anything else for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy knowing I’m not cutting corners and I’m making better food.
Upon opening, was the shop an immediate success? How did it get to where it is today?
It wasn’t immediate. We had a lot of friends coming in to keep us afloat. Now some of the most famous chefs in the world come and eat here all the time, they have their birthday parties here, they know what’s good. Even before the fashion spreaded and we were featured in some articles or reviews, chefs had been impressed by what we do and wanted to support us. To be completely honest, it’s mostly thanks to them that we stayed open. A lot of word of mouth among the “respected food world.”
Switching gears a bit, I saw on social media that you’ve partnered with Carhartt to release a line of streetwear apparel – how did this all come about?
We’re collaborating on some pieces for WIP, Carhartt’s high-end streetwear division. We’re also teaming up on apparel with our friends over at Stray Rats. I'm friends with Julian and Jeremy of Stray Rats, their office is two blocks away. They started coming in and I thought, “This guy Julian, why is he so familiar?”. Turns out, going back to my knucklehead days, Julian and I went to the same high school in Miami, back when I had to get out of New York for a while. Now that’s fucking crazy! No one leaves that suburb of Miami, nobody does anything with their lives. You either get a government job or try to get arrested. Julian made it out!
Sure, hype helps build clientele, a fan base, but it also dilutes. You get more one and done types. People who don’t know us don’t understand it.
He made it out, bumps into you on the street here and you put out a clothing line together? That’s fractal mathematics!
We hit it off immediately. I didn’t grow up in Miami, but I understand the culture of it. We’re both Latinos, I'm Dominican and he’s Cuban and Colombian. We get along really well, like family.
It does seem like pizza is having a moment right now. There’s a vibe, it’s in the zeitgeist. Pizza’s been granted a sexy new angle and I think your slice shop is a prime example. Is pizza the hot chick at the dance right now?
(Laughs) I think it is and I think it isn’t. I don’t post filtered photos of my pizza on Instagram. There’s like two photos of our pizza on there and it’s not even ours! Despite that, a lot of people discover us through social media, lump us in with the vibe you’re feeling. We have celebrity buddies who’ll post stuff. We don’t tell them to, they do it on their own. Sure, hype helps build clientele, a fan base, but it also dilutes. You get more one and done types. People who don’t know us don’t understand it – we don’t do gimmicks.
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