The Five Borough Pizza Challenge is much more than just a foodie’s quest to slice out some territory in each corner of New York City…as a matter of fact having pizza time is the easiest part of the day.
Its true contest is in traveling throughout the five boroughs without driving a single block, instead having to rely on a hybrid of public transit, walking, and even bicycling for many competitive triatha-eaters that signed up for this amazing race.
Promoting use of the city’s public transit is actually why and how the annual challenge, which completed its fourth running on Sept. 28, had originally begun.
“A friend of mine and I thought one day, ‘let’s see if we can hit each borough for a slice,’ and we traveled around the city only using buses, ferries, subways, bikes, the works,” said the challenge’s organizer, Joe Cutrufo.
After a few successful runs he decided to open it up to the public, donating its proceeds to Transportation Alternatives to raise awareness of the car-less transit options in NYC.
In the name of good and honest journalism, I joined the 175 esteemed challengers on the prowl for pizza via public transit that weekend, ambitious to put my navigational skills to the test.
The day began in Lower Manhattan at Isamu Noguchi’s iconic ‘Red Cube’ sculpture on Broadway; that’s where the unknown five pizzerias scattered throughout the boroughs were finally disclosed to us racers.
My objective was to scarf down slices at Puglsey Pizza in the Bronx, Paulie’s Pizzeria on Staten Island, Rizzo’s Fine Pizza in Queens, Norm’s Pizza in Brooklyn, and Manhattan’s Sophia Pizza Shoppe, all before a rendez-vous at the Financial District’s Clinton Hall to cross the proverbial finish line.
My strategy was to start in the Bronx, span southbound to Staten Island, then over to Brooklyn and Queens, finally returning to Manhattan hopefully by nightfall.
The trip to and from Pugsley’s in Belmont via Metro North was seamless and a very energetic way to start the challenge all bright and bushy eyed at 11:30 a.m. It was there that nearby Fordham students celebrating the University’s fall fest were more than amused by the antics of Salvatore behind the counter while he served up one of the best pies in the Bronx’s Little Italy.
After another trip on MNR, I took the 4 train (which was only making local stops) to the Bowling Green subway station, where I walked on board the Staten Island Ferry’s 1:30 p.m. departure. Following the cost-free, breathtaking ride of Lower New York Harbor, I jumped on the S51 bus to Stapleton since the Staten Island rail wasn’t running. I got to Paulie’s by around 2:15 p.m. and took my slice on the go, knowing that if I missed the 3 p.m. ferry back then my chances of winning would be burnt to a crisp.
Fortunately, I did make it on time, returning to the bustling downtown Manhattan by just after 3:30 p.m. The rest of my trek wouldn’t be as time consuming; I reached Norm’s Pizza outside of the MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn after two quick stops on the R train in roughly 15 minutes. After very friendly conversations with the staff while scarfing down one of their sourdough margherita slices, I jumped back on that same subway line, heading to Steinway Street in Astoria. That second to last stop officially marking the fifth borough I was in on not only the day, but about six hours.
While the MTA uses construction as an excuse for poor service, Rizzo’s did not. The pizzeria’s ongoing revamp had no impact on its exquisite square, Sicilian style slice, which I enjoyed at around 5:15 p.m.
No time to sit and digest my fourth of the day though, I was on an ongoing mission. After jumping on an E train that was running as an F train at Steinway, I reached Sophia Pizza Shoppe on the Upper East Side by 6 p.m., where I concluded the challenge with one final margherita slice. I quickly got some iced coffee after to lend as much support to my enzymes as humanly possible after doing what many perceived as impossible.
I jumped on a 5 train from 51st Street after taking a leisurely pseudo-victory lap before reaching Wall Street and Clinton Hall, where I spoke with Cutrufo and fellow organizer Shannon Moriarty.
They told me I finished in the top 60 contestants as I stood holding the challenge’s iconic, wooden pizza peel, feeling proud of my achievement as a first-timer.
“The top finishers actually bike most of the race,” Cutrufo explained, mentioning that this running was the Five Borough Pizza Challenge’s largest turnout yet.
Even if you were like me and didn’t muster up the courage to bike under the influence of five slices of pizza, public transit did its job for the most part.
“The trains were running on time and it was a beautiful day for biking, everyone that finished said they had a blast,” Moriarty proudly boasted.
All in all, it was an exhilarating challenge and you can guarantee that I’ll be gunning for first place in 2020.
See more about the Five Borough Pizza Challenge on Schneps Media’s television show, The BX Express on BronxNet TV, Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. and streaming online anytime at bronxnet.org.