People standing around, waiting for a door to open is not an unusual sight in Manhattan, but usually the door opens onto a sample sale or a chic nightclub – not a pizza parlor. So why are 32 people dawdling in front of Lombardi’s in NoLIta on a Sunday morning, some arriving as early as 9 a.m., when the doors don’t open until 11:30? Are they pizza addicts? Perhaps.
The group is waiting to begin Scott’s Pizza Tour, a 4.5-hour bus trip. Every tour is different, but today the group will sample pizza from four of New York’s 1,600 established pizzerias. After Lombardi’s, the group will stop in Luzzo’s in the East Village, followed by J&V in Bensonhurst, before finishing in Sam’s in Cobble Hill.
At 10:50 a.m., the side door of Lombardi’s swings open with a loud clatter as Scott Wiener, bounds towards the group. Dressed casually in a grey, “Scott’s Pizza Tour” hoodie, standard blue jeans and sneakers, he looks more like a casual college student working a weekend job than a 31-year-old pizza expert – but then, what does a pizza expert look like?
Armed with his clipboard and a pizza slice shaped pen, he begins to check off the names, quizzing everyone’s pizza habits as he goes along. “When was the last time you had a slice of pizza?” he asks as he checks off the first couple. “Where’s your favorite pizza spot?” he says to the next group.
As Scott approaches a young couple, his face lights up and he clasps the hand of Ryan Vasan with extra vigor. Ryan is back for the second time with his girlfriend, Liesel Finn. “I’m a doctor and the last time we came, I was called out to the hospital twice,” he explains. “I took Liesel’s parents when they were in town. They enjoyed it so much we had to come back.”
Scott ushers the group inside, pacing on the spot as he waits for the last few to gather around. His dark eyes are animated behind plain and practical glasses as he begins to ream off information about the history of the pizzeria, gesticulating back and forth from the oven to the dining room. Founded in 1897, Lombardi’s claims to be the oldest pizzeria in New York.
After the short lecture, the group takes their seats and waits for their first slice. Scott has laid out a “pizza tour survival kit,” at each place setting. The set includes a notepad and pen –for pizza notes– breath fresheners and other pizza gimmicks, making many of the adults as excited as Hayden, 8, the youngest member of the group. When the first slice is brought out, Scott asks the group to note their thoughts on the crust, sauce and cheese for later discussion. Jim Carver is using his pizza notepad to analyze his friend, Gary Hudes’ reactions to the slice. Gary, 58, organized a group of twelve friends from Long Island to take the tour. “All he eats is chicken, hamburgers and pizza,” says Jim as Gary picks the basil off his slice. “His daughter said she’s never seen him more excited for anything before.”
“I had to diet the whole week so my wife would let me go,” adds Gary, who recently underwent a heart stent procedure.
With the first slice down, the group makes it’s way towards Bowery where a bright yellow school bus is waiting to take them to Luzzo’s on 1st Avenue and 13th Street. Riding a yellow school bus was also one of the motivations for Scott to begin the pizza business.
“When Scott was young, he was obsessed with the idea of owning a yellow school bus,” his brother, Jon explains. “The school bus has always been part of what he wanted in his future, as strange as that may sound.”
Scott grew up in Cranford, New Jersey, the middle child in a house of three boys. “He always loved pizza, but Scott never does anything just to do it, says his mother, Andrea Wiener. “He wants to know why it is and how it is.”
Scott studied television in college, attending the University of Syracuse, which he describes as a pizza wasteland. “I don’t remember eating any pizza that I really loved in college,” he says. “I sort of got into pizza because I was deprived of it.”
After college, he worked for the city of Hoboken while trying to forge his path in the music industry. But, a curious living situation enabled him to begin his pizza business. “I was the caretaker on Yankee, the only surviving Ellis Island immigrant ferry for three years,” he says. “Living on that boat without having to pay rent, that’s when I started doing the pizza tour.”
Scott started the business in 2008 after taking his friends on a pizza bus tour for his 26th birthday. “Even when it was an amateur thing it was very well organized,” says Jeff Rubin, Scott’s childhood friend, who was on the first tour. “Everyone knew we were coming.”
In the beginning, even his parents wondered what to make of the idea. “I guess our thoughts were, how is he going to make a living doing this?” says Andrea Wiener. “We were a little taken a back but we had confidence that if it could be done, he would be the one to do it.”
Despite his parent’s initial apprehension, the tour business has been growing steadily since the first tour on April 27th, 2008. Scott now hosts tours seven days a week for the public, as well as private groups. He offers three tour variations, a crosstown and a Greenwich Village walking tour, which cost $38 each, as well as the bus tour, which costs $60. Over the years, Scott has built a rapport with many of the pizzerias. “I never really ask for a discount but if they offer it, I will gladly take it,” he says. “I don’t go to pizzerias because of discounts. There’s a place in the Bronx I go. It’s very expensive and I would love a discount but it’s never come up in our relationship.”
At Luzzo’s, Ashley Zayat, 23, and her fiancée, Jay Steinmitz, 24, are timing the cooking of the first pizza. As a New York native, Jay is a big pizza fan and while Ashley is indifferent to the cuisine, she bought the tickets for him as a four-year anniversary present. “It’s pay back for the Sex and The City tour she made me go one,” he says, raising his right eyebrow.
The pizza takes just 1 minute and 40 seconds to cook and after everyone has eaten their slice, Scott leads a discussion about the difference between Luzzo’s and Lombardi’s – Lombardi’s crust being crispier and Luzzo’s sauce being sweeter.
Walking back to the bus, Jay turns to the tall man beside him, “I wish it was one pie per place, not just one slice,” he says. “I know I’m still hungry,” says the man, playfully patting his stomach.
With an increased demand in tours, Scott has recently expanded his force of pizza experts for the busy summer season. Matching Scott’s own enthusiasm and expertise is not easy and the hiring process was difficult until he met Miriam Weiskind, 32. “It was love at first slice,” she jokes. “Like two friends finding one another, we’re pizza soul mates.”
A graphic designer by day, Miriam, was not a pizza expert before meeting Scott but she shared his passion. As a two-time winner of the New York City Pizza Run – a four-lap race around Tompkins Square Park with a slice of pizza to eat after each lap –she is a minor celebrity in the pizza world. “Being a triathlete I can eat a lot of pizza, but I try to limit myself to 10 slices a week,” she says.
Like Miriam, Scott also monitors his pizza intake. “He limits himself to 15 slices a week – which is still ridiculous,” his brother, Jon says. Scott admits that he frequently goes over this number but has learned to counter balance his pizza habits. “Every morning, I start with a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and apple,” he says. “At night, I eat a lot of vegetables.”
Scott’s healthy attitude stems from Jon, who became a vegan four years ago after moving to the West Coast. “I was one of those vegetarians who said I would totally be vegan if it wasn’t for pizza and ice cream,” he jokes.
At first, Jon was reticent to tell Scott about his dietary change. “I was concerned because pizza is his life,” he says. “It was the most difficult thing, telling Scott that I wasn’t going to eat cheese anymore.”
Jon’s change in diet has only supplemented Scott’s interest in the variety of pizza available and the pair has co-hosted a number of vegan tours when Jon is in town. “There’s nothing about pizza that is strictly dairy or strictly anything,” says Scott. “In essence, it’s bread with something on top of it.”
The bread at the third stop, J&V pizzeria, looks like a fluffy pillow of cheese and tomato. A square Sicilian slice, it’s airy and thicker than the Neapolitan pies offered at Lombardi’s and Luzzo’s. The effects of cheese and dough have finally taken hold of the group who amble back to the bus, eyes glazed in a pizza stupor. “This is usually the time that people take a quick nap before the last stop,” Scott says, eyeing the group with a grin. Indeed, the bus is quiet apart from the occasional chortle from Gary Hudes and his rambunctious cohort.
With Scott’s hectic schedule, most of his time is consumed with pizza related activities. Aside from the tour, he is also writing a book about pizza boxes. Scott has been collecting boxes for over five years and stores over 460 in his closet. Many of the tourists who take the pizza tour send him boxes when they return home. “I have a really great knock off The Simpsons box from the Netherlands, that’s one of my favorites. It’s a really bizarre box.”
Scott’s friends also share his passion for pizza. Jeff Rubin attended the International Pizza Expo – the largest and longest running pizza trade show with over 6,500 participants – with Scott in 2007. “This wasn’t even his job yet,” he says. “The company we were listed under was Scott’s Pizza Journal, which was just a journal where Scott tested every pizzeria he went to.”
Jon also met Scott at the “Holy Land of pizza” and was astounded by his reputation within the pizza community. “He was a celebrity, people wanted his attention, everyone knew who he was,” he says. “For someone who’s not an owner of a pizzeria that’s kind of a big thing.”
When Scott isn’t busy with work, he enjoys playing board games, like Settlers of Catan with his friends. “We don’t go out partying a lot,” says Jeff.
As well as his childhood friends, Scott has formed relationships with many of the employees in the pizzerias. “When I go and socialize with people in the pizza industry that’s when I feel at home,” he says. “We have a funny camaraderie.”
The interaction between Louis Migliaccio and Scott at the final stop, Sam’s, realizes this sentiment. Dressed in a white polo shirt with a packet of cigarettes hanging from the breast pocket and a gold link chain dangling around his neck, Louis exudes Italian American charm. He slouches in the corner, arms crossed, as Scott talks the guests through the 85-year-old pizzeria. Louis attempts to interrupt and disagree with Scott about the oil consistency of the fresh mozzarella cheese, which Scott brushes aside. “My father opened this place in the 30’s but Scott, he always has to be right,” says Louis with a quick wink.
As the bus pulls back onto Bowery and the group begins to gather their belongings, Scott checks to see which pizzeria came out on top, with the votes split almost evenly between the four places.
But what about Scott, the expert, he has to have a favorite pizzeria, right? “I’ve probably been to over 3,000 places, so it’s difficult to choose,” he says.
“He gets that question a lot, but Scott is too diplomatic to pick one,” says Jeff Rubin. “He probably has a dozen maybe 20 favorites. I don’t think he could ever pick just one.”
Operating a pizza tour business may sound unorthodox to many people. Yet, it takes courage to pursue your passions, let alone make a profitable career out of them and Scott has managed to do just that. As his brother, Jon says, “Scott’s not your ordinary guy.”