Joyful 5 Boro Pizza Challenge slices into the city’s 2020 blues

Megan Schmidt and Bo Raynolds of Inwood make their third stop of the challenge on Staten Island’s Pier 76.
Photos by Alex Mitchell

Not even a pandemic could stop New York’s fifth-annual ‘5 Boro Pizza Challenge‘ – an amazing race held Saturday which demonstrates how efficient the city’s public transit system can be in the most tasteful of ways. 

Although some ingredients of the challenge had to be virtualized for the 2020 running, its objective remained clear as day: travel to and eat (at least) one slice in each of the five boroughs, using only public transit, walking, or cycling throughout the journey.

The five designated pizzerias, which were disclosed as the urban odyssey got underway at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, spanned racers from Sam’s Pizza in the Bronx’s Riverdale neighborhood to L’Industrie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, along with Pier 76 on the Staten Island waterfront in Saint George, sLICe in Astoria, Queens, and NY Pizza Suprema, next to Madison Square Square Garden in Midtown. 

The ability to efficiently navigate New York’s subways, waterways, and streets is more so the true challenge on the day as opposed to one’s swiftness with a slice – although being able to chow down quickly does come in handy.

This reporter’s plan of attack was a north-to-south approach, starting in the Bronx to Manhattan, then ferrying over to Staten Island before backtracking to Brooklyn and later crossing the proverbial finish line in Queens.

Sam’s Pizza, Bronx 11:30 a.m.

Sam’s in Riverdale.

Nothing starts your weekend like morning pizza in the Bronx.

This walk-up stand at 232 W. 231st St. embodies all the characteristics of a classic NYC slice,  achieving an ideal, middle ground ratio of cheese-to-sauce as well as doughiness-to-crispiness while still maintaining a unique and flavorful accent.

A morning slice from Sam’s in Riverdale to kick off the challenge.

Then it was off to Midtown. The only question was how to get there.

The easy answer would be taking a nearby local 1 train at 231st Street to Penn Station, however, that 22 stop trip would eat away at valuable time that could not be spared on such a rigorous day.

An 11:43 a.m. train out of nearby Marble Hill Metro-North station, a five-stop ride into Grand Central Terminal simply had to be the most optimal solution — if track work hadn’t delayed trains for up to 30 minutes that weekend.

Track work delayed Hudson Line trains at Marble Hill on Saturday.

Despite the holdup, I was still in Midtown by 12:30 p.m. and opted to walk from Grand Central to NY Pizza Suprema on 31st Street and Eighth Avenue rather than gambling again on the reliability of the subway system, especially with a transfer was needed – and it worked.

NY Pizza Suprema, Manhattan 1 p.m.

A regular slice from NY Pizza Suprema in Midtown, Manhattan.

Different from Sam’s, this slice emphasized sauce along with a sharper, more accentuated cheese with a Romano flavor and a nice crispy crust that stuck out above all else. The shop at 413 Eighth Ave. also offered some great Italian tunes, such as “Volare” by Dean Martin, that was a welcome back to indoor dining, even if it was only for a few minutes.

Next, there was a ferry to be caught en route to Staten Island from Manhattan’s southernmost tip.

As the free, Staten Island Ferry runs half-hourly on weekends, catching the 2 p.m. to Saint George was a make-or-break moment on the culinary adventure.

I quickly dashed to Herald Square to pick up a southbound R or W train to Whitehall Street only to wait eight crucial minutes for the next available train.

That R train got me downtown at 1:56 p.m. and onboard the ferry just as doors were being closed. Never have I believed more that one can will the impossible while commuting throughout New York City.

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry’s stern.

The next stop was only a short walk from the SI Ferry Terminal in Saint George and certainly one of the day’s most pleasant experiences.

Pier 76, Staten Island 2:45 p.m.

A regular slice from Pier 76.

This pizza summated the argument that it is sinful to exclude Staten Island from the city’s top-ranking slices and pies.

Saucey with a surplus of fresh cheese and a crispy, thin-crust, recently reopened Pier 76 of 76 Bay Street has the kind of pizza that perks up the taste buds and one’s mood. It’s sweet, tomato and mozzarella flavor along with crunchy texture certainly give non-islanders a reason to hop on a boat for their next night out.

While there, two other competitors, Megan Schmidt and Bo Raynolds of Inwood were also scarfing down their third slices of the race.

They opted to cycle throughout the journey while decked in 5 Boro Pizza Challenge attire, also starting in the Bronx and moving downward to Manhattan and Staten Island.

Another ferry ride brought me back to Manhattan by 4 p.m., and soon I was off on the J train from Broad Street toward Williamsburg. After enjoying a scenic view over the Williamsburg Bridge on a J train, it was time to depart on Marcy Avenue march northbound some blocks towards 254 S Second St. for slice four.

L’Industrie, Brooklyn 4:50 p.m.

The takeout window L’Industrie’ in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In the interest of time, I took my Margherita slice on the go since the final leg of my journey required a good stretch of walking along with three subway rides to Astoria.

The basil loaded slice had a darkened and crispy crust with a slimming amount of cheese that traveled well towards the Metropolitan Avenue G train station.

A slice to go from L’Industrie in Williamsburg.

Now in the final stretch, it was my goal to clock-in before sundown – one which was at the mercy of the New York City Subway system.

After riding the Queens-bound G to the end of the line at Court Square, I had a one-stop transfer on the 7 train to Queensboro Plaza where I planned on picking up either an N or W Ditmars Boulevard bound subway to 30th Avenue in a ‘bing, bang, boom’ style maneuver.

Despite a 15 minute delay for the N train, I still reached sLICe at 37-08 30th Avenue before the sun set Saturday.

sLICe, Queens 6:15

A Margherita slice from sLICe in Astoria to conclude the 5 Boro Pizza Challenge.

The moment we’ve all greatly anticipated had arrived with the bite of a succulent Margherita slice in a spacious and quiet backyard seating area in Queens.

That slice was rich in cheese, sauce, and the taste of victory that came with conquering the 5 Boro Pizza Challenge in under seven hours.

Although that time was just shy of the contest’s winner, Brian Pinkston who had clocked in minutes before 2:30 p.m., there was still a lot to feel optimistic about – especially seeing small businesses and eateries fighting the good fight and being greatly patronized in combat of COVID-19.

Despite connotations, it is very possible to flexibly move throughout New York City through its public transit system; competing in the 5 Boro Pizza Challenge also opens one’s eyes to how efficient their own legs can be as well.

Even while wearing a mask, walking over seven miles throughout the day in between pizzerias and transit junction proved the most expedient manner of travel on the day and certainly helped to keep an appetite between slices.

Being out and about during the 5 Boro Pizza Challenge also served to be a tangible reminder that New York City is alive, well, and will recover from this mess of a year one slice at a time.