New York City’s world-famous pizza has many virtues, and one of them has always been that it’s cheap. But not as cheap as it used to be! And now we have definitive proof of that, thanks to 32-year-old freelance reporter Liam Quigley. The source of his data is rather unconventional: Quigley has been logging every slice of pizza he personally has eaten in New York for the last eight years—that’s 494 slices—and he recently unveiled his trove of stats and charts, including an interactive map and searchable spreadsheet of every single slice, for all the internet to peruse. Surely the Nobel Prize committee will ring him up any day now, but since he needed something to keep himself occupied in the meantime, Quigley agreed to speak to me about his devastating findings. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: How does one get started on a path toward collecting years of data about their personal pizza consumption?
Liam Quigley: I live in Brooklyn. I was born in Manhattan. And like many New York City kids, pizza was kind of like your go-to lunchtime snack. That never really changed for me. I only left New York once to go to college in Baltimore. Since then, I’ve lived in the city, and I still eat a lot of pizza, so I thought: Why not document it in a useful way? People have a lot of opinions about pizza and I thought the price was a really useful piece of data to have, especially when you don’t have a lot of money in your pocket.
Do you have any formal pizza credentials?
I think I probably eat only slightly above the average amount of pizza. I delivered pies for Best Pizza, which is kind of an upscale—would people say hipster, is it a hipster place? It was good pizza, but expensive. I used to deliver pizza for them and do very basic stuff in the back like making the pizza boxes. That was 2012 to 2014. I’m not a pizza expert. I’m just a guy who likes a good slice.
How did you choose what pizza to include, and how did you make sure you got enough data?
I didn’t have a set number goal, but I knew there are a lot of really good slices in the city. I just wanted to see that map fill up with dots of slices that were good and places that were bad, just to have a record.
Looking at the map now, I think I could have done Staten Island more justice. I’ve only owned a car for like two out of the last eight years. And then I sold my car already again. So you know, I’m sorry, Staten Island. And I think I could have covered more ground in Queens and the Bronx. But you know, I never went out specifically to add a slice. These are all slices that I got either when I was reporting or working or doing something else or visiting a friend, maybe with the exception of one or two spots. These are all places that I organically was hanging out.
I think most New Yorkers, we eat a decent amount of pizza. You can walk in and you can kind of tell if the slice is going to be decent. So sometimes you’ll walk in and you’ll see, like, “Ugh, that slice does not look appetizing.” But the rule, what the rule was: I gotta add it to the map.
But you didn’t want to distinguish on your map between good and bad?
No, because that just gets into such a slippery slope with the ratings. I’ve seen some people’s opinions on pizza that I really disagree with, and I’m sure people would disagree with my things. No one can disagree that the slice costs $1.50.
How did you keep track of your data? With pizza, you’re often paying in cash, you don’t get a receipt, and then you have this hot, greasy food in your hand—
I get the slice. I take the picture, post to Instagram with the price, add the location on the Instagram post, so now I’ve got the location, the price, and the photo and the date. Then later I export all that data to a spreadsheet. And then I geolocate, or whatever that expression is, those addresses into latitude and longitude, and then there you go. The only problem really was when Instagram—I hate Instagram so much—started removing locations without telling me. I would diligently tag the location. I go back a year later, and all these locations are missing. It took me several hours to restore that lost data that Instagram removed.
Instagram sucks. This has been a dream of mine, to lambaste Instagram in the press.
I thought it was interesting that you excluded dollar slices from your data. Do you consider a regular slice of pizza and a dollar slice of pizza two completely different things?
Yes, totally. I think that’s exactly it. I remember when Two Bros. first started, it was really good. Everybody was going there because it was really affordable. And they had a lot of volume. So the slices will be really fresh, even if they weren’t quite as good as your average slice. But I think the average dollar-slice quality has plummeted over the past decade, and with it, it’s kind of dragged down the average quality of regular slices.
One reaction I’ve seen to this is that you didn’t actually eat all that much pizza.
That’s a fair criticism. I mean, remember, I didn’t include places—like if I have a go-to spot and I’m eating a slice of pizza there like eight times over a year, but I’ve already put a photo of that place once in the beginning of the year, that’s not getting uploaded. And number of pies are not getting uploaded. So every time I order a pie to my house or a friend’s house, that’s not getting included.
Did you start to see signs of inflation in your data from the last year?
Yeah, the last year, everything got expensive. It feels like it’s risen more dramatically. I think that’s fair to say. Like a new place will open up and I walked in and I was charged $3.81 in August. For just a slice.
Why did you decide to end the project?
I was getting tired of it. I was getting tired of eating bad pizza, and I think it’s in a good place to close the data down. The average slice did actually hit $3 at the end of 2022. It’s now $3—it’s not connected with the subway fare thing anymore.
You’re referring to the “pizza principle,” the idea that in New York, a slice of pizza and a subway ride will always cost roughly the same amount. (The current subway fare in New York is $2.75 per ride.) Do you think that’s a good principle?
I like the idea of it, but I’d prefer if public transit was free. I think the subway fare should be free for everyone. And I hope it doesn’t go up. I’m sure it probably will. I’m sure someone at the MTA is only half-joking when they say, “Hey, did you read this article in Slate? We’ll get less backlash to raising the fare next year.”
How much does a slice have to cost for you to consider it outrageous?
If I go to a random pizza spot in Queens and I’m like, “How much is a plain slice?” and they’re like $3.50 or $3.75, I’m gonna look at it and be like, “Really, bro?” But if it looks good, I’ll still buy it. I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s like to run a business in the city. If I walk in a place now and it’s a plain slice and it’s $4.50—whereas last year, I would kind of be obligated to buy it—I’m definitely walking out the door unless it’s an amazing-looking slice.
What would you say is your ideal slice of pizza?
No more than $3, with a good amount of sauce and really good cheese. And really good crust. A lot of places don’t have enough sauce on their slices. And it has to be fresh. Ideally it came out of the oven like 13½ minutes ago.
Now that you don’t have to go to all these different places, where are you going to go for pizza?
If I’m in Jamaica, in Queens, Margherita on Jamaica Avenue is amazing. Near the beach in the summer, Pizza D’Amore on Beach 116th St. is so good. Joe’s Pizza, I know some people don’t like it, but I think Joe’s Pizza is really good.* Bleecker Street Pizza’s really good. And Sunnyside Pizza, though I’m not over there that often. And then I like Mario’s in Fort Greene. I like to order delivery from them.
How do you plan to address any haters of your project that might emerge?
Maybe I’ll go live on Instagram, late at night. No, no, it’s been good. Someone asked me how my waistline correlated, and I said it was 29 inches when I started and 32 inches now. That might just be getting older.
Correction, Jan. 23, 2023: This piece originally misquoted Liam Quigley as saying Pizza D’Amore is on East 116th St. It is on Beach 116th St.