Two years ago, Scarr’s Pizza took the Lower East Side by storm. With a prime location at 22 Orchard Street, it’s hard to miss this tiny 750 square foot slice-oriented shop with a little bar in the back. From its decor that looks straight out of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, to the steady beats from the latest hyped rap album bumping out of the speakers, the place stands out in an area that’s known for trendsetting. But what really makes Scarr’s special is the community of people that gather there. Once you’re a local, you’re a local and treated as such. It’s the type of place where you can expect to strike up a conversation with other people sitting at the counter, and you’re bound to make a new friend or two. And considering the array of downtown creative types that have made Scarr’s their home away from home—like the Stray Rats crew—this is most definitely a good thing.
But it’s what’s under the hood of Scarr’s Pizza that is most impressive. Scarr Pimentel, 39, is from Harlem and grew up on old New York slices—the kind that, according to Scarr, don’t really exist anymore. He cut his teeth in the culinary world at some of New York’s most famous pizzerias including: Emilio’s Ballato, Lombardi’s, Artichoke, L’asso, and Joe’s. In short, he knows what makes a good pizza. Scarr also knows quality, and sources the freshest ingredients to create his 100 percent organic pies. He even goes as far as milling his own flour to make the dough and doesn’t advertise it either. This attention to detail is a sharp contrast to other pizza shops in the neighborhood famous for the dollar slice.
Whether it’s the location, aesthetic, quality, or a combination of all three, Scarr’s is clearly doing something right. It received an award for Best Cheese Slice 2018 from Bon Appetit, has been featured on Munchies’ Chef’s Night Out, and is typically so packed during peak hours that you can’t even get inside. But none of that really matters to Scarr. He’s more concerned with creating a quality product at an affordable price and fostering an atmosphere that makes his shop a favorite hangout amongst locals. And that ethos is at the core of the “it” factor that makes Scarr’s special. Considering the shop literally popped up out of nowhere in the pizza capital of the world to become recognized citywide, I figured I’d pop in and find out how it all went down from the man himself.
LELAND WARE: Where are you from originally, and how did you get involved with food, specifically pizza?
SCARR PIMENTEL: Long Island City and Uptown. My first job ever was at Emilio’s Ballato. I was 16 or 17. That’s how I met the owner of Lombardi’s. He was one of the regular customers. My best friend growing up’s mom was the GM of Lombardi’s at the time too. They didn’t want me working there for whatever reason. So she asked Emilio to give me a job. He liked me, so I started working over there. Back then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. Obviously, I was a kid. But I fell in love with the restaurant industry being at Ballato’s. Everyone knows it now, but back in the day, nobody really knew it. It was like, celeb hangout. It’s always been. But nobody really knew about it until recently.
What famous people were coming in when you were working at Ballato’s as a youngster?
Lenny Kravitz, L.A. Reid, Jack Newfield—he used to be a writer for the Post—Mayor Giuliani. David Bowie and Iman used to go there a lot.
You really got to witness what the food and beverage world could be at an early age. Where did you go from there
From there, I left the city for a couple of years. Then, I came back and started working at Lombardi’s. That’s when I knew I wanted to do a pizza spot. People don’t know this, but Lombardi’s is the first licensed pizzeria in the United States. Back in the day, it was amazing. When I worked there, the pizza was insane. I don’t know about now. I haven’t had it in a long time. But a long time ago, it was probably the best in the city.
So you kind of learned pizza...
Working over there. One of my family friends was a pizza maker there. He was a Puerto Rican guy. I can’t remember his name. He did a bid. And when he got out, he needed a job. So he started making pizza there. I saw what he was doing and became curious. He taught me a little bit about what he was doing while he was working there during the day. Then, the other guys that were making pizza were showing me stuff here and there as well. I would watch them make it. Then, I started practicing on my own. After that, I started working at other pizza shops like Artichoke, L’asso, and Joe’s. I learned a lot at Joe’s for sure. I figured out that this is what I wanted to do, and just went with it.
When did you get the vision for Scarr’s?
I got the vision a year or two before we signed our lease. I knew I wanted to do a slice shop. But I didn’t want to be like a Joe’s. I wanted to kick it up another level and be different from everyone else. That’s when I started experimenting and researching bread—trying to make it healthier. I was reading about different flour and nutrients. But I also wanted it to be by the slice. I didn’t want it to be a little bougie spot where you come in and order pies only; and they’re tiny-ass pizzas for $20, $30, and up. I wanted it to be accessible to everybody. If you’ve got three or four dollars in your pocket, you can afford to come in here and eat. And you’re eating really good, because I use the best ingredients in the world.
When did Scarr’s open?
Two years ago, we just turned two a couple of months ago.
The location on Orchard in the LES is incredible. How did you find it?
I’ve been working downtown on and off for 20 years. I knew a lot of people down here. A lot of the people Uptown that I grew up with aren’t around anymore. I’ve still got family that lives up there. But for some reason, opening the shop up there didn’t feel right. People always ask me why I didn’t open it up there. I don’t know. I just like it down here better. Growing up here, Downtown has always been the center of the universe for cool shit. When I was Uptown, I would hang out with my boys. But we would always come back down here. So it just made sense to me. I wanted to be in a neighborhood that needed good pizza. I’ve lived down here for the past 10 years. There’s not really any good pizza around here. There’s nothing like the pizza that I grew up eating. So I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.”
“If you’ve got three or four dollars in your pocket, you can afford to come in here and eat. And you’re eating really good, because I use the best ingredients in the world.”
What was the process for opening once you found the location?
I found the spot eight months before I signed the lease. But they were asking crazy money for the space. I was looking online, and I saw that it was listed again on Craigslist. But it was listed at a reasonable price. They didn’t have the address listed, but I could tell that it was the same spot. There was just something about the space that I liked. It had old energy. That was pretty much it.
But you also did a lot of customization with the paneling and other renovations. The signage is amazing.
I know people are going to find this hard to believe. But we never hired a designer. We designed it ourselves. I wanted it to be like as if someone’s grandfather had the shop originally, and retired and passed it down to his grandson. And then, they modernized it a little bit. That was the idea of the whole shop.
What about the details?
Our brand colors are based off the New York flag. I remember going to the auditorium when I was in school and staring at the United States flag and the New York City flag. The New York flag is orange, white, and blue. People think we used that because of the Knicks, but it’s from the New York City flag. I thought about it, and no restaurant or bar had done it. So I thought, “Let’s go with that color scheme.” Plus the colors look dope.
I recently found out that I was a part of the original wave of people to start hanging out here. From then until now is like night and day. Now, you can hardly go inside because it gets so packed, and people are practically lined up to get in. What was that progression like from your point of view?
People will think I’m crazy, but in the beginning I didn’t have making money in mind. If I did, I wouldn’t do slices. I would just do pies. I would use cheaper ingredients. Everyone uses the cheap shit. I really think I am the only place that doesn’t use cheap shit. But I didn’t expect for it to blow up this quick to be honest with you. We didn’t do any PR. It was all word of mouth through friends and stuff. There were some struggle weeks. Those made me think, “Wow, did I do the right thing?” But it worked out in the end.
Obviously, the slice is good. It got best cheese slice from Bon Appetit.
Yeah, a lot of those food people don’t fuck with me. [laughs]
But at the same time Vice did that Munchies Chef’s Night Out with you. You’ve been getting a lot press.
That happened randomly. They just hit me up.
So all of this just kind of happened without you even trying?
Yeah, I don’t kiss anyone’s ass. I didn’t grow up like that. You learn to respect everybody. You just want to be treated the same as everyone else. Everyone else in the industry kisses ass. They DM people on the low: “Yo, come through. I’m gonna give you free food.” They do all of this crazy shit the normal people don’t see. I don’t do any of that. I didn’t even put a sandwich board outside. There’s not even a sign outside that says there’s a bar in the back. I’m not trying to be cool or anything. People think we’re a front too. No, we’re not! It’s just that we serve good pizza. That’s all.
Without giving away any secrets, what makes a good slice?
It’s the three basics: using the best tomatoes, flour, and product, period. Knowing how to do it. I tell people that you can’t learn how to make great pizza from the internet. You gotta go work at a shop and bust your ass for two or three years and learn from the best. Pick out a spot. Offer to even work for free. Then, you’ll learn. I know people that think it’s easy, like, “Oh we’ll just hire someone from another spot to make pizza.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s always gonna be inconsistent. On top of that, people just look at the bottom line. They look at the business aspect instead of the community aspect.
Now that Scarr’s is kind of becoming a brand—it’s definitely known and people are starting to wear the merch in New York—do you plan on continuing to go in that direction with it?
Yeah, I wanna keep going with the brand and stuff. One of our shirts is in GQ, which is cool.
I’ve been seeing more and more people wearing it.
We’ve got a polo that we’re working on now that’s gonna be pretty dope. We’re trying to keep everything made in the USA. We’ve got some stuff coming down the pipe. Not a lot, just little things here and there.
What about more locations?
I’m really not in a rush. I think we might do L.A. But I don’t want to open another one in New York. I just don’t feel like I need to rush to open another one. If anything maybe a bigger spot. But I would move into a bigger spot.
If you moved into something bigger, would still keep this one?
I’d do something else with it, not pizza.
“I tell people that you can’t learn how to make great pizza from the internet. You gotta go work at a shop and bust your ass for two or three years and learn from the best.”
How many square feet is Scarr’s?
How does that even work? There’s so many people in and out of there. I was literally way up in Midtown catching the train, and I heard some kids say, “Let’s go to Scarr’s.”
I’m not trying to talk shit—but I ate pizza growing up. You get that palate. You know what a New York slice used to be like. A lot of the pizza that people eat now is trash. People put sugar in the sauce. People think sweet sauce is the way to go. That never made any sense to me. Pizza shouldn’t be bad for you. All of the food groups are there. Grains—Indians used to grow their own back in the day. They didn’t die of cancer. The only reason pizza is bad for you is because of the products that people use.
Since it’s been catching on, are you starting to get celeb sightings in Scarr’s?
There’s been a shitload—but I don’t promote it. Yesterday, Mac Miller was in there. I don’t want to blow up the spot. But there’s been a lot of famous people. I like the fact that they can anonymously come in. When I worked at Ballato, he never told anybody who he had at his restaurant. Now he puts photos up. But back in the day, he never told anyone. People just loved going there. The food was great. But they always came because it was private.
Music is a big part of the vibe at Scarr’s too. It always has the latest hip-hop playing.
Yeah, that’s sort of a part of growing up in New York. There’s not a lot of rappers from here anymore. But back in the day, there were a shitload of rappers from here. So music has always been a big part of our lives. I play the stuff that I like. I used to listen to a lot of reggaeton back in the day. So I put that on. And now everybody wants to listen to it. My partner Los [Franco] puts his shit on. He’s more on top of the new stuff than I am. He’s like a groupie with that stuff. I like more of the old stuff.
If you would have done anything different, what would it have been?
I wish I would of promoted a little bit better. The reason for that is now I’m realizing how much the competition are a lot of haters. They make shit up about our shop: “I’ve heard bad things about that shop. They’re a front. They don’t serve pizza. It’s just a bunch of guys hanging out in there. It’s a trap spot.” You’ve gotta do stuff to protect your brand. Now, we’re gonna start telling people where we get our stuff. We’re going to start putting up our purveyors so people can see what they’re eating.
Nobody knows, but our slice is organic too. Nobody does that in the city. A lot of those expensive spots use garbage. We use non-GMO. We go the extra mile. There’s cans of tomatoes that are 10 years old. I’m not using stuff like that. People see girls and lines, and they think the pizza is the best in the world. But these are people that are not from here. They don’t know what a good slice of pizza is. Even the young kids that are from here don’t know. Pizza has been garbage by the slice here for the past 15 years I would say.
Besides Scarr’s, what’s your favorite slice?
I would L’industrie in Brooklyn. It’s Italian. I think that’s the best one. He uses really good stuff. And it’s non-traditional. He does it more Italian style. In Italy they do it by the square. He does a triangle version of that. It’s awesome. He uses really good prosciutto, cheese, and all of that. That’s by the slice. For pies, I like Razza in Jersey City. And I like Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint.
Follow Scarr’s Pizza on Instagram @scarrspizza
Photography by SDJ (@sdj)