A dozen restless, ravenous colleagues coalesce around my desk when word spreads throughout the office that eight boxes of authentic New York pizza will be delivered momentarily to our L.A. office. Most are NYC transplants, homesick for genuine thin crust pizza — crispy around the edge, yet pliable enough to be folded in half, trapping loose toppings, gooey cheese and oozing sauce in a chunky triangle. Others are L.A. natives who have spent their lifetimes being reminded repeatedly (and accurately) that despite their banging tacos, ramen and doughnuts, L.A.’s pizza sucks — at least compared to New York’s.
That’s presumably why JetBlue — New York’s Hometown Airline® — launched a recent three-day Pie in the Sky promotion, wherein it delivered 350 authentic NYC pizzas daily to the tin-crust desert known as L.A. The process begins at historic Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem, where the pies are made fresh in a coal-fire oven. From there, they’re packed in coolers for the six-hour flight, and upon arrival at LAX, brought to a nearby kitchen and prepped for final delivery. (Cheese pizzas cost $12; pepperoni is three bucks extra.)
Wary of the potential fallout from consuming meat and congealed fat that’s spent numerous hours in a box at 35,000 feet, I turn to David Wiss, my go-to dietician/consigliere from Nutrition in Recovery here in L.A. It turns out, nutritionally speaking, a pie in the sky isn’t much different than the sea-level OG. “The only real negative implications have to do with a depletion of water soluble B vitamins in the dough,” he explains. If it were something fresher — like vegetable juice — he says the nutritional decay would be more significant, but once fully cooked, most food is essentially sealed from contaminants. The biggest change, he predicts, is likely a deterioration in the overall taste and texture of the pizza.
Though, as fellow MEL staff writer Miles Klee points out, that’s part of its authenticity, too. “Freshness has never been a strength or selling point of New York pizza,” he tells me over Slack. “Yeah, if you’re willing to brave the lunch rush or cough up $6 for one of the legendary slices, you can experience pizza that never got a chance to cool down before you scarfed it. But often you’re getting something that’s been drying out in a glass display case for a couple hours; they pop it in the oven for 30 seconds to get it warm and melty again. One true mark of a great New York slice is this longevity — whether it can be resurrected after it’s lapsed into leftover status.”
“My main concern would be how the pizzas are going to be transported and which part of the plane they’ll be stored in,” says L.A. nutritionist Lorraine Kearney. “If they’re underneath in the cargo area, they must be held in a container that will protect them from the fumes of the jet fuel.”
For more fumigation talk, I ask Jose — a messenger with Quick International Medical Courier Services, which transports blood, tissue and organs throughout the world — for best practices on shipping a human lung, figuring a pepperoni pizza warrants similar treatment. “It has to be properly packaged,” he explains, “preferably in OrganCare® boxes designed to replicate human functions.”
“Theoretically,” I mention before hanging up, “if you were to cook a pizza in Harlem and put it on a flight to L.A., would an OrganCare® box do the trick vis-à-vis preservation?”
“You’re talking about JetBlue aren’t you?” Jose says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t see any problem with that. Five hours on a plane isn’t a big deal. I eat food that’s been sitting in my car for longer!”
In fact, JetBlue’s rep tells me that the pizzas are shipped in coolers that maintain freshness for up to six days, even though they’ll only stay in them for the duration of the flight.
Obviously, Pie in the Sky is nothing more than a gimmick — and a reminder that JetBlue flies six daily nonstop flights from JFK to LAX — but that doesn’t preclude it from earning a rightful place in the long history of pizza delivery.
It all began in 1889, when King Umberto I of Italy and Queen Margherita of Savoy were visiting Naples. The queen became sick after eating rotten food, so she requested to dine on traditional Italian food instead. Raffaele Esposito, the most famous Pizzaiolo (pizza chef) in Naples, went above and beyond, creating a pizza to resemble the colors of the Italian flag with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes. Of course, the king and queen weren’t expected to visit a local pizzeria. So Esposito took the pizzas to them himself, now considered the first-ever pizza delivery. (And the first “Margherita” pizza, so named for the Queen’s review of Esposito’s pie, which she called one of the best dishes she’d ever eaten.)
Nearly 60 years later, when U.S. soldiers returned from World War II with a fondness for Italian cuisine, they packed the Italian restaurants that had dotted American cities since the first wave of Italian immigration at the start of the 20th century. As the New York Times explained in 1944, the newly popularized “pizza” was “a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes.” That same year, restaurants began offering pizzas that could be “ordered to take home,” which were “packed, piping hot, in special boxes for that purpose.” Ironically in 1946, L.A. pizza joint Casa D’Amore introduced what’s thought to be the first example of “free delivery.”
We reached peak delivery craze in 1993. Throughout the previous decade, Domino’s had enticed customers with a surefire marketing gimmick: a promise to deliver your pizza within 30 minutes. That ended abruptly when a jury in St. Louis awarded $78 million to a woman struck by a Domino’s driver rushing to deliver on that promise. (Previously, a late-arriving pizza was left at no cost to the customer.)
As for today, JetBlue is hardly the first brand to deliver pizza aerially. Chicago’s Lou Malnati’s has been shipping deep-dish nationwide since the 1990s through its Tastes of Chicago mail-order division. “The pizzas are shipped frozen in a cooler with dry ice provided to keep everything cool during the two-day transit,” explains a Malnati’s rep. In addition to authentic deep dish, the rep adds, an assortment of other Chicago delicacies are available for nationwide delivery — including polish sausage, corned beef, pastrami, specialty popcorn and cheesecake. And unlike the “mediocre” JetBlue crust reviews (“The crust was gummy and chewy in the wrong way,” a colleague remarks), the rep claims that Malnati’s customers are near unanimous in their praise and shipping orders increase year-over-year.
Moreover, in 2013, a U.K. Domino’s franchise launched a promotion in which a “Domicopter” (half helicopter, half drone) carried two pizzas as a one-off stunt.
Chains in Mumbai and Russia soon followed suit. Meanwhile, stateside, Charles Walters, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” and co-owner of Williamsburg Pizza in Brooklyn, had similar aspirations. Specifically, he wanted to be the first pizzeria in NYC to offer delivery via drone. And he was — even progressing to a custom-built “Drone 2.0” that could fly a large pie on round trips of about four miles. But in 2015, Walters learned some hard truths: Drones are easily grounded in bad weather and summer deliveries can be disastrous when foliage obscures the remote pilot’s vision.
Plus, he explains: “Retaining talent has proven far more challenging than I expected — from the drone mechanic to the drone pilot as well as the drone attorney. Highly specialized professionals are required for a successful drone delivery business.” These days, he says, Williamsburg Pizza’s drone program is relegated to special events for kids and technology enthusiasts. He remains undeterred, though, developing a land-based autonomous delivery vehicle, “The Silver Spaceship,” that can warm up to 30 pies and launch a drone from its roof. “We’re thinking even further into the future — to when we deliver pizzas into space!” he proclaims.
Back on land, food delivery sales from companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats grew 51 percent between August and March, according to data from analytics firm Second Measure. Despite these gains, according to Grubhub’s Lindsey Ruthen, the brand will be keeping its hub on the ground for the near future. “Delivery by air doesn’t seem like the most practical or cost-effective application for restaurants or diners alike,” she tells me. “Though we’re supportive of anything that would make service better, faster or cheaper for our industry.”
“Third-party aggregators like Grubhub are doing beautifully,” says Barry Friends, a partner and logistics expert with food supply chain consulting firm Pentalect. “While there’s a cost associated with what they do, it’s a service that’s clearly valued by consumers and being used at a rapidly escalating pace.” In addition to 35 years of logistics experience, Friends also owns two popular pizzerias in Minnesota. He’d never ship one across the country for $15, he tells me, since he can barely make money delivering them from five miles away. “It’s a great promotion, though,” he admits. “Probably costs them $150 a pizza, but very clever.”
He’s far more bullish on drones, since he excitedly predicts that they’ll massively reduce overhead. “It costs me about $7 in labor to make a delivery now,” he explains. “Obviously you’d have to amortize the cost of a drone over time, but I hear numbers on drone delivery being in the dozens of cents. That’s cheaper than a postage stamp!” That’s why he and colleague Bob Goldin invested in Dalqari, a “smart mailbox” manufacturer and patented drone receiving system. (You can’t just plop a pizza on someone’s front lawn, after all.) “The rate of change is so ridiculous,” Friends says. “In 10 years, if drones are approved for regular commerce, if you live anywhere but the absolute rural boonies, you’ll see little buzzing things everywhere you look up — each with their own security, both on the drone itself and at the receiving end on boxes like the Dalqari. Frankly, it’s gonna make the world kind of ugly. But it’s gonna save us a whole lot of money, too.”
Back at the office, eight pizzas disappear within 20 minutes and — like the pies — the reception is lukewarm. “I would’ve expected the infamous New York pizza to blow my mind,” says Carly, an L.A. native. “Frankly I would’ve liked the crust to be a bit more crunchy and thin. I’d give it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.”
“Two out of 5,” Will from Kansas City corrects. “You could’ve said this was a Domino’s thin crust, and I probably would’ve believed you. The toppings and cheese are what you could expect from any late-night joint.”
Though as Eddie says, that’s not really the point. “The L.A. v. NYC pizza debate should be about how the East Coast has a great culture of good slices every other block v. our equivalent of tacos.”
I wonder how those would travel…