A Review Of Three Eateries Across The Ray’s Spectrum
4:22 PM EDT on July 14, 2022
The prevalence of New York City pizzerias named Ray's has been a phenomenon for so long that Seinfeld joked about it in 1998. These days, the Ray's have been somewhat culled and consolidated: Gone is Ray's Pizza, which opened in 1959 and closed in 2011 over a real estate dispute. Ray Bari's is defunct, too. Legal battles have been fought over who is the one true Ray. The most prominent survivor is Famous Original Ray's, though its fame and originality are disputed. There's also Ray's Pizza & Bagel Cafe, Ray's (a bar in which actor Justin Theroux is a partner), and Ray's Candy Store. Lotsa Rays.
For Rays Week, two Defector staffers planned to visit two pizzerias with "Ray" in the name, in order to compare the experiences and eat like kings in the middle of the workday. Along the way, we found a third Ray's, which wasn't a pizza shop but was a pleasant surprise.
Famous Original Ray's
Through its survival and longevity, Famous Original Ray’s has become the primary pizzeria with a Ray. Because it had the most reviews and seemed to be the oldest Ray’s still in business, we chose it as our first spot. There are a few locations, but we went to the spot at 831 7th Ave.
The front of Famous Original Ray's looked great, but the inside was mostly utilitarian, resembling a cafeteria with all the charm of an airport gate. Everyone seemed sweaty and unhappy, although that could be credited to the time of day and 90-degree weather. A large, load-bearing pillar, located a few spots back from where the line started, pushed customers right up against the dewy sneeze guard and close to the mediocre, overpriced pizzas.
We arrived after the lunch rush; the guy behind the counter said it'd be another 15 minutes for either plain or pepperoni. While that didn't sound like a long time, there were people lined up waiting for those two options. We decided to go with two slices of the white pie instead, because that felt like the best available slice. They were $7 each, and a water bottle was $3.25, a clear sign of this being a tourist trap. Another sign was the group of 15 or so people trying to sit inside together.
Patrick found the crust to be uniformly spongy, without any textural variation. His slice was not particularly flavorful, even on the spectrum of white pies, but the mascarpone made a pleasant enough first impression. Upon starting in on bites number two and three, however, this pie’s lack of depth started to become a real issue. It had one flavor note (cheese), and it was not presented strongly enough to do anything besides bore. Uninspiring pizza. The Muppets were right to take Manhattan: This place stinks, and he immediately wanted to get off the island.
Samer found the slice bland and disappointing, and wished it had more flavor. Alternatively, he wished he waited for a good slice or picked something else. After a few bites, it felt like eating cardboard. Crushed red pepper couldn't have saved this. He would only come back here if it were the last pizzeria in the city. It was a discouraging start to the trip, and he wondered whether this was going to be a long day.
Ed. Note: Native New Yorker Barry Petchesky believes that where the boys went wrong was in visiting a location in a touristy area. The Famous Original Ray's near where he used to live on the Upper West Side was always high-quality and reasonably priced.
Ray's Candy Store
As we planned our way back to Brooklyn, we looked at the map and spotted a place called "Ray's Candy Store," located on Avenue A. It was more or less on the way, and the photos looked good, so we decided to swing by the shop. The outside was pleasantly kooky, with a real flair for the garish. The inside was narrow and pleasantly ramshackle; the walls had handwritten menu items and articles about the owner, Ray Alvarez, the 89-year-old owner who was born in Iran as Asghar Ghahraman. Some research after the trip showed that this Ray was a fixture of the neighborhood, and the focus of regular local news coverage.
Ray's Candy Store, founded in 1974, offers a wide variety of treats that are rich in flavor but not in price: fries, mozzarella sticks, egg creams, banana splits, popcorn shrimp, deep-fried Oreos, and beignets. We ordered a combo offer of those last two, plus cookies-and-cream soft serve, and, for the hell of it, a hot dog with mustard and relish. The total was about $15, which felt like a steal. We didn't see Ray when we visited; a kind older lady helped us out. The hot dog and soft serve came out first, so we ate those outside of the store, and when the deep-fried treats were ready, we took them into nearby Tompkins Square Park.
Patrick's initial thought was, "This food is bad for me." A fried Oreo is basically the opposite of whole grains. He could only handle one, though it was delicious, with a perfectly molten, pillowy texture inside, pairing oddly well with the stifling heat. The ice cream cone he had was mega-loaded. Although he would've ordered pistachio if it were available, the cookies and cream got the job done (hurting his tummy). The beignets were great, covered by a ton of sugar. Split it with some friends, honestly. Six dollars for a heaping plate of fried dessert is great value, and if you find yourself stoned on Avenue A, please make your way to Ray’s.
Samer found the hot dog to be solid and the soft serve to be refreshing, but had a similar threshold for the deep-fried combo. One Oreo and two beignets were enough, although thinking back on it a day later, he wishes he had eaten a couple more. The hours of Ray's Candy Store make it a great spot for a late-night snack, although you'll likely be waiting in a longer line than we did on a Tuesday afternoon. It was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon a longstanding institution like that and inadvertently learn a lot about Ray Alvarez's life.
Not Ray's Pizza
The final stop of the day was at a disadvantage, because we already had been eating and walking in the heat for a couple of hours, so we took a break in the Defector office to reset and let some of our colleagues eat the remaining deep-fried Oreos and beignets. We wanted to give this Ray a level playing field. After a much-needed breather, we made our way to Not Ray's Pizza on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Patrick tried to find Lactaid to combat the dairy tide within him, but struck out at three bodegas along the way.
Not Ray's Pizza has the traditional pizzeria aesthetic you'd expect, with some lightweight dining furniture and plenty of framed photos on the wall. Surprise: They were unsigned headshots of famous Rays. We spotted Ray Liotta, "Sugar" Ray Leonard, Ray Charles, and Ray Parker Jr. We regretted that we did not bring a framed Ray Ratto photo for their gallery.
Ask why it's called Not Ray's Pizza, and a guy behind the counter might say, There are so many Ray's Pizzas, so this is Not Ray's Pizza. The first part was truer a decade ago, but admittedly the name allows the business to stand out. It's a smart tactic. The pizza isn't as distinct as the name, but it was solid and cheap, and certainly a better experience than Famous Original Ray's. Patrick had a fresh mozzarella slice, while Samer ate a Sicilian slice.
Patrick found that the biggest difference was the crust quality. Not Ray’s bakes their pies with a crisp outer layer that gives way to a pleasantly springy interior. It stays out of the way of the ingredients, yet enhances the experience. He didn't want to eat another slice of white pie, so the addition of sauce was a welcome one, though the tomato sauce at Not Ray’s was a touch too sweet for his taste. However, the fresh basil on the pizza blended in well. It was an inoffensive slice that he probably enjoyed more after subjecting himself to Famous Original Ray's offering.
Samer typically goes for the Sicilian slice, because he likes a chewy, doughier pizza experience, and this delivered on his expectations. The cheese was perfectly cooked and the crust was ideal. The slice was greasy in a good way. He agreed with Patrick's assessment that the sauce was a little sweet, but it didn't bother him too much. If he were in the neighborhood, he'd get a slice here because it seems like it'd be reliable and consistent, but it's not really a spot worth going out of the way to visit.
Ray's Candy Store was a delight, Not Ray's Pizza was decent, and Famous Original Ray's (that location, anyway) was a place to avoid. By the end of the day, we desperately needed to eat a vegetable.