Danny, an attendee at the One Bite Pizza Festival, eating his 72nd slice of the day.Photo: Ezra Marcus
As far as optimal circumstances for enjoying a slice of pizza, my weekend left something to be desired: I was soaked through to my socks on a minor-league baseball field, fighting to hold on to a paper plate amid gusts of wind and perpendicular sheets of rain, listening to a DJ blasting an EDM remix of Morgan Wallen’s “Whiskey Glasses” at sonic-warfare volume, and trying to wolf down my sample-size slice fast enough that it wouldn’t get soaked through as I shuffled in a line of people around a maze of portable metal barriers as if I were stuck in the world’s most psychotic airport-security line. I managed a few bites before a gust sent the plate flying from my hand; the slice landed face down on the AstroTurf.
Welcome to Dave Portnoy’s One Bite Pizza Festival, held on Saturday afternoon at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Thirty-five pizzerias, including tristate titans like Di Fara, Frank Pepe, Sally’s Apizza, and Patsy’s, enlisted; tickets started at $150 and ran to $699 for VIP. Some 5,000 people attended, according to Portnoy. Medium Rare, a production company known for throwing festivals with Gronk, Shaq, and Guy Fieri, brought in a forest’s worth of wood and dozens of rented ovens so the pizzeria owners could attempt to replicate their pies in the wild. The sheer volume of dough-spinning talent in one location was “unprecedented,” said Frank Pinello, owner of Williamsburg’s Best Pizza, who participated. “It’s a really beautiful thing for the history of pizza, all those pizzerias together. At the same time, there’s just this dog-and-pony show going off on the side.”
In the weeks leading up to the festival, Portnoy’s pizza reviews — arguably the most successful series of YouTube food reviews ever, and certainly the apex of the pizza category — started growing friskier. For years, the reviews generally steered clear of the no-holds-barred culture-war brawling that otherwise defined Portnoy’s ascent. (In his 2018 Best Pizza review, for example, he is inexplicably joined by a pair of baby goats, which he nuzzles throughout the clip.) But on August 17, Portnoy posted a review of Funzi’s Pizzeria on St. Marks. “You know who was in here the other day? Kenji Alt, who’s one of the great asshole scumbag coward pieces of shit who ever lived,” said Portnoy, referring to J. Kenji López-Alt, the recipe developer and best-selling cookbook author. Portnoy was angry about an Instagram Story López-Alt posted with an image of his pizza-festival flyer: “If there’s one good thing @stoolpresidente has done, it’s put together this list of pizzerias who are either not aware of his history of sexual abuse, or know but don’t care.” López-Alt warned attendees that they could be in for subpar slices: “It’s hard to make good food in a festival setting period. Making good pizza without your actual ovens? Good luck.”
In his video, Portnoy wore a shirt with a Photoshopped image of Henry Blodget, founder of Insider, behind bars: In 2021, the publication reported on allegations of sexual misconduct against Portnoy. Portnoy sued for defamation; his case was dismissed by a judge, who found that Insider’s reporting “corroborated the women’s accounts with photographs, text and social media messages, videos, medical reports, police documents, an Uber receipt, and statements from at least three friends.” (Portnoy appealed the decision before dropping the suit this year.)
This unchained Portnoy on display in his recent reviews reflects a sea change in his media empire: He’s back to being his own boss. On August 8, the gambling company Penn National — which bought Barstool for $551 million in 2020 — sold the company back to Portnoy for a dollar in order to pursue a deal with ESPN. Portnoy’s behavior had reportedly become an albatross in the company’s dealings with regulators. With his only layer of corporate accountability gone, Portnoy promised to bring back the posture of “pirate ship” antagonism toward his enemies that helped turn Barstool into a traffic juggernaut. “It’s awesome that Dave doesn’t have to hold back anymore because of Penn,” wrote user Derpking356 in the comments on the Funzi’s review. “I’m so glad he owns all of barstool again! Keep swinging Pres.”
The deal also brought challenges. Penn’s conditions included a noncompete, preventing Barstool from partnering with other gambling companies, which are highly lucrative advertisers for other sports-media companies such as the Ringer. On August 31, Barstool laid off around 100 employees, 25 percent of its staff. With hundreds of employees and no deep-pocketed gambling patron, Barstool would have to find ways to support itself. In this context, a shift toward festivals makes sense: Amid a brutal environment for ad rates, media companies have embraced live events as an alternative revenue source.
In the lead-up to the weekend, the media squabbles continued. Portnoy went after a writer who posted an op-ed for NJ.com titled “Why are N.J. pizzerias supporting misogynist bully Dave Portnoy?” and posted a video of a phone call with a reporter for the Washington Post, who had reached out to sponsors and participating pizzerias with questions about his past.
This was Portnoy in his element, a Twitter troll aboard his pirate ship with an army of loyal Stoolies manning the cannons. Still, there was one enemy even he seemed scared of. “Mother Nature, she’s a gangsta,” said Portnoy in a video he posted on Twitter the morning of the festival. Rain was scheduled to pour all day. But the event wouldn’t be canceled; rather, they’d just push back the start time by an hour, hoping to avoid the worst of it. “We’re looking at Doppler, we got meteorologists pointing out clouds, cumulus, you know it,” Portnoy reported. “I think it’s going to be pretty dry after one o’clock.”
It wasn’t. At 1:30 p.m., thousands of Stoolies and pizza fanatics huddled beneath umbrellas in a massive line that stretched around the stadium, past the deserted roller coasters of Coney Island all the way to the boardwalk. The gates opened, and we slowly began shuffling past eight-foot-high posters depicting a grinning Portnoy juggling slices of pizza. Inside, vendors were arrayed in two zones: A few were in the concrete breezeway encircling the upper deck of the stadium, while the rest were laid out in rows on the field below. Each stall was bracketed by rows of metal fencing, herding attendees into a maze of lines for entry and exit. Workers handed out ponchos. There was a gazebo in the fenced-off VIP section; otherwise, there was no shelter from the rain on the field. (New York shelled out for my tickets to avoid any conflict or guarantee of coverage that might be attached to media passes, which also meant I couldn’t get under the VIP gazebo’s cover.)
Images of Portnoy’s face in poster form lined the walls of the outfield and draped the fences. People in the crowd held up still more cardboard cutouts of his mug. Viewed from above, the baseball field consisted of a tangle of overlapping lines unfolding within a Kusama-esque infinity room of Portnoy’s face.
“Everywhere you turned it was, like, a really goofy picture of him eating a slice of pizza,” said Pinello. He found the event’s focus on the media executive a bit odd. “You have Frank Pepe, right? They’ve been in business for like 90, 70 years, whatever it is. You have guys like Luigi’s, who’s like, you know, Gio’s been making pizza for like 60 years, whatever it is, Mark from Lucali, you have these giants of the game, Di Fara’s. And you got this guy being announced as the king of pizza.”
Depending on the time of day, the rain alternated between a light drizzle and driving sheets, punctuated by gusts of wind. Water sluiced down off plastic tents: Grabbing a slice from the vendors at the counters meant dodging a barrage of drops from above. “The wind was blowing actual plated slices onto our laps,” one worker told me. Fallen pizza littered the field and the stands. I stared for a while at the Lynchian image of a drainpipe spouting water over discarded slices of pepperoni. Without shelter from the rain, the only way to eat was to pound down the bites as quickly as possible before they became too wet.
Each tent was emblazoned with the name of a pizzeria and its “One Bite” score; naturally, the lines were longer for the highest scores. At one point, at least a hundred people were lined up for a slice of Lazzara’s — 9.3 — while a few stalls down, Ace’s, which had the lowest score I saw anywhere (a lowly 7.4), couldn’t give away a slice.
Some of the pizzerias performed admirably despite the challenging circumstances. Thin-crust slices from Monte’s and the legendary Sally’s Apizza were fantastic. Others seemed to be getting inconsistent results from their portable ovens; the dough in a slice from the venerable John’s of Bleecker Street was gummy and undercooked. As for Artichoke Pizza, I would generally not advise eating its already absurdly soggy slices under a curtain of rainwater. One bite was more than enough.
After an hour or so, Portnoy took the stage accompanied by a blast of CO² cannons and a roar of applause. “Mother Nature fucked us a little bit, but we’re still out here,” he said. “I’d be remiss not to say fuck Kenji Alt, who’s one of the all-time pieces of shit in the history of the world. I’d be remiss not to say fuck the Washington Post. Absolute fuckin clowns.” The crowd cheered. “People just wanna have fun, eat pizza. You guys have probably been following me for like, over a decade. And we really, really, really, really appreciate the support. If you have kids here, cover their ears: Fuck the Washington Post. Fuck Kenji Alt. Those motherfuckers don’t deserve the same air we breathe. Let’s have some fun!”
Later, he returned to the stage for the main event: a blind taste test in which he tried to guess the origin of six slices. He named two correctly. “None of you guys could get zero out of six!” he told the crowd.
Photo: Ezra MarcusPhoto: Ezra Marcus
Despite the rain, most people I talked to seemed to be having a good time, especially those who had traveled from around the country just for the festival: They weren’t going to let a little rain ruin the afternoon. I met a guy named Randall who traveled from Michigan and spent $700 on a VIP meet-and-greet ticket. He was wearing a shirt featuring a slice of pizza dressed up in a leopard-print outfit, captioned “This Pizza Fucks.” He made it himself, and he was beaming with pride: Portnoy had complimented it and even took a picture. “That was the highlight,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for more, even with the rain.” He reeled off the Barstool personalities he mingled with. “I met Glenny Balls. I met Tommy Smokes. PFT,” he said. “They’re just funny, kind guys. My camera kept getting blurred from the water for the first three photos with PFT and he just stood around and let me fix it.”
I thought attendees might have some issues about talking to a reporter given Portnoy’s tirades, but in general they seemed not to mind. A guy named Greg, who was wearing a homemade “Nobody Knows the Rules” shirt, asked if I was from the Post. What would he have said if I were? He thought about it for a second, then burst into a goofy grin: “Welcome!”
I met Sam and Mike, 40 and 53, on the concourse overlooking the field. Sam showed me a meme he had made that morning: Portnoy’s face imposed over a general’s body, standing in front on an American flag, captioned: “DRINK COFFEE, SHIT YOUR BRAINS OUT, EMPTY OUT YA STOMACH, DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE HURRICANE MY PIZZA TROOPS.” Mike was plotting about how they might break into the VIP section, since Frank Pepe, one of the most desirable vendors, was only available to those who’d forked over $700 for a ticket. Mike joked that the security guard working the VIP gate was the only Black person at the festival — perhaps they could slip him a $20. “You gotta grease the Black guy,” he said, laughing. “We’re woke, so we can say that!”
The crowd was largely male — so much so that I noticed a group of guys pointing at members of the fairer sex: “There’s a girl! There’s another one!” — while other attendees were piggybacking on the festival as a content-creation opportunity. I came across three 20-somethings in the middle of the field: JT was recording, Antonio was narrating, and Danny was chowing down on a slice. Friends from Queens, they were filming for their YouTube channel, called Picky Boys. They had a plan: to “steal Dave Portnoy’s money” by “trying to eat the ticket price worth of pizza, which is a daunting challenge when they’re giving out sample sizes.” They’d done their homework. They called around to the pizzerias ahead of time and determined that most of the pies would be cut into 16ths, said Antonio, and they calculated the price based on how much each shop charges for each slice, factoring in the higher prices for pepperoni slices and so on. They calculated that receiving fair value for one $175 ticket would require eating 72 slices. This task fell to Danny, since Antonio was allergic to gluten. By that point he was halfway done, and he had started to lose his sense of taste, “like when you go into a candle store and you’re just like, I don’t even know what it smells like anymore.”
Nobody seemed too bothered by the air of controversy that surrounded the event. In the lead-up to the day, the self-described food antagonist Joe Rosenthal led a crusade against Portnoy on Instagram. Rosenthal wanted “to push against the normalization of Dave Portnoy in the food world,” he said. “I think it serves to launder his reputation.” He was baffled at the number of institutions that had chosen to participate in the festival. “Di Fara, Frank Pepe Pizzeria, those are some of the biggest in the world in terms of hype, legacy. I don’t know what they really gain.”
Pinello, Best Pizza’s founder, offered his sense of the situation: “I think a lot of the pizza community love Dave. They think it’s hysterical.” At the festival, the owners of Sally’s presented Portnoy with the first ever “black card,” entitling him to free pizza for life. Di Fara sold shirts with 9.4, its “One Bite” score, just for the event. Pinello had met Portnoy a few times and said he seemed nice off-camera. But sometimes, he said, the reviewer could be a bit of a jerk in his videos. “It’s kind of a kick in the gut when you’re working really hard and someone comes along and says, ‘This pizza is a 4.2.’ Dave as a person is a fucking 4.2!”
Still, “if the weather wasn’t like it was, I think it could have been a really great, great event,” he said, even if Dave’s persistent media bashing gave the day “strange overtones.” Plus the offer from the production company was generous: Pinello was able to give bonuses to all of his employees, even the ones who weren’t working that day. “That’s really the main reason that I wanted to get involved with it,” he said.
Photo: Ezra Marcus
Pinello said that shop owners have to walk a “thin line” with Portnoy: “You don’t want to get on his bad side if you’re a pizzeria owner. You don’t want him to come into your place and give you a terrible score.” Portnoy’s massive following was intimidating for small owners, “especially the old-timers that are a little bit scared of social media.”
In August, Portnoy posted a video in which he “rescored” Sauce after the pizzeria’s owner gave an interview to Slate saying the review had turned his joint into “a hot spot for bros” from Long Island and Jersey. In the rereview, Portnoy was out for blood. “Your chief of staff is like, ‘I don’t like Dave, he’s a piece of shit.’ Well, your pizza is kind of shitty now,” Portnoy declared. “The people who run this place hate my guts. Well, I hate your guts.” He downgraded the score from a 9.1 to a 7.3.
I asked Pinello if he would participate in the festival again. “I’d really have to think about that,” he said. “Right now, I’m leaning toward no.”
I caught up with the Picky Boys crew around 5 p.m., and Danny looked unwell. He had just one more slice to go, he told me, his 72nd. I asked if he could taste the pizza at this point. “No,” he said. “I’m just forcing myself to continue to chew, one bite at a time.” By that point, most people seemed to feel similarly: The line to buy a hard seltzer from High Noon was longer than the line for Monte’s, the only pizzeria ever to receive a perfect 10.
As hordes of soaked, stuffed attendees began streaming toward the exits, I walked over to a guy holding up one of the giant cutouts of Portnoy’s head. It was so big that only his legs were visible beneath. I assumed he must be a superfan. He told me that, in fact, he’d never heard of Portnoy before that morning. Chokwe, 21, worked for a company that provided staff for large events: His job was just to pose for pictures and shoo away attendees who tried to steal the sign or any of the others stapled to the dugout fence, which they did every few minutes. I asked what impression Portnoy left on him after a day spent holding up a picture of his face. “After hearing him speak onstage, I was like, Oh, that makes sense to who he is. I mean, his face is plastered every foot, as you can see.” Portnoy, Chokwe said, seemed “very incellish. That’s what it’s giving.” Then he nodded to the cutout in his hands: “His head is this big in real life.”