Friday, October 27, 2017

The Best Pizza in NY According to Me and Science

I often get the question, “You’re a New Yorker, AND you’re Italian!  You’ll know where I can get the best pizza!”

They’re right.  I do.

But I’m going to do better than just telling you the best pizza.  I am going to quantify the quality of the pie and present to you not just another Buzzfeed ranking but rather a calculated list of mathematically undeniable excellence.

2 days.  2 judges.  9 pizza parlors.  4 ranking categories.

The 4 Categories:
1)      Sauce: A good sauce is the single most important part of the pizza.  It needs to taste fresh, and juicy but thick enough to differentiate it from pasta sauce.  It needs to be light, not weighed down with spices.    When you eat a good pizza sauce you should feel like you’re being hugged by grandma.
2)      Cheese: When you bite into a good piece of mozzarella it should squeak against your teeth.  It should puddle slightly with delicious oil and the stretch of cheese from slice to face should be long and unwieldy. 
3)      Crust:  When you hold the slice up by the crust end, it shouldn’t flop down.  No one likes a floppy pizza.  The crust should be supportive, crunchy and make your pizza stand erect.
4)      Ratio:  Do you have a bunch of cheese on a crust?  Then you have yourself a flat bread, not a pizza.  Are you swimming in sauce?  Well that’s kinda nice but it’s not right.  Ratio is important.

And those are the categories.  Each category is ranked 1-5 (5 being the highest) for a total score out of 20.  Scores were averaged between the two judges to come up with the below, statistically significant pizza ranking:

#9: Di Fara:
Some people are going to hate me for ranking Di Fara last.  But I don’t care because I have science and math on my side.  #9.  There’s  a stupid long line because this place is “Old school.” But let me tell you something.  This pizza scored a 5/20. A 1 on each category.  25%.  F. 
 A slice is a whopping $5. Their schtick is that every pie is made by the old man that started the place.  Which is cute, but he forgot how to make pizza.  Take a look at my picture below.  Oily, grey slice.  Sauce is barely there and suffocated by oil anyway so you can’t taste it.  Cheese tastes like plastic. Crust is a SIN. 

Grey Di Fara's Pizza

Here is a picture of me outside of Di Fara eating Totonno’s because (spoiler) Totonno’s ranked much higher.

Eating Totonno's outside Di Fara

#8) Tavola:
Tavola on 9th and 37th is dressed up to look like an old Italian grocery store.  It is a sit-down trattoria that serves whole pies.  Now let’s get something straight, there are sit down, wood burning stove pies, and there are slices.  I realize there is a difference and I am ranking both on the same list.  Moving on…

This pizza did not rank so well.  It scored an 11/20 (55%).  Its main downfall is that it really just wasn’t New York enough.  The sauce and cheese both ranked a 2 ratio 3, and the crunchy crust did better with a 4.  But alas, the crust did not save it as pizza is not bread.



Tavola Pizza

#7) Roberta’s:
Oh Roberta’s you hipster daughter you.  If I could subtract points for a tiki bar and too many mason jars I would.  But I will not.  Because that’s not science.
Roberta’s scored 12/20 (60%) and had a very decent pie.  (Keep in mind we scored all these against each other so Roberta’s is not 60% of all NY pizzas but rather 60% compared to other places on this list).  Sauce was too oniony so ranked a 2.  Crust was decent at a 3, ratio could have used more sauce so also a 3, and the mozz was really quite squeaky so got a 4.  I do have to admit that in addition to their regular, I tried their “Bee Sting”: tomato sauce, mozz, sopressata, chili and honey.  It was (gesture with kissing fingers and then raising them to heaven in that Italian way).

Roberta's Pizza

#6) Joe’s Pizza:
If you’re in the city, and you want an excellent slice, there is no better place than Joe’s Pizza.  It’s exactly what you want, especially at 2am.  (who am I kidding I haven’t been out until 2am in years).  Served on that flimsy barely there paper plate that you need to quadruple up so the oil doesn’t make it to your lap, you can scarf down two of these bad boys in seconds.  Cheese, sauce and ratio were golden all scoring a 4.  But the crust was mushy.  When you fold the pizza (the only way to walk and eat a pizza) it should have a nice small crack down the middle where the crust gave way to the break.  It should not be able to be rolled up into a ball.  Pizza is not rollatini.  The crust scored a 1 bringing Joe’s to a score of 13/20 (65%).

Joe's Pizza

#5) Motorino:
Freakin noms.  Sauce is delicious.  Cheese is very good.  But although the crust is a crunchy delight, it takes up way too much of the pizza.  So in this case, the ratio of crust to sauce and cheese was not doing it.  Motorino scored 14 (70%). 

Motorino Pizza


#4) Grimaldi’s:
Grimaldi’s (the Coney island location) is so underrated.  Everyone thinks of Totonno’s when they think of Coney Island Pizza (and I guess they should since Totonno’s ranks higher than Grimaldi’s on this list) but should not forget about Grimaldi’s!  The mozz is fresh, the sauce is light, the crust is crunchy.   It is a good pie.  Scored a 15/20 (75%).


Here's to Grimaldi's

#3) L&B Spumoni Gardens:
I GREW UP ON THIS PIZZA.  When I was a teenager and had a cavernous pit of a stomach I once ate an entire square pizza pie in one sitting.  And yes, that is what you order at Spumoni Garden, the square.  Omgomgomg the square pizza is a dream come true.  The crust is crunchy, the center like a pillow and in a CRAZY TWIST the sauce is over the cheese which is brilliant because it makes the cheese melt better.  Then there is the sauce which has a recipe so secretive that the owner was SHOT DEAD by the mob who says he stole the recipe.  (True story).  Get the square, (or 4), and finish up your meal with a rainbow spumoni ice.  It will be heaven.  (also great people watching as this is where all the mafia goes when they visit Brooklyn from Staten Island). L&B scored a 90%. 

Spumoni Garden

Spumoni Garden
Spumoni Ice

#2)  And the winner of the best traditional slice of pizza in New York goes to Totonno’s in Coney Island.  This is everything a slice dreams it could be.  Really it’s just so perfect in all of the categories above that I’m not even going to go into it.  Just, trust me, next time you go to Coney Island tell Nathan’s to suck it and go to Totonno’s.  Your stomach will thank you.  (Even if the surly old guy behind the counter will not). 


Totonno's crust is perf

#1) Now for the big prize.  Winner of best pizza in New York according to this indisputable science is…Lucali’s in Carroll Gardens!  Holy mother of god this pizza.  Each bite of this pie will rock your world a little more until, with a flourishing dip of your slice in the EXTRA BOWL OF SAUCE THEY GIVE YOU, your world is thoroughly rocked.  I am writing this over a plate of bland chicken in Namibia right now.  I may have to cut my visit short and fly home to get a pie a Lucali’s.  From your table you can see Lucali in the back slowly making the pizza while looking around at his kingdom.  He got stabbed a few years ago by stealing another restaurateur’s girlfriend.  He touched my back and asked how my pizza was.  I almost fell over.  Lucali’s scored a perfect 5 in each category. 

And if you don’t believe the science listen to Jay Z and Beyonce.  They DITCHED THE GRAMMIES to have a pie at Lucali’s.  And Beyonce is better than science. 



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

So, what do you do?

Every time I am at a party I dread the question, “So, what do you do?”

Because there’s no casual way of saying what I do.  My elevator pitch sounds like it should have Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. 

“I am trying to assess the burden of HIV in 13 African countries.” 

And when I try to be flippant and nonchalant I sound like an asshole.   

“Oh you know.  HIV.  In Africa.  With the babies.”

I'm like the person who kvetches about her period cramps when asked a hallway “How are you?”

I asked a few of my girlfriends who do similar work and they all feel exactly the same way.  One of them said she feels bad because she feels like they feel like she thinks she’s a saint.  Shefeelsliketheyfeellikeshethinksshe’s.  How’s that for some emotional censoring? 

I asked a male colleague if he feels awkward.   Apparently he puts “I save babies in Africa” in his Tinder profile.

I think what I do is cool.  I think I'm cool for doing it.  I do not think I am a saint.  Most of what I do is spreadsheets and conference calls and hoping that my teams will not lose another survey tablet that I have to report to the IRB.  But I’m doing what I love and hopefully helping people as well.  I just want to stop this self-imposed meekness when I explain what I do with my life.

Maybe the next time I walk into a party I’ll announce to the room “I am Chelsea, and I study HIV in Namibia!  With the babies!  I will take questions now.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

It Started With Outbreak

­­­­­When I was 10 years old, I saw the movie Outbreak.
This, is what I am going to do with my life.  I am going to wear the white suit and steal helicopters and write complicated formulas on the blackboard to teach all the health people things because I know science and I am from the CDC.  Besides, we don’t need another Alanis Morisette because we already have an Alanis Morisette and I can’t sing that great anyway.

I told my mother.

“Yes. We knew this.  You are going to be a doctor.”

Ok great, I would be a doctor and then save the people from the outbreaks.  Preferably in Africa because I think that’s where they are the sickest.  Also ‘cause I want to see a lion.

In high school, I took all the science classes, became valedictorian and told everyone I was going to join Doctors without Borders so that I could save the world.  After graduation, I took a peek at the Doctors without Borders website to see if maybe they would take me out of high school?  You never know, I did take AP Bio.  But no, apparently my dissection of a pig didn’t count as experience.  Ok, just checking.

I went to college and majored in biology.  In my spare time, I volunteered at a biochemistry lab.  Because Dustan Hoffman stole a helicopter but he also knew what he was doing in the lab.  I needed to know how science works from the bottom up.

Over spring break I volunteered at a mosquito laboratory in Vero Beach (NERD).  It was there that I put on my first full-body protection suit and went into a sealed room that contained the chikungunya virus.  The lab tech opened the airtight freezer.  It made a whooshing noise and smoke from the ice spilled out.  She showed me the tube with the virus, put it back in the freezer, and shooed me out of the room. 


Spring break ended, I was not tanner but was covered in mosquito bites.  I could not, at this point, get a boyfriend.

I ramped up my hours at the lab to include nights, weekends and the summer.  I heard from my lab friends that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was giving a grant for a student to go work at a lab studying Cholera in Kolkata, India.  Two months later I was in India.

Right next to the lab was a cholera clinic.  All day I saw grey people being carried inside.  The smell of diarrhea coming from the beds lingered on your nose hairs long after leaving.  I begged to be able to work there.

“No,” my boss said, politely, smiling and bobbing his head back and forth.  Subtext: “The last thing we need is to be responsible for this curly haired girl getting cholera.”

“Please,” I had persisted.  “I have come all the way to India; I do not want to stay behind a lab bench.”

I was 19, knew the chemistry and was ready to rid the world of cholera!

They allowed me to join a local doctor as he made his rounds in the nearby slum.  The poverty and devastation slapped me around and was exactly what I needed.

When the doctor took patient histories, it was my job to write down how many times the patients had cholera.  Not if they had cholera but how many times.  The doctor kept treating the cholera and the people of this slum kept contracting it.

“But who treats the root cause of the disease?  Makes sure their water is kept clean and stresses the importance of hand washing?”

“This,” the doctor said (drum roll) “is the role of the Epidemiologist” (gong). 

After 3 months I went back to school, continued studying, and in my senior year started applying to Public Health schools. 

When you first walk into the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health a large image projected 3 stories high shows the latest statistics of diseases and pictures of students installing mosquito nets. Omg, I was going to be that student.   It was my Mecca.  I learned about tropical diseases and how to purify a water source so that you wouldn’t get cholera.  And all of my new friends wanted to play with diseases too!  People (many people) came to my Outbreak themed party.  (There were syphilis cookies.)

I spent a year in rural Bangladesh doing my thesis.  It was the best year.  I learned the language, drove a motorcycle between rice paddies to the villages.  Got a taste of office work and submitted my first protocol to an ethical review board.  One of my coworkers died during childbirth.  The ethical review board took 6 months to approve my protocol.  I could see the urgency and could see how long it could take to affect change. 

I returned to finish classes and apply for jobs.  I applied to Doctors without Borders (which should really be called Doctors, Nurses, Epidemiologists and Logisticians without Borders).  I got through 3 rounds of the application process and was finally told “Not yet.  You need more experience.  Come back after a few more years of international work.”

I worked for the UN Foundation and helped people doing cool stuff talk to other people doing cool stuff.  AND THEN.  I was hired to lead a malaria study in Uganda! 

For 2 years I lived in Uganda and went around the country helping to conduct trainings, collect and analyze data.  I worked for the International Rescue Committee on a vaccine trial in Uganda and Ethiopia.  Maybe I could take time off the project and spend a week learning about outbreaks in the IRC refugee camps!  But the study grant ended and I had to look for a job again.

I am sitting at a desk in Ethiopia after a long day of supervising field workers go door to door interviewing people and testing them for HIV.  My face is a little sunburnt, my fingers smell like curry and my shoes are drying in the corner.  For a year and a half I have been helping to coordinate nationwide HIV surveys in Swaziland, Ethiopia and Namibia.  I am 28 years old and have been working in Public Health for the past 7 years.  I am still not Dustan Hoffman.  But tonight I started my application to Doctors without Borders.

I'm the little one on the right

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It Comes Back

I let the couch gasp for air as I finally got off of it to meet Chiara for dinner.  She picked me up in her car and we drove down the mountain and back up another one.  Chiara has been in Swaziland for 2 years now and we have grown close during my many visits.  Tonight we would join her friends at their cottage for dinner before heading out to a party.  The cottage was warm with beef stew and the bottles of delicious South African wine just made it warmer.  I immediately liked the women but when they brought out chocolate cake for dessert I knew I would marry them.

It was ok that we were roly from food and drink, because we only had to roll a few feet from the cottage to the party.  It was Swaziland Art night, Swarty, and bands from South Africa came to perform in the sunken living room of an empty mansion.  Every expat within a 100 mile radius heard the siren call of booze and music and packed in.  The mansion was meant for Airbnb guests and so it felt like we were children playing in an empty adult house, unchaperoned.   Anyone could pop behind the fully stocked bar and pretend to be bartender, making concoctions just like I used to do as a kid in the schoolyard.  But this time my drink was made of Jameson instead of mud and fancy berries instead of the leftover ketchup in the fridge.

I felt comfortable.  Besides knowing many people from my previous visits, it was so easy to lean back into that swaying feeling that comes from being more than 8,000 miles from home.  A feeling of freedom and recklessness and familiarity with the unfamiliar.  I love the small talk that happens seamlessly at an expat party but would make me feel like a douche anywhere else.

“Oh I just got in from Johannesburg.  You’re headed to Uganda?  Nice!   Say hi to my cat for me.”

We danced under a disco light (??) to songs that were popular 2 years ago.  We played in a sunken bathtub and slid around the kitchen.  I ran outside, to a hill on a mountain and called the boy. 


I’m happy that I’m here for 2 weeks but excited to go home to my sweet apartment in Harlem.  I never once regret not taking the job overseas.  I like my happy hour on Thursdays and my bagels on Saturday.  But when I get antsy in my cubicle and miss the freedom of distance, I know I’ll be going to Namibia next month, and Ethiopia after that, and then…who knows?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

New in Namibia

You can drive for hours without seeing anyone in Namibia.  A tumbleweed might literally cross in front of your car.  The capital Windhoek, is surrounded by tall, sandy mountains making the horizon look like Mars. 

I was in Namibia for work.  Helping to run a workshop to adapt materials for our nationwide HIV survey.  Unfortunately this meant I saw these mountains mostly from the window of my conference room.  I insisted that even though it made the projected materials a little harder to read, we have the windows open every day.  

Over lunches, I made friends with Frida, a Namibian woman who worked at the Ministry of Health.  One day at lunch, I bumped into a waiter and said “lo siento”.  Because I’m too old to be juggling all these languages and random ones just pop out.  (Most embarrassing is when I’m speaking to a taxi driver in Africa and I start wagging my head like I’m in India.  I’m confused.)  Frida turned to me “Tu hablas espanol?!”

During the Namibian War of Independence, children were smuggled out of the country to safety, many never to see their families again.  Frida’s boat went to Cuba.  Not knowing a word of English or Spanish, Frida and the other children spent the next 15 years growing up in Cuba. 

“Most of us are now back in Namibia.  Once a month we roast a big pig and dance salsa all night long.”

Frida is trying to get into the University of Michigan for a Masters Program.  I told her to tell her story and she’d be a shoo in.

On Friday night we all went out to for Namibia’s famous beef at Kapana.  We ducked under the large blue tarped area and pushed through the wall of smoke.  In the center of the large outdoor market were butchers using machetes to cut large pieces of the cow laid on the wooden tables in front of them.  The meat was  passed up front where men arranged the pieces on open grills.  The men called at you to come and try their beef.  Theirs is the tenderest.  I took a few pieces from their hands, chewed, deliberated, and decided on the best vendor.  

I gave the man the equivalent of 5 dollars, and he chopped up a section for us and slid it to the bottom of the grill.  Then me, my friends and the smoke stood around eating our pieces of the meat.  Large piles of salt, chile, and MSG were on pieces of cardboard next to the grills for dippings.  My coworker handed me a plastic bottle cut in half with a sloshing brown liquid in it.  “Dip it in this.”  It was like eating raw garbage.  He laughed.  Was cow bile.

After filled with beef and MSG, we sat in the back of the tarped market on plastic chairs.  A woman dipped a ladle in a bucket of swamp water (?) and poured us each a glass.  It  was a traditional fermented brew.  Slightly warm, it tasted like coconut water meets butter meets cholera.  I drank my whole damn cup. 

Super full, I said goodbye to everyone and told Frida I would bring her back some Cuban Coffee from Key West.  She laughed and said “get me into the University of Michigan.”
Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I do not Hear

It was a bright and crisp day at 9am when I first got to the clinic in rural Uganda.  A line was already wrapped around the single clinic room and women were resting in circles allowing their fat, naked babies to play in the middle. 

“Afoyo, hello!”

The kids laughed at the white lady speaking their language.  Today I would be looking over the record books to get a sense of how bad the most recent malaria epidemic had hit this village.

Just before greeting the nurse, a woman grabbed my arm. She was panicked and her nails dug in.

“I prayed, but nothing. Help me sistah docter.”

At first, I did not hear her.  So many people call out to me every day that I have become good at not hearing. 

She almost threw her little girl into my arms. The girl was too light and her eyes were glassy.  I was trying to explain that I am not a doctor, I am just a scientist studying malaria when, like a horror film, the little girl turned and I could see the back of her head had been eaten away by disease.  The pulpy flesh was rotting and covered in flies.  I gave the baby back to her mother, went into the bush, threw up, and then went into the clinic to count the cases of malaria.

I do not believe in god.  I pray again and again for strength of faith but I have heard no answer.  Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down through a microscope to hear the god above me.  I’m a scientist and thus a skeptic.  We’re taught to be wary of religion as it is unfounded in evidence (the only scripture of science.)  But there is a woman in front of me, just a baby herself, praying that her little girl doesn’t die.  How can I help her if I don’t understand her? School did not teach me what sustains people beyond the antibiotics.

It’s the big questions, the ones that catch in your throat, unasked, that are all around me in Uganda.  The questions about death and faith.  I’m terrified because if I fail to save you, you will not live on in another world.  I will be here, and you will be gone.  I am afraid that if I do not figure out a way to hear some god, I may not be able to continue doing this work.

Sometimes, usually when I’m lying in bed at night, I feel a tingling at the back of my head, and I have to reach up to feel if I’m whole. 
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Red Hook, Love and Basketball

I told her I grew up in Red Hook.  Which was only kind of true.  I grew up in Gravesend and Park Slope, in Red Hook, Key West, Gainesville.  But Red Hook, those were my formative years. 

We lived in this brick house at the end of Beard Street.  It’s still the house of my dreams.  Wooden staircases, restaurant stove, tin ceilings, fireplaces, an English garden.  This house could eat my 400sq foot studio for breakfast.

My mom worked at a nonprofit on Van Brundt street.  My other mom owned an international shipping company that worked out of the warehouse down the block.  My parents were heavily involved in the community and we went to city hall meetings to make sure the garbage dump wasn’t built in Red Hook.  We went on marches protesting that “DAMN DAIRY PLANT” down the block.  We built gardens on the waterfront and worked to restore  the old trolleys.  I was extremely helpful by bringing art into Red Hook by way of an outdoor performed modern dance to Let it Be. 

Not many of my school friends would visit me so I made friends on the block.  There were 2 apartment buildings across the street and I guess they didn’t have doorbells (??) because I would shout “Elissabeeeeth, Nelllsoooon” over and over until their mom opened the window and leaned out.

“Can Elisabeth come out to play?”

Then the two of us would call for Kris.  Oh my god Kris.  I looooooved Kris.  I spent hours looking out my window into his window wondering what he was doing.  Asking my magic eight ball if he and I would get married some day. 

“Krriiiiisss, can you come out to play?”

When the heavy door to his building squealed open my heart skipped a beat.  I bet if I heard that door today I would still catch my breath.  Then I’d hear the basketball dribbling on the concrete sidewalk.  Squeal of door, bounce of ball.  Those are the sounds love is made of.

“Hey,” he’d say and pass me the ball. 

“What’s up,” I’d say, and dribble the ball between my legs like a goddamn pro.  I was all curly hair and jammed fingers.  An 11 year old lover in baby blue Air Jordans.  (I scrubbed those beauties with my toothbrush once a week.)

We’d play until the sun set and then some.  We drew a square on the warehouse next to my house.  Hit it with your ball for a point.  (We once burned out a soda crate and tied it to a fence for a hoop.  But someone stole it…) Quick 10 point games, every man for himself.  Nelson sometimes joined us before he got too old to play on the block.  When no one could come out, I would play by myself, practicing bouncing the ball against the wall and catching the rebound for an ally-oop.  If I was going to join the WNBA and if Kris and I were going to live out my Love and Basketball fantasy, I had to start getting good.

When we weren’t playing basketball we were at the corner store buying candy.  None of that chocolate crap either.  We liked the hard stuff.  Pure  sugar packed into tubes that would turn our mouths blue or maybe a pack of sour straws that we smoked like cigarettes.  We  would  shake up soda bottles and leave them in the street for cars to run over.  Because. Hilarious. 

In the winter we crammed into the hallway and played monopoly.  Yelled at  people when they had to walk over our board to get to the stairs and messed up our house placement.  The hallway was dark but warm and thick with the comforting smell of Ecuadorian food.

If it was summer, we would lay our bellies on the sun warmed bricks in the garden and roll roly polys to see whose went farthest.  Or me and Elisabeth would draw a whole house out on a piece of paper and see where our slug babies would go.

“Look, yours is going into the bathroom!”

Elisabeth taught me all the Spanish words to the Macarena. 

We rigged a skateboard with a rope.  One sat, one ran, both fell.  Most of my scars are from those days.  But the trick was never to go inside.  Not for a band aid or to use the bathroom.  Because that’s when the parents would remember you existed and make you come in for the night.

Things changed after 9/11.  My mom took pictures of the towers burning from our roof.  My other mom lost her shipping business.  My parents went to 6 funerals.  The experience gave them pause.  They were tired of the New York rat race and wanted to slow down and live the life that New York collectively realized could be gone in seconds.  Within a few months, they sold our house, enrolled me into Key West High School and my sister into Montessouri.  3 months after that, my fifth generation Brooklyn family moved to Key West.

I stopped playing basketball at school because the nearest away game was an hour away.  I lost touch with Elisabeth and Nelson.  Kris and I, despite the magic 8 ball predictions, did not get married.   It was 7 years before I visited Red Hook again.  There is an Ikea now and a Fairway.  There are man buns in Sunny’s and a candy shop selling only chocolate.  My mother’s warehouse is owned by some artisanal artist brewing beer with wood or making wood with beer.  The English garden has no light anymore because of some crab shack minigolf monstrosity blocking the sun.  I passed my house and saw a blonde boy playing with his phone on my steps.  But I could still see Kris’s name written on the sidewalk from that time he wrote it in the wet cement with a stick.

I’m  back  in New York, living  in Harlem now.  It feels good to be back here.  My world weary body is ready for it.  I’ve lived in 5 different countries, 10 different cities.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say New York.  If I feel they’ll get me, I say Brooklyn.  But if I’m feeling real, I’ll say “I grew up in Red Hook.”

Red Hook: May 2001, Van Brundt Street.  Aunt is wearing Red Hook G.A.G (Groups Against Garbage) Shirt