Litmus Taste Test

Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

The headline item on the CV of Herman Cain, ascendant hard-right Republican presidential candidate of the moment, is his tenure as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, during which he is said to have pulled the chain out of a fiscal slide. There are no Godfather’s franchises in the five boroughs, but the company’s website lists one in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just south of the landing strip at Newark Airport. Seeking to evaluate Cain’s potential via the pizza his former company sells, New York solicited the services of Scott Wiener, a 29-year-old pizzaphile who runs a city-based business called Scott’s Pizza Tours. It took Wiener several trips past the store’s alleged address just off Route 1-9 before he realized that the Godfather’s in question was actually a “limited menu” outlet located inside a Hess gas station, where it shared counter space with a seemingly closed Blimpie and a case of hot dogs labeled “All-American Grill.”

Wiener selected a personal-size pizza called the “Humble Pie”—pepperoni, sausage, peppers, and onions—which had been sitting under some heat lamps. It cost $4.79 and came in a cardboard box. He looked inside. In a reversal of the typical system, the toppings had been cooked underneath the cheese. “You wonder if they’ve got something to hide,” Wiener said.

He picked up a slice and eyeballed the crust in cross-section. “Right away you can see a gum line, which is uncooked dough.” He looked at the piece from underneath, then turned toward the oven behind the counter. It was a Lincoln Impinger model, ­Wiener said—an oven that pizzas move through on a conveyor belt so as to ensure even baking without requiring the constant attention of an employee. (The Godfather’s employees were occupied next to the oven unloading frozen, preformed discs of dough from a large cardboard box.)

The approach saves money, but because the pizza’s crust never touches a hot surface, it doesn’t get crispy. “It looks like it will taste like butter in the worst way possible,” Wiener said. (One of the ingredients listed on the box was “buttery oil.”) He took a bite. The sausage was “not the worst in the world”; it benefited from the flavor of real fennel seeds. “If they switched up the crust, they might be on to something,” Wiener said. Still, “it tastes like a frozen pizza you would make in the microwave. This is definitely 3 a.m. pizza.” He ate a little bit more but threw most of the pie away. “It didn’t make me sick,” he noted.

Subpar though it was, the pizza wasn’t the worst option, in context. “Godfather’s is not basing their business on quality of product,” Wiener said. “They’re basing it on convenience.” It might not have been a dream meal, but one could see how some consumer with little time to spare, someone whose favorite restaurants repeatedly insisted they were closed, whose only other choices were an old hot dog and an excessively zesty piece of beef jerky, could, perhaps, talk himself into it.

Litmus Taste Test