A pie from F&F Pizzeria, a modern shop that takes inspiration from New York’s past. Photo: Melissa Hom

Filmmaker David Shapiro’s Untitled Pizza Movie is, as the title suggests, about pizza — sort of. The seven-part series, which Metrograph will screen virtually until March 14, uses pizza and pizzerias as means to address bigger, more complicated themes: identity, the constance of change and upheaval of gentrification, loss, memory, and failure. As much as the series is about loss — of life, in more than one way; home, in other ways — it’s also about coming to terms with that feeling. 

The project began in the ’90s when Shapiro and his friends Leeds Atkinson — the two grew up together on the Lower East Side — began filming a low-budget show called Eat to Win. Along the way, Shapiro and Leeds go to Lombardi’s, and meet a man named Andrew Bellucci, a rising star in pizza whose past as a Wall Street criminal eventually turns everything upside down. Subsequently, Shapiro and Atkinson, who struggled with substance abuse, drifted apart. 

After Atkinson died at the age of 52, Shapiro took up the project again, and the resulting work is a mix of archival, Hi-8 footage from the ’90s (a puckish and altogether joyful memorial of Shapiro’s friendship with Atkinson), mixed with contemporary footage and interviews with the likes of former New York Times restaurant critic Eric Asimov. In the end, it also documents Bellucci’s return to a very different New York and the opening of his own pizzeria.

I spoke with Shapiro about the series, using pizza as a way into bigger and much more complicated topics, how we relate to our homes through places like pizzerias, making memory, and losing lifelong friends. 

Food and in this case pizza, because we’re in New York, is a great way to talk about how a city changes. Even in the ’90s, you were saying, “New York is already over.” Now, because these places, pizzerias, are not glamorous, for the most part it’s something that is accessible to a wider swath of people.
Absolutely. And there was a reason why I went back to the footage. Pizza was what we chose back then because it is very accessible. It’s iconic and associated with New York and to your point, everybody can eat pizza. That’s why it may, in fact, be the perfect pandemic food. For $5, you can have a good meal, you can get it to go, you can grab a slice, you can be in and out. In food, there’s love, there’s a connection. So pizza is a very interesting article of transaction, I thought, and it was a fun, accessible way to talk about complex things.

You talk about the religious concept of the second death with people, but it’s also true of places. “That city is gone,” is what you say about the New York of your youth, but you have aspects of it that are still here — as long as someone who remembers it is still alive.
Having grown up here, and lived here for a really long time, before COVID, New York was going, in my opinion, in a very bad direction. It was being neutered and turned into a playground for certain classes, and not others. The very things that made it New York — as much as that was ever a real thing to begin with — were neighborhoods with a mix of classes and local places, and pizzerias are a perfect example of that. But if you can’t afford to open a pizzeria, then you’re screwed. Now it seems to me there is, because of the current circumstances, an opportunity to reset and rethink the way things are here.

People are eating local, because they have, and you want to support your local places, and you want to find a way to do it, and you want to reconnect as a community, in person. So if a pizzeria is a means to do that, great.

I think there is an opportunity to get back to what made this city vibrant in the first place, because if it’s just going to be like what happened in Times Square, it lost the heart and soul of what this place was. I think there’s a document of that in this work, but I also think at the end of it, there’s a hope for something else, something more down to earth and human again.

I think it’s interesting that you bring up Times Square, because of the perception that it’s a Disney-fied tourist trap that everyone in New York hates. But it wasn’t, obviously, always that way, and for some people it’s a different place in their memory.
I don’t want to romanticize it. It was a shitty, gritty place. Dangerous and sleazy. It was nasty. But at a certain point New York was a series of neighborhoods that were butted-up against each other, where people from different classes really could coexist. I think that there’s a push to get it back, and I hope that happens.

David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson back in the day. Photo: Courtesy of Untitled Pizza Project

I’m thinking of the book How to Kill a City, and the sentence, “Gentrification almost always takes place on top of someone else’s loss.” In your series, you can see that reflected in the combination of archival footage and contemporary footage, and the way those things are meshed together.
I wanted to sew together the past, the present, and the future. At the beginning, when we started this, we were just kind of fucking around and having fun. We wanted to eat for free and make movies, but we also saw it happen in front of our faces: The city was being gentrified very quickly. And some of the places that happened to be food places, which we held near and dear, were going to be gone. So we wanted to sort of memorialize them, and preserve them on video. We didn’t exactly know how it was going to come into play, but we knew it’d be a good thing to do, so we did that.

And then sometimes when you repurpose something 20 years down the road, it becomes more meaningful. And a lot of these iconic New York places are gone, like Ratner’s. Mercifully, Katz’s is still here, but there are a lot of these places that were captured in the footage that are no longer. So on that level, there’s the pizza-mentary — all these great parlors that are no longer — and then there’s also a document of a changing New York,  a city in the throngs of gentrification.

Food helps to create a sense of attachment to, and belonging in, a place, rather than just talking about sort of abstract concepts. 
You’re right, yeah. There’s a surface level to the work and then there are layers of subtext. We talk about so many different ideas, and they’re all interrelated. The benefit of a series, like a novel, is you can go deep with character, so as you learn these characters, you understand the relationships, the triangulation between them, and then the form of the work.

You’re showing, in a way, how people learn to belong to a place and find attachment to it through these places, like pizzerias. So when these places are taken away from you, of course, you’re losing a part of yourself, because it means there’s a loss of some way in which you relate to your home?
Yes, if you look at the footage filmed in 2018, 2019, 2020 — before COVID — the city was looking pretty good. But it was also kind of slick, it was sort of corporatized. You do feel a sense of loss of the little places that had rough edges and eccentricities. And it’s those very places that you remember and miss. You don’t want to get stuck in the past, you don’t want to be sentimental, but at the same time, what is progress? And what is forward-moving?

Change is inevitable. Hyper-gentrification, though, is rightfully an impossible thing for people to accept, but it’s interesting to watch someone actually try to grapple with it.
Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right, I think you’re right. It’s totally inevitable, it’s like a bulldozer, it’s why I was trying to find visual or filmic metaphors. I knew that this would be like David throwing rocks at the Goliath that is gentrification, but we’re doing it, we’re trying to honor and preserve and make something out of it, and make a mark. And it’s important to say, “This is progress that we’re making, but this is a move towards changing the city into something that maybe is not going in a great direction.”

A relevant quote that stood out to me is, “We lived in a time and a place that was in a hurry to bury its past.” I thought that was great, because it’s in such contrast to the project itself, which is focused on interrogating the past.
I’m glad you picked that line. I think it’s true, I think we were trying to slow it down. That’s what making work is. It’s trying to stop the fast movement for a second, stick a spoke in the wheel, and say, “Hey, look at this, be present. Do you see what’s going on?” We’re in such a quick world right now, there’s hardly any time to be present. And yet we’re also disconnected — because of both technology and COVID — and a way that’s kind of dangerous. It’s desperately needed to rekindle who we are as people and culture.

Leeds and Atkinson as seen on their pizza quest. Photo: Courtesy of HoFu

I’d like to ask more about Leeds. As we were watching the first couple episodes, it made me think about my life. I’ve lost four friends. Two of my oldest friends died in the same year, 2016. One was five years ago this month, so I’ve been thinking about him. I have ruminated on this person’s life, and thought about how people become ghosts and our memories of them.
There’s a connection between recognizably human foundational emotions and experiences. You have your friends who you grew up with, and came up with and you experienced things together, and maybe they’re gone now. I have that, too — everybody does.

You can almost look back at your friendship and remember things as a series of scenes, where you grow together, and you experience the world together. And then, as it often happens, people change, you’re not the same person you were when you were a teenager. And sometimes somebody gets married, or somebody is still single, or somebody finds God, or somebody goes down the rabbit hole, or somebody moves to Europe, or somebody gets a job at Google and the other guy ends up in an SRO. You just don’t know what the hell is going to happen. But if you look at it in retrospect, it’s very much like a narrative, like a film.

In the series, Leeds’s ex-wife says that a lot of people gave up on him. That’s something I feel about myself with my friend. He was in a really bad way with drugs. We all believe he had some mental health problems, and I distanced myself from him. And you end up thinking, “Okay, what are the ways in which I failed this person?”
You’re talking about things that are in your experience. In my experience there’s total symmetry. Of course, the people are different and the problems are different, and circumstances are different, but there’s a real overlap. Everybody’s got some version of that story, I hope not as extreme as mine, or yours, but everybody’s got something like that. And it’s very human to sort of have survivor’s guilt, or to rethink, and have regrets or to think, “Why didn’t I do this? Or why can’t I help them?” But at the end of the day when you move through life here, you’re an adult at a certain point, and you’re responsible for your actions.

It does seem to me like obviously, in part this series is a way of memorializing your friend. I think about that with my friends, too. 
Yeah. The person that I met when I was 10, and we remained friends for over 30 years. That was like, “There’s a wonderful human being there.” He was a special person, at least he was to me. And I think he had a joyful soul, and a love of life and an incredible attention to detail. He was really present in life. It was like living with his art in some way. Walking down the street with Leeds was very exciting and fun, because he would point things out and things would trigger and he’s very well-read. But he was just a fun person who was very present in the world.

Yeah. The person that I met when I was 10, and we remained friends for over 30 years. That was like, “There’s a wonderful human being there.” He was a special person, at least he was to me. And I think he had a joyful soul, and a love of life and an incredible attention to detail. He was really present in life. It was like living with his art in some way. Walking down the street with Leeds was very exciting and fun, because he would point things out and things would trigger and he’s very well-read. But he was just a fun person who was very present in the world.

At one point, you say this movie is about three people who have all made big mistakes in their lives, and tried to own up to them. These aren’t perfectly sympathetic people, and you don’t pretend like everything about New York’s past was good.
That’s right. We started our conversation talking about how sentimentality and nostalgia get in the way, and cloud facts, and mask them with fiction. We all do that. We all want to remember the best of things, and drop the painful bits and push them to the side. And so that’s what I think people remember about their life, their city and neighborhood, their friends.

I wanted this to be an alive, truthful work — emotionally truthful — that grapples with what did and didn’t happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.