Portnoy, pizza portraiture and D. Palmieri’s signature RI pizza strips

How a pizza review magnate can make or break mom and pop with a single bite ... while their kid's in the back painting pizza portraits with olives and peppers


Beautiful pizza, like art, is subjective.

Take Rhode Island’s Italian bakery specialty — pizza strips (or party pizza or party strips … or bakery pizza or red strips or whatever you called them when you were coming of age in the Ocean State).

“One thing I’ve noticed, everyone has a different idea what pizza strips are supposed to be based on the pizza parties you went to growing up; everyone has their own turf,” said Eric Palmieri of D. Palmieri’s Bakery in Johnston. “Pizza strips should be the official state snack of Rhode Island. The perfect Rhode Island meal includes pizza strips, a New York system wiener, Iggy’s doughboys, a nice cold bottle of Yacht Club soda and a glass of coffee milk for dessert.”

Palmieri’s not just a pizza proprietor. He considers himself a pizza artist, and his prized pizza portraits have captured the likenesses of pop culture legends like late actor James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), late comedian George Carlin, action star Sylvester Stallone and infamous accused Fall River murderess Lizzie Borden.

Now his pepper palette, olive oils and anchovy brushes have taken aim at pizza connoisseur “one bite, everyone knows the rules” reviewer Dave Portnoy (of Barstool Sports fame).

Portnoy in Providence

Portnoy visited D. Palmieri’s on Killingly Street and Merlino’s Pizzeria in Cranston last week (he also stopped by Francesco’s and Nice Slice pizzerias in Providence).

At D. Palmieri’s, he received a box of little rectangles, carefully sliced and topped with tangy marinara, supported by a deliciously chewy olive oil-basted undercarriage, fired on the hot stones of the bakery’s gas-powered brick oven.

Portnoy’s pizza reviews can make or break a small town or big city pizzeria.

Ocean State outsiders never like “pizza strips” at first. They’re an acquired taste — like truffles or scrapple.

“It’s cool if he didn’t like them, just like every other out-of-stater,” Palmieri joked. “That’s part of the mythos of the pizza strip.”

Eric’s father Stephen stepped out of the bakery during Portnoy’s review. He asked the pizza prince to pause while the bakery crafted a pie he’d appreciate.

Portnoy, a prickly pizza stickler, is a fan of the New Haven (Connecticut) school of pizza. Portnoy’s adamant that he only likes plain cheese slices (like Kevin McAllister in Home Alone) with a sturdy undercarriage (only a little “flop” is acceptable).

“He takes it so seriously,” Palmieri said. “That’s part of the joke.”

‘It’s cold!’ (It’s supposed to be!)

Portnoy will occasionally review an atypical slice with toppings; a section of deep dish or a thick Sicilian square (but he delivers those scores with a big asterisk, on a separate sliding scale).

The Palmieri’s didn’t expect Portnoy to appreciate their pizza strips. He asked them if they’re “supposed to be cold.”

Pizza strips are typically served room temperature (best the day they’re made).

Just damn good sauce on some doubly damn good pizza dough. (No cheese. No toppings. No garish garnish.) That’s it. That’s the ingredient list.

“You have to use the best ingredients,” Palmieri explained. “Some have a crispier crust. Some chewy. As long as you use the best ingredients … the sauce is the most important part of the strip.”

Palmieri’s oils their pan with the blood of olives. Bakes the strips. And then sets their bottoms on a hot brick (they understand the importance of a healthy “undercarriage”). The pizza’s sliced into strips, boxed and separated with sheets of translucent paper that magically bids adieu to each slice without removing the red, nightshade ambrosia on top.

It’s an old recipe.

“We’ve been doing this as a family since 1923,” Eric said, seated in the bakery’s back office. His dad was in the kitchen.

A Dying Artform?

Eric Palmieri works in a perishable medium.

Pizza art looks best immediately after it’s created. Baking changes the pie, like old age changes the faces of his real-life subjects. Refrigeration also sucks the luster from the finished edible canvas.

“The toppings shrivel in the refrigerator,” he said. “They lose their vibrancy.”

The pizza artist only has time to craft a maximum of one pre-ordered pizza painting per day. The price ranges from $99 to $199, and can easily take four hours to create.

“It’s got to be done that day, or it won’t be as good,” he warned.

Searching for ways to preserve his art form, Palmieri has decided to marry technology with his passion for pizza portraiture. His best pies can now be purchased as NFTs (non-fungible tokens, which are limited, digital images that utilize unique digital identifiers, recorded on a blockchain, which can ultimately be used to certify ownership and authenticity).

It may be the only NFT that makes any sense (a perishable art, which by definition can only be viewed and then consumed once).

Palmieri auctioned off his Portnoy/Barstool Sports pizza as an NFT (he donated the funds raised to Portnoy’s charity, the Barstool Fund, a “non-profit 30-day monetary fund to help small businesses … survive shutdown orders caused by the pandemic”). The pizza auction raised more than $400 in crypto, which he converted into cash and contributed to the Fund.

Palmieri, like many other pizza proprietors, considers Portnoy a “true champion for small business.”

He first sent Portnoy a framed copy of his pizza portrait during the Covid-19 lockdown. The now-famous pizza expert returned the favor with a visit during his Providence tour last week (he was already in town for Barstool’s Rough N’ Rowdy fight event at the Amica Mutual Pavilion).

Everyone Knows the Rules

“Alright, pizza review time,” Portnoy said to start his review on a Johnston sidewalk. “D. Palmieri’s Bakery. Somebody DM’d me. I did the research. I’m like, ‘We got to give it a shot.’ I mentioned it to a couple of people. They gave me knowing glances …  Yup, that’s Providence. That’s Rhode Island. Here we go. What do they call them? Strips?”

His often-wrong cameraman corrected him while shooting — “sheets.”

“No you’re off today … ‘Sheets’ is how you order it, but if you go there, ‘give me a strip,’” Portnoy said. “It’s kind of cold. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be cold.”

He took his single bite.

“Yeah, this is just tomato sauce on bread. This ain’t my vibe,” he was brutally honest. “It’s a very cool place; a bakery. But … not like a normal …”

A Johnston heckler weighed in.

“It’s not like a normal, you know … I did the strip thing,” Portnoy responded to the passer-by who was asking for his score. “Yeah, well they told me, for Providence, to do this.”

Stephen Palmieri’s familiar with Portnoy’s tastes. He popped out of the bakery in his marinara-stained apron. He shook Portnoy’s hand.

“So should I have done this one?” Portnoy asked Stephen Palmieri.

“That’s a Rhode Island thing,” the pizza-maker replied, resigned, but confident and knowing.

“So, that’s the Rhode Island thing … I had to do the Rhode Island thing,” Portnoy said. “It’s an acquired taste. Are they always cold?”

“We’ve got a good hot pizza,” the elder Palmieri answered. He wanted to chase down the reviewer to ensure he also tried a slice of the bakery’s other pizza offering, typically called “Homestyle” in the shop — thin and round, like a cartoon pizza.

“Do you?” Portnoy asked.

“I can put it in for you.”

Portnoy asked how long it would take. Stephen Palmieri assured him it would be about 10 minutes.

“Oh, come on, you’re here,” the baker argued with a smile.

“Alright, fine, do it,” Portnoy said, pointing to the open box of pizza strips. “Because I don’t like this ... This is like a 5.8 to me. I’m gonna give him a chance to give me a real pizza. This is not … this … if this is Providence food, then everyone’s going hungry.” (A friend of Palmieri’s immortalized that quote on a ceramic tile, which the pizza shop plans to display proudly in a place of honor.)

Portnoy reluctantly stayed; he waited on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, Eric Palmieri posed for a photo with his pizza-praising idol.

Portnoy asked the elder Palmieri how long the bakery’s been in business. He answered, “Around 60 years.” (The original family location, however, dates back a century and was first located in Providence.)

He gave Portnoy the classic round pie.

The Pizza Prophet

Stephen and Eric Palmieri stood back to watch. They stopped breathing for a minute. Portnoy has become a powerful presence in social media. His pizza reviews generate millions of views and thousands of interactions. A coveted 9 (out of 10) or higher can lead to block-length lines and trigger hours-long wait times for subsequent pie orders.

Palmieri’s doesn’t really need the help. Their business foundation is solid. They even thrived through the pandemic and emerged healthier on the other side.

“Here we go, here’s the full pie,” Portnoy said with a bigger, flatter pizza box balanced on his right hand. “Now we got the owner, 60 years, (and) the son; they’re staring me down. Keep that in mind.”

Portnoy flipped the box open and grabbed a slice with his left hand. After only a moment to cool, he dove in, taking his signature first bite (he chomped with reckless disregard for the roof of his mouth). He doesn’t mind the cheese dribble or talking with his mouth full.

“It’s good stuff,” he said, breaking his own rule and going back for a second bite. “I’ll go 7.5 on it. I think it’s a good, quality pizza.”

“Thank you for everything you do for small businesses,” Eric Palmieri told Portnoy after the review.

Back in his office, the fourth-generation pizza artist reflected on the star-struck encounter and his blossoming passion for pizza handicraft.

He asked the real question — the only question: “If you can’t have fun with pizza, what good is it?”

pizza, art, Portnoy


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