Tito Ibarra traveled from Clemson, S.C., to New York City with one mission: to eat a slice from all 35 pizzerias at the One Bite Pizza Festival.
He was in the city for just about 12 hours: He landed in the morning, after driving two hours to Atlanta and taking a two-and-a-half-hour flight. Then, he booked it to a minor-league baseball stadium in Coney Island for the outdoor event, which unfortunately coincided with Tropical Storm Ophelia.
“I love pizza,” Mr. Ibarra, 35, said emphatically, his soaked green bucket hat pushed back as his Instagram story cataloging slices eaten played on a loop in his hand.
Mr. Ibarra was among thousands of people, most of whom who paid at least $150 for a ticket, attending the festival on a rainy Saturday last month, eating junior-size slices from dozens of renowned pizzerias like Lucali and Di Fara in Brooklyn, Prince Street Pizza and John’s of Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and Sally’s Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn.
Beyond Mr. Ibarra, from a stage just inside the outfield fence, Dave Portnoy stoked the crowd. He thanked them for braving the elements, cursed at Mother Nature — and media organizations he believed were trying to take him down — and offered up a simple observation for a decidedly complicated festival: “People just want to have fun, eat pizza!”
Thousands of people attended the first One Bite pizza festival. Mr. Portnoy said he would like to do another.Credit…The New York Times
That so many of the country’s best pizzerias were gathered in the same outfield was because of Mr. Portnoy, who travels around by private jet rating pizza shops in unvarnished social-media videos.
He may be better known as the caustic founder of Barstool Sports — with a history of misogynistic and racist remarks, and sexual misconduct accusations against him — but Mr. Portnoy is almost certainly the most influential person on the American pizza scene. He is perhaps one of the most influential people in the world of food social media. With more than three million followers on TikTok and more than 136 million likes, he can change the fate of a pizzeria with a single utterance. A score higher than 8.9 can vault a shop to fame, filling it with customers for months.
“One review from Dave was enough for me to make enough money to remodel the whole place,” said Al Santillo, who owns Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza in Elizabeth, N.J., standing under his tent kitchen on the festival field. And Mr. Portnoy did not even rate Santillo’s at the top of the scale. It received an 8.3, though a video of the review has been watched 3.5 million times on YouTube.
And far from being a deterrent to followers, pizzerias or sponsors, Mr. Portnoy’s profane, brash persona, and exposure it brings, is a chief part of his appeal. To a fan base of mostly younger white men, the immediate feel of his videos turns pizza reviewing into reality TV. And even if it occasionally gets messy, it’s all content.
One Bite, Many Opinions
Mr. Portnoy founded Barstool Sports in 2003 as a sports betting newspaper for Boston bars. Today, Barstool produces a head-spinning number of podcasts, videos and blogs about sports and culture, and its fans, known as Stoolies, don’t just consume the media, but also buy merchandise and are deeply invested in personalities and the behind-the-scenes of the business itself.
Penn National, a gambling company, completed a purchase of Barstool this year for over half a billion dollars, making Mr. Portnoy rich. He recently spent $42 million on a house on Nantucket, reportedly the most expensive residential sale ever in Massachusetts.
In its current incarnation, however, Barstool is as much a reality show for bros — call it “The Real Sports-Adjacent Content Producers of New York” — and a gathering place for a demographic some have called “Barstool Republicans” as it is about sports.
Many of those gathered in Coney Island last month were deeply familiar with the Portnoy Cinematic Universe.
Austin Purkey, 29, watches every one of Mr. Portnoy’s one-bite reviews. “I’ve been fan-girling over him for so long, with the pizza,” said Mr. Purkey, who said he is into sports gambling and has followed Barstool Sports for about three years.
When Mr. Portnoy began the pizza project on a lark a decade ago, he laid out his reviewing philosophy in one of the first posts. “To do a real pizza review, you gotta eat it fresh, like I just picked it up,” Mr. Portnoy says in the video. “You can’t drive it. You gotta take a bite, and it’s gotta be instant, like word association.”
This methodology has held sway ever since. At pizzerias from Las Vegas to the Lower East Side, he shows up with a videographer, buys a pizza, walks outside and eats a slice, sometimes with a nervous owner hovering nearby. After a few minutes of bites and banter, Mr. Portnoy renders his verdict, on a scale from zero to 10 that includes decimals.
Today, Mr. Portnoy’s pizza mini-empire, One Bite, also includes an app in which fans and celebrities can also review pizzas. The name is a bit of a running joke: In his reviews, he repeatedly says “one bite, everybody knows the rules” even as he takes multiple bites.
Outside the pizza realm, though, Mr. Portnoy’s history is fraught.
Mr. Portnoy has made repeated sexist and aggressive statements, including an instance in which he said some women “kind of deserve to be raped.” There are multiple videos in which he has used the N-word, and he has publicly used homophobic slurs.
In articles that appeared on Insider in late 2021 and early 2022, six women accused him of sexual misconduct, including “frightening and humiliating” sexual encounters in which he choked and filmed them without their consent. Mr. Portnoy has said the sex was consensual, and sued the news outlet that reported the accusations. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.
“I disagree with almost all the assertions that have been made about me, and most of the time, actually, I’d say all the time, there’s a very reasonable, logical defense,” Mr. Portnoy said in an interview with The New York Times after the festival. In the past, he has said that many of his most controversial statements were jokes.
For Mr. Purkey, some of Mr. Portnoy’s past behavior raised “red flags,” but he’s still a loyalist. “Dave’s not running for office,” he said. “He’s tasting pizza.”
Mr. Purkey’s wife, Ashley, though, felt differently. She said that she liked the “Chicks in the Office” pop culture podcast on Barstool Sports, but that some of the things Mr. Portnoy has said, especially about women, have made her “deeply uncomfortable.”
“I’m not here for Dave Portnoy,” she said, adding, “I don’t agree with a lot of the things that he’s said. But that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for the pizza.”
But in the One Bite world, Dave Portnoy and the pizza are something of a package deal.
Reviews That Make or Break
For many pizzerias, that package seems just fine, though more than 10 that participated in the One Bite festival did not return calls or emails for comment.
Criticizing Mr. Portnoy and Barstool does come with a known cost: the full wrath of the Barstool army. Social media is weaponized. Reporters, particularly female reporters, are harassed. Business emails, voicemail boxes and review sites are flooded. He has a self-proclaimed alter ego — “Grudge Dave” — that comes out when he is feuding, as when he and Barstool followers attacked SoulCycle and one of their instructors on Instagram and Twitter after Mr. Portnoy said on a Barstool radio show that the instructor had slept with his girlfriend.
For many of the Portnoy faithful, these kinds of in-your-face tactics and social-media pugilism aren’t incidental — they’re the main event.
Deeb Sankary, 38, a real estate broker in Brooklyn, was at the festival with his friend Jawad Braick, 24, a software engineer. In the past, they had driven all the way to Philadelphia for a pizzeria endorsed by Mr. Portnoy. Now, they liked that all the places they wanted to try were in one spot.
“Dave’s just raw. He’s just a raw person. He’s not sugarcoating it,” Mr. Sankary said. “He’s basically a voice for the real person.”
“His personality is what drew me to like pizza more,” Mr. Braick chimed in.
It’s this draw that makes some pizzerias Portnoy partisans, a bond that was only strengthened during the pandemic, when Mr. Portnoy, who has worked to cultivate a reputation as a savior of small businesses, raised what he said was more than $40 million to help ones that were struggling. You do not have to like Mr. Portnoy to see the effects of that fund-raising.
In just one example, the owners of Tadich Grill, one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco, declared Dave Portnoy Day after theirs was one of hundreds of restaurants that received tens of thousands of dollars, telling SF Gate, “Wherever in his heart he had the ability to make a meaningful difference for small businesses, he’s doing that, and for that we’re grateful.”
But just as easily as he can make, or support, small businesses, Mr. Portnoy can also tear them down them, seemingly just out of spite.
Five years ago he reviewed Sauce, a New York pizzeria, and gave it a very favorable 9.1. But this July, Matthew Silva, Sauce’s chief of staff, gave an interview to Slate expressing mixed feelings about the resulting crowds, i.e., Stoolies. Last month Mr. Portnoy re-reviewed Sauce, criticizing the “flop” of the pizza. He knocked its score down to a tepid 7.3.
Mr. Portnoy’s reviews can be meandering, often in entertaining ways, but they always include the snap judgment of a precise score. Chris Bianco, who owns the highly regarded Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, said such snap reviews don’t consider the entirety of a restaurant.
“To take one ride around the block of something does not necessarily tell you the best score, or one bite of something,” Mr. Bianco said.
But Mr. Portnoy’s reviews are not just reviews. Sometimes it seems like they are barely about pizza at all, but rather showcases for his confrontational attitude, pugnacious spectacles of grievance that can have as much in common with reality TV as with restaurant reviewing.
His most recent confrontation occurred in Somerville, Mass., outside Dragon Pizza. As he was reviewing the pizza, its owner, Charlie Redd, confronted Mr. Portnoy: “Enjoy your pizza as any customer, but I don’t appreciate what you do, judging a pizza on one bite.”
Mr. Redd told Mr. Portnoy that he harmed small businesses, and then a few minutes later told him to leave: “Let me be a little clearer: Move on, don’t stand in front of my business.” Mr. Portnoy responded, “Let me be little clearer,” and began hurling expletives at Mr. Redd and gave him the middle finger as the two men yelled at each other.
Mr. Portnoy first showed the video to the world during his appearance on Tucker Carlson’s new show on X, formerly known as Twitter, and shortly afterward the predictable happened. Negative reviews of Dragon Pizza poured in on Yelp, people began phoning the pizzeria to harass employees or place prank orders, and Mr. Redd began fearing for the safety of his employees.
“When that tornado of negative energy and uncontrolled rage over a slice of pizza takes over your world, the word I can only choose now is mental,” he said. Business has improved, however, and things have mostly settled down. “Troll armies can only puke green vomit for three days or so,” said Mr. Redd.
Like so many of Mr. Portnoy’s interactions, if they go badly, it’s still good for Mr. Portnoy, One Bite and Barstool.
“I’m never trying to intentionally pick fights, but I’m not crying when it’s over,” Mr. Portnoy said, adding, “It’s good for Barstool when things like that happen. I know instantly: We just got a viral video.”
But Mr. Portnoy contended that there have been only a handful of such confrontations in the thousands of reviews he has done. And besides, picking fights would be bad for a brand that relies on authenticity.
“Our audience can tell the difference between staged and just ‘Dave’s in the course of his day,’” he said.
The Dave Show’s Next Episode
As for the future of the Barstool business, Mr. Portnoy said his pizza empire is more about his personal brand than about long-term strategy and revenue generation. “We don’t really give, like, as much forethought as maybe people think,” he said.
In August, Penn National sold Barstool back to Mr. Portnoy for just $1. His reputation had caused trouble with gambling regulators as Penn sought sports betting licenses, and the Barstool brand, which Penn was essentially using as its marketing arm, was not enough for Penn to challenge the dominant companies in sports betting, like DraftKings and MGM.
Jay Snowden, Penn’s chief executive, said the sale would allow Barstool to “return to its roots” without “the restrictions associated with a publicly traded, licensed gaming company.” To Stoolies, that means that without scrutiny from regulators the unfettered Dave Portnoy is back.
But his company still has a distance to go. For the first six months of 2023, before Barstool was sold back to Mr. Portnoy, Penn National reported that Barstool had lost $16.9 million. Upon taking back ownership in August, Mr. Portnoy immediately laid off 25 percent of its staff. The advertising market for online media is troubled, and one of the easiest revenue streams, from sports betting companies, is off the table for a few years as a condition of the sale.
Mr. Portnoy said Barstool will eventually return to sports betting, though, and he also wants to host more pizza festivals. Stoolies, it seems, will be there for all of it.
Back at the festival, as the rain persisted, Glenn Pallotta, 51, tucked a torso-size cutout of Dave Portnoy’s head under his poncho to keep it dry. He intended to decorate his “man cave” with the keepsake, he said.
“I like the way Dave presents himself, how he treats people,” he said. “He’s a man of the people. He’s a regular guy.”
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