On Saturday, September 23, the inaugural One Bite Pizza Fest was held in a rain-soaked ballpark in Coney Island. The festival was the subject of a massive controversy, thanks to the figure putting it on: Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy.
Since 2017, Portnoy has hosted a series called One Bite Pizza Reviews on his YouTube channel, where his 1.05 million subscribers tune in for his thoughts on various pizzas. Portnoy assigns a score to each pie after taking a few bites, and offers commentary on the crust, the sauce, and other elements. The first-ever One Bite Pizza Fest was Portnoy’s attempt to bring together his favorite pizzerias, including Prince Street Pizza in New York and Sally’s Apizza in Connecticut, for ticket buyers who paid as much as $700 for the VIP experience.
But ahead of the festival, restaurants who chose to participate were criticized by food media figures like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Instagram influencer Joe Rosenthal for taking part in the event, because Portnoy has a well-documented history of offensive speech, and multiple women have accused him of sexual misconduct and harassment. He does not make his opinions or attitudes a secret, and his behavior is enough that many pizza fans are rightly concerned to see their favorite shops associate with him.
Yet, according to Portnoy, at least 5,000 people attended the festival, despite the “haters” who tried to “destroy this event.” And judging by the storied pizzerias, including Di Fara, Lucali, and Frank Pepe, who chose to participate in the Fest, and the fact that so many people showed up in the rain for bites of pizza, it’s clear Portnoy’s influence in the pizza world remains strong. But why?
What’s the deal with Dave Portnoy?
It’s not Portnoy’s pizza opinions that make him a controversial figure. In 2003, he launched the website Barstool Sports, which earned a massive following for its raunchy, blatantly offensive brand of sports coverage. As just a brief summary of his offensive remarks, Portnoy has suggested that some women who wear skinny jeans deserve to be raped, condoned homophobic, misogynistic, and racist language, and used a misogynist slur to refer to an ESPN host who pointed out Barstool Sports’ history of sexist remarks.
Portnoy denies that Barstool Sports is “anti-women.” In 2018 he told Insider “I gave two girls their own radio show ... We have hired girl after girl — they say it’s a great place to work.” Portnoy has also said some of these remarks were made “off the cuff,” but has made little apology. “We’re sick of other people saying what other people should laugh at,” he told Insider. “People seem to have moral superiority.”
Portnoy has been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women, some of whom say he engaged in “violent” sex and others who claim he filmed them without their consent. Portnoy has vehemently denied all allegations of sexual misconduct, and filed a defamation suit against Insider, who published the reporting in 2021. A judge dismissed Portnoy’s suit in November 2022.
Portnoy has also been accused of threatening his critics. In early September, he posted a video trashing Boston pizzeria Dragon Pizza, which he described as the “worst pizza place in America.” In the video, Portnoy has an encounter with owner Charlie Redd, who criticized Portnoy’s “one-bite” review style. The two ended up in a heated exchange, and both Redd and Portnoy addressed the incident on their social media platforms. Portnoy also appeared on Tucker Carlson’s X show to talk about the incident, immediately after which the pizzeria was flooded with bad reviews and harassing comments. Weeks later, Portnoy stans are still leaving nasty comments on Dragon Pizza’s Instagram posts.
Those who defend Portnoy’s behavior point to his support for small businesses, meaning the pizzerias that he bestows with good reviews. His devoted audience of 3 million Twitter followers and 4.5 million on Instagram clearly trusts his pizza opinions. Portnoy also raised $29 million for small businesses as the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants across the country to shut down. A pizzeria that earns a good review from Portnoy can also, generally, expect a major bump in business. A New Jersey pizzeria owner told Fox Business that Portnoy “saved” her business, while a Maine pizzeria reported being “overwhelmed” with orders immediately after Portnoy’s review went up. (Notably, Dragon Pizza was also “packed” after Redd’s spat with Portnoy.)
Why is this all coming to a head now?
Though all of this has been public knowledge for some time, news of the festival reinvigorated critics of Portnoy, One Bite Pizza, and Barstool Sports. Food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and mathematician and self-proclaimed “food antagonist” Joe Rosenthal have complained about the pizza industry’s ongoing support of Portnoy on their Instagrams, with Rosenthal compiling data about Portnoy including allegations made against him and writing — in response to the data and allegations — “Do not let the food world continue to enable this harm.”
Last week on NJ.com, Jeremy Schneider wondered aloud “why are N.J. pizzerias supporting misogynist bully Dave Portnoy?” and called for pizzerias to drop out of the weekend’s festival. And in his newsletter the Lo Times, Ryan Sutton makes the point that although Portnoy’s behavior is enough reason to avoid his content, the One Bite Pizza Festival wasn’t even a good deal. “Why pay the highest price you’ve ever paid for pizza — $150-$300 per person — if the area’s top restaurants are feeding New Yorkers for just $3 to $6 a slice?,” he writes. “And those Portnoy tickets don’t even get you alcohol! I hate to say this, but you’ve all been shaken down.”
The public pushback seems to be getting louder, but none of this information is new, which raises the question: Why has it taken this long for people to publicly speak up? One reason might be the pattern of harassment that follows many who criticize Portnoy. Both Schneider and Emily Heil, author of a recent Washington Post article chronicling Portnoy’s history and the controversy around the festival, are currently enduring harassment from Portnoy and his fans.
On his blog, Portnoy says Schneider shouldn’t have “gone to war” against him, and “I don’t want to hear him cry about how the Stoolie bullied him after he threw the first punch and that he deserves everything he’s about to get.” (Portnoy fans are called “Stoolies.”) He also issued what seemed like a vague threat to any pizzerias who may have pulled out of his festival: “Now, don’t get me wrong I’m not worried about places dropping because I have close relationships with almost all of them and they love me. But imagine if I didn’t?” In a recent pizza review video, he also encouraged fans to flip off J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.
Many of Portnoy’s fans are known to spam and harass anyone who criticizes him, whether it’s insulting detractors in Instagram comments or doxxing people, and the owner of Dragon Pizza says soon after Portnoy uploaded a video of his and Portnoy’s fight online, he began receiving death threats.
It’s understandable that many restaurants may just want to keep their heads down. But others see no problem with Portnoy, or if they do, they believe his actions and personal statements should have nothing to do with his pizza reviews. Kevin Jackson, general manager of John’s of Bleecker Street, told the Washington Post he wasn’t aware of any assault allegations, but “when you talk about business practices, he was the guy raising millions of dollars for businesses during COVID. He’s been good to pizzerias and restaurants in general. That’s my take on that.”
On its Instagram, One Bite Pizza Fest participant Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria wrote “PIZZA and politics don’t mix!” And sure, most of us would probably be happy to never think about our pizzaiolos’ political beliefs. But Portnoy’s deeds are public, so supporters are forced to reckon with them. He’s the one who brought politics into the equation.
There’s no denying Portnoy’s influence and the revenue he can generate for pizzerias. But it is perhaps because of the volatile nature of the restaurant industry in the first place that Portnoy has amassed so much power. Margins are razor thin, third-party delivery companies are eating up profits, and inflation is making calculating just how much someone is willing to pay for a slice of pizza ever more fraught. If one video can drive traffic and profits for months, even years, on end, why look that gift horse in the mouth?
Still, there’s plenty of proof that pizzerias don’t need to be acknowledged by Portnoy in order to survive, and even thrive. As Sutton writes, “Most of the Tri-State area’s best pizzerias didn’t attend Portnoy’s festival and probably won’t attend future ones. Let that sink in.”
Where do we go from here?
One thing seems abundantly clear: Portnoy has no plans to get out of the pizza review business, which means that if pizzerias don’t want to be associated with Portnoy, they may want to actively — and publicly — reject his endorsement. But as we’ve seen, that’s an action that can have serious consequences — Redd says that he dealt with death threats after Portnoy’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show, and his history of harassing reporters (and, occasionally suing them) is well-documented.
But for pizzerias who feel voicing their distaste for Portnoy might hurt their business, there’s another option: Just ignore him. There’s no need for these establishments to associate themselves with Portnoy, even if he is driving new business. Don’t repost his reviews, don’t thank him, and don’t take advantage of his platform in an effort to make a few extra bucks. There may not be much pizzeria owners can do about Portnoy showing up with a video camera and rating their pies, but they can refuse to engage with the hype he’s trying to create.
The same goes for the rest of us in the general reading public. Anyone can eat enough pizza to develop their own taste and expertise on it. There’s no need to ask Dave Portnoy where to get good pizza, especially when it seems as if his pizza festival kind of sucked. It was windy, rainy, and overly saturated with large pictures of Portnoy’s face, for some reason. There are plenty of great, actually well-researched pizza guides out there, which aren’t based on the opinions of just one man and don’t come with a side of repulsiveness.