This New Yorker tackles life in the city one (plain) slice at a time

By Lyka Sethi · Feb 27, 2019 · ·

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Once in a while I come across a food influencer’s painstakingly curated, hyper-edited, calculated caption-filled Instagram feed, and I just have to turn up my nose. It irks me to see such an emphasis on how food looks over its origins and cultural context and the chefs who make it. (If I see a towering milkshake topped with an inedible quantity of rainbow-colored confections on your feed, I may assume you don’t actually enjoy eating.) It’s rare to encounter someone who has such a genuine love of food that they build their entire lifestyle around the pursuit of a deeper understanding of and appreciation for it. Brooklyn-born foodie J.P. Dimalanta embodies that purity to a T.

Though he spends long work days in a hospital emergency room, J.P. uses his free time to the fullest, hitting pizzerias old and new and never ceasing to explore more of the city that raised him. He posts on Instagram as @whatdidjp_eat, but his feed doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter catalogue. It’s genuine, it oozes dairy and gluten, it reflects the chaos of NYC, and it makes your mouth water. I spoke with J.P. about his various obsessions — pizza, the city, the 90s — and how they all fit together.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lyka: You’re from Brighton Beach, right? How did your upbringing influence your love of food?

J.P.: My parents came here in the mid-80s from the Philippines. They actually met in New York. So I was raised on Filipino food at home, but my neighborhood had Turkish food, Mexican food, Chinese, a bunch of pizzerias, Russian of course, Indian — I ate samosas after school all the time. I grew up with a lot of Salvadorans too, and I loved pupusas the moment I tried them.

L: Mmm, they’re so good.

J: When I used to go to friends’ houses, all the kids would have mac n cheese, Lunchables, chicken nuggets, regular grocery food. I was the kid who would bring a can of chicken liver pâté and bread in my backpack. I’d spread the pâté on toast and eat it open faced. The kids would make fun of me — they’d be like are you eating poop? I mean, it was brown smear on toast, but I loved it. And when I go to restaurants now, getting foie gras or chicken liver mousse or pâté just sparks this nostalgia.

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L: Tell me about how your food adventures began.

J: I went to high school at Edward R. Murrow in Brooklyn, and just like any NYC high school they give you this green and white student MetroCard. Before I had the Metrocard I only went to places I could walk to in my neighborhood; my parents didn’t let me take the train by myself. So I explored and became more independent. We got three swipes per day so I went to school with one, and with the second swipe I could go to any part of the city and find a spot to try. Tacos, burritos, dumplings in Chinatown, pizza. It was almost always pizza because it was fast, cheap and delicious.

L: What prompted you to start taking photos to document what you ate?

J: The photos started junior or senior year of high school. I don’t think my phone had a camera, or at least not a good one, so I always had a point-and-shoot on me. I’d take photos of food and friends just so I could look back and know who I hung out with and what we ate.

L: And relive what you tasted.

J: Exactly, that’s what I loved about pictures. But my friends would look at the photos and ask why I never put them up online. They’d say, “I want to know, what did JP eat?” That’s where my handle came from. I was never really into social media though. I’m still confused by Twitter and people sharing all their thoughts with the world.

L: But Instagram?

J: People would always ask me for recommendations so when Instagram came out I thought it was a good way to share.

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L: Is there a pizza or foodie community in New York that you’re a part of? I’ve noticed you seem to know some owners and chefs personally.

J: I became a regular at certain spots like Di Fara Pizza [in Midwood]. They have a system now, but back then there’d just be the old man, Dominic, taking your order. I’d go there, hang out, talk to people, the workers, the owners. For about the last ten years, instead of a birthday cake I do a birthday pizza at Di Fara and I take a photo with Dom. It’s cool to look at them over the years because you can see the changes, Dom getting older, me getting taller and a little fatter. Four years ago my girlfriend Chanelle organized a surprise party for me there, and we shut down the place. We did it again the year after. They even started using us to test new toppings.

I went to my local Mexican restaurant the other day to get a torta, and the owner was like, “Damn, I’ve known you since you were as tall as this counter.” Now, 18 years later, I’m still going there, getting the same food. He always asks about my family. So yeah, I frequently went to the same places and people began recognizing me over the years.

The pizza-loving community links together through Instagram, but there’s an annual charity event called Slice Out Hunger that brings us, and pizzerias all over the city, together. It was created by Scott Weiner of Scott’s Pizza Tours, and it’s usually in October, which is National Pizza Month. Each pizzeria donates a bunch of pies, they sell slices for a dollar, and the proceeds go toward hunger relief programs in NYC. It unites pizzerias that would normally compete under the positive goal of helping the community.

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L: Sounds like an amazing event.

J: Yeah. I started going as an attendee about seven years ago but then I started volunteering. I wanted to be part of it rather than just consuming it. I watched it grow — in the beginning they had like 30 of the best pizzerias under one roof. Now over 60 pizzerias donate over 1,700 pies. It’s a massive pizza party.

L: What’s your go-to pizza order at Di Fara?

J: A square slice or pie, usually plain, but I love their pepperoni. I started drinking seltzer at Di Fara when I was 13, because I wanted a beverage that didn’t interfere with the flavor of the pizza. Seltzer is perfect because it’s basically water, but exciting. I still drink it every day.

L: What are some of your other favorite pizza spots in the city beyond Di Fara?

J: Patsy’s in Harlem, Totonno’s in Coney Island, and Lucali in Carroll Gardens.

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L: Tell me about what you do for a living and how that fits with your interests, from food to fashion to travel. How does it all work together?

J: I’ve been an emergency room nurse for three and a half years. My schedule is flexible — I work three or four days a week. Sometimes I maneuver my schedule so I work the beginning of a week and then the end of the second week, so I have like eight days off straight.

L: What do you use that time for?

J: Travel, friends, going around the city, doing things that make me happy. I’m kind of stuck in the 90s — the streetwear, music, shoes. New York had its own style back then, and I looked up to the hip hop scene. I don’t follow many new artists or go to music festivals. I’m stuck on 80s and 90s R&B, hip hop and pop. And I’ve been buying vintage Ralph Lauren for the past 15 years. All the clothes I couldn’t get when I was younger.

L: So like collecting pieces?

J: You could say collecting, but I do actually wear them. I’ve loved sneakers since the 90s as well. I love trying to find a shoe that I used to admire as a kid and seeing all the new iterations. Nowadays I mostly use eBay to find vintage pieces, but I have found things in the city. I was looking for a 1993 Ralph Lauren hoodie for 10 years and finally found it at Round Two, a second hand streetwear resale shop in the Lower East Side.

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L: Going back to food, do you have any special eating out memories or stories you can share?

J: Almost all of my memories are connected to food. The day Chanelle and I became “official” we went to Philly because she’d never had a Philly cheesesteak. I was shocked because I had been eating them since I was a kid. After school my dad would take me to work and I’d wait for hours so I could get one from a food cart on Wall Street. So Chanelle and I got on a bus to Philly, rented bikes and went to like six cheesesteak spots. And at the end of the day I asked her to be my girlfriend. It set the tone of our relationship — we’ve done the same type of thing in New Orleans, London, Montreal. We love to travel, have a good time, bike around, eat.

L: What do you love about New York, having been here your entire life? What keeps you home?

J: The food, the culture, the people, the feel… I came back from a trip once and I was walking in my neighborhood and I heard the rumbling of the train on the above ground tracks, and it just made me happy. And there are so many cultures, it feels like you’re traveling the world. You can have Jamaican food, drive 15 minutes and have Polish food, then have Italian and Mexican and Nepalese. Where else can you have that all in like a 20 mile radius?

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L: Is pizza 100% your favorite food? What else do you like?

J: I’d consider it my favorite. In New York it’s just the thing to eat. Every two blocks there’s a spot. It’s like our fast food, except it’s all local. You order at the counter, they serve it fresh or you wait for them to warm it up. They give it to you on a plate, no bag, and you eat on the go. It’s delicious, fast, accessible and always available.

One of my other favorite foods is sinigang. It’s a Filipino stew with seafood, beef or pork. It’s a broth seasoned with tamarind and tomatoes to make it sour. You add bok choi, taro, radish, and you serve it over rice with fish sauce on top. I eat it once a week when my mom and dad make it. They make a big pot so I always have extra to take home. It’s actually better the next day because the taro, which is a floral, potatoey starch, melts into the broth and thickens it. It becomes like a gravy. It’s comfort food, I never get sick of it.

L: Got any tips for people who want to explore the city through food?

J: People think I eat a lot because I post so many food photos. But when Chanelle and I go out, we hit up like four places for one meal. We’ll go to one spot for appetizers, another for our main course, a new place for dessert, and then a bar for a drink. We get to share everything and try different places in one night.

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L: That’s such a good idea. Any other fun pizza facts?

J: Lombardi’s in Little Italy is the first pizzeria documented in America, but Totonno’s in Coney Island was the first in Brooklyn. Anthony Pero was the pizza man at Lombardi’s and he opened Totonno’s in 1924. The same family still runs the business nearly 100 years later.

What are your favorite restaurants in the city? Tag coconutsmag in your IG photos — we might just feature you!

All photos by Chris Setter.