Time capsule: Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana
This Coney Island favorite attracts crowds year-round—and from around the world.
Zagat once claimed of Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana (totonnos.com), “Only God makes better pizza.” And this legendary pizzeria has certainly received its share of cult-like worship since its beginnings in 1924, when Anthony “Totonno” Pero opened his own pizzeria in Brooklyn’s Coney Island (he had trained for years as a pizzaiolo at the legendary Lombardi’s in Manhattan and had a place across the street before moving to the current location). An Italian immigrant who was a baker in Italy, he developed his own pizza recipe, which is still followed today: “imported Italian tomatoes; a dry mozzarella that’s made especially for us, with very little salt; and olive oil,” says Louise Ceminieri, granddaughter of Anthony, who co-owns the shop with her brother and sister, Frank Ceminieri and Annette Balzano. “The recipe, combined with the coal-fired brick oven we use, creates its own unique taste.”
This recipe remains unchanged even despite wildly fluctuating prices (Louise recalls paying up to $127 for four cans of olive oil and $90 for a bag of flour), and she prides herself on not cutting corners—easier since the family owns the building and, according to Louise, “never spent five cents on advertising.” She also partially credits Americans’ insatiable desire for pizza. “Pizza is going to make money, no matter what kind you make, because people love it so much,” she says. It doesn’t hurt, however, that Totonno appears in dozens of cookbooks and guidebooks the world over—the pizzeria even won an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation in 2009.
In the ’90s, the pizzeria began expansion, opening two locations in Manhattan by licensing with partners, but the original location suffered a setback in 2009 when a fire destroyed part of the restaurant. However, the family persevered and reopened in February 2010, much to the relief of fans worldwide, and the pizzeria remains the longest-operating in one location in the United States. “We had to rebrick and reinsulate the oven, and I was really afraid that the pizza wouldn’t taste the same,” Louise remembers. “But we made some test pizzas before we opened, and I said, ‘Could it be possible that it tastes even better?’”