Continuing with our research into the history of American pizza and its roots in New York, I made a return trip to the Big Apple in January.
When I went to New York last year in January, it was so cold the Hudson started freezing. Even the Canadians with me were complaining about how cold it was. Lifelong New Yorkers told me it had been some time since they saw the Hudson freeze over. As I made my plans for this trip, that face-numbing cold lingered in the back of my mind, but I thought to myself, "Well, it was just a fluke. Sure, New York is cold in January, but last year was out of the norm."
I boarded my flight in Memphis, Tennessee and the weather was about 45°. We set down at LaGuardia and Old Man Winter was there at the airport waiting to greet me. For the 11 days I was there, New York broke low temp records that had stood for nearly 100 years. I called back home to hear Mississippi was basking in lush, subtropical 55° heat. The only way to warm up was to find a nice heated pizzeria and a hot slice.
I am fortunate to know a few people in New York and was given a tour of several pizzerias by PJ Giannini and Chef Bruno. I told them I was on the hunt for the origins of pizza and also wanted to get to know some of the regular Joes in the business there too. They did a great job of showing me around and I am very grateful for their help. Their hospitality rivaled any you can find in the Deep South. We visited Mama's Pizza in Copiague (Long Island), Summit Pizza in Union City, New Jersey, Anthony Franco's in New Jersey, Tony Modica's Pizza Dance in Queens, Salvatore's Pizza in Port Washington (Long Island), Umberto's in New Hyde Park and RayBari Pizza in New York City. In the last issue, we took a look at Lombardi's and Totonno's. In this issue we are going to look at RayBari Pizza and Salvatore's.
If you are in New York City and ask 10 different people where Ray's Pizza is, you will probably get 10 different answers. You have Ray's Pizza, Famous Ray's, World Famous Ray's Pizza, The Original Ray's Pizza, The Original World Famous Ray's, RayBari Pizza and even one named Not Ray's Pizza. Why are there so many Ray's in New York? In the 1970s, there was a pizzeria named Ray's that gained much popularity in NYC. So much, that others wanted to jump in on the action, so there were several variations of the name used. No one really knows who was the first, who was the best or who really owned the name, but three saavy New York pizzeria owners, who happened to have pizzerias named Ray's in some form or fashion, decided to join forces and trademark the name. With their trademarked name, they attempted to eliminate the use of Ray's by every other pizzeria in the city. But one pizzeria stood up and fought back…RayBari.
Rather than cave in to the conglomerate's demands, the guys at RayBari, who had been using the name Ray's for several years and had built their own reputation as one of New York's best pizzerias, chose to make Ray Bari one word (RayBari), create a logo that incorporated the name and the New York skyline and continue doing what they had always done, which is make great New York pizza. They won their fight and are now as famous (no pun intended) in New York as Joe DiMaggio.
I had a chance to talk to Joseph Bari, president of RayBari Pizza, and his partner Tony Raspanti. I asked how they had become so well known. "When we first started, a lot of taxi drivers started coming by and fell in love with our pizza," Joe told me. "When visitors would ask them where a good place to eat was or who had the best pizza, they would bring them here. Getting on the good side of the cab drivers was very beneficial and still is today."
Tony said part of RayBari's secret is their dough. "We raise our dough twice. This makes the dough fluffier and doesn't leave customers feeling bloated or full. It is not dense and is very light," Tony said. "The ingredients are key, but a lot of the secret is when and how you add the ingredients and how it is mixed. Once we make it and let it rise, we refrigerate it and then when it is brought out, it is placed on top of the ovens where it heats up and starts to rise a second time creating air bubbles in the dough."
To insure that the legendary reputation of RayBari can be enjoyed anywhere, they also offer to ship pizza anywhere in the U.S. To do this, they take orders from their website and pack the pizza in dry ice and FedEx it to anyone anywhere.
While visiting Raybari Pizza, Joe and Tony let me in on a secret recipe pizza they make called Sfincone. This pizza is a traditional pizza made during the holidays in Italy and hails from the Southern regions. The pizza is time consuming to make, which is why they charge $50 and only offer it off the menu. Experiment and see what you can come up with.
Making a Sfincone
1. Start with a twice-raised dough and add your cheese.
2. Add a special sauce which consists of lots of sauteed onions and Sicilian seasoning (sorry, but they wouldn't be specific).
3. Add seasoned and browned bread crumbs over the sauce.
4. Top the breadcrumbs with a mixture of Parmasean and Romano cheeses.
5. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the top. If you like, you can add a little under the edges of the crust.
6. Place the pan on top of the oven and let it rise again. Depending on how hot the kitchen it, this can be from five to 30 minutes.
7. Cover the pan with another pan when putting the pizza into the oven. This helps the breadcrumbs develop a crunch without burning them. Cook the pizza at 475 degrees for about 17 minutes and then enjoy a pizza only a handful of people in the U.S. even know about.
Corporate Charge Accounts
It takes a lot to make it in the Big Apple. You have to find ways to not only get people to look in your direction, but offer services that are convenient to clients. One thing RayBari does is to offer corporate charge accounts. They have the applications out in the restaurant and companies can create accounts and simply call the pizzeria, provide their account numbers and have food delivered for meetings, after-hours work sessions or for any events they may be having. "We had to make a legal form because if after a month or two, if they don't pay and there has to be legal action taken, we have their application where they agreed to pay the bill," Tony explains. "These are written and approved by a lawyer, but we don't have to take things this far. We bill them directly once a month and they have about 15 to 20 days to pay. We have been doing this for nine to 10 years and have over 3,000 accounts."
Marketing in the Inner City
With all of the visual noise of the city and so many different places to eat, some restaurants take a different approach to marketing. The main thing they have to do is simply get people to look in their direction and then persuade them to come in. One of the first things I noticed as I walked up to RayBari was the design of the building. The windows went ground to ceiling and offered a complete look inside. The first two things you see are steam on the window from a food display they have out front and the other is a pizza maker spinning dough and making pizza right there in front of you.
"This place is like a theater. There is a lot going on and we conduct how things are going and want people to see it," Tony said. "We put the food out here so people can see the heat rising and the food right there already cooked and waiting on them. People respond to that." Indeed, they do. At one point I walk over to a customer and ask him why he comes to RayBari. He tells me he was walking by and saw the food in the window and walked in. Displays do sell.
"We made the windows as large as they are because we want people to see what is going on and at the same time, we want the people inside to feel a connection with the people on the sidewalk. We also choose locations on the corner to get the most exposure. The interior is designed with white tile, chrome, polished steel and neon. This creates a bright light and makes people look inside." Joe adds that they also try to get locations that are on the west side of the street rather than the east side. In the afternoon the sun isn't shining directly in so it creates less heat and doesn't put such a heavy load on the air conditioning.
Salvatore's Coal-Fired Brick Oven Pizzeria
When we started this series to trace the origins of New York pizza, I received a message from a guy in North Carolina who said he had a place in New York I should add to the list. I have to be honest, I was a little skeptical at first. I assumed this was someone who had a favorite pizzeria they thought I should visit, but I called anyway because you never know where the next big story is going to come from. This was one of those cases.
Come to find out, this guy who called was a pizzeria owner with a brother in Port Washington who also owned a pizzeria. So, what? Well, these guys happen to be descendents of the very famous Patsy who opened Patsy's in Harlem. I take a 30-minute ride on the Long Island Railroad to see him and discovered one of my top three favorite pizzas in the U.S. By coincidence, all of my top three are cooked in a coal-fired oven. Something about these things, in my opinion, makes the best pizza.
The Family Business
When I met up with Fred Lacagnina, we sat down and he told me his story. Back in 1929, his grandmother's brother opened a pizzeria in Harlem. It started as a small pizza room, which was what pizzerias were called back then, and kept getting bigger and bigger until he had a restaurant, bar and pizzeria. But, what made it so famous? Back then, Harlem was experiencing an era where there was much interest in black arts and culture. Celebrities, sports stars, political figures and many others were flocking to Harlem for the arts, music, dance halls and clubs. The era was known as the Harlem Renaissance. People like Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and others began stopping in Patsy's and word spread. It became a mandatory stop for any on the "A List" who was in Harlem.
"I remember as a kid going in there and seeing Carmella, Patsy's wife, sitting at this big round table in the corner," Fred recalls. "No one but family was allowed to sit there. Patsy or Carmella would always be there. They came from Naples where he was a pastry chef. The store was open 20 hours a day and she would work 10 hours and he would work 10 hours. He became very successful and the whole family was proud of him. My father and many of my uncles worked there. When I would visit, he would always give the kids $5 or $10 and tell us not to tell our dads. They came here from Naples and in 1972 or 1973, my great uncle Patsy passed away and Aunt Carmella continued to run the place up until 1994, when it was finally sold.
"They achieved the American Dream. New people own it now. The pizza is still, in my opinion, better than most places in New York, but isn't anything like it was when our family had it. The place doesn't even look the same. About the only thing left is the original coal oven."
The Coal Oven
"I have a coal oven because I think it is the best way to cook pizza. It is a lot of work, but the product you get is worth it. You have to come in about an hour and a half early to clean out the ash, start the fire and clean the oven. Most people don't want to do these things every day. Today, there are only about 15 or 20 coal ovens in New York. Why? Because it is harder to cook in them and a lot of work to maintain. The pizzas cook in about three and a half minutes and get flavor from the open flame. They get top heat from the flame, bottom heat from the stones and you get those little burnt spots and bubbles from the 800° the oven is cranking out."
I asked Fred if there was anything about Patsy and his restaurant that he brought in to his restaurant. He said it was passion. "A restaurant is a place to come and relax, eat and have social interaction," Fred explained. "Don't get in the business for money or fame, get in it because it is what you love. My best advice is to put quality food on the table, have great service and be clean. If you have those three things, it will be hard to fail. My uncle was in an old building with a tin ceiling and original wood floors, but he had those three things in place and was a success. Concentrate on what's important.
"So many will try to tell you what they think is important. They told me I would never make it here because our pizza was expensive, we didn't sell slices, and we didn't take credit cards and such. If you stick to what's important, that is all that matters. Sure change is good, but I believe in slow change. After my aunt sold Patsy's, she would come in and sit in the corner. It made me feel good to have her come in here and see what she and my uncle had started. Of course I was always worried that what I was doing wouldn't meet up to her standards, but I think she approves."
If you don't think you have a great product, you should probably reconsider what you are doing. But even with a great product, there is the need for marketing. Fred said one of the best forms of marketing he has done was running ads on the screens at the movie theater across the street from his pizzeria. "You have to realize where you are and what your market is," Fred said. "The movie theater took care of the production. Yes, it was expensive, about $5,000 a year, but my ad ran in 10 second spots three times before each movie on every screen. My ad appeared 1,100 times each month. People usually go to the same theater to watch movies. The first time they see my ad, they may not come. Maybe not the second time, but by the third, my name has been in front of them enough that they come over and try us out. I have done newspaper and other advertising, but never got the response I have from the movie theater."
Another thing Fred says works is gift certificates. He says that he sells about $5,000 in gift certificates each year. "It's a great way for people to tell others about a place they like and it's a tool for us," he says. "When schools, churches or other groups come in for donations, we give them gift certificates. They are simple and we just fill in the amount they purchase."
It was yet another great trip to New York, minus the freezing weather. Both Joe and Tony at RayBari and Fred have agreed to be present at the New York Pizza Show in November and have said they would be at their restaurants to talk with operators who want to come by and experience what their place is like. I highly recommend taking them up on the offer. We will be continuing highlighting two landmark New York pizzerias in each issue. I will be heading back to the Big Apple soon and have John's on Bleeker Street and Grimaldi's on my list along with a few others. I just hope the weather is warmer or else I am going to Florida to look for pizza.